Category: songwriting help

Songwriting: Tips for sharpening your creative edge

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

If you are trying to make it in music today, it is likely that you’re writing at least some of your own songs. This can be a daunting task considering the seemingly inexhaustible volumes of music in the world today. And yet, the hits just keep coming. (Granted not all the music you hear on the radio is created equally, but I digress.) So what can you do to make your songs the best they can possibly be? Let’s chat.

1. Be a student

This could seem like a pretty basic concept – maybe one from which you feel you’ve graduated. There is an argument, however, for lifelong learning. There are always ways to improve. And when you improve your musicianship, you will unwittingly (or maybe wittingly) advance your songwriting chops. So, maybe you’re a guitar player? How often do you practice on daily basis? Practicing scales, learning other artists’ lead parts, developing your finger picking – these are just a few ways to get better as an instrumentalist. You’re a lead singer? How are your harmonies? Regardless of which instrument is your focus there is always room for improving your knowledge of theory. The more you learn about musical concepts, the more you’ll know which rules can be bent or, even broken. Continuing your musical education will not only improve your ability to write, it will make you a more valuable musician in the long run. Need help figuring out where to start? There are music theory workbooks and websites out there for people just like you. Another approach you could take is to make a rough recording – nothing fancy (think iPhone recording in your room) – of you performing your song. This will help you hear the things you like about your song and the things you may want to work on. If you’re looking for a higher level of intervention, it may be time to get some lessons or take a class. Or…

2. Collaborate

The grand thing about this time in which you are creating new works of audible art is your access to resources. You don’t have to be a lone wolf – or a band of lone wolves, as the case may be. In other words, even if you and your band mates write together, you can never underestimate the power of outside input. Some of the best songs were written by two (or more) talented people – people from different backgrounds and influences. Writing with others helps inspire you. You’ll think of creative solutions to your hook writing or harmonies you never thought of before. Writing with someone else takes some courage. You’re putting yourself out there for the sake of an excellent song. If you’re nervous about introducing new songs to the world at large, keep in mind a collaborator can be a safe source of feedback. They are, after all, in the same creative boat with you. You’re coming to them because you know you need a fresh perspective. If rapport is developed with your co-writing cohort, you will be able to lend perspective to their songs. Outside feedback from other writers helps you understand your writing strengths and recognize the areas you need to develop. If you’re not sure where to find a co-writer or writing community, consider joining a songwriting organization. There are scads websites devoted to helping you locate organizations relatively close to you. If your proximity to the closest organization is prohibitive to meeting in person, you can always join an online community of writers. A note about collaborating: I have a friend who always likes to say, “It’s easier to turn a car in motion.” Meaning, you can more easily change directions if you’re already moving. This saying has many a life application, however in this instance I’d like to relate it to what you bring to the songwriting table. In other words, if you want to co-write, start with songs that already have some structure. Bring the melody to a chorus or the lyrics. Something. Don’t bring nothing and expect a co-writer to do everything. That’s less co-writing and more watching someone else work. Unless you set out to write a song from scratch with someone else, it will behoove you to have some material that needs work. Even if you’re starting from scratch, having brainstormed ideas before you meet will help you capitalize on your time together. Not only will this will express a willingness to contribute to the process, you’ll be showing respect for your co-collaborator – respect you surely want reciprocated. If all goes well, you’ll learn a lot and perhaps write with others in the future. Winning!

3. Just write

At the end of the day, songwriting is a skill that has to be developed. The more you practice writing, the more you’ll understand what kind of writer you are. You’ll start to see a kind of songwriting identity emerge. It’s not easy, though. I don’t know about you, but it can be intimidating to have a blank page before me. Sometimes when I can’t think of what I want to write about I still just have to put words to paper and get the ideas unstuck. In terms of lyrical writing, it may be necessary to journal or just write down a stream of consciousness for a bit. This may feel weird to you, especially if you’re pretty structured. Writing anything and everything that comes to mind can really spark a fun idea or remind of something you wanted to say. If you’re reading a book or magazine (or pamphlet), try taking a couple of sentences from the literature and boiling it down to a couple of words. Say it in a new way.

4. Listen and get inspired

If you’re not the type who writes your lyrics first, but still find yourself stuck trying to find a chord progression into the bridge or pulling in a seamless verse, take heart! There is help for you too. The exercises for melody writing are a little more abstract, but just as useful. Walk away from your efforts for a bit – just a pause – and start listening to the music from artists you consider to be your influences. When you listen to a given song, don’t just turn on the music in the background. Really listen. Right from the beginning take note of the structure of the verse and compare it to the chorus. Does the rhythm pattern change? What are the notes doing from verse to chorus in the context of the rhythm? Is there a lift? Are note values getting longer in the chorus? Do this with a handful of songs, or until you formulate a plan for your song’s melody. Really study these songs. You might even look outside your favorites. Listen to new genres you might not have considered. Another exercise you can do is just start playing. Play (or sing) a song you know or a portion of the song you have nailed down and just keep playing it over and over. It’s a form of musical stream of consciousness. Jam for a while and just see what happens. If you’re singing a song, nix the lyrics and let the melody carry you where it will. From an instrumental stand point, this requires you to have at least a measure of proficiency. You need to get comfortable enough on your instrument to be able to jam without playing the same four chords over and over again. If you want to play the same four chords, go for it.

5. Know your strengths

This may not be what you want to hear. And far be it from me to tell anyone to give up on their goals. But, sometimes despite a person’s musical talent, their writing is just not up to snuff. There are a couple ways to proceed if this is you. One: keep working on it. As it was said earlier, songwriting is a skill. Some people are more naturally gifted from the get-go, but no matter who you are, the more you write the better a songwriter you’ll become. Keep working on it until you’re satisfied. Two: There is no shame in seeking out little (or un-) known songs to cover. You can do this in lieu of writing your own songs or while you are honing your writing craft. You don’t have to dig very deeply to find many popular artists who perform songs written by others. Whether you look through a catalog, like ASCAP, or find an undiscovered writer in your community, you could take someone’s song and make into your own amazing version. And, who knows? You could be helping up-and-coming songwriters by performing their songs. There’s potential for musical symbiosis. Good vibes all around.


Lauren




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10 Foolproof Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Water parks have closed their doors, kids are back in school, and the weather is slowly beginning to cooperate. Fall has arrived.

For many songwriters, fall is a recharge time when new material comes flooding out. The summer tours are over, and those long hours spent on the road turn into hours spent with your favorite instrument, finding new melodies and lyrics.

But it never fails that the initial rush of creative energy begins to run dry, and you’ve still got half an album to write!

Whether you are prepping for your next release, or just trying to get your juices flowing, we’ve got some tips to help you when your inspiration has run out.

1-Take Notes!

This tip trumps all the others, because it will help you turn all the other tips into actual songs. When you see something inspiring, write it down. Keep notes on your phone, or in an actual notebook. I know a songwriter who carries around an average of 4 Moleskin notebooks—each with its own specific category—to write down creative ideas. You can also take pictures or videos of the things that inspire you. Whatever you do, just make sure that all these little tidbits of creative potential get stored somewhere.

2-Change Your Scenery

One of the simplest ways to get in touch with your creativity is to physically change locations. This doesn’t mean you have to take a writing retreat to a cabin in the woods—though you certainly can! Take a few minutes, and go somewhere in your city you’ve never been before. A new park, a new street, or even an extended walk in your own neighborhood. Explore downtown, or explore suburbia! Go sit next to the tree in your own back yard for a few minutes, or take a day trip to a state park.

3-Notice The Little Things

Even if you can’t physically relocate yourself, there are always new things you can explore. Look at the little things around you that you may not have noticed before. Sometimes an interesting street name could inspire a whole song. Maybe the texture of your ceiling is the same as the house you grew up in, and you turn your nostalgia into a song. Being more mindful of the world around you can help you be inspired to write about it.

4-People Watch

People watching can be one of the best ways to get ideas for songs. Just don’t be creepy! Station yourself in a busy public place, and observe the people around you. Listen to the phrases that fly by you. Pay attention to the characters that enter and exit your scene. Notice how people interact with each other, or better yet-

5- Strike Up a Conversation

People watching can help you create fictional stories. But what if you listened to someone’s actual story? A mantra that is often repeated in songwriting is “Write what you know,” but your own experience will be limited. Really listening to someone else’s story and empathizing with them could open up a whole new dimension in your songwriting.

A quick note: Make sure you have the person’s permission if you are going to take their life story and turn it into your next big hit. If you have their approval, write your heart out! But be aware, sometimes it’s better—and easier—to take pieces of real life and mix them in with fiction, instead of writing someone’s life for the whole world (or internet) to scrutinize.

6- Try a Different Instrument

Most songwriters have an instrument that they know well, and love to play. But sometimes shaking things up can help you create a great song, and a new sound.

You don’t have to be highly skilled at an instrument to write on it. Most guitar players will find that they can easily pick up the mandolin or banjo.

If you play piano, try learning a few chords on guitar, or simply move to a completely different piano sound than you usually play with. The song you write on a different instrument might not be a compositional masterpiece, but it will help get you out of your comfort zone.

7-Get Specific

Pick a highly specific thing-an apple, the color yellow, a particular emotion-and write about it! Be as poetic or as literal as you like, just keep the song highly specific to the topic that you choose.

8-Co-Write

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably made plans with a few other writers to combine your efforts and create a hit. But sometimes life gets in the way, and those writing sessions never happen.

Well now is the time! Shoot them a text or email saying you want to get together in the next week or so to write, and make it happen! You can also reach out to a local songwriter you admire and see if they would be willing to meet up for a co-write. Even if you think the writer is too experienced, or too busy, it never hurts to ask. So be brave, and get co-writing!

9-Ask Your Fans

Your fans are the ones who will be listening to (and buying!) your music, so why not get their input in the earliest phase? Ask them for stories or topics to write about. Ask them for rhyme suggestions if you’re stuck on a particular phrase.

10- Just Write

Sometimes, no matter what we do, inspiration just keeps running away from us. When that happens, amateurs give up. Great songwriters keep writing. Sometimes it takes 20 awful songs to finally get a great one. Don’t sweat it if you’re in a funk. Just keep writing. Eventually, it will pay off.

How have you defeated writer’s block? Do you have any other songwriting tips? Let us know in the comments below!


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Writing Better Songs: How to Silence the Inner Critic

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

You’ve sat down with your instrument of choice. You had a moment of inspiration, and the chorus to your next hit comes rushing out of you. You start to work on the first verse, and all of a sudden-nothing. All your lyrical inspiration is gone, the melodies won’t come–you’ve got nothing. In an instant your great spurt of inspiration is completely used up.

And in less time than it takes to microwave a hot pocket, you are convinced that this is the worst thing you’ve ever written. You’ve decided that every song you’ve crafted is trash. You are going to turn in your resignation as a artist, and never play your music in front of people again.

While this example may be a bit of a stretch, most songwriters hit this wall eventually. Something negative happens, and you become highly critical of your own work. Self-criticism can be a good thing when it comes time to edit a song, but when you are trying to get into the zone and create, this critic does more harm than good.

So how can you turn off your inner critic and let your creative juices flow?

Quantity, not Quality

One of the best ways to shut down the harsh voice in your head is simply by writing more songs. Cultivating an environment where you can just be yourself helps takes some of the pressure off the writing process.

Here are some steps you can take to begin this process:

  • Have concrete writing goals. Set a realistic weekly number of songs to write, and commit to finishing them.
  • Battle your fear of failing. There is a good chance most of the songs you write will be bad. That’s okay. Allowing your self the freedom to write some bad songs will help you know when you’ve written a great one.
  • Remember, this is a no pressure situation. You don’t have to play these songs for anyone. After you write them, you don’t even have to play them for yourself!
  • Push through when you hit a wall. This is the key to making this strategy work. Fight through the temptation to quit, and finish the song.
  • Create for creation’s sake. You may find that the more you write, the quieter your self-critic becomes.

This kind of writing may be difficult at first. That’s okay. Stick to your goals, and write anyway. Churning out material, no matter the quality, gets the creative part of your brain working. When the creative voice is louder, you may find that the inner critic’s voice is so small you can barely hear it.

Write. Just Write.

Music is not the only form of creative expression. If you are having a particular problem coming up with lyrics, it is a good idea to just write.

Writing can take many forms, but the first exercise I recommend is keeping a “First Thoughts” journal. Keep a notebook and pencil next to your bed, and every morning, write for 10 minutes. Do this before you do anything else.

The most important rule of this journal is that you are not allowed any kind of filter. For 10 minutes, write down your thoughts exactly as they come into your head, with no editing. Grammar doesn’t matter, punctuation doesn’t matter, you don’t have to make any kind of sense. (Mine never do, since I don’t make any sense before I’ve had my morning coffee!) You can write your dreams, what you want to accomplish that day,  what made you angry last night, or a play-by-play recap of your favorite reality TV show.

It doesn’t matter. Just write.

This strategy turns off the critic by turning off all filters. Then, in other writings, you can put those filters back in place as you need them.

Your “First Thoughts” journal shouldn’t be your only writing. Try your hand a writing a blog. Or write an incredibly detailed description of a simple object. Dabble in poetry. Do whatever it takes to loosen up the pressure of putting words down on a page. Experimenting with other writing forms can also open you up to different approaches to songwriting, and can help you find new inspiration.

Identify the Critic

This may take a little time, and a little soul searching. Often, the critic inside of us is not really us. It is an outside voice that we have taken on. This may be the voice of a teacher who spoke harshly about your work. It might be a parent or close relative that scoffs at your music when you share it. Your self-critic might not even have its roots in music, but in something else in your life that translates to criticizing your creative self-expression. This voice is different for everyone, but identifying it can help you fight it.

Once you’ve identified the voice of your critic, address it. Write a letter to it, or a song about it. It doesn’t have to be an eloquent letter, or a fantastic song. It just needs to be honest.

As a creative, part of what allows you to make good art is your ability to be in touch with your emotion. This is especially true when things  are painful. It’s not an easy task to identify the critic, or to firmly tell them to please be quiet. When you have acknowledged the hurt that they caused, and the affect that you allowed that hurt have on your life—specifically your music—you can begin to move on from it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Play

When our self-critic says we’re not good enough, sometimes we just have to get out there and prove it wrong. Don’t be afraid to share your music. Try a new song at your next show. Play a short set for your closest friends. Send your mom your latest demo. Show yourself that you are not limited by what your self-critic says.

More Than the Music

The last, and probably most important step into turning off the self-critic is to remember that you are more than your music. You are more than a collection of notes, or a few lines of lyrics. Your songs are a part of who you are, but they don’t define you.




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