MUSIC EDUCATION

Expand Your Musical Horizons

Photography by Phil Fallway — available at https://www.deviantart.com/philfallway

Bad songwriting is easy. Great songwriting is hard. And there’s a lot in between. That may sound like an oversimplification, but if you grew up during the epic grunge-rock era of the 90s as I did, listening to bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, you’ll appreciate this indisputable truth as much as checkered flannel, goatees, and torn jeans.

Nevertheless, you’ll need to expand your musical horizons to go from bad to great on your journey toward becoming the songwriter you’ve always wanted to be. Here are ten steps I’ve developed over the years to elevate my own songwriting:

1. Write What You Know

Music is connection. So to truly engage your audience with your songs, write what you know. Pick a topic relevant to your life and that you’re passionate about. The more you connect to your music, the more your audience will too. If you feel lost for ideas and reach a writing roadblock, just dig into what’s eating at you the most these days. Your topic doesn’t have to be something over-the-top, like how the world is descending into chaos, nor as trivial as how furious the latest Terminator reboot made you (yep, I know). Just write about something meaningful to you or that you’re living through right now. Doing so will create a deeper emotional impact on your audience because what you’re expressing will naturally come through in your music. That’s what your audience wants — an impact! So give it to them. Bottom line, if your topic matters to you, it will matter to them.

2. Tell a Story

At its core, songwriting is storytelling. Once you’ve picked a topic you’re passionate about, figure out what you really want to say and tell the story around that message or theme. Crafting an actual narrative will help you communicate your message more clearly. Even if your lyrics are somewhat abstract, your audience needs to grasp what you’re trying to illustrate on some level. The story provides the visual and narrative cornerstone they need. The music comes second.

I’m a huge fan of trip-hop artists from the U.K. like Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead. I have to be honest though, American hip-hop and rap is not my area of expertise. Yet, here’s what I know about all of them — the story is central. The lyrics are laid bare, front and center, so there’s nothing to hide behind. If the message isn’t clearly illustrated, game over. The music behind the story simply provides the underlying soundtrack.

Whatever style you’re writing your songs in, tell your story. Before you even start recording, try speaking the lyrics completely on their own with no music behind them. Then practice singing just the melody in the shower, in your car, or on your next walk through the park. If your narrative doesn’t make sense without the music behind it, you have work to do. Remember, as in the soundtrack to a film, the music serves the story, not the opposite.

3. Get Personal

Forget about being original. That label is overused and ignores how much we all draw upon our music influences to fuse and hammer out something new of our own. If you want to make meaningful music, focus on being authentic, honest, and vulnerable. Get personal.

In my teens, all my friends were rock-and-rollers like me. And they all grew up listening to their parents’ music from the 60s and 70s — artists like Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, The Doors, Pink Floyd, David Bowie… I could go on. My friends all loved those bands because their parents connected with the music on a deeply personal level. I don’t see kids identifying with past generations like that anymore. (Cue the old-man-rants-about-kids-today alarm.) The reason behind that is because the music stood for something more than just good times, rebellion against your parents, or sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of that too. Underneath it all, though, was a visceral and authentic desire to connect with others through the music because it was a time of great change and social revolution. It was about being real. And my friends loved it because their parents’ lives were shaped by it. The music wasn’t commercial. It stood for something. It was visceral.

In this modern age of silicone abs, snap-chat filters, and fake news, your audience yearns for something they can relate to on a deeply intimate level. Indeed, they’re hangry for it. (Your stomach just growled, didn’t it?) They may not know that, though, so it’s your job to help them see it. Whatever story you’re trying to tell, express how it genuinely affects your own life. Don’t sugarcoat or minimize it. Lean into the drama a bit to draw people into your world. Get personal. Your audience will respond with their full attention.

4. Learn the Basics

In any profession, you need to learn the basics first. Songwriting is no different. So if you’re serious about music and truly want to make your songs stand out, get familiar with the fundamentals of music theory: rhythm, harmony, and melody.

We all have an innate understanding of these core elements, but we don’t necessarily know how to weave them all together cohesively. In my early teens, I just experimented with what sounded cool for each new song, and that worked for a long time. Once I realized I was aiming for a specific style and sound, though, my lack of understanding for how to make all the working pieces move together as one became a major hinderance to achieving my goals. So I went to college for music. It made sense at the time. Options for higher education were much more limited back then. Many of our modern internet resources for learning didn’t exist yet. Nowadays, there are an abundance of online resources for studying music theory and beyond, so going to college for music isn’t as critical. All you need now is a laptop, some decent headphones, and a solid internet connection. No modem necessary. Even Neo would be jealous…

Of course, before the internet existed, all you really needed was the willpower to learn and the drive to develop your own unique sound through constant musical exploration. Plenty of the world’s best artists have taken this route. Still, if your aim is to maximize your true potential, learning the basics will only help you get closer to your songwriting goals. Then, once you have a solid grasp on how to make rhythm, harmony, and melody all work together, you can more effectively figure out chord progressions, why certain notes in your melodies work better than others, and how a 4/4 versus a 6/8 time signature completely changes the feel of your song. Just like taking your very first steps as a baby, you have to learn to walk before you can run.

5. Hook Them In

Think of your favorite song. Remember the main chorus melody, guitar riff, or bass-line? That’s called the hook. In essence, the hook is the central musical idea that the rest of the song is built around. Even a simple beat pattern can be a hook, but catchy melodies and riffs have the greatest overall impact.

No other genre illustrates the power of a catchy lyrical hook better than pop music. Whether you’re listening to Adele, Prince, Bryan Adams, Imagine Dragons, or U2, they all have one major thing in common: they know how to write a killer hook! Listen to any one of their biggest hits and you’ll find yourself singing the chorus in the shower in no time.

Whatever genre you’re writing in, lyrical or instrumental, create a simple melodic hook that gives your song its own fingerprint. The more identifiable the song, the faster you’ll draw in your audience. Remember, if you don’t end up singing it in the shower, neither will anyone else.

6. Break It Down

Once you’ve come up with a solid hook, the next step is to build an actual song around it. Song structure is your friend here, but first you need to break it down into its basic pieces. The most common structure is one you already know: ABABCBB. In other words: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus. There are a number of variations on this format as well as completely different song structures all together. The goal here is just to start with something you’re already familiar with, so go listen to some of your favorite tunes and see if you can spot each of these sections within them.

My first songbooks were by legendary rock band Alice In Chains from their early 90s albums, Facelift and Dirt. By learning to break down each song section by section in my youth, I was able to set the stage for my own songwriting gains later in life. If you’re up for the challenge, go out and buy your top 2–3 songs on sheet music, break down each song section by section, then color code and identify where each section begins and ends. In no time, you’ll begin to notice the pattern in every song you hear. Yes, it’s tedious, but not nearly as torturous as going through Mozart sonatas note for note to pass music theory… Trust me.

7. Play to Your Strengths

You’ve heard this a thousand times, but it’s especially important here: play to your strengths. In other words, write to your actual ability at the moment in both composing and performance. Otherwise, you’ll fail to capture your audience because your songs will sound amateurish, as though you’re trying to be something you’re not. So if you’re a solo acoustic artist, don’t start laying down massive guitar riffs or rap-rocking like you’re the next Fred Durst and expect it to translate. (Seriously, just don’t… ever.) Same goes for pop, rap, metal, R&B, jazz, etc. — make sure what you’re writing falls within the parameters of your own personal and natural style of writing and performance. Whatever genre you’re most influenced by should be your starting point.

To illustrate, there’s a reason why Coldplay didn’t release X&Y as their first album — they simply weren’t up to that level of arena rock yet, in either ability or status. Instead, they released a small indie record called Parachutes, then stepped up their game on A Rush of Blood to the Head, before finally embarking on the massive arena rock album that became X&Y. It’s a perfect demonstration of how you need to start small, then work your way big if you want your music to sound truly authentic and make a lasting impact on your audience. It has to happen organically, so gradually challenge yourself as you build up your skill set over time. It’s ok to make a statement as long as it’s one you can actually back up. Just stay away from rap-rock… unless your name ends with de la Rocha. Then it’s cool.

8. Plan Your Success

Finishing what we’ve started is the ultimate crux of us musicians worldwide. It’s the dark side of inspiration. What initially got us pumped full of passion and excitement turned out to involve actual work. Yep, to get our music out into the real world we have to sit down, write it, record it, then package it all up for release. Makes me sweat just thinking about it.

Make life easier on yourself by planning your success. Map out a timeline by using a project workflow template that clearly defines every step from start to finish. Depending on how much production is involved, your own template may be more or less involved than others. Still, your overall workflow should work out the same as mine — write, record, release. Boom! Smaller details and goals can go under each heading, but it boils down to those three overall steps for singles, EPs, LPs, soundtracks, or any other song release format.

Once you have a vision for your project, break down exactly how to accomplish each step in your timeline. You’ll stop feeling overwhelmed by the vision and will instead feel empowered by the simplicity of checking off one step at a time on your way towards final release. Even project managers will be impressed by your newfound ability to be creative and organized… all at the same time.

9. Expand Your Horizons

While it’s best to start with what you know in music, it’s equally important to experiment and incorporate variety into your approach to songwriting. By listening to new artists and genres, you’ll expand your musical horizons and be inspired to write outside your box of creative limitations.

I’ve always leaned on my rock roots in songwriting. Even so, my overall style and approach draw heavily upon jazz, classical, film music, and even trip-hop for inspiration. I mix each of these influences into what I write depending on my goals. It also helps to have a vast library of music at your disposal to generate new song ideas. By my mid-20s, my personal CD collection was over 500 and growing. To reduce the cost of my endless music consumption, I eventually converted to digital streaming. I’m always on the lookout for new original music, otherwise I’d quickly run out of ideas. Listening to three albums a day is the minimum for me, so Spotify has been a blessing. Now I can just listen to whatever pops up on my radar at no extra cost and I never worry about a shortage of ideas.

You can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. If you’re serious about generating new and fresh ideas, listen to artists outside your usual genres to develop more variety into your own songwriting approach. Keep writing new material until something sticks. Like throwing darts at the wall, eventually you’ll hit your target.

10. Take a Leap of Faith

Finally, as you approach that inevitable moment of releasing a finished song into the world for your potential audience to hear, that familiar question of fear and doubt washes over you once again… “Is it good enough?”

Probably not. In fact, your songs will be terrible when you begin. And that’s ok. Even the best artists had to start at the bottom. Just own it.

Take a leap of faith. It’s the hidden last step no one can ever teach you how take. Write it, record it, and release it. That’s it. At the end of the day, you just have to put your music out there for the world to hear. No one else can make your climb to the top of the mountain — it’s up to you.

By incorporating these core ten steps into your composing process, you’ll not only expand your musical horizons, but elevate your songwriting confidence to new heights. And sooner or later you’ll be writing and producing the songs you hear in your head without hesitation. It’s a long climb to the top. I’m still on it myself. Yet, I can finally say I’m able to write, record, and ultimately release music that I’d feel confident listening to on the radio.

Well… if radio were still around.

Edited by Courtney E. Taylor — https://www.facebook.com/byCourtneyETaylor/

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Musician | Composer | Blogger. Writing on music, the future, and fatherhood. — PhilFallway.com | Buy me a coffee: ko-fi.com/philfallway

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Phil Fallway

Phil Fallway

Musician | Composer | Blogger. Writing on music, the future, and fatherhood. — PhilFallway.com | Buy me a coffee: ko-fi.com/philfallway

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