7 Tips for Aspiring Songwriters

For those of you who do not know, I write music! You may not know this because of reason number 7 on this list, but I get a huge kick out of it. I have probably written hundreds of (nearly all unfinished) songs and melodies. It all started right after I saw Freaky Friday at around the age of 11. I was instantly sold on the inviting career path of singing-songwriting. I convinced my parents to buy me an electric guitar so I could aspire to be as musically groundbreaking as Lindsay Lohan. I’m oh so bummed knowing I ended up being a software engineer that does this in my off time instead.…

I have musical friends who write music all the time and could probably add plenty to this list. I also have very technical friends who openly don’t see themselves as creative people, and the idea of juggling singing and playing guitar at the same time much less coming up with a melody or a set of lyrics out of thin air, is completely foreign to them. I wrote this blog entry with both of these people in mind and I hope you enjoy it. Here you are: My thoughts on the best way to write music.

1. Give yourself permission to suck.

This is so key and applies to learning any new skill. Over half, sometimes 95% of everything you create, will suck. It won’t just suck to other people, in fact, other people might love it. Mostly, you, yourself might think it sucks. This is especially true if you are a perfectionist and just starting out at this. When songwriting is seen as a way to develop a skill rather than stroke your ego, you can hopefully get over still sounding like Frankenstein after a week of trying, and hurriedly get to sounding more like your artist of choice. There is also the exciting prospect of total freedom, self-exploration and self-acceptance that you can tap into if you make this not about your ego, if you’re into that sort of thing.

2. Do things that make no sense.

Are you a white girl who grew up in suburbia? Try to rap along to something way too hood for you to relate to! You can start with Vanilla Ice and slowly work your way up to Lil Wayne if you are feeling intimidated. This rule also includes taking Kanye West lyrics and making a new melody with Katy Perry chords. Turn a chipper Taylor Swift song into something just as chipper, but from the perspective of someone from a third world country! Why should you do this? Because it forces you to push yourself, and you are more creatively liberal because of it.

3. There are no rules. The other most important rule.

You don’t have to write a few sets of verses, choruses and throw in a bridge somewhere near the end if you don’t want to. You don’t have to rhyme. You don’t have to make a four chord song. Your lyrics could consist of 3 lines you say over and over again and the focus of the song could be on the instrumentals. You can choose to sound ugly or bizarre on purpose like Regina Spektor does. You can change the personification of your song to alcoholism like Elliot Smith does in Between the Bars. Tell your entire song with only imagery like Sufjan Steven does in Casimir Pulaski Day. Your song doesn’t need to have a greater meaning or sound extremely complex like most anything Ingrid Michelson does. Feel free to be really blunt with your thoughts like Lily Allen, or more coy like The Shins. There are no rules to writing music, and stealing other people’s good ideas is more than legal.

4. Learn about songs and artists that are beyond you.

Are you relatively mediocre at guitar like me? Learn a song with 5 bar chords you have never played before with a strumming pattern that you need a seizure to be able to do. Listen to artists who are the best in their genre, and their decade, even if you really hate their music or the genre as a whole. Sometimes, I go so far as to listen to interviews and live tracks for artists I wholeheartedly can’t get into, just to try to understand why other people do. If anything, I learn something more about my musical tastes and others. Even if you only learn one new chord, one new intriguing melodic phrase, or that no matter what, you will never enjoy listening to anything by Stevie Nicks from this, you are one step closer to sounding uniquely you, and less like Frankenstein.

5. Be genuine. Be honest.

If you don’t want to write satire, don’t. If you don’t want to write a love song, don’t. If you really hate the sound of a banjo, don’t put it into your song! We have all heard artists that put out a really mind-blowing album only to make all of their fans cringe after hearing their completely unoriginal, uninspired album that follows. Both the artists and the listeners lose in this situation. The more you avoid following any preconceived idea of what your music should sound like, the less contrived and unoriginal you will sound. Not to mention, you will probably have a more fulfilling creative experience without all of those restrictive ideas limiting you.

6. Write about shit you know.

Or if you plan to write about shit you don’t know, do some research. Half of my creative process is about gathering information and letting that information sit with me until I come up with a song idea. Ideally, you should have more than enough lyrical material to work with in your mind before you sit down to write anything. However, if you feel like writing about mermaids and know nearly nothing about them, there’s nothing wrong with googling mermaid factoids for song ideas. Generally speaking though, if you spend a significant amount of hours in your week biking or reading sci-fi, writing about those topics will usually be more fruitful simply because you have a bigger pool of ideas to pull from.

7. The most important rule: Do this for you, and only you.

Again, if you make songwriting a chore that you want to only do to get the girl, boost your ego, or show off in front of your friends, you are missing out on the best parts of songwriting. Creating music is a really cool way to connect with your inner dialog, and explore the creative parts of yourself still left over after two decades of creatively oppressive public education. This rule is especially good to remember if you get nervous at performances. Sure, having a glass of wine or three is also a good way to relax during a show, but if you know that you aren’t performing for them, you are performing for you, performing in front of others can become pretty effortless.

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