There comes a time in every musician’s journey when they get the urge to try their hand at songwriting. Even the most gifted and experienced musicians can quickly come to realize, that being a good musician is no guarantee of being a good songwriter.
Songwriting is difficult due to the number of musical and lyrical elements that must first be created, then combined into one cohesive whole. It can also be difficult to find the inspiration to begin the songwriting process, something which is almost impossible to force.
The discipline of songwriting is one that appears deceptively simple, yet is the source of huge amounts of frustration for even experienced musicians. Read on for a detailed look at these difficulties, and actions that can be taken to try to overcome them.
1 Getting inspired can be difficult
What are you going to write your song about? How do you get an idea for a melody? You need to think of a great guitar riff. An emotional melody needs to just appear in your head.
All these are things that you cannot force to happen. You can force yourself to sit down and practice the guitar or the piano. But you can’t sit yourself down and say “Right – I’m going to be inspired now”. It just doesn’t work like that.
You can sit down to develop an idea you have already had, sure. But in my experience, the actual inspiration for the song will strike when it strikes. It’s completely out of your control and is not worth trying to force. Because at best you will come up with something mediocre, and at worst you will have nothing except your frustration and disappointment.
What you can do, is be ready for when inspiration strikes. And put yourself in situations where you give inspiration the best chance of poking its head out from its hiding place.
Make sure that you always have available some means to record your ideas, wherever you are. With smartphones this is very easy; you have a notebook, an audio recorder, and a camcorder potentially with you at all times. When you have an idea, whether that’s a melody, a lyrical line, a chord progression, record it immediately!
This could be writing it down, recording yourself singing a melody, filming yourself playing a chord progression on the guitar, etc. Whatever it is, record it somehow, because you will forget it. You’ll think you won’t, but you will. I have forgotten so many of my ideas when I’ve thought I’d remember them, it’s embarrassing. Inspiration can be so scarce, that when it strikes you don’t want to waste it.
To enable this, do your best to help inspiration appear. This will be personal to the individual, but here are some ideas for things that may work for you…
- Taking a walk in some beautiful scenery
- Spending time with a loved one
- Watching a favorite rousing movie
- Reading some news stories that make you angry
- Listening to some favorite music
- Play your guitar, piano, etc. Just mess around, improvise to backing tracks, without trying to force ideas.
Try to find things that work for you. Although, if you’re open to it inspiration can strike in the most mundane of situations. Brushing my teeth, sitting on the bus, bored out of my brain in a meeting at work; these are all places where I have genuinely had song ideas. Just make sure that you are ready to record them when they do arrive.
Once you have an idea developed enough, you will want to capture it as quickly as possible so you don’t forget it and can start experimenting with it. If you are relatively new to home music recording, check out my comprehensive beginners’ guide to recording music at home. You’ll learn everything you need, right from the equipment required all the way up to making your first recording.
2 Expecting your first songs to be great
It is tempting, especially for highly experienced or trained musicians, to think that just because you are good at your chosen instrument, you will automatically be good at songwriting. You’re obviously musical, you understand melody and harmony, you’ve played lots of other peoples’ songs. So you should be immediately great at songwriting, right?
Wrong. Or at least, not necessarily. Which is why some of the best songwriters are not virtuoso musicians. Songwriting is both a skill and a craft in its own right. As such, it needs to be practiced as its own discipline.
You’ve probably worked out the solution to this; practice, practice, practice! You need to write a lot of songs. And you need to be prepared for them to suck.
A common manifestation of this theme, is writing a song you think is great! You think it’s the best thing you have ever written. You go to bed feeling very pleased with yourself. You awake the next morning, listen to your song, and are very disappointed when it actually seems pretty bad. What happened to that great song you had yesterday?
This is a very common occurrence with songwriters, and can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating. I have lost count of the number of times this has happened to me.
The important thing here though, is the attitude you have. If you write a song that you don’t think is very good, that is not a failure. That is one more step on your path to becoming a good songwriter. The more of these “failures” you have, the better you will become. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, and be developing your own style as you progress. Try to focus on your progress, and not individual disappointments.
Too many people start out writing a few songs, decide they are terrible at it, and give up permanently. That is a shame, as they will never really know how good a songwriter they could have become. Just like learning an instrument, the process can take years. And those who persevere are the ones who will reap the rewards.
3 A lack of knowledge of music theory
Even musicians who say they don’t know any music theory, know some music theory. If a guitarist knows how to play an E and an A chord, and know that they sound good together in a chord progression, then they know some theory. They might not know it in great detail, but they know some (very) basic theory.
Theory gives you options. If you know about keys, harmony, scales, chord progressions, then you are going to have many ideas about where your song can go, and what will work in it. You are likely to be able to turn your ideas into real music, through the application of your knowledge.
Without the theory knowledge, someone may well be able to come up with the same ideas. But it’s likely that they will stumble on them by trial and error or experimentation, rather than through their knowledge. And it will probably take them longer to get there.
Some are put off by theory, saying that they don’t want to have to adhere to rules – it’s my song, I’ll write it how I want! While I understand the sentiment here, I think it is misguided. It is knowing and understanding the rules that allows us to break them, and realize what we doing. Paradoxically, learning the “rules” actually has the opposite effect. It frees us from not knowing all the directions our music could go in, and allows us to explore the full potential of our songs.
A little theory can go a long way. I strongly advise you take the time to learn some. You don’t have to become a music professor, but even a few minutes a night learning some theory can have a wonderful enabling effect on your songwriting. Try learning the basics of…
- Keys, including majors and minors
- Scales and how they relate to keys
- Chords, including chord scales
4 Getting all the ingredients to work together
Listening to the radio or your favorite streaming platform, it’s easy to think that songwriting is very simple. Song after song with a great catchy melody, great hook, perfectly structured, with a chord progression and rhythms perfectly capturing the intended mood.
Even in that last sentence, we barely scratched the surface of what a song contains. There are many moving parts, all required to gel together and complement each other.
Here’s a brief list of some song “ingredients”…
- Chord progressions
All of these could probably be a course of study in their own right! You guessed it…the only way to get good at these and combining them, is to practice.
Experiment with melodies over different chord progressions. What rhythms evoke what moods? How can dynamics affect your song e.g. if I have a quiet chorus but a loud verse, what does that do to the feel of the song? Try coming up with a catchy hook that you can’t get out of your head for hours.
Practicing all these and other ideas should help develop your ability to combine the elements of songwriting. Over time, you will get better and better at knowing which elements work best with each other in what situation.
Once you have recorded your parts, the art of combining them together and making the sound good is called mixing. Mixing is notoriously difficult for beginners to get right. That’s why I have a beginners’ guide to mixing, which will teach you the basics, clear up common points of confusion and get you producing a good-sounding mix in a relatively short time.
5 Not playing a harmony instrument
A harmony instrument is one that can play more than one note at a time. This allows you to form chords, and therefore to string sequences of these together to form chord progressions.
The most common harmony instruments are the piano and the guitar. If you already play one of these, then you have a distinct advantage when it comes to songwriting. You will already be used to playing one chord after another, and may well have an idea of which chords go well together from playing other peoples’ songs.
If you don’t play a harmony instrument, then I strongly suggest that you learn the basics of either a keyboard instrument or the guitar. Perfectly respectable electronic keyboards and acoustic guitars can be picked up for less than $100.
Concentrate on learning simple songs using basic chords. Learn which sequences work well, and what moods they evoke. This will help give you a rudimentary understanding of harmony. You are not aiming to become an expert here, just to know enough to enable you to create your own chord progressions for your songs.
Chord progressions are so important, that I feel it is worth taking the time to learn the basics of a harmony instrument. Without some basic knowledge in this area, you are always going to be in the dark to an extent about how your song will sound.
Going back to mixing for a second…it can be difficult to know exactly what you should be listening out for in your mix. What should you do to make it sound good? My “What makes a good mix?” article will help you here. It will take you through common techniques and strategies that you can use to get aspects of your mix to sound like the songs you hear on the radio.
6 Writing lyrics is hard
Ah…lyrics. The thing I struggle with the most in songwriting.
Listening to some songs by some renowned lyricists such as Bob Dylan, Roger Waters or Alex Turner, you may be thinking it can’t be that hard to write lyrics. You think of and speak words out loud all the time! Surely just thinking of a few and putting them to music is pretty simple?
And sure, anyone could come up with some lyrics in a few minutes. You could take this paragraph you’re reading now and put it to music. But it would most likely sound pretty bad.
They lyrics have to have some interest. They have to make the listener feel something. Maybe they are telling a story. Maybe you are describing something, trying to get the listener to feel what you feel. All this, and they need to fit the music like a hand fits inside a glove.
You essentially need to be a musical poet. One of the most disappointing things about songwriting for me, is realizing that I am not a Bob Dylan or Roger Waters in the lyrical department. It’s likely I will never write lyrics on a par with theirs.
But that expectation is part of the problem – it’s ok. You don’t have to be a lyrical genius to write a good song. You just need to be able to say something convincingly, and as with everything that takes practice.
Try to make a note of phrases you find interesting that you hear during your day. Stay observant, and when you notice something interesting or unusual or thought provoking, write it down. I find keeping notes like this helps a great deal when it comes to lyric writing, as then you’re not effectively writing them from scratch every time. You’ve given yourself a head start, which is invaluable when you’re not a natural lyric writer like me.
I also find it helps to write down what your song is about, just in normal prose. Write a paragraph describing the story of your song, or bullet points, or a mind-map; whatever works to get the ideas out of your brain. I find writing the lyrics after this step much easier than trying to start with a blank piece of paper.
7 Coming up with a hook
The “hook” is hopefully the thing in your song that listener’s won’t be able to get out of their head. A little melody, chorus line or lyric that is so catchy, it becomes that so-called “ear-worm” that you continue to hum all day after you have heard the song.
Creating these can be very challenging. How do you know something will be memorable? Really, the only way is to try it out on yourself and on other people. See what stays in your head after you have been playing your song. Try playing it to a loved one and see what they think.
The other problem with hooks, is that there is a fine line between memorable and annoying. Repeating something over and over may result in it staying in someone’s head, but that is not necessarily a good thing. Once it crosses over into annoying territory, the effect you hoped your song would have is lost.
Practice writing memorable little motifs. Experiment, and test out your hooks on other people. In time, you will develop a muscle that helps you come up with catchy lines, and learn what works and doesn’t for your particular writing style.
8 Not having a process
Every song is different, so writing one will never be exactly the same twice.
This does not however, mean that there isn’t anything that is repeatable across the creation of different songs. Suppose you have a great idea – that inspiration has struck! You sit down to develop your idea…and are stuck thinking “now what”?
Having a process can help a great deal here. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly rigid, precisely defined series of steps. That may well lead you to writing very similar sterile songs over and over again.
But you could have a loosely defined series of steps, for example…
- Basic chords for verse
- Verse melody
- Verse lyric
- Sketch initial structure
- Chorus melody
- Chorus chords
- Chorus lyric
- Middle eight
These do not necessarily have to be done in the same order. Even just having a list of things you have to do can be helpful, and act as a sort of “to do” list even if you don’t do everything on the list for every song.
When it comes to recording your parts, there is nothing more frustrating than capturing a great take only to find it has unpleasant distortion on it. This is often due to incorrect recording levels. I have an article teaching you exactly how to get guitar recording levels right every time. It’s highly recommended reading if you are going to be doing any sort of guitar recording.
9 Songwriter’s block
Author’s have complained of suffering from the infamous “writer’s block” for centuries, possibly millenia.
The musical equivalent – “songwriter’s block“, is the complete inability to write anything. You cannot generate any ideas, you cannot develop any ideas you already have. It’s as if your entire musical knowledge has completely lost its ability to apply itself to anything.
The first thing to remember, is that this happens to every songwriter. You are not alone. Try not to get too frustrated, and try to accept it as just part of the reality of being a creative person. Don’t try to force it; if it just isn’t working, walk away from it.
Go and do something else for a while. That might be for a few hours, days, or even weeks. Spend quality time with your family, go on a short vacation, do some exercise, watch a movie, it doesn’t really matter. Just try to take your mind off the songwriter’s block.
Almost always, it will fix itself. In doing some other activities, something along the way will inspire you. It’s as if the subconscious mind is working on your music for you while the conscious mind is dealing with the outside world. The songwriter’s block will go away. It’s just annoying that you have no idea how long that will take.
10 Not making use of available tools
We are incredibly fortunate with the tools that are available today to aid in our songwriting.
DAW software lets us quickly multi-track parts, so we can very quickly tell if that bass line with those guitar chords works, or if those vocal harmonies sound good. Drum software effectively gives us access to a pro session drummer in our own homes. Loop libraries give us thousands of ready made ideas and parts to use.
Rhyming dictionaries (e.g. RhymeZone) give us a huge helping hand with finding words that rhyme for our lyrics. The thesaurus (e.g. thesaurus.com) can help us find that word we’re looking for that would be perfect for our song that we just can’t quite think of. Online chord tools such as autochords.com can give us a great first step in creating chord progressions.
Using these tools is not cheating! It is simply making use of the tools that are available to us today. Is it cheating to use a pencil and piece of paper, rather than keeping it all in your head? Of course not.
So please make use of these and any other tools that can give you a helping hand in your songwriting. Anything that gives you a push in the right direction or saves you some time is worth adding to your arsenal of songwriting tools.
When you have a full song recorded and mixed, even though the song is great it may still sound a bit lifeless and dull. This is often the fault of the mixing process. If this applies to you, check out my how to defeat a dull-sounding mix article. You’ll learn common causes of dullness, techniques to rectify them and how to get your mix sounding full of energy and life.
11 Conflicting feedback
Maybe you have experienced something like this…you play your song to someone, and they love it! They genuinely seem to enjoy it, and go away humming the chorus melody. You then play it to someone else, and they absolutely hate it. They are trying to be nice to you, but it’s clear that they are just trying not to hurt your feelings.
So is your song any good, or not? Sadly, it’s impossible to tell. It’s probably somewhere in-between those reactions i.e. not terrible, but not fantastic either.
This conflicting feedback can be incredibly demoralizing. The key thing to remember is that these people are not necessarily your audience. You may not have found your audience yet; they are the people who love your music. These are the only opinions that really matter.
Don’t stop playing your music to loved ones, family members, friends etc. But remember that just because they are loved ones, that does not automatically make them part of your audience.
You wouldn’t expect an Iron Maiden fan to naturally like a Rick Astley song, would you? Although ironically, I genuinely like both!