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Writing songs isn’t easy. And if you are an experienced songwriter, I don’t have to tell you that. When I first sat down with my guitar and said to myself, “I’m going to write a song today”, boy, was I in the dark about what was to come. It sounds easy, but most of the time we don’t have the luxury of constant inspiration. So, from one novice songwriter to another, I want to share with you 4 things that I have learned (the hard way) that makes writing songs easier and more enjoyable.

 

1) Don’t Skimp On Theory

 

It’s true that many famous musicians got by without learning a lick of theory. Elvis Presley once said, “I don’t know anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to.” Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles, to name a few, never learned how to read music. Of course, it’s possible to write songs without any theory. But one of the most useful things I ever did was take a few music classes at my local community college.

A Master’s Degree in Music is not essential to writing songs, but you also don’t want to write without any tools in your toolbox. When I finished my first Music Theory course (Fundamentals of Music Theory), my chord progressions, phrasing, cadences, and overall musical color evolved tremendously. Just knowing the basics of the chords of major and minor and how you write with them open up a whole new world of chords to use in your songs – and give you a better understanding of how to evoke certain emotions in your tunes.

Here are a few online resources to use if you don’t have the means to take formal music courses:

  • Musical U. I’ve been subscribed to their email list (it’s free) and every so often I’m surprised with a new concept in my inbox to read about and incorporate into my songwriting. Musical U also offers a membership with courses dedicated to improving aural skills, improvisation, dictation and more.
  • Ben Cooper’s Songwriting Course. This songwriting course brings you back to the basics of constructing a song. By the end of the course, you will be able to take a small idea and evolve it into a complete song. And for only 28 bucks, it’s a damn good deal for those who aren’t sure where to start.
  • Musictheory.net. I have used this site to explore topics that I’ve heard of, but don’t fully understand. If you are looking for on-the-spot information without the structure of a full course, this site is perfect for you.

 

2) Write down everything!

 

Ever come up with a chord progression or motif and think, “Hey, I really like that. I’ll make that into a song,” and then the very next day you’ve completely forgotten what it was? Or is it just me?

When I began to write down all of my ideas, my songwriting truly blossomed. Not only can you keep track of tunes and lyrics when inspiration strikes, but handwriting has been proven to help us remember things. And it’s especially cool to look back on your notes after the song is finished and reflect on its humble beginnings.

Keeping a music journal will, without a doubt, make you into a more organized musician, therefore a more well-rounded one. Below is the songwriting journal I’ve personally used to help inspire me and remind me of songs that could be.

 

  • UniKeep’s Songwriting Journal is excellent. It has designs for acoustic and electric guitar players, and you can choose to have tablature or staves to write down your melodies. There are empty charts to fill in chords and scales, pages to write down lyrics, and page protectors to add your own reference pages. You can write 21 songs with this little guy. It’s also a case-style journal so you can fit picks, a capo, a tuner or whatever else inside and take it with you anywhere.

 

3) Write from a Perspective Other than Your Own

 

Stepping outside of myself and writing from a different person’s perspective was hard at first, but with practice, it completely transformed my songs. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, a whole new set of music and lyrics comes along with it. New emotions and opinions that aren’t directly yours are surprisingly effective for song ideas. And this goes even further than just songwriting – the ability to step outside of yourself is an incredibly useful skill to have in life in general.

 

If you struggle with this, here are some starter prompts to get the ball rolling:

  • What country do I live in?
  • What era do I live in?
  • Am I human? (I’ve written from the perspective of a mermaid before. That was interesting.)
  • Am I heartbroken, or madly in love?
  • Did I experience a tragedy? Or the opposite?

 

4) Just practice

 

It might sound obvious, but practicing is the most important thing in music. If you only choose to do one of these suggestions, make it this one. Every songwriter has some kind of dissatisfaction with the amount that they practice. Unfortunately, there are no cheat codes in the game of playing an instrument, and practice alone is the only thing that will improve your songwriting skills. Since I can’t give you a list of ways to hack your music game, instead I will give you a list of tools to keep you practicing every day.

 

Songwriting is so much more than just a hobby or pastime – it’s a craft. There are many more things to be done that will bring you closer to perfecting your craft, but I hope these four easy tasks are helpful to any beginner songwriters out there. I’m still working on consistently applying these practices, and probably will be forever. No, I definitely will be forever. The most significant thing to remember during the times of discouragement and pessimism while writing is that you have embarked on a journey with no final destination. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Which of these techniques will you use?

 

Celeste O'Connor

Columbus-based writer Celeste O'Connor is passionate about taking opportunities to learn anything and everything she can about music. As a guitarist and a ukulele player, she writes to help fellow music lovers and those curious about music in becoming better songwriters and listeners.
Celeste O'Connor

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