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  • Advice on Songwriting?

    I have been attempting to write songs for acoustic guitar or piano for about a year now, and would appreciate any advice or opinions regarding the various styles and steps taken in composing music and writing lyrics.

    I've been playing guitar for four years now, and piano for two - I taught myself both, but am having trouble composing anything I like enough to finish and record it.


  • #2
    I'm probably not the best person to answer, since I just started writing and recording own stuff a few weeks ago. But I can at least tell you some things, that helped me.

    1.) It's always easier to write something, you can relate to. Sounds weird, but the songs that dealt with stuff I've gone through myself kinda wrote themself, while songs that dealt with abstract stuff have always been a pain in the ***.

    2.) I've always a small scrapbook and a pen with me. When some textlines pop into my head, I write them down asap. When a melody pops into my head, I try to write it down too (restricting to notelength and stuff like "higher here, lower there". I can't name any chords without playing them on my guitar).

    3.) If you got the possibility to record something, do it. And listen to it over and over again. That way the melody solidify in you're head. And you probably find a fitting part while you don't even expect it. (E.g. subway, university or at work).

    4.) I don't know how much music theory you know. You can write songs without any knowledge, but it may be helpful. I don't know much about music theory to. But when I've got some chords, I usually head to this site to find a fitting scale. Thereafter I try jamming a bit, using that scale. Has been helpful and productive quite some times.

    As I said, I'm not a very experienced singer-songwriter myself. But these things helped me a lot in terms of composing.
    My homerecording blog
    My music on Soundcloud, Facebook and Last.fm


    • #3
      I'm sure I won't be the only one to suggest that the 'problem' here is in this phrase:
      [...] having trouble composing anything I like enough to finish [...]
      It's a fact of creative life that our first attempts in almost any endeavor (for most of us, anyhow) that we will not like much or any of what we first write.

      It's all but unavoidable.

      A prose writer once suggested that the first million words you write will be crap. (That's like, ten novels worth. )

      I don't know that one's first ten albums worth of songs will necessarily be crap -- but the point is that it takes a lot of work and practice to learn how to craft a decent song. For most of us. (And all them future Mozarts out there are probably busy writing symphonies and not reading this forum, so, let's skip those lucky losers. )

      Seriously, it's a hard slog and the only way to get where you want to go is to put one foot in front of the other and move in the right direction.

      It's going to be two steps forward and one step back -- when you're lucky -- but if you persevere, you will get there.

      Here are some tips: when you start something, try to finish it. Even if inspiration flits away after the first line or two. Trust me, if the first line is great and the rest crap, you'll probably end up cannibalizing it down the road when you've got the chops to write a whole song as good as that line.

      But, for now, the most important thing is to write, write, write, and try to finish what you write, even if it's 10% inspiration and 90% crap. In fact, it probably will be. That's just how it goes.

      Save everything -- but don't necessarily brood over it.

      A writer is like a shark -- he's got to keep swimming forward or he'll drown. (Weird, huh? Yet sharks are one of the oldest, most successful species.)

      music and social links | recent listening


      • #4
        Blue is right on the money.

        Not sure who said it, but it was said a beginning songwriter has to write a hundred songs for practice until he/she is ready to attempt the first real one. Hmm, maybe I said it. Don't know - mind freeze you know.

        Good luck, John
        Stop analyzing; just compose the damn thing!


        • #5
          All of them work, and none of them work. Choose prudently.


          • #6
            I've made thousands of songs, but only maybe 10 do I care about enough to want to pursue them into some form of completion.

            My own big thing is, I find it easy to START a song...inspiration comes in many forms and the titles, concepts, and playing around ramdomly with instruments and sounds and moods is the easy part.

            In order for me to end up creating the beginnings of something I want to keep...I need to always take a step back...work out what I want to say...and it doesn't matter if it's silly or not hugely profound or important. Who cares!? Some of my songs are about vegetables for goodness sake! lol. It's all good.

            Once I step back, I refresh my inspiration and can then move forward and try to...do something with my song. Whatever it may be. lol.

            Also, if you've got songs that you absolutely ADORE and wish you'd written, maybe try listening to them...see what it is about 'em that you love...and obviously don't copy them cause that's boring, but maybe it'll make you a bit more aware of what it is that you want to create in your own music.
            All things must pass...


            • #7
              Put a few chords that you like together and play them until they come alive a bit.

              When that bit of music begins to move you........sing. Sing anything. How did that feel?

              OK......now think of something a bit more meaningful and sing that instead. If you like it, write it down. Keep at it until you are saying what you want to say and it feels really good to play it. Stay within yourself.....no need to get all fancy.

              Here's the deal....as far as I'm concerned......if you keep at it until you feel great after you play it and you want to play it again right away, then you've got yourself a good song......whether I like it or not.

              Have fun.
              Leonard Scaper


              • #8
                To add to what the others say - keep writing and finish everything. Record it. It's not set in stone. Don't worry about wasting a great verse that is married to a **************** chorus - you can always come back and save that verse by putting it into another song or reworking the original.

                Write as though you are the only one who ever hear it. Writing with the audience in mind causes stagefright and second guessing.

                Each song I write starts to get a little better. With luck that trend will continue.


                • #9
                  Here are My Tips/Rules/Approaches

                  1) Don't try to be original. Just try to seem original.

                  2) The easiest way to seem original: Keep the skeleton of the music basic and classic. Rely on stuff that's worked before. But try and make the lyrical sentiment, and the attitude, new. And that comes down to dynamics. So try and be like Sam Cooke or Kurt Cobain. These guys are legends because they came up with really good approaches that nobody had really pulled off before: Same Cooke decided to sing simple love songs with the passion of church music. Awesome. Kurt Cobain did kind of the same thing - he took 60s love-song melodies and put them to angsty woe-is-me lyrics and screamed them over three-chord pop progressions delivered like Metallica songs.

                  4) So: Steal good ideas and tweak them just enough to avoid plagiarism. Hell, you don't even need to tweak them all that much. Ask someone: most brilliant songwriter ever? Answer: Bob Dylan, right? About 90% of his first great songs are melodies, arrangements and lyrical hooks he just up and cribbed from other people. Like, blatently. Girl From North Country is Scarborough Fair. Blowing in the Wind is No More Auction Block.. and on and on and on. And don't even try and say that's all in the folk tradition. Beatles were master thiefs too. If it's good enough for Dylan & Beatles, it's good enough for you!

                  2) Learn a lot of really, really good songs. Like 50 of them. Memorize them. Play them in front of other people. From three-chord gems to tricky pieces that require a good amount of dexterity. You will collect an enormous amount of tools. The more skills you have and tricks you know the better songs you can write. And you can't write good songs unless you understand how good songs are put together. And a surprising number rely on the same simple tricks. People without a lot of good influences can't write good songs. Period.

                  4) And then steal some more!! But mix up your sources, so no one but a musicologist will be able to tell you are nothing but a shameless thief. An Example: One of the two songs I finished last week is a total Frankenstein of other people's good ideas: The vocal intro echoes that Whop! from Odetta's Water Boy over chord riff that's a variation of of Del Shannon's intro of Runaway; the verse progression and melody is a variation of the traditional "When the Roses Bloom Again" (A La Wilco's Version from the Chelsea Walls Soundtrack, but tweaked rather substantially") the Chorus is is a play off the "Yeah Yeah Yeahs!" in Nirvana's Lithium and of the "Yay Yay Yays" in Roger Miller's "It Happened just that Way" - but instead of "Yeah Yeah Yeah" I say "No No No" over a simple, rolling chord progression and punctuate it with a lyrical punch, the song's title, just like Roger Miller does i his song. And the bridge - I mapped the bridge after - get this - the musical build in the second half of John Cafferty'sw "Heart's On Fire." Hearts on Fire is the Song that underscores the Rocky VI training Montage in which Rocky Balboa Runs in the Snow and Climbs Up the Mountain and Screams "DRAAAGO!!!." I love that song.

                  Oh yeah, the content of lyrics echo that Roger Miller song, in that each verse is a colorful, somewhat incomplete recall of how one was raised.

                  Anyway, I learned all of these songs. I know them by heart - words and music. And I just borrowed the underlying ideas behind my favorite parts of them.

                  3) Write lots of lots and lots of material and don't get too attached to any of it. You can't get good at anything without doing it a lot of times. Period.

                  4) I just read about this trick. I started trying it last week. Take a good song, a song you love. And write new lyrics too it. Then take those lyrics, and make up a new melody to it. Boom you have a song.

                  5) An efficient way to write lots and to write fast: Come up with a good title first. And then write verses that scan. Pick up the guitar. Start singing these verses over simple chord progressions or progessions that echo the great songbook in your head. Once you find something that clicks: You just wrote an almost finished song. Tweak words and phrases as necessary. I do this all the time. I literally have a pipeline of at least two dozen word ideas I still haven't gotten around to putting to music. And one thing I've found: when I'm fiddling and come up with a cool chord progression. I sometimes get lucky when I shift through my lyric sheet and lo and behold - I have a whole set of ready-made lyrics that scan to the song i just made up!

                  6) Again - really consider the title-first approach. This is how Hank Williams wrote songs. Hank Williams wrote better songs than you ever will. So try and be like him.

                  7) Listen to a lot of old music. Learn a lot of it. People wrote better pop songs in the 50s and 60s than they do today. I hate to say this but it's true. And I think this is so for a few reasons: they had a more disciplined approach to writing and recording back then. And putting sounds down on record was a lot harder and expensive than it is today, so they avoided a lot of the half-baked ass-clownery you hear today. And they came up with better melodies because you couldn't make records back then unless you knew how to sing well. This is not really the case anymore.

                  8) If you have a good melody; You have a good song. Period. A song that has good lyrics and a bad melody can't be a good song. A song with bad lyrics and a melody can be a good song. And it can even be a great song. This rule is unfallible.

                  11) Just go there. Follow impulses to let a song go to stupid places. And if you have an impulse to be sweeping and melodramatic and sound like Zeus having an orgasm, do that too.

                  13) And lastly: Writing a song is almost entirely about confidence. Editing a song is about being humble.

                  When you come up with an idea, swagger like Travolta walking home from the paint store in Saturday Night Fever. Execute it with utter confidence - don't be like: maybe I shouldn't sing "Cry with Sky" in the Chorus because it's so tired. Screw that: You are the man that does no wrong. 99% of finishing a song is just about simple confidence.

                  But After you finish the song, take an honest look at it and be hard on yourself: "Cry about the Sky is clearly an awful idea and you just might be the worst songwriter in the world. Dude, change that tripe - you can do better.
                  Correction - "max is wrong, abrasive and, likely, a felon"

                  finally found it ... the dumbest person on the internet. matximus.


                  • #10
                    I've been writing songs for quite awhile, and I don't necessarily buy all of this stuff about how you have to write 100 songs to be a good songwriter, etc etc. Yes, practice is always going to make you better, but to me it's all about confidence. When I was feeling confident at the beginning of my songwriting career, I wrote some good songs. I wrote a lot of terrible songs, but there was some good ones before I'd reached the 100 mark. If you believe that what you write is gold, it's going to influence the way you sing it and people can feel that confidence. Some of the best songs have the simplest lyrics. If you read some of Thom Yorke's lyrics, they're not always the most amazing lyrics, but his delivery brings those lyrics to life.

                    Leonard's advice is also right on. Sit down with a guitar/piano and let the song write itself. Play some powerful chords and sing nonsense until that nonsense starts to make sense. To me, this is a more organic way to write and there's going to be more raw emotion in your song, which is very important.

                    Also, get inspired. Go to a lot of shows. Watch videos of bands you love and when you feel that inspiration flowing through your veins, grab your pen and guitar and go to town. I've also found that sleep deprivation makes for great songwriting. Stay up all night one day and write. Your brain is less likely to censor you and ideas flow more freely.

                    Don't get caught comparing yourself to other songwriters. You are your own songwriter and have a unique style. I used to constantly compare my songs to other songs, and then one day it occurred to me that I'm not John Lennon, so I shouldn't be trying to do what John Lennon does. This realization helped me have a lot more confidence and originality in my songwriting.

                    I guess it's different for everyone, but these are the things that work for me. If writing 100 songs is what it's going to take, then more power to you.



                    • #11
                      I totally agree with the confidence thing. And yeah, don't always need to write 100. Sometimes you can have amazing results when you don't really know what you're doing. I do believe in the 100 rule, but clearly people with singular talent can make interesting material with almost no practice whatsoever. My main takeaway from the 100 rule is that it takes that long of a time to be able to reliably generate worthy material. To simply become adept at the craft of writing songs.

                      But you know, people get carried away with "there are no rules" thing. Which I think is just lazy baloney. There are rules. There are YOUR rules. Come up with your rules and stick to em - that's what vision is. And the best art - I don't care whether its movies, novels, music, photos, paintings - has a clear vision of what it's about and how it's trying to communicate that.

                      But what's different about music, well, popular music, - and also sometimes in photography- is that you can be a lucky jackass with little skill but a lot of natural verve, and you can just be goofing off and still make something really, really interesting. You can get away with that. But you can't be a sloppy hack and make a good novel or film- people expect way to much in those mediums. They have too many working parts, require too much technical know-how to be put together in an effective way.

                      But pop music has a lower barrier to entry, and it is rife with lucky-jackass examples. So too many people believe songs shouldn't be hampered by any concrete approaches or conventions. I find that ghastly.
                      Correction - "max is wrong, abrasive and, likely, a felon"

                      finally found it ... the dumbest person on the internet. matximus.


                      • #12
                        I have been attempting to write songs for acoustic guitar or piano for about a year now, and would appreciate any advice or opinions regarding the various styles and steps taken in composing music and writing lyrics.

                        I've been playing guitar for four years now, and piano for two - I taught myself both, but am having trouble composing anything I like enough to finish and record it.


                        While in practice it sounds ideal to wait until you have
                        an entire song ready to record...sometimes you should take
                        what life, (or your mind) gives you, and roll with it.

                        Every song (usually) has a structure.
                        The key to writing isn't rhyming, although some may disagree.

                        Capturing the feel, of an experience, allows the listener to connect
                        with your experience.

                        The basic structure (subject to reorganisation of course)

                        1st verse
                        (sometimes a little bridge is inserted here
                        (8 bar instrumentation, precedes the 2nd verse) -sometimes
                        this is a solo of some sort, although short

                        2nd verse
                        (bridge with more variation and slowly builds up to the climax)
                        Climax (could be a combo of solo instrumental +vocals)
                        or whatever you want it to be

                        Chorus to end.
                        Sometimes songs transpose, this is where sometimes
                        they let it all loose...

                        Here's what to do:

                        Pick an idea, feeling or experience you've had OR
                        a situation you're in, or have been.

                        Write whatever you want but try to adhere to a simple structure.
                        Do you remember brainstorming in school? It's like that.

                        Draw a bubble, write the main idea in the bubble.
                        Then draw lines that come out of that bubble and write
                        words or phrases or feelings that correlate with that main idea.

                        If I were to write about leaves:
                        You could say:

                        The trees no longer want them
                        brown, old and falling
                        arrive in the fall
                        my soul feels like a wandering leaf in the wind
                        (you get my point)

                        Conversely if you were going to sing about your Harley Davidson
                        or your nice car/truck describing the parts (exhaust sound, engine
                        6 speed shifter, the lateral G its able to do) would be more in line...

                        The beauty part is?
                        Write about whatever YOU want to
                        And however you want to.

                        Once these ideas are *jotted down* then this is where
                        the writing process begins.

                        Everything starts with thoughts/imagination.
                        Then you must transpose these snippets of randomness words
                        into sentences that could tell a story, make sense?

                        So to recap:

                        (1) Pick an idea, situation or experience (or make one up)
                        (2) Note how they made you feel, who (or what) made you feel them?
                        (3) Describe using adjectives what the experience(s) did to you?

                        -How did you overcome.
                        -Did you overcome?
                        -Why (or) why not? (describe) the pain, or whatever emotion
                        -you *feel* / felt.
                        -What did YOU do to someone?

                        (4) Use all of these components to tell a story.
                        (5) Try to adhere to a structure (so that you don't lose your place)

                        Now....if only *I* could take my own advice

                        Formerly known as Johnny_B


                        • #13
                          Be sure to follow and ignore every bit of information in this thread.


                          • #14
                            Write, write, write. You'll write a lot of crap (we all do), but you can plunder them and use he best bits to make good songs.
                            American Special Stratocaster, Yamaha SA-503 TVL, Telecaster, Partscaster, Peavey Classic 30


                            • #15
                              I'm Gen and I'm new here.. I'm also interested in song writing, Hope we can share ideas and also learn from them. Have a nice day!