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Wednesday
Aug102011

Top 10 Rules For Better Songwriting

 

I am a songwriter. I typically work from home using a small studio set up and have been fortunate enough to have written, co-written or produced many songs that have been commercially released.

I am also the founder of Audio Rokit, which is a song submission platform helping bands and artists get their music heard by top industry professionals. http://www.audiorokit.co.uk

 

I thought I could share some of my own personal song writing tips. Although they are very basic, these 10 rules have helped me and I hope that they help you also. Please feel free to add to my list!

 

1. Don’t Be a Perfectionist

Write a LOT. Churn songs out, bin them and churn more out. Don’t be a perfectionist. The aim is to improve over time, not to sit down and craft the perfect pop song on your first attempt.

By giving yourself the freedom to experiment without pressure you will develop the creative part of your brain instead of the over analytical part. Pop/Rock songwriter, Sting commented once that he finds it harder to write great songs now that he has become more analytical of music.

2. Get Feedback As Often As Possible

Be fearless with your songs. It’s OK if you write a crap song. What is not OK is to try and convince everyone that it’s a great song! Get feedback and allow people to be honest, that way you will start to learn what really works.

3. Hot and Cold

I am talking about combining opposites such as spiccato and ligatto (short and long). When you have long held chords, try a shorter or snappier vocal line. Have a funky bass line? You might want to opt for a simpler, more solid guitar part. It’s simple stuff, but worth thinking about when writing or producing.

4. Learn to Unlearn

As we learn to write songs we naturally analyse what works and what doesn’t. We absorb new chord structures and develop an obsession for doing things the ‘correct’ way. This is great as far as improving song writing goes, but somewhere along the way you may lose the ability to invent something new. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. If it sounds good to you then do it!

5. The Disadvantage of Talent

Michael Jordan is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. How did he get so good? He became the greatest because he failed more times than the next basketball player, not because he was the most talented.

Raw talent can take someone 10% of the way to success, but hard work and determination make up the rest!

The problem with naturally talented people is that they never learn failure and find it harder to accept defeat. People who are average (but with a desire to win) are in many ways better equipped to stay the course and succeed long term.

6. See the Bigger Picture Always

Once you have the technical knowledge you need to write music, try and develop the part of your brain that can listen to and analyse the whole picture (instead of focusing on tiny details).

You should be able to hear instantly what is needed to make your songs work. Does it need more emotion? More energy? Is the vocal melody boring? By focusing on the whole picture you’ll be able to find the answers quicker by being honest and brutal with yourself.

7. Say it Differently

We all know that there are common lyrical themes in music. I would guess that the topic of ‘love’ is the most widely used lyrical theme. Using tried and tested themes can be a good thing, but you should always try and say it differently.

For example, Dianne Warren said “Un-break my heart” instead of “Mend my heart”. She invented a new phrase to say the same thing a million other songs have said before and it worked perfectly!

8. Keep It Simple

I know so many musicians who agree that the best songs are the simplest, yet they can’t write simple songs themselves? It is a kind of ‘musicians curse’ to assume that complicated means better. Get used to writing simpler songs that have more hooks and adhere to common (natural) arrangement structures.

Remember, you will hear the song over and over but your audience will have to ‘get’ it on the first listen. Keep it simple! 

9. Work With Others

Even if you don’t like working with others, please try it. You’ll see that in many cases more heads really can be better than one.

Working with others forces you to move away from your comfort zone and in my experience produces better songs. The process of getting input from more people during the writing process is healthy and makes it unlikely that you’ll write a real stinker!

10. Take Regular Breaks

Have you ever worked on a song for 15 hours straight and been totally disappointed with the result? It’s happened to me many times!

Doing anything creative can lead you down a rabbit hole of endless ideas that (if no breaks are taken) can spiral into complex introverted expression. In other words, take a bloody break and come back with fresh ears!

Do you have song writing advice? Please feel free to add a tip with a number so we can grow the list

Reader Comments (44)

11. Multi-Topline Takes

I almost forgot this one. If I am writing the vocals for a chorus or verse, I'll record about 20 different ideas without lyrics, simply finding a tune that sits well with the music and is catchy. I'll then leave it for a couple of days before going through my 20 ideas and pulling out the bits that really worked. More often than not I'll end up piecing bits of a few different ideas together!

July 25 | Registered CommenterDarren

Excellent article. I have a lot of trouble following any certain guidelines with my songwriting, so I'm going to refer back to this often. I tend to just "wait for inspiration," which means I could never work for a company that required x amount of songs to be written per month. In those moments of inspiration, though, I feel like some good stuff comes out of me. It just isn't something I can predict or control. Thanks for this article.

Ben Travis
bentravis.com

August 4 | Registered CommenterBen Travis

Very good and excellent posting for the songwriting techniques and tricks. Now songwriting is not a big issue.

August 6 | Unregistered Commenterchoza

Thanks for your comments guys. Glad you found the Blog useful.

August 8 | Registered CommenterDarren

Thanks for your post, Darren. I like your down-to-earth advice regarding songwriting. I do think that with creative ventures, sometimes we have to 'get out of our heads' and just CREATE instead of worrying about whether or not it's "right".

With Eclectic Verve's debut CD "Something on the Way" barely in the rearview mirror, Kent (Eclectic Verve's singer/songwriter/guitarist) has begun working on songs for our next CD. I'm going to pass a link to your post along to him as additional inspiration.

Continued success to you!

August 10 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Musil

Don't underestimate gut feelings or "happy accidents". Sometimes the first thing you come up with is the most genuine. Don't beat it to death trying to get it perfect - music is about feel. After all, the great David Lee Roth once said, "...if you can't do it by the second take, you can't do it...".

August 10 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Henzerling

I have just uploaded a new article that looks at the importance of having "super-fans" and more importantly, how to find them! Take a look here:

http://www.musicthinktank.com/mtt-open/who-cares.html

Or on my personal Blog here:
http://audiorokit.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/who-cares/

August 10 | Registered CommenterDarren

Basic copyediting? Both of the Italian terms are wrong. I assume you mean staccato and legato (spiccato is a very specific bowing indication; ligatto is a nonsense word).

August 10 | Unregistered CommenterJune

LOVED this article...... especially #11..

August 10 | Unregistered CommenterLyshae

Don't feel like you have to write "true" stories. I hear more and more songwriters during workshops saying "but that's the story" or "that's the way it happened." It doesn't matter. Use the story to inform and shape your song. Don't be boxed in by the truth. Use your song to make a new truth. And, remember, Johnny Cash never really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. It's a song.

Emotions are tricky things. Please don't tell me about the emotions you're feeling. As a songwriter, I want you to get *me* to feel something and I'm not really interested in how you feel about it. Too often songwriters want to tell about some heart wrenching emotional event in their life rather than telling a story that will get me to feel what they felt. Make me care and I will gladly listen, and buy, and promote you as a songwriter.

August 10 | Unregistered CommenterLyman Louis

+1 to Lyman's post.

Great article, thanks.

August 11 | Unregistered CommenterVad

Good advice! Thank you.

August 11 | Unregistered CommenterVersus

I love Rule #9, I have been working in my studio writing songs and thinking they were great for the past few years. i don't know many other part-time song writers like I am so I found one online and had a session with him. It was amazing, I found myself seeing that I had stuff to work on and now my style is much more defined. That is the most important rule to me, stop, collaborate.
if anyone cares i setup that session with this site Music180. I don't know if it is for everyone but I liked it.
Thanks for this article!

August 11 | Unregistered CommenterJacob Tsu

Great article. I agree with all points. PS it's stacatto and legato, not spiccato and ligatto

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterCory Blight

Just having permission to keep it simple helps. Sometimes I feel I need to write unusual chord progressions or lyrics for the sake of being different. It is different but it doesn't always help the song.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

I actually found publishing through the Audio Rokit website so I was especially intrigued to read this post!

I liked number 7. I have a tendency to follow the crowd and I need to work on being original.

I would add to this list that the best songwriters seem to have a good (but basic) understanding of music theory. It seems to me that songwriters who have very advanced music theory tend to write music which is less accessible (too clever).

I may be completely wrong on this but that is my perception from the many songwriters I personally know and work with. Generally though, I'd say writing a LOT is the key!

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

I definitely agree with the last point: Take regular breaks. The rest is a different story.

For me a good song, first of all, must be honest. In order words, if you want to write music about Quantum Chromodynamics then the melody structure and time signatures should be more complex than writing about your affection towards your sofa. Beyond this, I would say write music that you like. And never write music that you believe other people would like.

Perhaps one other point: music is not about the melody, the chord progression, the tempo, the time signature, the orchestration, the technical precision of the performance, the expression, the timber, the quality of the recording, the mixing, the mastering, etc. It is ALL of these. Melody and lyrics may only represent 10% of the actual work that goes into a good song.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterLes

Good tips in general although the the last poster (Les) makes some good points about the honesty of the songwriting...but your wrong about melody and lyric being only 10% of a good song Les. They are the major components of a good song. Most of he rest of the points you mentioned are to do with the performance and/or the recording. Those are seperate issues. In the latter case (the recording) almost a seperate art form.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterFee

#4 - Learn to Unlearn

Love it! Great article...thanks!

August 13 | Registered CommenterReal Job

I agree with most of the points in this article, except for keeping it simple. I think that's a cliche and is way overdone, especially over the last 20 years of popular music. Some of the most enduring songs of all time are actually complex songs.

Having said that, simpler songs do tend to grab listeners' attentions more readily. So, it's a great idea to use this as a strategy to hook people and then hopefully they'll go on to check out the other music you have to offer.

August 13 | Unregistered CommenterSam Bhattacharya

#12 Listen to other artist's music

One way to expand our musical vocabulary is to draw inspiration from other artists sound, lyrical style, and instrumentation. If you play country rock, try listening to Owl City (who is close friends with Taylor Swift) and write in a similar style (his lyrics are distinguishable). Matthew Ebel once said that one of his most requested songs is his trance-style song; and he's mainly a singer-songwriter.

Cheers,
Endy Daniyanto

August 16 | Registered CommenterEndy Daniyanto

Hey, is it okay to compromise on grammatical errors when you write the lyrics of a song, especially if it sounds better "wrong"?

August 18 | Unregistered CommenterJared

Thanks Darren for this post & your Audio Rokit platform. I find my best songs happen when I write what I know/feel from personal experience. Also, new ideas flow through me when I shower, and also while I'm sleeping in my dreams. I've actually awakened with lyrics & melodies. Monster.com Founder Jeff Taylor explains this best:

"You can change the world during a 30-minute shower. There's something about the hot water flowing over your head that makes what I call the "good part" and the "absent part" of your brain talk to each other. When you stand there with the soap in your hands, you begin to reinvent the soap. You think, I can put this clear soap together with this cream soap... I can make a better soap! Then you think, The shampoo doesn't have very good packaging. The next thing you know, you dream up a cool business idea. You turn off the shower and step one foot out onto the bathmat, then suddenly, you can't remember anything.

[In the shower], your mind, body and spirit are all moving into your subconscious, where you invent new things, solve problems and potentially create opportunities or big ideas. You have to pay attention to your subconscious. Learn to focus on your idea and maintain that idea long enough, so that when you get out of the shower, you're able to capture your idea on a nearby pad of paper.

I keep a pad of paper next to my bed, ready to catch my dreams and ideas. This leads me to a small, but important, life story."

As for me, I also find that observing people (aka people watching) & can be a great stimulator of new ideas or fictional stories I'd never otherwise conceived. Writing with a specific artist in mind is also helpful as it gives me a target zone making the editing process easier.

Trudee Lunden

August 20 | Registered CommenterTrudee Lunden

@ Trudee

Glad you like the Audio Rokit song pitching platform, we've had many musicians sign deals in our first year (over 190) and we're looking at even more in 2012!

I liked your comment on the shower effect. So true, there is something about warm water, hypnotic splashes and increased creativity! I guess half the battle is to switch OFF our brains in order to become more creative.

January 3 | Registered CommenterDarren

great advice thanks!

January 2 | Unregistered Commenterwhitemeat

thx so much,i am actually in high school and have been trying to write songs because i just looove
music,look,basically...thx

February 8 | Unregistered CommenterDamien Henson

write with your heart....how you feel....what you think what you lived trough.....make a story up.....give it feeling....dont aim for simple catchy songs bc they get boring....make a song that people will love for the meaning and emotion

March 11 | Unregistered Commentersaul

I have few songs which were not good and left writing for some time and from yesterday i started song-writing tips. Yesterday when i finished my online song-writing course i wrote a song,havn't completed yet but it sounded good and now i think after getting this i can even write better songs day by day.......Thanks for the tips....

May 5 | Unregistered CommenterNandini .P

Good Post,

I have been telling others for years that a study of the best songs, will show you Procedures / Rules to follow.

I cant stand people who say there are no rules to songwriting, in most cases they are Lazy idiots talentless and thick.

It's good to find sensible writers who realise that any Art Form has a set of rules , yes learn them, and then you have the right to break them but only where it will improve the song.

Most of the songs I write are based more on my past, and they're pretty emotional. I want to be able to write more upbeat and catchy songs, but I don't want to be like Ke$ha where none of her songs make sense yet they're so catchy... What do I do?

July 9 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Great article! Very inspiring for beginner like me. I love #5 most "Raw talent can take someone 10% of the way to success, but hard work and determination make up the rest!" Hope my hard work will pay off one day.

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterCameron

Real nice tips. i keep a notebook. If a song dosent work straight away its likely a waste of time to pursue it. i write heaps and throw heaps away. dont write them too long. never change a song once its finished. never let your mom write your songs

Love this post ...so informative and true

August 8 | Unregistered CommenterDMC

I love this post. I admit it I am 13 and really want to do music in any way possible... I've written a couple songs but they were either terrible ( concluded by a couple opinions) or got lost when i lost my computer ( it got stolen). a tip i suggest is: almost everyone sings in the shower, right? well instead of singing a song you already know sing something of your own. throw a bunch of words out with a melody. no one has to hear it and it don't have to be good.

September 23 | Unregistered CommenterJewell

I really like number 8. Keep it simple. It's so easy to feel the need for too much complexity when you listen to your work over and over.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Archer

I really liked your tips. I'v written poems for a long time, and poems are a bit diffrent than songs. My friend asked me if I could write a song for his band, and as I have no musical talent at all, I find it a bit diffucult. And with them being a metal band, I have no clue on what to do. So I just write stuff I belive could work, and try to expand my poems a bit. Now I belive I'v finally gotten something they can use. So thank you ever so much for your help.

November 22 | Unregistered CommenterJane

I like the fact that many here are accepting that there are rules or guide lines for
writing a commercial song.
So called inspiration is not what starts me off, I write everyday but often break
from it and work, on House renovation or Garden work. I love doing all three ,
and often have to break away from the latter two , in order to re record a
phrase or a cadence to a verse or Chorus.

Many so called inspirational ideas reach a point where they are either
discontinued, or set aside to work on . I never rush a song, I sleep on them
and my subconscious sorts out the parts that need the work, to make them
into Great Songs.

The business is not about writing one Great Song, Publishers are looking
or writers who can write to a high standard, all the time. There are many
so called lucky writers out there who have stumbled accidentally on a Hit tune,
who spend the rest of there active years trying to teach others, giving out
information that's not relevant to others finding success.
Jason Blume in his popular book, refers to Meter being the same thing as Rhythm
sorry Jason they are two different things , both essential in their own ways ,
to learning the art of Good Songwriting

November 30 | Unregistered CommenterWood Jenkins

As a songwriter for over 20 years, I feel like I've learned lots of tips and tricks over the years. This is a great article and I appreciated finding confirmation about some of my own experiences.

My additions would be:

1) Write in the moment. So many times I've had song ideas that sort of crept up and hit me from behind. My best successes have been when I stopped what I was doing and wrote the ideas down. At best, grab your guitar and get to work, but at least jot down lyric and musical ideas. I've even snuck away to my car and sung lines into my phone so I can remember melodies later. Keeping a journal nearby is definitely a necessity for songwriters.

2) Simple is great, especially if you're playing with a band and/or you want others to learn the song. Nothing is easier to learn than a four-chord song, and there's nothing wrong with them. But don't underestimate mixing in some complex songs, too. Just don't expect others to jump in on other instruments and back you up. Save those for solo shows.

3) Write about real experiences, if that's what you've got. But don't be afraid to view songwriting as storytelling and role playing. Use songs to explore things you might not have experience with. For example, I have been happily married 17 years and have a family. Yet I have written many songs about a lover who has left. My experience is that it helps bring mental and emotional balance, kind of like how dreams often let you explore things you would never do in real life.

4) Write songs that YOU like to sing and that YOU like to hear. If your success is based entirely on getting a record deal or selling a song to someone famous, you're going to have a tough time with songwriting (although that may inspire some good songs!). If your first goal is to write music you enjoy, you'll always be happy. If others catch on and enjoy them as well, that's just gravy.

Thanks again for this great article - best of luck to you and please continue sharing your experiences.

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

This article has a lot of hard-won wisdom in it. Thanks for sharing and making it easier on the beginners...

March 3 | Unregistered CommenterTina G

I have spent almost 15 years playing guitar in hardcore and metal bands. It was fun while it lasted but times change, people change and the scene just failed to live up to the way it used to be. I've been vigorously writing with my Takamine G-series acoustic for my own twist on Folk Music. The music comes to me naturally and I've written some great stuff but im really struggling with writing lyrics. This had a lot of great pointers for me and i actually have a really catchy chorus to my latest tune expressing my disappointment in popular music today prioritizing fashion over passion. feel free to check out what i've been doing. i did some rushed recordings to help me write lyrics on the go that you can check out at www.mikeyhealey.bandcamp.com any pointers are greatly appreciated.
most of the recordings are way too fast for how i want them but i was overly excited to lay them down when i did it. soon enough i'll have them updated with better arrangements.

If by any chance you're doubting my level of struggle, here is a link to what i did before this www.drivethrufire.bandcamp.com

March 4 | Unregistered CommenterMikey H

thank you so much, this was super helpful information.
I also think some useful things when writing songs are:
writing down every phrase you think of. I have phrases saved from years ago that I'll go back to and refine even now. never assume you'll just remember a chord sequence or a phrase, because you might not be thrilled with it now, but even years later I'm sure I'll be returning to some of my concoctions and spinning them up again.
Thanks again!

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterBlibberty

Spicatto and ligatto? Joke or no joke?

July 9 | Unregistered CommenterDK

Thanks for all your comments

July 10 | Registered CommenterDarren

Love these! Number 1 for me is what I needed to read. I am stuck on so many ideas at the verse/chorus bits and never sure where to go. Instead of just finishing them at the time.

I also usually write heavy stuff, but after getting bored and getting over my own horribly self critical approach to 'cheesy stuff' I let go and wrote some 'cheesy stuff', and they were ok! So yeah, getting over your own barriers by trying different genres, even if you have to talk yourself into it for a laugh.

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterLucy

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