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7 Basics All Songwriters Need To Know
July 31, 2018
This list is of course subjective - but here are the basic points I think about every time I sit down to write a song. I hope they're helpful.
Tell a story
The extent to which your song has to tell a story explicitly is down to personal preference. But a song must always have a message - otherwise it won't stick in people's heads. That's not to say the story can't be masked behind a load of "nonsense" lyrics - these are some of my favourite types of songs - but you, as the songwriter, need to be clear about what you want to say. If you don't have a message behind the song - what's the point? That's not to say every song has to be cynical and heavy, the message could be "dance until you drop". This isn't a very existential story to a song, but it gives the song a purpose. That, to me, is what makes or breaks a song.
A song is never finished
I have OCD, so this harsh reality definitely sent me into denial. If a song is never finished, how can you perform it? If you can always change things, how can you record it and have that version permanently out there with no way of changing it? There are millions of songs out there, if a song is never finished then how is this possible? Songs have to be finished.
My tip for handling the "completion" of a song is that once you have "finished" the initial version, go over it, change whatever you feel needs changing - then leave it. A few months later, revisit the song and you may feel differently about the first verse or this rhyme here or there. Taking a step back from the song and going back to it with a fresh pair of eyes will give you a different perspective and then you can decide if and what needs changing. As for performing and recording - there is a difference between finished and ready. A song is never finished, but a song can be ready. However, there is no formula to determine this - that's for you to decide.
What you're song is about; there are a hundred others - make yours different
Gone through a break up? Feeling sad and lonely? Jumping up and down with joy? Want to write a song about it? So have thousands of other people.
I'm not trying to be mean. It's the ugly truth. It's the same with everything. Think about how many hundreds of thousands of novels with the exact same "whodunnit" premise that have been published. It almost seems illogical to be publishing the same book, with different characters and a new cover. But we can't get around it. It's how it is nowadays. The reason these books get published? Sure, they have the same premise - but they have a unique twist.
When you write a song, you need to be aware of this. You need to put your spin on it. Songs about the same stories are different because they are written from different stances. Even within your own songs - I'm sure you'll experience the same thing more than once and you'll want to write about it more than once. Look at Adele for example, her album 21 was written about one breakup - one. But all the songs have something special within them - a new perspective, a new way of storytelling. When you write a song, you want to add a twist.
You need a strong chorus
You may read this one and think "well duh…" but you'd be surprised how easy it is to miss. Like it or not, the chorus is the focal point of a song. As a songwriter, I like to focus most on the lyrics and clever and/or meaningful lyrics usually come in the verse, so I'm no lover of this. But it's the truth of the matter. A really strong verse is definitely necessary too, but without a strong chorus - you don't have a strong song. Now, what qualifies as a "strong" chorus will vary from person to person. I'm not here to tell you what's what when it comes to this. I would just suggest that when you sit down to write your song, keep this in mind. Let the song flow and get lost in the writing - but every once in a while, take a step back and make sure you are happy with the chorus. You can get away with an "okay" lyric in the verse (not ideal, but that's what revisiting is for!), but you can't have an "okay" chorus.
Poetry in lyrics
Like I said, I'm a lyricist mostly, so creating beautiful lyrics is a huge priority for me. If you're like me - check out Passenger. He has the most incredible way of putting words together. In my opinion, lyrics are the most important aspect of my songs anyway.
For that reason, I would suggest to any songwriter - don't go for the easy rhyme. Just because the last line ended in "fight" doesn't mean the next should end in "light". Find interesting rhymes, manipulate words to fit the pattern and use phrases that are intriguing and fresh - that aren't obvious. One of my favourite games to play is trying to predict what lyric will come next in a song - and most of the time I get it right. Not because I'm psychic - but because it is almost too appealing to go for the easy option. To move on to the next line and settle for that one.
Don't get me wrong; I don't think that all lyrics should be majestic and elegant. I just think there should be a poetic beauty to the lyrics as a whole within the song.
Get lost in the writing - but don't stay there
One of the best feelings as a writer is when the song starts to write itself. When you're no longer using your consciousness, but your subconscious takes over and the writing just flows. Sometimes, it's very easy to get stuck in your own head and you end up not being able to write anything down - so getting lost in the writing and letting it take over is a great way to get your creative juices going.
Although I think this is one of the great things about writing, I also think you need to be careful that it doesn't cloud your judgement. When you're caught up in the moment, it's very easy to see your work as a masterpiece and look no further - thinking that the first draft is the final. With any song, this is very rarely the case. So, I suggest that once you've had an intense writing session, take a step back and see the song in a different light. Shift your mindset from the one you were just in so that you can reason more objectively what is and isn't strong about the song.
Music theory & instrument skills
When it comes to musical theory and your skills with an instrument - personal opinions will certainly differ on how much knowledge you need in order to be a songwriter.
Me? I am grade 2 piano, grade 5 classical guitar and singing. How much musical theory knowledge do I have? Barely any! Of course it goes without saying that more is more - so the more skilled you are and the more knowledge you have will definitely benefit your songwriting, but I don't think it's necessary. I think you need to know the basics - chords, notes, scales. And I'll admit I have been lazy with developing my skills and I intend to change that, but I have still been able to write songs without extensive knowledge.
I suppose what I'm saying is; don't feel you need to be grade 8 in three instruments and have a degree in musical theory - you can right a great song without any of this. If you want to be a lyricist - you don't really need any instrumental skill, because you write the song and someone else writes the music. But like I said, more knowledge will make you a better songwriter, so don't get lazy like I have and always aim to improve your skills.