“Craft is a muscle, you need to exercise it”
If you’ve tried writing your own songs and wound up with only half-baked ideas and chord progressions that sound suspiciously similar to contemporary radio-friendly tunes, you’re not alone.
Songwriting may seem like a mystical calling that appeals to only the most brilliant musical minds, but really it’s a technical skill that takes time to develop.
Many professional musicians have the benefit of attending illustrious music schools to help hone their talents, but if you’re too young for college or if you’re only interested in songwriting as a hobby, you’re going to be on your own.
There are many decisions to make when it comes to writing your own music, but those answers will come in time. The most important task is to learn the basics of song construction and, from there, decide what kind of music you’d like to make.
Current Artisan spoke with a professional songwriter (more specifically, songwriter/performing artist Oscar Neidhardt of Lightcliffe as well as many solo projects and commissioned work), to learn about songwriting exercises for beginners.
We’ll be getting to those exercises very soon, but first, let’s talk about a few pointers and tips that will help you better focus on your songwriting.
Prep: how to practice and prepare
Tips for finding melodies
For some, finding an original memory is quite easy, while for others it can be a real challenge.
Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s very important to listen to your own ideas and record them in some fashion so that you can access them later.
This doesn’t necessarily refer to audio recording either. You may want to write down a series of numbers as they relate to the notes of a scale. Or you could record yourself humming the melody on your phone’s memo app.
As with memories, new ideas for a melody could come at any time, and they can leave just as quickly.
Sitting down in front of a computer and forcing yourself to think of a melody on the spot will be much more difficult and could even end in frustration.
As Neidhardt told us:
“Most melodies just pop up in my head, usually when I’m not even thinking about music. I’ll start humming that melody over and over again in my head. Then I’ll start adding more parts to it, and sometimes I’ll even have the entire melody for a song fully structured out in my head. And if I really like it, I’ll stop on the side of the road and immediately record all the ideas on my phone. Otherwise, I know that I’ll forget about them a couple of hours later.”
Mistakes to watch out for
Mistakes are a natural part of any creative pursuit, but there are certain pitfalls you can consciously avoid if you know what to look for.
According to Neidhardt:
“The most noticeable mistake is a lack of originality. I see a lot of young writers and producers trying to copy existing work by creating similar melodies, lyrical concepts, and arrangements. I think the problem is that a lot of new songwriters lack confidence in their own skills and creative intuition and tend to operate in a comfort zone by doing what feels safe and secure.”
There is a way to practice songwriting using other people’s songs, which we’ll get to in a bit, but the real problem comes along when a young songwriter simply adopts another artist’s style rather than creating their own.
Apart from being artistically derivative, this mistake will also prevent songwriters from being noticed when they reach the professional level.
People who imitate popular music are a dime a dozen, but originality and innovation will always have value in the marketplace.
Below we’ve listed three helpful songwriting exercises that Neidhardt has used for years, even after becoming a successful songwriter and musician in his own right.
If you’re having a tough time with one of the exercises, move on to the next. Try to find which one works best for your own personal workflow.
You may also want to make minor tweaks to these exercises if you’d like to spark your creativity even further.
Dismantle and rebuild
“Pick a song that you love, dismantle it, and rebuild it. You can approach this exercise in a few different ways. Basically, take a look at the melody, lyrics, and chord progression of a song. Choose one to replace, while keeping the other two elements. You’ll train your creative intuition and learn to trust your instincts. It’s also just a fun way to boost your creativity!”
Mix and match chords
The second exercise requires a bit of music theory, but don’t worry, if you’ve had music lessons of any kind, you probably already have the necessary expertise.
We’ll let Neidhardt explain:
“Practice playing different scales on the piano, or the instrument of your choice. Once you’ve warmed up, try to improvise a chord progression and transpose it into three different keys. If there’s a progression that you particularly like, try and come up with some melodies and lyrics based around that chord progression.”
Finding a chord progression that fits the idea for a song is a huge step. Humans can naturally detect the tone and emotion of different chords. For example, it will be immediately apparent whether your fresh chord progression is generally sad, happy, hopeful, etc.
Once you have a chord progression that you like, you can easily play around with rhythm, tempo, and playing style.
“A third exercise that I like to use is called “Object Writing”. I read about it in a book called “Writing Better Lyrics”, by author Pat Pattison, a professor at Berklee College of Music. Set a timer for ten minutes, pick a random object in the room, and write about it. Don’t overthink! You don’t even need to build full sentences. Just write, and the more ideas you have, the better. Stop the timer after 10 minutes. Read back what you wrote and look for anything that sticks out to you, anything that could be used to build an interesting lyrical concept.”
For a somewhat dramatic portrayal of this technique, check out this scene from the indie comedy Frank.
This kind of immediate, automatic writing has proven to be a popular method not just in songwriting but in prose composition as well.
The end products of this exercise never have to be heard by anyone but yourself. You’re allowed to write terrible songs. In fact, it’s encouraged.
Even talented songwriters have bad days, bad sessions. The goal is just to flex the songwriting muscle so that it gets stronger every single day.
Of course, coming up with ideas for new songs is just the first step. Once you have an idea you like, that’s when the real work begins.
So, in closing, let’s talk about what comes next.
The editing process
There’s a saying that songwriting is 10% writing and 90% re-writing.
Editing and tweaking your ideas is a very important step on the way to improving your musical abilities.
Song demos are often a far cry from the finished track. What happens between the two is a number of revisions and creative choices.
How many edits you want to make is up to you.
Frank Zappa, as an example, was an extreme perfectionist, requiring himself and his bandmates to be note-perfect and precisely on-tempo for every single recording and every live show.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle created his early tape recordings by playing songs in full shortly after having the initial idea.
It all comes down to your artistic instincts and your musical goals.
Neidhardt tries to balance both approaches:
“You have to train yourself to know when the time is right. It’s all very instinctual, in my opinion. But once you start getting really busy working on multiple projects simultaneously and gaining more experience through that, that type of decision-making process will become easier. I also try and teach myself just to take a risk and trust my intuition. When I’m deeply involved with a song and I feel like I’m starting to cross that line, I step away for a moment and come back with a pair of fresh ears.”
DAWs for beginners
Lastly, we briefly wanted to touch on DAWs (digital audio workstations) that beginners can access with relative ease.
If you want to record any of your work, you’ll be using a DAW, whether it’s on your computer or in a professional recording studio.
These can range from free to thousands of dollars (for high-end professional software packages and plugins).
For Apple/Mac users, Neidhardt recommends using Garageband, which comes built-in to the operating system, which now includes iPhones as well.
The program is surprisingly robust, and it offers a number of digital instruments that can be controlled via the keyboard or through external MIDI controller devices.
Neidhardt also mentioned a more complex program:
“Another DAW I always recommend is Ableton Live. It’s especially suitable for beginners because it’s so intuitive and fast. It’s the perfect program for composing quick ideas and exploring the world of music production.”
The Intro version of Ableton Live is currently priced at $99, with more feature-complete versions going for several hundred dollars.
“Lastly, I would also recommend Logic Pro X, which is essentially the professional alternative to Garageband, offering all the tools you need to create and produce a song to the highest standards. It has a very similar interface to Garageband, which makes everything feel familiar and comfortable right away, giving Garageband users a very smooth transition.”
If you’re currently a student, you may even be able to purchase discounted versions of these programs that still contain all major features.
Learning to use a DAW effectively is a must, even if you don’t plan to do any mixing and MIDI recording later in your career.
You may even find that a DAW sparks new and interesting ideas during your songwriting sessions.