Songwriting is a craft which can take years to develop. You may need to write tens of songs before you create something you can call good. I've compiled a few tips to help you save time and energy and hopefully cut down the time it takes to get to your desired songwriting level.
On the lookout
As a songwriter you should always be thinking about your next track. This means keeping your eye on everything around you and taking inspiration from your environment, always being ready to note down your thoughts, either by using a notepad or recording device. You may be able to use your mobile phone to record yourself, or at least keep a record of your ideas.
It's also a good idea to listen carefully to what people say and how they say it. You can pick up interesting lines and phrases from those around you. Often the best lyrics are a different take on a common phrase. This way, listeners can relate to your song but not be put off by clichés.
Find a hook
The most successful songs contain a part of the track which catches the ear more than any other part. It can stick in peoples heads long after they have listened to the song and can turn an average song into a hit. Pop songs will often play the hook at the beginning of the song and then repeat on numerous occasions, normally in the chorus.
A hook is usually the hardest part to write as it requires stepping outside any obvious melody. A good tip would be to try using simple, short and familiar words which sound good together and are sung in a different way to the rest of the song. For example, if the other lyrics are sung quickly, then try singing longer notes in the hook, but keep the number of words to a minimum. Similarly, long drawn out verses could be punctuated by a fast and sharp hook.
Riff on the lick
This is a similar concept to the hook, in which the listener can be drawn into the track with speed, but using music rather than lyrics. A lively and energetic set of guitar notes, repeated several times during the songs intro can work wonders. Many famous songs have begun this way, often starting with the lick in solo, before the drums and bass kick in to emphasize the guitar even more. The same trick can be used with piano and other instruments.
Keep the lick simple, using only a few notes and keep them close together in the scale you are using. It's also good practice to be objective about your lick. Don't spend too long on perfecting it. Record an idea, then have a break from it. You can then come back later with fresh ears and continue. If you realise this idea wasn't one of your best, you can start a new one. It may take a while, but with a bit of persistence, you will be successful.
Song structure comes in many forms and there have been various trends and fashions over the years. Broadly speaking, a song can be broken down into the following sections:
Normally this section is instrumental and builds up with different instruments coming in one by one, or in pairs. This is where the lick would sit, often played over the chords used in the verse, setting the tone ready for the vocals to come in. The idea behind the intro is to tell the listener what kind of song this is, the genre and the tempo. Of course, some songwriters have been known to trick the listener and have an opening different to the rest of the track. This approach is less likely to work but can produce interesting results.
The verse follows the introduction and contains the bulk of the lyrical content. It is a very important part of the song and lead the listener towards the hook in the chorus. There may be multiple verses in a song, usually with the same melody but different lyrics, and separated by the chorus. Great songwriters are able to tell a story in the verse using the different verses to talk about different aspects of the story, much like chapters in a novel. Verses are not so reliant on a memorable melody as the chorus is, so lyrical content is key to creating a great verse.
Moving from the verse to the chorus can be done in different ways. If your two sections are similar in tempo and music, they will probably flow nicely into each other. However, if they are vastly different, you may need a pre-chorus to bridge the gap.
A good tip is to move from a major to minor key or vice versa. This gives a different feel to the pre-chorus, setting up the chorus. Alternatively you can break up the instrumentation or have no words. The chorus can benefit dramatically from a pre-chorus using these methods.
Your hook can be used here once or multiple times to increase the emotional tension in the song. The chorus is normally the same each time it is played, or with a slight variation towards the end of the song.
Subsequent verses follow from the chorus and this pattern can be repeated several times, depending on the length of each part. You may wish to include a short repeat of the intro before each verse to separate parts of your story.
Popular songs in the first half of the twentieth century tended to begin with a chorus and then move into the verse and some songs today do the same.
To break up the potential monotony of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern, you can introduce a complete change to the sound of your song, altering tempo, instrumentation or melody. The eight represents eight bars in length and middle to convey the position in the song, often after the second chorus.
Completing the song
At this point in the song, you should have written the majority of the lyrics and melody and the final section maybe left until the track is recorded. It will probably contain an instrumental section, a further repeat of the chorus and an outro which should have similarities to the intro, completing the circle of the song. These decisions should be left until the rest of the song is complete and should flow naturally.
Key changes at the end of a song to emphasize a final chorus should be avoided at all costs as they signal a desperation for the songwriter to grab the listeners attention. Your song should be strong enough without this.
Lyrics and melody
As mentioned previously, your lyrics should tell a story or portray an emotion. It's also important that the words sound good when sung. Rhyming is the most obvious way to achieve this, but you shouldn't forget the importance of a beautifully sounding word at any point in the song.
Melody is normally constructed over a chord sequence, with moody and melancholic melodies associated with minor keys and upbeat, happy ones on the major scale. There is no magic formula for a great melody, other than practice, hard-work and a bit of luck.
Creative Inspiration for Songwriters and Artists
We all need a bit of creative inspiration once in a while. For me, it’s often enough to listen to another musician play to get my songwriting juices flowing. There is nothing like the spark of one artist’s creative offspring to pass on that same spark to me.
As a way of exploring how others think about the creative process, I’ve gathered together a few sage words of wisdom and insight from musicians and artists (new and old) to help repudiate those creative-blues.
One of my favourite painters, Paul Klee, wrote about being inspired from the world around him simply by observing and thinking. According to Klee, an artist should be selective, economical, and disciplined in his craft:
Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything, the artist must be frugal down to the smallest detail. Nature is garrulous to the point of confusion, let the artist be truly taciturn. […] Will and discipline are everything. Discipline as regards the work as a whole, will as regards its parts. Will and craft are intimately joined here; here, the man who can’t do, can’t will. The work then accomplishes itself out of these parts thanks to discipline that is directed toward the whole.
For the poet and singer Leonard Cohen, creativity was hard won and born out of difficult and painful experience. In this sense, he warns against the creative dangers of banality:
What a joyless farce we make out of our lives, especially the cautious, especially them because what they hoard is leaking away day-by-day. Give me a war, give me complicated divorces and disgrace, give broken lives and alcoholic fantasy, give me anything but pettiness and safety.
About his own writing process, Cohen says:
I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.
The singer, guitarist and broadcaster Guy Garvey has this to say about writing songs:
Don't be scared of failure. If it's all getting too intense, remember it's only a song. I learned that the hard way: when I was younger, I played the part of the erratic, irascible drunk in order to have something to write about. The best advice I've ever had came about 20 years ago from Mano McLaughlin, one of Britain's best songwriters. "The song is all," he said, "Don't worry about what the rest of the music sounds like: you have a responsibility to the song." I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool, or fits with everything we've done before – but just to let the song be what it is. (From: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jan/02/top-artists-creative-inspiration)
The composer Gustave Mahler (yes, we’re really jumping around here) is well known for the variety and contrasts in his music, and reflects an artist who own spiritual and moral questioning was at the core of his work. Here Mahler talks about a state of inspiration after a trip to New York:
I am experiencing so infinitely much now […] I can hardly talk about it. How should I attempt to describe such a crisis? I see everything in such a new light – am in such a state of flux, sometimes I should hardly be surprised to find myself in a new body. (Like Faust in the last scene.) I am thirstier for life than ever before and find the ‘habit of existence’ sweeter than ever… How absurd it is to let oneself be submerged in the brutal whirlpool of life! .. Strange! when I hear music – even while I am conducting – I hear quite specific answers to all my questions – and am completely clear and certain. Or rather, I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all.
Finally, the painter Vincent Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo about the inner need to creative:
Ah, my dear brother, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can well do without God in both my life and also my painting, but, suffering as I am, I cannot do without something greater than myself, something which is my life – the power to create.
And if, deprived of the physical power, one tries to create thoughts instead of children, one is still very much part of humanity. And in my pictures I want to say something consoling as music does. I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the halo, which we try convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of our colouring.
I hope these brief insights can help spark a few ideas off. If there are any pieces of advice you've received, please let us know about them.