Songwriting for dummies

So my ‘padawan’ as I call him asks me how you go about writing a song.

Do you write the lyrics first then the music or vice versa?

Simple answer is: anyway you want to.

A song can be as short as three lines or as long as you want it to be.

Writing ‘classical’ music is tricky – you need to adhere to rules of composition and musical notation. Think years of counterpoint lessons but at least, in the end you’ll have a strong foundation in formal music training. It’s good to have, but not absolutely essential to write songs.

Other genre of musics are slightly easier. Pop, folk, country, good old rock and roll – you don’t need formal training to write a good ‘current’ song.

If you’re a writer, I’d suggest writing a poem to start with. Poems are easier to set to music because of the way they’re structured. They have a rhythm to the words; ‘beats’ that you can easily structure to music.

You can’t sing a novel. Nor can you set a novella to music either.

Poems are meant to be read.

Plays are meant to be performed.

Songs are meant to be sung.

You don’t have to have a melody on your head to start with. But if you do, then get that melody recorded. Whether on your phone or your computer, just hum or sing the tune to nonsense words or just ‘lalala’ even. Words may come but melodies, they are fleeting.

The easiest way to get started on songwriting is by learning to play an instrument. A guitar is, hands down, the best starting instrument for wannabe songwriters. You can write plenty of songs knowing just four chords – I kid you not. Many a song has been written with the simple G-E-C-D chord progression.

Other ways to practise songwriting:

1. Grab an anthology of poems and attempt to set a random poem to music

2. Do parodies. Choose a song you particularly like and make a funny ‘alternative’ version of it. It’s great practise at making words ‘fit’ a melody structure.

3. Take simple children’s songs or lullabies and attempt to change a note or two. A jazz version of Rockabye baby? A blues version of He’s Got The Whole World? The sky’s the limit.

Other tips – dissect songs. Figure out how they work – tempo, melody, lyrical breakdown. Compare two of your favourite songs from different genres.

Your first few songs are going to sound like other people’s. Deal with it. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. Just don’t attempt to sell those songs; you’re likely to get sued.

Songwriting, like any other type of writing, is something you get better at by practising. Try writing one song a month. Take baby steps. For inspiration, watch Wayne Brady and how he randomly improvs songs on demand. Sure, the songs he ‘writes’ for Whose Line Is It Anyway won’t win Grammys but it’s enjoyable demonstrate songwriting stripped down to the barest minimum.

Try collaborative songwriting. Maybe you know a friend who’s great at creating melodies – you could come up with the lyrics instead. Most importantly, have fun and aim to write songs that you know you would want to listen to.

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