4 keys to improve your songwriting

Warmed over Asian slaw & leftover turkey & gravy medley: it’s a hybrid: Thanksgiving dinner leftovers combined into an unlikely concoction. And it tastes great.

The creations that come out of our kitchen are an inspiration to me (all credit goes to my wife). How can she consistently create something delicious out of an odd assortment of ingredients? And even more puzzling is how she does it with whatever happens to be in the fridge, which is dependent on the season and our CSA produce (harvested weekly from a local farm).

Practice, experimentation, intuition and rule breaking

Practice, experimentation, intuition and a willingness to break the rules seems to be the answer. Do I need to point out that practice, experimentation, intuition and breaking the rules apply to songwriting as well? You might say they are the 4 keys to improving your songwriting.

Practice is at the top of the list. I’m not talking about practicing your instrument. With songwriting, there are no scales to practice. Instead, it’s practice by doing. Every song you write is practice for the next one. Every verse, chorus, melody and rhythm you write is practice. Even if it turns out to be a great song, the act of writing it prepares you to do even better the next time. With practice, the ‘rules’ become internalized.

Experimentation. There are so many variables to a song, addressing them all at once can be overwhelming. When I get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, I usually set aside one or two of the main elements and work on what’s left. For example, I might set aside lyrics and melody, while I focus on chords and rhythm. Even within chords and rhythm there are endless possibilities.

The idea of experimentation is to try lots of the possibilities. If the song is working as a slow ballad, great. But just make sure it doesn’t work even better as a fast dance number or shuffle. Experiment with a hybrid approach: combining genres – a disco beat under a ballad for example. Throw together whatever is in the fridge.

Intuition is available to everyone. You may not be using it, that can be learned. In the next few days and weeks I’ll be recommending some resources on learning to develop your songwriting intuition.

Break the rules. A willingness to break the rules implies that you must first know the rules. I often say there are no rules in songwriting, but there are guidelines, especially if you’re writing for commercial radio or other specific uses. The first step is to familiarize yourself with these guidelines and put them into practice. Keep at it until it’s second nature. The next step is to break or bend a rule here and there when it serves the song.

One final thought. If your goal is to write the best song you can, let the song guide you. As you’re writing, ask yourself ‘where is this song leading? What best serves the song?’


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