How to improve your songwriting
Learning how to improve your songwriting may seem like a challenge but can actually be very simple. Just knowing a few basics can give you a solid foundation which can dramatically improve your songs. We’re going to look at 5 tips to improve your songwriting so that you can compare which ones you’re good at and which ones you can improve on.
Tip #1: Learn basic music theory
If you haven’t learned basic music theory it’s really important that you look into this. This will create a foundation for you to improve your songs.
You might be wondering how much music theory you need to know to start writing songs, and to be honest with you, the very basic is all you need. Music theory is very useful when it comes to analyzing what you did and why things work but in the early stages of writing a song you’re going to use very little music theory.
In the beginning you’re mostly going to be led by your ear, your imagination and whatever sounds good. However, music theory can be very helpful once you’ve analyzed the ideas that you already came up with so that you can know how to arrange and expand on them.
You’re going to need to start off learning chords and scales. Power chords are great to start as well but they will limit you if that is all you know. If you play guitar start off learning open chords. Eventually you will want to expand into barre chords. Once you’ve started with major and minor then you can expand into other types of chords such as minor seven, major seven, and dominant chords. This is where chords start to get interesting because chords beyond major and minor help to express more complicated emotions (for example, some chords beyond major and minor chords can feel nostalgic, which is a combination of sadness and joy).
Cadences are also a really important thing for you to know about. Basically, cadences help in knowing how one chord is going to lead into another. You can go in deeper research about cadences on your own (and I will write about cadences on future posts as well) but for now just have in mind that cadences are very important and they’ll help you know what chords lead naturally into what chords, so that you can form a chord progression that flows well.
Knowing standard chord progressions is also really useful to get started improving your songwriting because they’re like song templates that are proven to sound good. A common example of this is the four chord song that you hear in pop very often. You can choose to work closely with the template and then once you have it down, you can start adding things and removing things from the template. To get started, try googling the four chord song as well as the blues standard and jazz standards. These will form a foundation which you can expand on later on in your songwriting. You’ll eventually be able to adjust these templates quite a bit, adding scales on top of other scales and adding chord extensions (these are the chords beyond major and minor) to make your chord progressions more interesting and emotive.
As I said, at first you don’t really need to know a lot of music theory but it can provide a great foundation to improve your songs and to start experimenting.
Tip #2: Understand song structure
The same way that there are standard chord progressions there’s also standard song structures, and these are made up of different sections. If you have been just piecing together your ideas and they sound disconnected, this will help you by providing an overall map of the song. You’re going to want to learn each section of a song and what their purpose is. This is will help you to put your ideas together into a cohesive story, as every song section has a specific job to do.
Your song will be divided into different sections such as
- Instrumental breaks
- Rhythmic breaks, etc
Each section of the song will have its own purpose. For example the verses are usually where you can develop a lyrical idea and give backstory, the pre-chorus is really good as a transition from the verse to the chorus and the chorus is going to be the main idea and hook of your song.
You might also have sections like a post-chorus (which is just a transition out from a chorus) or the bridge. The bridge is where you can really experiment to contrast with everything that’s come before it. It’s your chance to go far away from your initial song idea, but just have in mind that you’re going to have to come back at some point, so don’t go too far either.
Instrumental breaks are great to give the vocals a rest if you sang during most of the song or want to highlight a vocal melody on another instrument, or add an instrumental solo.
These are just a few examples, so consider what each section of the song is trying to accomplish and that’s going to help you piece together your ideas in a way that sounds more cohesive.
Tip #3: Lyrical and instrumental storytelling
Your songs will vastly improve when you become really good at storytelling and there’s actually two ways that you can tell a story in your song.
The first way is going to be by using the vocals and the lyrics. If you think back, I’m sure you can think of a song that literally tells a story, such as Hotel California. If you read the lyrics of that song they are basically a story on top of music. With older styles of music, like let’s say in the 60s or 70s, it was very popular to tell a story with your lyrics. As we’ve moved more into modern times lyrics have started focusing on describing moments, things, concepts, emotions, etc. So with the lyrics you’re not restricted to just flat-out telling a story, you can also describe things.
The second way that you can tell a story is with the instrumental music itself. This one is a little bit trickier but basically, what you want to do is imagine what the story is and then use the music to get that message across. For example, think about movies. When you see a movie and the tension builds in the story the music reflects that. So you can use music the same way to tell the story without necessarily using words to describe what is happening.
The lyrics can tell the story, but also think about how the music itself is telling the story. Consider the dynamics and the harmony of the music. Maybe the song starts out really dark and then it moves on to a more bright and beautiful sounding kind of harmony. A change like that tells a story that started out very dark and moved on to something beautiful, all by using harmony. You can take it farther by using the lyrics to also reflect that as well. Notice how you would have used harmony to tell a story even before adding the lyrics.
Thinking about storytelling with these two aspects of your song (the vocals/lyrics and the music itself) and how they support each other in telling the story, will help to improve your storytelling for your songwriting.
Tip #4: Know the landscape
You need to know who your audience is. This means you need to know what things they like and what experiences they’ve been through. The value of that is in knowing how to relate to them.
If you’re going to talk about an idea, or a concept, or describe something, you need to take your audience in consideration and do it in a way that they can understand what you’re trying to say. This is the foundation of effective communication. So it really helps if you’ve had first-hand experience with whatever you’re talking about. This is why people say that you should write about what you know. It makes it easier to explain to someone else.
You also need to know yourself by knowing specifically what your musical influences are for songwriting (meaning the artists you take ideas from, not just the artists that you listen to). Know what specific tricks and techniques you like about other people’s songwriting, so that you can take inspiration and present them in your own unique way. This could be a choice of instruments used, the way they contrast harmony in songs, how rhythm is created between the instruments, what instruments hold the spotlight, etc.
Knowing the landscape in terms of your own taste, your audience, how you communicate your ideas, the specific things you like about other people’s songwriting, etc will help you to create a vision for your music and improve your songs.
Tip #5: Learn to use your ear
Hands down your ear is the most important thing for writing a song. You don’t need a lot of music theory; you don’t need a lot of these other things we’ve talked about nearly as as much as you need a good ear. Your ear is going to guide you through everything, and what I mean by having a good ear is being able to really listen and to make tasteful songwriting choices.
Understand that your taste in musical choices is unique to you. So even if you try to teach somebody else how to write like you, you’re still two different people that are going to make different choices and come up with different song ideas. That being said, there’s general guidelines that are very helpful and it’s really important that you develop your ear so you can know when to go against the guideline. You can develop your ear by listening to different types of music and also by learning how to play other people’s songs.
The value of learning how to play other people’s songs is that you’re going to notice a lot of very fine details in their songwriting that you’ve never noticed before. For example, you might notice that sometimes there’s an extra bar somewhere or maybe a solo that you thought was really fast is not really that fast and complicated to play, it just sounds that way. However, you really won’t notice these things until you learn how to play it yourself.
All five of these tips are really important to songwriting and I guarantee that if you work on all of them your songs will improve. I’ll also be making videos diving deeper into each one of them as we move forward, but for now just look up the information that you can on your own and stay tuned for upcoming posts and videos.