This article is an introduction to a series called Songwriting 101, a course that will be aimed at helping songwriters, of all skill and experience levels, improve their craft. The series will detail the major ways that the songwriting skill can be sharpened, before delving into some more unusual theories on how else this can be done. The four major ways to improve songwriting are developing technique, learning music theory, analyzing music, and practicing.
Discussing technique seems to almost be a taboo subject when discussing songwriting. The two are seen as opposites that are unrelated. However, improving your technique can unlock new possibilities that seemed unattainable before. The modern songwriter no longer relies on scoring to compose music. This effectively limits his options to what is within his technical limits.
Working on technique should be like adding tools to the tool belt and improving the usefulness of the ones already there. Sure you can build something with a hammer, but if you have a hammer and a wrench, now you're going places. To bring it back to musical terms: if you are not capable of playing past 160 bpm, then there could be plenty of songs past that tempo that you could have written.
Okay, admit it. You saw this one coming. I know it's pretty predicable, but it has to be included. Why? Because it helps. It is important to get a decent understanding of music theory. Nothing crazy, but if you have a solid understanding of chord progressions, melody, harmony and modes, you will have a lot more guidance in arranging your music. Think of it in the same way as technique: it gives you more tools, creating more options.
Again, predictable. But, true nonetheless. By analyzing your favorite artists, you will take note of what you like and do not like and then begin to incorporate them into your style. Think about the types of riffs being played. Why did your favorite guitarist choose that note?
One of the biggest tips I ever received was to pay attention to the way artists arranged their songs. Many musicians will tell you that you can learn from your idols, but what they often leave out is that you can "steal" their song structures. (No one has to know.) If you look at some my music (please excuse the self-promotion-gotta do it), pretty much all of their structures are lifted from Trivium, Death, Amon Amarth, or the standard Verse-Chorus structure. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are if you don't know where to put them, and looking to your idols for guidance will certainly help.
The cliche holds true. The only way to become great at songwriting is to write as many songs as possible. If you are just starting out, your songs are probably going to sound horrible for awhile. Do not be discouraged, this is normal. Instead, keep pushing forward and know that each song you write will be better than the last. Songwriting is as much of a technique as sweep picking and should be practiced as such.
I know this is pretty general, but it was only meant to serve as a broad introduction to give an overview while also providing some information, kind of like a syllabus day in school. The upcoming installments of the series will be much more in depth and cover the areas discussed above, as well as any other aspects I can think of. If you have any suggestions for a lesson or questions you would like addressed, let me know in the comments.
About the Author:
Ryan Loftus is a solo artist and multi instrumentalist from Philadelphia, PA. Specializing in metal, rock, and exotic music. His debut solo album, "Reclaiming Humanity," is available on YouTube, CD Baby, iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon. Facebook page. YouTube channel. SoundCloud page.