Songwriting: How to Get Started
I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager. I had a pretty intense obsession with Avril Lavigne at one time. I used to dress like her, attempted to skate like her, and began trying to write songs like her. As I got older, I grew out of my need to identify with Avril, but my passion for songwriting continued, although not without its ups and downs. Whether you’re songwriting for yourself, others, writing hit songs, or writing songs within a therapeutic context, songwriting is a unique experience that can offer great reward, but also great frustration. We may become overwhelmed by our own need to be perfect, feel held back by our inner critic, get stuck when we don’t know when to start, or forget to make time for ourselves and our creativity. Getting started can be the hardest part, but here are some methods that can help you begin.
“JUST DO IT”
One of the first questions people always ask when they’re looking to begin songwriting, is “how do I get started?” In my music therapy classes, one of the answers often given to students was, “just do it.” On the surface, this seems mostly unhelpful, but there is some truth to this statement. Beginning to songwrite is like asking how to garden. There are many techniques and tricks to know when you’re starting to pick your plants and plot out your land. But when you get down to it, a lot of it is left up to your imagination and trial and error. Sometimes you just have to plant something in order to get your garden started, and the experience of trying will often teach you a lot about what you need to know.
Songwriting is much the same. There are tips and techniques that can be helpful, but sometimes you have to “just do it” to get a feel for the process. Depending on your personal songwriting goals, there aren’t necessarily “right” or “wrong” ways of writing.
Write down some words, try adding a melody, add some chords and see where it leads you. If you need more structure, take a song you already know and practice writing your own words to the pre-existing melody, or take lyrics that already exist and practice writing your own music and melody to them. You may or may not be able to “sell” these songs, but this will certainly help you get a sense of how songs are put together.
WRITE BAD SONGS
Because there is no “right” or “wrong”, songwriting can be daunting, especially for those of us who have loud inner-critics who won’t allow us to write “bad” songs. I have been a victim to my own fear of writing something that is “too cliche” or “too boring” or “unoriginal”. As a result, sometimes I won’t write at all because the fear is too great (although I would never admit to this and would blame it on being too busy).
I had the privilege to attend a masterclass presented by John Mayer who had just finished writing his album Born and Raised. During his talk, he shared his own fears of songwriting and ways he tries to overcome his inner critic. One part always stuck with me: “Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to write a bad song”. In fact, he encouraged the audience to write “lots of bad songs”, because you’ll never get to the “gold” if you never let everything else out with it. Basically, let yourself write the bad songs because amongst the bad songs will emerge a piece of writing that’s amazing, striking, and golden. If you hold back the bad, you also effectively hold back the good.
EMULATE SONGWRITERS YOU ADMIRE
Although pretending I was Avril Lavigne definitely brought some more angst into my teenager persona, writing songs like her helped me begin to understand how songwriting works and helped me to develop my own voice. During my undergraduate classes in songwriting, we were often given projects where we had to write a song to emulate the style of a certain artist. Doing this not only helps you learn about writing songs, but it helps you get out of your comfort zone. Are you stuck in a songwriting rut where all your songs sound the same? Try writing a song to emulate an artist that writes very different music than you typically do.
I remember attempting to write a song in the style of Adele - much more soulful than I typically write (my style tends to be more bluegrass, lyrical, or folksy). I remember feeling very challenged by the task because as I worked through the song, I kept falling into my own style of writing and had to force myself to do something different. I had to ask myself, what would Adele do here? Doing so helped me learn new possibilities and try things that I normally wouldn’t when songwriting.
It’s also important to remember here that nothing is truly original. When we make art, we inevitably are borrowing from somewhere, whether that’s nature, from others who inspire us, people who’ve taught us, or things we’ve heard or seen. We are highly influenced by whatever we surround ourselves within this world. So taking ideas and inspiration from other musicians is natural. Of course, there is a difference between borrowing and stealing, and I’ll let you figure out the difference. That being said, there are ways to borrow ideas from songs to help you get started with your own writing. Chord progressions are a great example of this. If you like the chord progression of a song you hear, try applying part of it to your song as a way to get started. As long as you add your own twist on it through style, melody, and lyrics, the song will likely sound very different from the original song you borrowed from.
USE BRAINSTORMING TECHNIQUES
Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding what to write about! I will often hold myself back because I don’t have the “perfect” idea, or I’m not in the “right state of mind” to write. In times like this, I have overcome these thought-patterns by utilizing creative brainstorming.
Creative brainstorming consists of different methods of writing down ideas that help you get out of your head and to get words onto the paper. Here are a couple of my personal favorites:
Word Trees: Write a random word at the top of a page - say, “plane”. Now write down four words that you free associate with the word “plane” - how about, “silver”, “clouds”, “flight”, and “boston”. Try not to think about it too hard. Now write down two words that you associate with each of those words. And so on and so forth. At the end you should have a bunch of words loosely connected by association to the word “plane”. Now attempt writing some lyrics that contain the words and phrases from these words. See example below:
Lyrics based on brainstorm (using the bottom row of words):
Like Joni singing about being free
I emerge softly from a dream
Her voice a mist in wildflower hues
I find I’m light as she is blue
No longer trapped, imagination full
Of letters written from the soul
I flee at a blinding pace
Into the mountains, not a trace
From here, you could continue to brainstorm, or allow yourself to continue writing. You may find that a song emerges from the words you write, or there may be even just one line that draws you. Take that one line and write a song around that.
Sensory Writing: Utilizing free association writing, this exercise involves writing non-stop for a set amount of time, including as much sensory language as possible. As a review, the senses include sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Often in our writing, we forget to explore anything but the visual. Writing in this way helps us to explore our experiences deeper and expand on the imagery we are using in our writing. For example:
Try writing non-stop for 3 minutes including as many sensory details as possible.
Here’s your topic: rain. Now go!
Standing on the corner, I notice the rain as it drips off the leaves of the bay tree that offers me little shelter. The drip drop sound is almost rhythmic as I listen in to the white noise that surrounds me like a blanket. As it wraps me in a state of meditative thought, the smell of dirt, mud, grass, and newly layered mulch, grows like a garden in my nose. Buried in the smell, I am new and overwhelmed with freshness. A drop of water makes it past my hat and travels to the edge of my lips. It tickles and tastes of honey or melon, a slice of summer though it is the middle of February.
This exercise is simply useful in expanding your use of senses and imagery in your writing, but you may find certain words or phrases pop out at you that you can then take into a song. For instance: “surrounds me like a blanket” might be something I would consider bringing into a song lyric.
Musically, one of the best ways I have found to begin songwriting is to improvise on a variety of instruments. Allowing yourself to just make music for the sake of making music will help release ideas and concepts. You may be surprised at what emerges as you allow yourself to just “play”. There may be a riff, lyric, or chordal progression that emerges in your playing that might inspire the basis of a song.
Likewise, if you are stuck in a songwriting rut, try improvising on an instrument that is different from the one that you typically use to write songs. If you tend to write songs on guitar, try improvising on piano. Likely, something new and different will emerge that you can use just from forcing yourself out of your comfort zone.
KEEP A JOURNAL
Most of the professional songwriters I have learned from talk about how they cannot go anywhere without a journal or recording device. It’s always when you least expect an idea to emerge, that you strike songwriting gold. In the shower, stuck in traffic, in the middle of a lecture, in line for coffee, walking in nature, waking up from a dream etc, etc.. If you don’t write those ideas down in THAT moment, it is likely that you will lose them. Having something to record your ideas that is fast and convenient can make this easier. These days our phones can be incredible assets with built in voice memo recorders and note apps. Later, you can access your journal or recording device to help inspire your songwriting and give you a place to start.
MAKE TIME FOR SILENCE AND CREATE OFTEN
So often these days, we are bombarded with noise and distractions in all directions. More and more I find myself caught up in the media or my phone and I need to remind myself to put it down, to make some space, and to sit in silence. For me personally, it is when I allow myself to sit in silence with my thoughts and feelings that the inspiration to create comes, whether it’s writing, art making, or playing music. In this day and age it’s become even more important for me to carve out time to just be, and to not fill my time with busyness (which is easier said than done). Doing so is often very rewarding and helps me get back in touch with myself and my own needs as well.
One way to create time to be creative is to make rituals or a routine each day to engage in creativity. You might be thinking, “wait, routine and creativity don’t really go together”, or “I can’t be creative on demand!”. Both of these statements are often true, but if you sincerely want to improve on your writing (or playing or painting, or whatever creative endeavor you’re pursuing really), you need to allow yourself to practice every day. I’m not saying you should write a Grammy award winning song every day, simply exercise your skills. Think of it like weight-lifting. In order for weight-lifters to make gains, they have to work on themselves almost every day, slowly adding more weight and improving on their abilities and form each time they workout. You might be able to bench press 150lbs with no training and a rush of adrenaline, but it’s not something you could sustain or continue to do without training. Songwriting is the same way. Work out those songwriting muscles by practicing each day, making small gains, trying different techniques and forms, writing “bad” songs, etc.. I guarantee your writing will improve and your creative mind will become more easily accessible.
Kristin King, MMT, MT-BC is a music therapist with McConnell Music Therapy Services, Inc. She received her undergraduate degree in professional music with an emphasis in songwriting from the Berklee College of Music. During her graduate studies in music therapy, Kristin taught songwriting classes and completed her thesis on the practice of teaching songwriting to music therapy students. In addition, she has presented on songwriting topics at regional music therapy conferences and uses songwriting often in her work with clients as a therapeutic intervention to address self-empowerment, emotional processing, life review, and bereavement.