nyone who has ever dived into the deep waters of songwriting will emphatically agree that it’s a highly personal, introspective and complex craft. One can learn the fundamental tools of the trade relatively quickly, but creating compelling, evocative melodies, lyrics and grooves can take a lifetime to truly master.
Jon Herington knows this well, “By most definitions, a song is a short bit of music designed for someone to sing. Singing is vocalizing in musical tones, usually with intentionally fixed pitches. With that in mind, a writer of a song must deliver at least two elements: a rhythm (the single essential ingredient for any bit of music), and a melody (a pleasing succession of musical tones), which is to be sung. Words are the optional, but an overwhelmingly common third element. Thus, their inclusion, along with rhythm and melody, constitute the basic essentials of song. So in one sense, that’s all there is to it: the three fundamentals of songwriting are rhythm, melody, and lyrics. But in another sense, there’s much, much more.“
Songwriters have insatiable appetites for any bits of wisdom and insight that they can acquire from other songwriters. But what works for one writer will not necessarily work for the next. Songwriters must discover their own creative process and path.
“There’s no roadmap to being a songwriter. It often feels more like guerrilla warfare than a road. You’re hacking away with a machete, trying to create a path for yourself. You can feel isolated and lonely, despite the inspiration of the music,” says Ellis Paul from a long history of experience.
The art of songwriting, similar to all of the fine arts, is embraced by writers for any number of reasons. Some write to document and celebrate their life experiences. Some write to exorcise their demons. Some write to articulate their innermost emotions. Some write for the art of it. Some write for the money. Some write to connect to the world. Ask a hundred songwriters why they write and you’ll get a hundred answers.
Andy Timmons writes for a variety of reasons. “Songwriting, at its core, is the pursuit of writing something that I really want to hear. Repeatedly. Something that moves me in some way emotionally. Something that makes me feel something. A place to express joy. A place to express sadness. A place to energize. A place to relax. Something that lives up to all the amazing songs that I’ve loved during my life. I feel the really great songs are kind of “channeled” from a spiritual place. Probably from inside us. Maybe from outside of us. But most certainly informed from all that we have taken in through our ears during the course of our lives.”
What makes songwriters distinctive from one another is their individuality; their personal experiences, their perception of the world around them, their loves, their heartbreaks, their joy, and their sufferings. It’s the songwriter’s individual experiential background that powers the songs they write.
Pat Pattison, a very well-respected lyric and poetry professor at Berklee, tells his students: “You are absolutely unique. There never was, nor ever can be anyone exactly like you. The proof lies in the vaults of your senses, where you have been storing your sense memories all your life. They have come cascading in through your senses, randomly and mostly unnoticed, sinking to the bottom. Learn to dive for them. When you recover one, when you rise with it to the surface and hold it aloft, you will not only surprise your onlookers, you will surprise yourself.”
On the following pages, you’ll find songwriting tips and creative insight from many of TrueFire’s artists. Whether you’re already writing songs or just planning to start, we hope that some of these bits of wisdom will inspire and resonate with you. If you’ve never written a song before — start one today!
1. Learn as many of your favorite songs as possible. Of course I highly recommend doing this by ear, and not by reading. I’m convinced we internalize very differently through our ears than our eyes. This also further strengthens our ability to imagine music and transfer it to our instrument more readily. I cover this idea at length on my upcoming TrueFire course, Melodic Muse. Really investigate why the song moves you the way it does. A certain magic chord change? A specific note over a certain chord? Analyze every aspect. This will give you so many ideas when it comes to creating your own music. Lennon and McCartney were such great writers because they learned hundreds of cover tunes in the early Beatle days. Not just straight rock n’ roll, but show tunes and classical pieces. This greatly honed their instincts.
2. Write frequently. Like anything in life, the more you do something, the stronger you will become doing it. That being said, I’m not suggesting “forced” writing sessions, but I’m always at the ready when an idea strikes. In the old days, it would be documented on a portable cassette recorder (I have dozens ands dozens of cassettes of song ideas from those days!). Now we all a digital recorder in our back pocket thanks to the iPhone. Usually my most inspired time of the day is first thing in the morning when I just begin playing, before the mind kinks in too much. Writing can certainly be intellectual, but I greatly prefer when it’s “auralectual”, meaning your ear and instinct are guiding you, not your conscious mind.
3. Realize that every song may not be your masterpiece. That’s ok. Brian Wilson could only write “God Only Knows” once. McCartney had “Yesterday.” So much of their subsequent work is scrutinized through the lens of the greatness of those songs and certainly some of their work DOES reach that high bar. Some does not. But that certainly didn’t stop them from releasing mountains of material that we still continue to discover and marvel over to this day. They kept exercising their craft and didn’t get bogged down worrying about “is this as great as…” So what are you waiting for? Go be creative!
1. Study other songs that you love. Study “classics” in multiple genres, even those that are not your favorite genre. Pay attention to rhyme scheme, meter, how the story unfolds. How does the melody and chord progression work with how the song unfolds? Map a lot of those songs out and consider them as possible roadmaps for good songwriting.
2. Think about the difference between a song that is meaningful to you personally, and one that will resonate with others. Write as many songs as you can and want to and be prepared not to sing them all. Good writers have lots of songs in progress and lots of songs that they write and move on from. That’s part of the process. The more you write, the more you will have to choose from.
3. Edit, edit, edit. Are there better word choices? Is it too long? Can you strengthen the hook? When you speak the words, do they speak easily? Can you skip the first verse and still have an excellent song? Can you combine two verses? If you have a chorus or refrain with a hook, can that hook be stronger?
1. Find the part that sticks in your head the most, and keep returning to it. Your songs will keep getting better, and you might be surprised to find hidden gems in the flash ideas that you almost threw away.
2. Build a story line – If you’re writing a song, build a form and story line and be sure to finish it. Even if you don’t think it’s any good, finish it and write another one.
3. Go deeper and trust your voice. You’ll know it’s right when your body tells you. Stay present with what you create, go deeper, and the possibilities are endless!
1. Establish a groove. The groove, beat or feel of an idea is the musical engine in my opinion. Not sure how to do this? Try using a drum loop generator of any type to give you inspiration. You can use an app, physical drum machine or pedal device, as well as sophisticated drum beat creating software. Again, this is so important because the groove dictates everything! When I co-write with a songwriter, they often aren’t considering the groove or the motion and direction of the song. Have you ever jammed with your friends in a garage or basement? The jam almost always starts with the drummer playing a beat. Establish this first and you’ll have good tracks to run on!
2. Melody is king. Melody and groove work hand in hand. They influence each other and the melody is THE thing that we’ll find ourselves humming well after the song is written. Don’t feel like you have to have lyrics before you write the melody. Paul McCartney used to sing “scrambled eggs” as his lyric while he was establishing a melody. I think that method worked out well for him. Like the groove, a melody will dictate so much about the song’s direction. As a guitar player, I lean on the melody when it comes to writing a solo and guitar parts too.
3. Have no fear. I think one of the most difficult artistic things anyone can attempt is writing a song without fear! It’s easy to fall into mode of thinking where you’ll say to yourself “that sounds stupid” or, “I’ll get laughed at if I say those lyrics.” You know what…your lyrics might be silly or nonsensical! So what! Get them out and get them down. If you make someone laugh…cool! My point here is, don’t be afraid. Take the leap. Say what’s on your mind and get it on paper or on your computer. My favorite songwriters take risks (big ones in my opinion)! Jason Isbell, Butch Walker, Taylor Goldsmith, Lucie Silvas, Kelsey Waters, Brandi Carlisle and Theo Katzmann are some of the songwriters I’m listening to lately. I’m sure they go through moments of fear when writing but, you’d never know it when you listen to them because they put it out there. So to recap, feel the fear in lyric writing, lean into it and get it recorded.
1. Melody – The melody is one of the most important aspects of a song. And, a good one can stick in people’s heads indefinitely. These are the songs that end up being “hit” recordings; once people are exposed to them, they can’t seem to get them out of their heads. So, if you find yourself humming or singing a melody to yourself, record it on some app you use so you can keep a log of melodies that come to you. Start keeping a notebook that you can have as your reference point. You never know what you will come up with from your sources.
2. Chords/Harmony – The second important part of a song is the chords or the harmony used with your melody. Experimenting with your melody and harmony together will allow you to tinker with and refine your song until it sounds just the way you want it to. As you do this, you will start to find a balance between the two. For example, a simple melody can have a more complex set of chords, or, a more complex melody can have a simple set of chords. Then there can be mixture of both in one song. There are no rules or boundaries here; it all boils down to what ends up sounding and feeling good to you, which is what makes it unique.
3. Rhythm/Groove – This part of a song is what can define what genre it is, or maybe what genre you intend it to be for. Some songwriters will write songs with artists in mind from different genres, just because they have learned how to make their songs fit into other genres. The rhythm and groove of the songs allows this to happen. So, the more you learn about the rhythms and grooves of other genres, the more expansive your songwriting skills will become.
Lastly, if you have limited skills playing a guitar or keyboards, it will make writing songs a lot more difficult. But fortunately, there is technology available to help anyone wanting to develop their songwriting skills. The most fantastic software available on the market for accomplishing this is called, Band-In-A-Box, made by PG Music. It is what I have been using for the last eight years. I’m not doing a sales pitch here, I’m just sharing my main tool for songwriting and practicing. Having said all that, now go write some hits!
1. Having a solid melodic, rhythmic and lyrical structure is essential. It’s hard to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, but I believe it’s worth persevering. Study the great songs and their writers to learn about these elements and find your own style using their influences.
2. It has to connect with people. In my opinion it is a mistake to get caught up trying to sell a song that people don’t seem to resonate with. You’re better off trying to write a new one and throwing it in the pile of “not quite good enough”. By the same token if you have songs people keep asking for… play them! But keep persevering to get better.
3. Caring about the craft. From what I’ve observed, the great writers take enormous pride in their work and really try to make every element count. Writing consistently and striving to be more truthful and expressive is necessary if you want to create a catalog of meaningful songs. This may sound like a given, but many make the mistake of prioritizing production and gimmicks over the craft of writing.
1. When something catches your ear/eye, write it down in a Notebook without worrying about what you’ll do with it later. When it’s time to write, you’ll have a bunch of ideas…I call them Song Starters.
For example, a while back, I noticed some stuffed animals, including a chicken in a raincoat, in a shop window. I wrote “chicken with raincoat” in my notebook.
2. When you sit down to write, flip through your notebook. You’ll notice that some phrases suggest rhythms or melodies. Others might tickle your funny bone or evoke a feeling. Convert your Song Starter into a Working Title that summarizes what you’ve got so far.
I decided “Chicken in the Rain” had potential.
3. Now it’s time to grab your guitar in order to bring your idea to life. Sing Your Title as you look for tempo, groove, etc. Follow your song in new directions rather than down well-worn paths. Don’t worry that you can’t play what you’re writing. You can practice later. Be ready to toss a lick or chord that is not moving your masterpiece forward. You’ll know when you get there.
As I worked on Chicken in the Rain, I held onto that wet chicken. It took me a few days to write it and a few more days to learn it.
Postscript: I went back to the gift shop to buy that chicken and saw that it was a duck. A duck in a raincoat would never have caught my attention. Oh, well…
Extra Credit: Search YouTube for James Corden Paul McCartney. You’ll see all of these ideas in action as they drive around Liverpool.
1) First, your song has to have a good melody and hook. That is the most important part of the process. If you have a good melody and hook, everything else will fall into place. I remember back when I was preparing for my first record with Steve Vai and Favored Nations. I was writing like a madman trying to impress the maestro himself. As I submitted my first song ideas, Steve taught me that to create a great instrumental, you need that perfect hook that draws people in to your song. It has to be recurring, and be a melody that is addicting. It has to stick in your mind, even when you’re not listening to it or playing it. That is how important the melody and hook really are in the overall perfection of songwriting. Then, you can determine how many verses and choruses you need and so on.
2) The second most important part of creating a great song is that the song has to tell a story, and lead you on a journey. It has to have a great intro, verses, a chorus or two, a lead section, and then offer an outro that leaves you wanting to hear the song again and again. The outro could also just bring you to a perfect landing spot which leaves you feeling fulfilled. Song structure is very crucial in how the song flows. Always pay close attention to this part of it.
Now, if you are confused on what separates the difference between a vocal song or an instrumental, I can help clear this up for you as I write both styles of songs. The major difference is that a vocal song tells a story to go along with a great melody. An instrumental takes you on a journey using that melody. There have been many times where I have written a great melody, finished it as an instrumental, and then found that words came based on that hook line and melody later. That is the true beauty of music. There are no boundaries or fences. There are endless options and an open roadmap for you to use to be creative.
3) The last thing that I would say is most important in writing a great song (after you work out a killer melody and great song structure), is now you need to make sure that your song suits the theme of where the rest of your record will take you. The songs that you place on a record have to fit together well. This is not an easy task. In fact, most writers just write for the song itself, writing one song at a time. Over the years, I have found that I like to write songs that fit the album project that I’m working on. It seems to bring more direction for me as a writer. This just may be something new for you to keep in mind during your writing experience. Often, here in Nashville, writers get together and even write songs to suit certain artists. That is pretty cool as well. That brings up another great point. Never be afraid to turn to other great writers to help you finish your songs. Rick and Justin Bowman, Ron Lutrick, my own sweet Kimmie girl, and others have helped me write through the years. I am always thankful for their input, and sometimes, a whole new way of looking at things when I write. Needless to say, the art of writing a song is incredible! Never give up on a song! If it doesn’t feel good one day, put it in the drawer until the next day. Some songs take years to write! Never give up on it! When you are finished, you feel a sense of completion and satisfaction.
1) Write a lyric you can believe in. I trust we all are too familiar with the songcraft of so much pop music out there that fails to move us. I sincerely hope you’ve all discovered lots of music of real integrity, which, though clearly in the minority, makes permanent impressions on serious listeners. It is only those songs with that real integrity that can inspire genuine lyric writing that will have universal appeal. Identify and immerse yourself in that great music.
For some, lyric writing comes easy, for others, great patience is required. For everyone, however, it seems helpful in the beginning to try to create conditions that allow for a kind of “flow” to occur. Find a way to open the faucet. Also for everyone, it seems important to be able to switch gears at a later stage in the writing and do serious editing. Many writers fail to realize how much of a difference great revising and editing can make in the quality of a song.
2). Make the melody compelling. Please don’t settle too soon when considering the effectiveness of your melody. There are too many songs that remain mediocre only because a songwriter failed to make that extra effort to ensure that the melody was as compelling as possible.
Consider range over the course of the song, with a particular concern for how the chorus might differ from the verse (if your song is structured that way); make sure there is the right blend of repetition and the introduction of new material to keep the listener engaged; and make the melody and lyric natural and easy to sing, as it’s the best way to make sure your lyrics get heard.
3) Find the best musical milieu for your lyric. Work diligently to marry your words to the right music. Though occasionally an ironic pairing can work (“Every Breath You Take”) by contrasting the character of the music with the lyric, a great song typically has music that works in tandem with the lyric to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing greater in a song than when the music creates a context which both directs the attention and opens the heart of the listener in such a way that the lyric acquires an emotional power it could never have had on its own.
1) Write! Practice the art of writing for at least 10 minutes each day. Set a timer and write without stopping, without editing, without thinking about what you’re writing! Writing is great for the creative soul. Writing is where we learn to listen. Writing is a safe place to explore what we feel, to sort things out, and to cultivate our ideas and our dreams. As a writer, I’ve always found that a piece of paper always listens and if you pick up a pen and write, the words will find their way to you.
2) You don’t need words to write! You can create instrumental music, and you always have the option of adding lyrics later. Some of the most powerful songwriting experiences I have are when I go into my studio, open up Ableton Live, create a beat that inspires me to want to play, hit record and jam for as long as I feel like it. When I allow myself the freedom to play without thinking true creativity seems to happen. If I record what I play, I have the security of knowing that no idea is ever lost. And when I record to a loop then anything I play can be used to build a song.
For example, I might record for 20 minutes straight and find that there are a half-dozen powerful riffs that I can build a song around. Sometimes I come up with a chord progression or a melody line that I like. I use a Pigtronix Infinity Looper because it’s clean and it allows me to midi sync to Ableton Live, giving me the flexibility to create a rhythm track that I can play a lead over on the fly. Remember, if you don’t record it, you won’t remember it, and if you don’t record it to a time source, you’ll have to do it again, and something’s are hard to recreate.
3) Make friends with your Muse! Never, never, never let an idea slip past you; write it down, capture it on your voice recorder, something! We all get hit with a great idea for a song, we think that we’ll remember it, so we don’t capture it, and then we forget it, and it’s gone. Our ideas and our inspirations come from our Muse — our Muse is very real. If we ignore our Muse and don’t take the time to capture the ideas that come to us, the Muse will go away. Our Muse has feelings. Our Muse is an actual part of who it is that we are and we need to build a healthy relationship with it IF we want to have a healthy creative life.
1. It’s necessary to have an idea of what the song is about and not just be fishing for words that rhyme. I find that searching for a rhyme is a great obstacle to fleshing out the idea; so don’t worry about the rhyme too much at first and stick with the substance of the story.
2. Try as many permutations of the way you say something and a variety of chords and chord voicing as you can. Take your time, no need to rush.
3. Your first line should have some imagery built into it, be provocative or evocative.
1) It starts with a melody. Without a melody, it’s just a bunch of chords, or maybe one chord if it’s just a vampy jam. So to me, what makes it happen is a good melodic line, the phrase that you go away singing in your head all day, the haunting aspect of a great tune. If you have a good line, everything falls into place underneath it.
2) Understand the fundamentals of good harmony, because a melody can imply many different harmonies, if you’re open to hearing them. In general, my philosophy of composing is that the song already exists in the universe and I’m just taking down dictation, transcribing it from the ethers, so quieting my mind to listen closely to what the song really is, not what I THINK it is, makes the process move along, without my opinions or judgments. Once I hear my melody, I clear my mind and open myself up to the harmonic possibilities that can go along with it and that can really lead me somewhere I often never expect.
3) Don’t judge it. Let it be. The worst thing you can do is to force a tune or song into being. I write a lot of music, I’m writing all the time, and the thing that keeps me going is that I’m not putting the weight of the world on each tune. If I write a tune and it’s not the “most amazing song ever written in the history of music” I’m ok with that. There will be another opportunity just around the bend to write something else, so with this in mind, it encourages me to just keep writing. The more you write, the more you develop your style and flow with writing. To get good at something, you have to do it A LOT, so by not judging it, I stay in the game. So for instance, maybe it doesn’t NEED a bridge, maybe it doesn’t NEED a modulation, maybe it doesn’t have to be 32 bars, etc. These are often guidelines that we feel we need to fulfill to finish a piece of music. Let the song be itself. Listen closely and you’ll hear what it truly is.
1. Lyric Writing – Study the craft of lyric writing by studying words, word play and poetry. A love of words is the most important part of lyric writing. Write or print out the lyrics to songs in the genre you of your choice. Read them through a few times so you get a feeling for the way they were written. Are they concise? Do they tell a story? Do they appear to be well edited? How do the sounds of the vowels and consonants fit into the lines?
If you Jazz, look at the lyrics of Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer. Print out the lyrics and look at the rhyme schemes. Are there unexpected rhymes? Are there rhymes in the middle of the lines? Studying the great writers teaches us to appreciate every detail. If you write in the Folk and other genres, try looking at the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. In the country music genre, which cover a huge range of music listen to Cindy Walker, The Carter Family, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.
When ideas flow, write down everything. Don’t count on remembering them on the fly. Have lined paper and a pen or a pencil with an eraser ready at all times. Paper makes it easy to see where you’ve been. There’s a clear paper trail. You might make changes in a line and decide later it was better a month ago. Leaving a clear trail makes it easy to revisit older ideas.
After writing down every idea it’s time for the most important work of songwriting, Editing. Edit out everything that doesn’t fit or get the point across. Change wording for clarity of meaning and to fit the rhyme scheme. Make sure syllables fit the meter. Make sure your song says what you want to say.
2. Melody and Instrumental Music Writing – There are many ways to approach writing a melody or an instrumental piece of music. The more types of music you listen to, the more inspiration you may have. The more types of scales you’re familiar with, the more melodic ideas you’ll have. The more types of chords you know, the more musical settings you’ll create.
I write both songs and instrumental music. I personally find that nothing inspires writing better than homework. An assignment is a turbo charger to writing. Give yourself an assignment and keep working on it until you’re happy with the final result. I work on soundtracks for National Geographic, MSNBC and PBS. In that circumstance, the assignment is provided. The challenge is that there is a very tight timeline for the final product. I’ve provided instrumental music to sharks swimming toward prey, amorous Giant Chinese Panda Bears, hornets, kids, buildings, neighborhoods around the world, planets, news stories…the list goes on and on. The skills that are most useful in composing music are a working knowledge of chords, scales and tune structures.
Jamming is another way to kickstart tune writing. Jam until you hear a concrete idea or phrase. Stop and record the phrase in a way that doesn’t interfere with your flow of ideas. Use a phone or other easy to operate device. This is just a reference for you. It doesn’t need to be high quality. Continue jamming until another sweet line shows up. Arrange your phrases into structure. Jamming endlessly is great! If you’re writing for your ears only, do what ever you like. If you are hoping to play instrumental music for others you’ll need a structure that the audience will be able to relate to. That structure could be as simple as a beginning, middle and end or AABA. Take your people along for the ride.
3. Build your Writer’s Toolbox – Chords, scales, riffs, stories, jokes, rhythms, rhymes and meter will all be elements of your “writer’s toolbox.” Keep track of ideas and even fragments of ideas. Keep songs that aren’t quite working, they might be useful later. Keep newspaper articles that might inspire a song. Develop the art of giving yourself assignments. Try writing a song from a point of view that’s far from your own. Write from the point of view of a child. Write a Jingle for something. Write an instrumental dance tune. Try a waltz. Try and try again. Writing is a lot like playing an instrument. Put the right practice pieces in place and you’ll see the results.
1. Ask “why do I want to write this song?” Do I want to share a personal experience? Connect with others? Do I want to comment about some external situation? Do I simply want to have fun? Do I want to make people laugh? Relax? Feel something? Hide something? Am I writing for another artist? Connect with yourself. Feel whatever’s there. In my 30 + years of writing both songs with words and instrumentals, I find that when I write from a “connected” place, it feels more authentic (I happen to like authenticity, but it’s not a requirement for songwriting). Also, it can sometimes help to quiet the internal “editor” who loves to tell me why what I’m doing is wrong, sucks or is generally non-inspired. If I know for instance, that I’m writing a song for a country artist, I may chose to use certain chord progressions, melodic aspects and song forms. If on the other hand, I am writing for my own enjoyment and self expression, I may follow an inspiring progression, melody or lyric and just go where it takes me…giving myself permission to be more “free flowing.”
2. GROOVE! Does your song have a good groove? Groove refers to “feel.” Can you move to it? Then it has groove. If you need help with this, try listening to some of your favorite songs…songs that make you move. See if you can identify what makes that song groove. What’s the rhythm section doing? Guitars? Keys? You’ll find a lot of information about groove coming from the bass, drums and rhythm guitarist in most bands. Or, if you’re listening to John Mayer or Ed Sheeran playing solo, check out their strumming or finger picking patterns. Can you do something similar?
3. Synthesis of song form, lyrics, phrasing and melody. (Or just song form, melody and phrasing if it’s an instrumental). There’s a lot to this, and feel free to have a private lesson with me to go deeper into each of these songwriting “essentials”! People love repetition. But if you repeat something too many times, we get bored, zoned out, sleepy…so make your melody interesting, use some repetition, but throw in some surprises too. Make sure your lyrics sit well on top of your groove. Learn about metaphor and simile in your lyric writing. Decide what structure or form works best for your song. Some songs don’t have a chorus, some rely heavily on the strength and “hooky-ness” of the chorus. Phrasing refers to the way you shape your lyrics, melody or notes to express a particular feeling, mood or idea. We do this by altering the tone, inflection, rhythm, volume, tempo or other aspects. Play around with this and record yourself using a few different variations of phrasing to see what you like best.