Posts Tagged ‘songwriting advice’

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.

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So You Wanna Be a Rock’n’Roll Star

*Disclaimer*

Before we continue my songwriting saga, I must first warn you that I’m not and I don’t pretend to be a master songwriter. I’m still learning, and constantly trying to improve. What I’m trying to do here is to share what I have learned already from experience, and hope that it will be useful to someone.

*End of disclaimer*

So here we go.

If you want to be a songwriter, you need to learn how to play at least one instrument to accompany yourself, especially if you have aspirations as a singer/songwriter kind of artist.

I suggest you learn both the guitar AND the piano. Although any instrument with polyphonic capability that you can play and sing at the same time will do.

I picked the guitar first, since I was a big rock fan, and it looked much cooler than sitting behind the piano like a dork (or so I thought at the time – I was a teenager, for Chrissake).

Later I decided I needed to learn how to play at least some piano in order to make my life easier, as I usually record a bunch of tracks using midi on my computer. I came to like it a lot, though, even if I still suck at it.

I’d have done it the other way around if I could go back now, and if a piano wasn’t so expensive.

I found it MUCH easier to learn the piano than the guitar, maybe because I’d been making music for many years already. Your mileage may vary, of course.

From the point of view of someone who is not naturally musically gifted, one huge advantage of piano and keyboards in general to me is that you can just press the keys, and they will make a sound. No need to grow callouses or get your left hand (if you’re right-handed) much stronger than your right one. You can play with only one hand, dammit. 😉

Anyway, at the risk of sounding like your dad here, learning the piano first is what I think would have been much better for myself. I’d probably have been forced to learn music notation if I had learned the piano first (I only learned it a few years ago), because you don’t NEED any of that formal stuff to play the electric geetar, do ya? You don’t need it to play pop music, it’s true, but it’s VERY useful.

Ok, so you have a guitar or a piano, a teacher or a good book (I personally like the ones that come with CDs) , now you can start learning how to play.

I’ll see you back in six months.

…fast forward to six months from now…

Now that you have some basic skills on an instrument, you can start writing your own songs. Of course you can write songs without having any music knowledge whatsoever, you just have to do it. It’s just much easier if you can play something. That being said, there have been singers/songwriters who didn’t and don’t play any instruments, like Morrissey, for example.

If you intend to sing your own material, you might need some singing training, since not everyone is American Idol material. If you think that you do need it, the best option is to hire a coach. If you can’t afford it, you may try, again, getting a book, preferrably with a CD. The only one I have is this. I can’t compare it to any others, because it’s the only one I have. It did help me a lot, and I wish I’d bought it 10 years earlier. I still have a long way to go to be a good singer, but I’m getting decent at it at least.

Again, taking singing lessons is not mandatory at all, you can do whatever you want as long as you write your damn songs, I’m just trying to make your life easier (or harder, depending on your point of view), just like your dad would.

Since I’m playing this whole songwriting series by ear, I’ve written two posts already, but they’re in reverse order. Now that you have some basic music knowledge, you can go back to last week’s post, and see how I write my own stuff. Maybe there’s something that can be useful to you.

Next week I’ll discuss topics like basic song structure and chord progressions. I’ll even get to the fun part of dissecting specific songs so you can see what each part actually is and what makes some songs work, in my opinion, at least.

Now back to the weekly song post. This time I’m uploading a song that’s going to be on my next single, coming out next May 1st on Cloudberry Records. This is not the actual single version, I still need to finish recording some bits and mixing it. But it’s at least halfway there. I’d love for you to comment on it, and on this whole songwriting business.

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Laughing and Crying