There's a blog I follow called Songwright, and recently the author posted a request for readers to contribute 10 tips for songwriters. I love this kind of thing, so here are my ten! (As you read these, please keep in mind that I am a total nobody without a single hit song to his credit.)
BE ABLE TO SING ON KEY
If you’re gong to write songs with melodies, this is critical, I think, yet an amazing number of songwriters cannot do this.
KNOW AT LEAST ONE CHORDAL INSTRUMENT PRETTY WELL
For better or for worse, pop/rock songs tend to be single note melodies set against rhythmic chord progressions, and if you want to write in this genre, you should know how to create those chord progressions. I like the guitar, but piano/keys should do the trick, too.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO WRITE LYRICS, LEARN HOW TO WRITE PROSE
The best book on writing I have ever bought is The Writer’s Art, by James Kilpatrick. It’s not about lyrics, but writing period, and it has helped me immensely over the years. Books on lyrics are probably helpful, but I’ve never found a good one. Rhyming dictionaries are a great idea, especially Rhymezone, which can be accessed from a smart phone or computer.
FORGET THE TAU, YOU WANT THE DAW
Time waits for no one, so anything you can do to accelerate your writing process, do it. Maybe you’re fastest playing into a cassette deck, I dunno, but for me, nothing beats a DAW (digital audio workstation). My fave is Pro Tools
LEARN FROM THE PEOPLE YOU ADMIRE
If there are songwriters out there you really admire, learn how to play your favorite songs by them. Write down the structures they use (verse, chorus, etc.), borrow, steal (a little bit) and hold your stuff up to theirs. Sure, you might never be able to say your stuff is as good, but does it at least compare on some basic levels. It should.
HAVE A FEW BRUTALLY HONEST CRITICS YOU TRUST
(AND BE WILLING TO MAKE CHANGES BASED ON CRITICISCM)
Unless you only plan to play your songs for you, yourself and you, find a few people whose judgment you trust and play them your stuff. Do it for strangers, even, say at a song-screening. But here’s the most important part: listen to what they say and be prepared to admit that they might be right. Obviously, you need to stay true to yourself, but if others around you are offering good advice, take it.
HAVE A CREATIVE BRIEF FOR EACH SONG
I confess, I’m one of those people for whom a song has to make sense. Not every song, I can listen to works by others that totally mystify me, but for my own compositions, I have to know what they’re about. To do this, once I’ve made some progress on a tune, I clarify and commit to its meaning by completing the sentence “this song is about _________________.” I try fill in the blank as specifically as possible, while keeping my answer to one sentence. In advertising, this sentence would be the Key Message in the creative brief, which is the document given to art directors and copywriters at the beginning of every project.
KEEP YOUR ANTENNAE UP AT ALL TIMES AND HAVE A WAY OF CAPTURING WHATEVER YOU PICK UP
Ideas for songs can come anytime, anywhere, and you have to be ready. You can’t expect your ideas to come when you have time for them. For me, it’s a Blackberry. I always have mine with me and, since my ideas tend to start as lyrics, it’s perfect. If your ideas are more melodic, a phone is still key, as you can call yourself and leave a singing voicemail.
SING IT IN YOUR HEAD
This last one is a doozey and not one I can always do, but I find it to be hugely helpful. If you can sing your song to yourself – in your head, no instrument – and it sounds pretty good, you’re onto something. If you can’t, you’re probably not finished by a long shot.
LEARN A LITTLE THEORY
You don’t need to be the kind of person who can play an F#mb6, but you should know the basics around the I, IV, IV progression and how to modulate a bit. Not absolutely necessary – but helpful.
READ SONGWRITERS ON SONGWRITING, BY PAUL ZOLLO
The best book on songwriting I have ever read. It’s not a “how to”, just a “how others do” and deeply great. Get yours here
KILL YOUR BABIES
If you are working on a song and there’s a part of it that you LOVE but know in your heart does not fit, kill it. Hard to do, but oh-so-worth it.