Q & A: Songwriting for Beginners

Q. Dear Tip Jar, I have been playing the piano for 4 years. I am in the seventh grade. Everyone says that I have the ear for piano, but I can’t seem to write music! What should I do? – Darlene in Dearborn

A. Darlene, Here’s a radical thought: I think everyone ‘writes’ music. Without even trying, young children often hum these little singsong things to themselves while at play. Older people do almost the same thing, but most aren’t conscious of it. And even if they are, they don’t remember the melodies, partly because they don’t bother to try. They don’t think of themselves as songwriters!

So if you want to be a songwriter, start thinking of yourself as a songwriter. That’s step one.

OK, these little children’s things aren’t technically songs. But they are melodies or fragments of melodies. Melody is one of the most important elements of a song. It’s the part we remember most. So allow yourself to do this: when a little melody pops into your head, recognize that you may have just started a song and try to remember it. Use a tape recorder, digital voice recorder, phone voice mail, whatever helps you preserve it. Let’s call that step two. You’re thinking like a songwriter already.

Let’s break down a song into four components. There’s melody, harmony (chords), rhythm and words (lyrics). Melody is a very key component. Many songwriters don’t do words and so they partner with a lyricist. Some songwriters write a melody and words, but co-write with someone who is good at harmony. My point is, you don’t have to do it all.

And a good way to get better is to co-write with a more experienced writer for awhile. You’ll learn different things from different co-writers. I won’t get into lyric writing here. I couldn’t do it justice in a few short sentences. Books have been written on it.

[Many people are confused by the term harmony. It has two meanings. People think of vocal harmony, what backup singers do. The ‘lead’ singer sings the melody and all the other singers are singing harmonies. While that’s true, it’s only part of the story. Harmony is all the other notes going on, accompanying the melody, and that includes not just the singers, but all the instruments. It might be easier to think about if your song is just for one voice and piano. The voice is the melody, sometimes the right hand is also playing the melody and everything else is considered harmony. Often people use the terms chords and harmony interchangeably.]

Of course, I’m over-simplifying. At first, finding an appropriate ‘left hand’ to go with your right hand can be very hit or miss, just trial and error and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you are a words person, you may want to write the words first or the words and melody more or less together. If you are not a words person, you might want to start with the melody. There is no one right way to write a song. So I’m only suggesting things to get you started.

Thinking again of people in general (non-songwriters) who unconsciously ‘write’ little melody fragments in their heads and sing or hum them. What many people lack that would help them remember and develop these melodic fragments is some musical knowledge and skills on an instrument. If you’ve been taking piano lessons, you probably have both.

So why isn’t everyone who hums a melody fragment a songwriter? Mostly it’s because they’re not interested in being a songwriter, in my opinion. If you want something badly, you’re willing to go to great lengths to get it. And to be a good songwriter, you have to work hard, have patience, determination and all that stuff.

It’s not hard to think of a melody, but it sometimes takes many rewrites of the melody, harmony and lyrics to really polish it, to transform it from a raw idea, full of potential, into an actual, serviceable song. And all that rewriting can be daunting and difficult and boring and tedious, etc.

If you really want to become a songwriter, you’ll push yourself despite those obstacles. You’ve already pushed yourself to learn to play the piano, so you are totally on the right track. You don’t have to play an instrument to write songs, but it’s a big asset.

At some point you could take the melodies you’re singing in your head and play them on the piano. Most people could not do this, either because they don’t play an instrument or they play, but don’t have an ear for it. They only can follow the notes on the page.

I won’t go into rhythm here, because I think you will hear and feel that naturally. I suggest you concentrate on melody first, then chords. Unless you’re a words person and then you can start with either words or melody, and then think of chords last. The chords thing is something that your piano lessons will help with, especially if your instructor is teaching music theory as you go along.

I hope this has given you something to think about. Start out with small goals and build up slowly. This is like taking baby steps. Think of each song you write as practice. They can be extremely short. Each song you write will make it easier to write the next one.

If you start doing this, you will be teaching yourself how to write songs. And, like other types of learning, it takes practice.

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    Q & A: Songwriting for Beginners | Songwriter’s Tip Jar

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