WXTJ Writes! By Whitney Edgerly: Songwriting Tips for DIY Artists
“Having fun and enjoying the process of creating music can help you stay motivated and continue writing songs without feeling like you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Whether you’re just starting to experiment with writing your own songs or if you’ve been doing it for years, any seasoned artist will tell you that in some ways, songwriting always remains a mysterious, enigmatic process that no one really understands. It’s a connection with the ether, maybe the spiritual world if you are into that, which is why it’s so hard to sit down and learn how to construct perfectly crafted songs the way you might learn algebra or chemistry. In the words of Justin Sandercoe from Justinguitar.com, “It’s not rocket science, it’s much harder than that!” Even if songwriting is a somewhat mystical exercise, there are some things you can do to help improve your craft even when experiencing the god-forsaken writer’s block or an inspiration dry spell. Here are five tips to help you improve your songwriting that you can start as soon as right now!
1. Learn How to Play Your Favorite Songs
The best piece of advice that I received when starting out with writing was to learn all of your favorite songs on your preferred instrument (whether that’s guitar, piano, or maybe even clarinet, who knows) to begin to understand how the songs you love so much work. If you’ve always gravitated towards the light and breezy riffs of The Cure, learning how to play “Just Like Heaven” or “Friday I’m In Love” will start to teach you how to pair upbeat major chords with riffs that compliment them and a melody that makes it all stick together. Or if you’ve been a die-hard Swiftie since the self-titled album came out, piecing together Swift’s pop chord progressions with her soaring chorus melodies and piercing wit within her lyrics will help you learn all you need to know about crafting a solid, emotionally visceral song that can very well appeal to the masses (which, contrary to popular belief, is a good thing!) Of course, if your favorite songwriter is Steve Vai or Jimi Hendrix and you’re just starting out on guitar, maybe wait a few years before trying to tackle their discography to prevent yourself from becoming wildly discouraged.
2. Make a Habit of Writing
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the worst nightmare of any songwriter is the dreaded writer’s block that seems to follow us around everywhere. When you’ve hit a dry spell and feel a lack of inspiration to keep writing, it can be good to set aside some time each day (as much as a few hours to as little as 20 minutes) to dedicate to either creating new songs or working on ideas you’ve already started on. Oftentimes, writer’s block is just another name for perfectionism, where you feel like none of your new song ideas are good enough and no one in their right mind would want to listen to them. The best way to break out of this mindset is to force yourself to write every single day and to learn how to be okay with writing songs that are mediocre at best (or maybe straight-up bad) before you get to the magic ones. I know, easier said than done! However, just like any skill, practice makes perfect, and the only true way to improve your songwriting craft is to keep doing even when the ideas aren’t flowing as fast as you wish they would.
3. Collaborate With Others
Every writer has certain instincts that they tend to fall back on when writing. Sometimes it can be the types of chords you use or the way a melody fits over said chords. An easy way to break out of your normal routine as a songwriter, especially if you’ve been noticing that your songs have been sounding repetitive recently, is to collaborate with someone in your circle who also has a passion for songwriting. When you work with somebody else, you are guaranteed to make a product that you could not have made by yourself, and having two different people bring their distinct experiences and strengths to a songwriting session can result in something incredible and unique. Collaborating with other artists can also expose you to different styles of music or writing that you had not experimented with before, which can in turn improve your own craft the next time you decide to write solo.
4. Treat Your Songs Like Your Diary
Most people turn to art as a form of catharsis and expression, and songwriting is no different. One of the best ways to have other people connect with the work that you create is to be honest about the experiences you’ve had as a human, because they are bound to be much more relatable and emotionally salient than you would at first expect. Sometimes this means writing about painful times in your life or awkward romantic experiences you’ve had, but the reason this works is because by doing this you are saying the things that we’re all thinking and feeling but are maybe too scared to voice out loud. The more specific you can get to your own emotions and your stories in your music, the better: greater specificity of your own unique story can put us in the world of your song and, a little counterintuitively, make your work resonate with us so much more than using more vague lyrics with themes that we’ve heard before.
5. Live Your Life & Have Fun!
This one relates slightly to the above piece of advice. You might be thinking to yourself, “what does living my life have anything to do with me improving my songwriting?” The answer, my friend, is that it has everything to do with it! By living in the present moment and relishing in the now, whether that’s by hanging out with your friends, observing the change of the seasons or consuming other pieces of art, you are creating stories and experiences you can draw from when writing your own material. New experiences bring heaps of inspiration that you can draw from when writer’s block starts to creep up on you, and they can also offer a much-needed creative break, something every artist needs now and again. Having fun and enjoying the process of creating music can help you stay motivated and continue writing songs without feeling like you’re fighting an uphill battle. Sometimes the very best thing you can do for your art is to not take yourself (or your music) too seriously, and to just allow yourself and your songs to be whatever they want to be without forcing them into a certain mold.
Here are five tips to help you out and guide you on your songwriting journey! Always keep in mind that every songwriter has periods of struggling to write the songs they want to write, and even in the words of Sir Paul McCartney (the winner of 18 Grammy awards), “The whole thing about it, it’s magic… I don’t quite know where I’m going, because I make it all up. Some people know about it and analyze songwriting. I’ve never known about it … but it’s an adventure every time you do it. There’s some kind of mystery as to whether you’re going to pull it off.” So, take heart and keep sharing your one-of-a-kind songs and stories with the world, fellow songwriters!
By Whitney Edgerly. When not reading, writing, or doing community service, you can find her playing electric guitar and occasionally singing in bands and listening to the same 5 songs on repeat on Spotify.