The Daily Practice of Songwriting

The only way for you to learn how to write songs is to actually do it. It’s painfully obvious but it’s true.

Whatever your goals are, don’t wait, do it.

You don’t need to be a master in any aspect of songwriting to actually start writing your songs. I haven’t mastered any part of the music-making process, and yet I keep ploughing. I’m getting better, and a few people fortunately appreciate my efforts, so you might as well do it already or just give up. Ask Bob Dylan if he thinks he’s mastered lyric writing. I bet he’ll say he’s still got a lot to learn. Ask Harry Nilsson if he thinks he’s already learned all there is to learn about songwriting. You can’t, as he’s dead, but he’d probably say NO.

If you need something to read to inspire you or to just get you going, there’s a nifty book by Jimmy Webb (the guy who wrote ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Galveston’) called Tunesmith. It has chapters on lyric-writing and chord progressions. I haven’t used much of his advice yet, as I’ve always done it all by instinct, but for this next release I’m starting to work on I’m making an effort to do everything better, and try some of his pointers.

Songs don’t materialize out of thin air at first, but they will, sort of, after you get enough practice in. As the cliché goes, art is 95% perspiration and 5% inspiration. After you hone your skills enough, gems will flow from your pen every now and then without you even knowing or trying.

Daily sessions of improvisation are a great tool to improve your skills. For quite a while, I did daily sessions where I’d try and improvise little songs with tape rolling (it was actually on my computer, but “tape rolling” sounds so much cooler). They were just bits of improvised guitar playing with ad lib lyrics or lalalas that I’d record. I’d do as many of those as I could each day. Later I’d go back, and listen to those recordings. I’d play around with some of them a bit more until they were finished while others I’d keep for later (the really crappy ones I’d discard). Many good songs came out of those sessions, and I found out it’s a brilliant way to hone your songwriting skills.

However, I also found out I generally get much better results when I come up with an idea and work it from start to finish in as little time as I can, preferrably in the same session.

With my latest cd, that’s what I did. All those songs were written and recorded in a single session each. From chord progression to basic bass and drums arrangements plus some keyboard parts, they were all done “a la prima”, including basic vocal melodies. Only lyrics and some “embellishments” were added later.

I found out that all I need to start cranking out tunes is really to get some momentum going. If you practice enough, you learn how to pick out the good bits. You don’t have to be afraid of trying. If it doesn’t work, throw it out. If it works, get it finished as quickly as possible so you can assess it while it’s still fresh in your mind, and you won’t have second thoughts about changing it.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Great post. I’m going to share this with my students!


  2. So what happens when you get stuck ??…… hold on let me be more specific…. :

    I have a Yamaha XS6 keyboard, had it ever since they released it a few years ago. Got it mainly for the guitar sounds as I don’t play guitar ( some smart arses may say I can’t play keyboard either !!! LOL ) ANYWAYS, I usually manage to produce 4 or 8 bar loops, and then get stuck because I can’t hear where they need to go, or need to start from. The loops are usually produced from messing about with improv stuff, but I very rarely am able to finish anything. Any tips ??

    thanks, Mark.



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