Songwriting is a deeply personal and creative journey that allows you to express your thoughts, emotions, and experiences through music and lyrics.
However, approaching the songwriting process can be problematic, especially if you’re just starting or seeking to enhance your skills. Depending on what you read, you might think songwriting can be done in 20 minutes, such as with REM’s Losing My Religion. Or, you might be told it takes to slow boil a song, as in the case of My Chemical Romance’s hit, Welcome to the Black Parade, which took five years. You might be told to start with lyrics, or a hook, or a melody. It can be daunting!
In this article, we will explore some essential approaches to help you navigate the songwriting process and unlock your creative potential.
Inspiration can come from a multitude of sources, from places and people, memories or stories you’ve heard. It could be a personal experience or an emotion you want to convey that you haven’t felt. Johnny Cash, one of the greatest country music songwriters, cited a song called Pickin’ Time as the one he wrote that he loved the most. Why? Because it was personal to him and his experience growing up as the son of a cotton farmer.
To kickstart your songwriting process, surround yourself with things that inspire you—read books, watch movies, listen to diverse genres of music, or take walks in nature. Allow yourself to be open to new ideas and perspectives, and when all else fails, write about home!
Start with a Central Idea
Every great song usually revolves around a central idea or theme. It could be a concept, a specific emotion, or even a catchy phrase. Begin by brainstorming and jotting down ideas related to your chosen theme.
Bruce Springsteen did this with his often misunderstood anti-war song, Born in the USA. Springsteen wrote the song around the idea of disappointment at the treatment of veterans returning from the Vietnam War but developed it to become the story of an individual. Like the Boss, you should take time to develop your core ideas further, allowing them to guide your song’s direction.
Collaborate and Seek Feedback
Collaborating with other musicians or seeking feedback from trusted friends or mentors can provide valuable insights and fresh perspectives. Collaborators can bring new ideas and approaches to the table, sparking creativity and pushing your songwriting boundaries. this is something we have previously explored in our article ‘How To Collaborate With Other Musicians‘.
Feedback from others can help refine your work, identify areas for improvement, and highlight the strengths of your song. For instance, John Lennon wrote Imagine, arguably one of the most beautiful songs of all time, whilst Yoko Ono sat beside him at their home in Tittenhurst Park. Many of the themes in the song were inspired by her 1964 book Grapefruit, and Lennon later confessed the writing credits should have been shared.
Experiment with Different Approaches
Don’t be afraid to try different approaches to songwriting, even if it means trying different genres and ideas. Experiment with different song structures, chord progressions, or even writing lyrics before music (or vice versa). Play around with different instruments or use technology to generate unique sounds. There’s no rule that makes it easier or harder to write good music.
This is something typified by Tim Armstrong, frontman of the punk band Rancid, who has built up a stellar reputation as a songwriter in the modern day. For instance, their 1998 album Life Won’t Wait moved away from their punk roots and worked with reggae fusion, something he then parked for seven years before working on his self-titled 2007 release, backed by reggae outfit the Aggrolytes.
Embrace the Rewriting Process
Songwriting is a gradual process, and whilst some songs are perfect immediately, most will take time to cook. Rarely does a song emerge fully formed from the first draft. That’s one of the key things Florida singer-songwriter Bacon James explains in his songwriting guide – rarely is your tune perfect straight off the bat. Instead, you must embrace the rewriting process, allowing yourself to refine and reshape your ideas. Experiment with different melodies, chord progressions, and lyrical phrasing. Don’t be afraid to discard parts that don’t fit and build upon what works.
Even the very best songwriters of all time, such as Bob Dylan, will keep working on a track. His Tangled Up In Blue took him two years to write, whilst Bohemian Rhapsody was first put to paper in the late sixties but didn’t drop until 1975.
Approaching the songwriting process requires a combination of inspiration, routine, experimentation, collaboration, and trust in your instincts. Remember that songwriting is a journey of self-expression, growth, and exploration.
By Queenie Kirk. Published by Alli Galloway for Vampr.
For more insight from Queenie Kirk, read her blog about album art here.
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