If you're a songwriter, that's great. It's so cool to express yourself through words and music. However, it's one of those art forms that many still like to think of as ‘mystical’. Songwriters are ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’, many think. It can’t be taught… can it?
Well, there are certainly a lot of tips and tricks that can be taught. Here are a few.
Often, when we write songs, our verses and choruses are what takes priority. They're also the parts that tend to come more naturally. However, adding a bridge – or 'middle 8' – to your song can work to give it an extra dimension and an additional hook.
These bridges can last for 8 bars, or they can be longer or shorter. One trick to consider is using the relative minor (or major!) to the rest of your song in the bridge, whilst lyrically expressing a contrasting viewpoint to the verses and choruses.
I just mentioned 'key', which might have got a few people grimacing. Some songwriters work to set 'keys', whilst some allow their ears to tell them what sounds right. Whilst using your ears can encourage a more natural and original songwriting process, it can also take a lot longer to find results. Knowing your key signatures can speed up the songwriting process, but can also lead to generic or formulaic sounding songs. If you do write by the rules, try breaking a few. Many popular songs, for example, use a major second rather than a minor second, despite the sharpened fourth in that chord being out of key.
Do you normally write the lyrics first, then find a melody and match the chords? Or do you usually create some music first, then shape some lyrics to fit?
Whatever your process, try mixing it up a bit. This will make you into a more versatile songwriter and will lead you to sounds and ideas that you might not previously have found.
Sometimes, it's best not to make your own decisions. Having a dice handy can be an invaluable songwriting tool.
Which chord should I go to next? Let the dice decide. How many notes should I include in this melody? Let the dice decide. How many syllables should I have per line? Let the dice decide. The rigidity of numbers creates patterns that are automatically musical, so you needn't worry about them not working. Just roll with it; see what happens.
Like hearing the word 'key', talking about 'modes' can freak some people out. They're considered by many to be part of advanced music theory and guitar playing, and you'd be forgiven for not immediately spotting their relevance to songwriting.
However, modes are easy to understand and work as a 'key' (oops – sorry) to interesting flavours in your music.
All modes do is change the starting points of your scales. This makes the intervals between the notes all different, creating a different pattern and a different vibe. If you think about how the C major scale sounds completely different from the A minor scale, even though they contain the same notes, this explains it. In fact, these are two of the modes: C Ionian and A Aeolian. If you take these same notes, but start them on D, you'll have a D Dorian. This is a cool scale for improvising blues music with. Cool, and easy, isn't it?
This is a piece of advice a writer gave me several years ago and I follow it religiously.
Sometimes, the 'big voice' in your head starts shouting things at you, like,
“You're not good enough!” or “Give up songwriting,” or, “Everything you write is terrible.”
This is not a healthy voice. However, sometimes you'll hear the 'little' voice whispering. This voice says things like,
“That line sounds a little bit pretentious,” or, “That chord change doesn't sound quite right. It works, but it just doesn't quite feel right.”
Listen to this voice. If you don't, you'll never feel happy with your song. No matter how well it works.
If you are stuck in a rut with your songwriting, using a new tuning or even a new instrument can get you out of it.
When you always play in the same tuning, your hand can start returning to the same shapes and patterns it's used to, resulting in your songs sounding a little too similar. Switch the tuning, and voila, it's like playing a completely different instrument.
Similarly, actually playing a completely different instrument can remove you from your rut. As all instruments are physically structured slightly differently, approaching a new one with musical intentions can find you some melodies and harmonies that you might not find on your trusty Strat that's tuned to standard.
A final trick to liven up your songwriting is embellishing your chords.
You don't need to know what all of the chords are called before you play them. Try physically moving or removing a finger from a chord you know, then listen to what it sounds like. Something songwriters like David Bowie and Thom Yorke do is play one version of a chord, then an embellished version or two, before moving to a completely different chord. This produces subtle changes that make your harmonies interesting and original, and move your songs along nice and gently.
Once you've found out what sounds good, then you can find out what the chords are called. This makes your songwriting process also a learning process. Bonus!
So, songwriters, I hope that these 8 tips have encouraged you to jump out of your comfort zone, into a zone that's more original, authentic and interesting. If you’re new to songwriting and don’t have a guitar, check out this guide to some of the best cheap ones available to get you started!
Do you have any other techniques that you use to ensure that the songs you create are of the highest quality they can be? We'd love to hear from you! Let us know what works for you, in the comments below.
Roz is a versatile songwriter who has written 4 albums with her band, The Roz Bruce Infusion. Their most recent album is "Shelf Indulgence" - musical adaptations of 10 literary classics. She’s also explored mental health, dark concepts and heartbreak in her songs, to name a few.
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