There are two sides of the coin when it comes to songwriters: the side where songwriters claim it is impossible to teach songwriting, and the other side of songwriters that will read every songwriting book they can get their hands on. It’s pretty clear that I believe the latter, that any aspiring songwriter can learn how to write a song—if that’s what they truly want, not what they think they have to do.
When I was young and wanting to write music more than anything, I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to write lyrics, so I re-wrote the lyrics for my favourite songs for fun. Then I learned some chords and somehow cranked out some melodies (don’t ask me how). It wasn’t until college that I really delved into the more academic side of taking songwriting courses, reading books and getting feedback.
So how did I know how to write a song?
There’s one explanation that’s obvious: I didn’t know. I didn’t understand what I was writing or how I was writing it. I didn’t know what a song needed and how to get it to all come together. I was doing it, but it was a mystery—and I think that’s true for many young songwriters.
But the songs I was writing were passable. They had Verses and Choruses, I had melodies that repeated properly, I had lines that rhymed. Sure, most of them weren’t groundbreaking, but they sounded like songs.
I am a huge advocate for learning how to write songs in any way you can. But if you don’t have access to resources (they can be expensive, but here are some free options), don’t have the time to take a course or you’re just not sure where to start, that can be overwhelming.
And what if you’re an advanced writer, you’ve taken every course you can, read all the books on the market, written a ton of songs and still are curious about how you can create better music? That’s not the goal of every songwriter because self-expression is a large part of songwriting, but many of us are always pushing to do better in the next song.
My solution: study your favourite songs.
Really, it is going back to the first step of my songwriting journey. I’m not re-writing lyrics to my favourite songs, but I made a playlist of songs that feel like magic to me. When I listen to those songs, I can’t get bored of them. There is something about them that appeals to me in a subconscious way.
I often think about how songwriters must have learned to write songs before books and courses—how did they learn the “songwriting rules”? There are songwriters that advocate that there are no real rules in songwriting, and they are right—there are only tools. We see songwriters experimenting in songs all the time, only to tell us later they were influenced by so-and-so artist that they love.
Studying our favourite songs is important. How else do we truly understand how a song works, what makes a good song to us? How do we establish our own unique voice when there is so much music out there?
To me, I find studying music theory and songwriting itself important. The foundation needs to be there. But beyond the mechanics, the self-expression and artistry seem to come from understanding what I like about songs and how I want to communicate my thoughts.
I find it’s also a great way to work through writer’s block. If I’m listening to new songs and thinking about the way they phrase things, the way the melodies are written and the chords they are using, I will find myself itching to try it. I write songs all the time but once I started studying what I liked and trying it out, I started to like my own songs a lot more.
Next time you’re trying to figure out how to improve your songwriting or you’re feeling stuck, study your favourite songs. On a walk, in the car, in the shower—whenever you can, just take a closer listen and understand what you like about the song. It might surprise you!