Songwriting

“I write the songs that nobody sings” : Start writing bad songs

It has been said that behind every good drawing are 1,000 poor drawings. Greek myths notwithstanding, artists don’t spring fully-formed from the head of an unseen muse. Even wunderkinds follow a path of progressive improvement.

The first step in becoming a writer of decent songs is to start writing songs, knowing that the first songs will probably be not-so-great.

Are there any skills or bits of advice that might a) make your bad songs less bad from the beginning or b) increase your proficiency in writing less bad songs quicker? Maybe. Here are few ideas on that note in no particular order.

  • Write what you know. This is true for everyone from screenwriters to novelists (graphic or otherwise). You will always create more authentic, meaningful and less… bad song lyrics
  • Listen and analyze your musical mentors. Emulation is a time-honored method for learning. It worked for the great masters of the renaissance, it can work for you. Sometimes when I would write, I would use the music from a song I liked as a rhythmic scaffold to hang my lyrics. Then I would try to “forget” the original music and write an original melody.
  • Wear your influences with pride. It can be humbling when someone listens to your song says, “that sounds like so-an-so”, but if you think about it, that means that you have done a decent enough job that your influence is recognizable. If the back-handed compliment references someone you have never listened to before, go look her/him/them up and see if the comparison is helpful.
  • Get out there and perform. Start playing in front of real people. If you can open for writers and musicians that are superior to you, all the better. Listen and learn.
  • Play with others. Music is usually a team sport. Take advantage of other musicians, especially if you have a vision for the instrumentation of you songs.
  • Mix things up. If you have an instrument you usually write with (say, guitar), try writing a song on piano, ukulele or recorder. If you don’t play any instruments, time to start.
  • Don’t try to be too profound if you don’t have enough to say. Looking back at the lyrics of a particular song I wrote as a college freshman, I realized I was adopting a “voice” of wisdom and experience that I hadn’t earned. That’s not to say younger people can’t be profound, just be honest about it.
  • Own the mess. Finish a song, even if it’s ugly and you hope it never sees the light of day.
  • Get some friendly critics. Find people who are kind but honest and who genuinely want you to succeed in your songwriting. Try to have a wide range of people (musical and unmusical, young old, etc.) Ask them what they think and listen to what they say.
  • Learn to sift. Just because one or more of your friendly critics doesn’t like all or part of your song doesn’t mean it is objectively bad or doesn’t have promise.
  • Genre surf. Don’t get pigeon-holed into writing or listening to one kind of music. Over time your tastes will change. Your style is always developing from the mix of influences, sound clips and experiences in your head.The more, the merrier.
  • Keep a journal. Write down notes, thought, and ideas in a small book that you can keep with you constantly. My “sketchbooks” are really just creativity dumps for all of my literary, musical,and visual projects.
  • Retool Covers. Try taken a popular (or not so popular) song and rewrite the musical instrumentation. In my view a cover should either be spot on with the original, or be an original take on the well-known tune.
  • Be thematically diverse. Try on different voices and points of view. Write funny songs, love songs, angry songs, happy songs. Sad and brooding songs came easily to me as a teenager and college student, but I find that gloom and depression gets old quickly.
  • Be formally diverse. Trying writing ballads, use different rhyming schemes. Write a children’s song. Write a jingle. If you have recording capabilities, try to write parts for other instruments. Try blending genres or musical styles. Write a short musical
  • Be intentional, don’t make excuses. If you haven’t written anything recently, or want to but aren’t “feeling it”, play a writing game. Here are a few examples: select the title of a popular song and write your own lyrics for it. Write the same song but from a different perspective. Write a song from the perspective of a fairytale character. Write a song about a memory from your child hood. Write about an historical event.
  • Think about “hooks”. A hook is the catchy part of a song that sticks in your head for hours and hours, years and years. There are “hit makers” who have hooks down to a science, but when you start out, you may not know if your song has any. It may not. A hook can be a lyric/melody combination, it could be an instrumental bit. Listen to pop songs and see if you can figure out the hooks and see what they have in common. Some things I’ve noticed about hooks is that they :
    1.  are what you remember from a song,
    2. are the focal or originating point of other parts of the song
    3. can repeat like an AC/DC or Nirvana riff
    4. are the part of the song you look forward to hearing
    5. lyrically they can be connected to a clever phrase, paradox, etc. (e.g. “I Hung my Head” by Sting )
    6. Can come at the beginning or end of a musical phrase or section in the song.

The good news about all of this is that you will get better if you persist. You have unique experiences and unique songs and stories to share. Just be sure that you don’t give up before you get to the good ones.

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