3 Songwriting Tips...
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
1. Pretend no one is going to hear it!
Songwriting really has two steps. Write a song and then share the song with someone else. That’s it. Once another set of ears has heard it, the song has in essence become alive. It’s like hanging a painting at an art gallery. It is now open to praise, interpretation, fame, obscurity, and criticism.
You have to ignore that step in the process when you first write a song. This way, the writer can approach the song with honesty. Ignore the consequence of the words you write. Forget about what you think people will or will not like. I always try to comfort myself, “No one is going to hear this.” It’s so important to BELIEVE the song, and an audience can see through dishonesty. If you care about your audience, you have to ignore there will ever be an audience to make a song that isn’t distracted with pleasing others.
Extemporaneous writing is a great starting point for writing a song when you have no idea what kind of song you want to write. Sometimes I’ll set a timer for 5, 10, 15 minutes and just write. Do this enough and you’ll almost get a keeper line, everytime.
2. Find the Verse Formula
I once asked a successful musician for tips on songwriting. He said, “We don’t believe in rules for songwriting.” To me, that sounds like a rule to not have rules. As with any creative field, there are formulas and hacks to making a crap product by just doing a lesser version of someone else’s success. That’s not what I mean by finding the verse formula. I believe every song has it’s very own unique formula. The chorus of a song is probably the most important, but the verse has to be a close second. However, a lot of the time I actually write the verse sections first.
The first step to writing a great verse is writing a great sentence, or a great line. My definition of a ‘great line’ is something I write that I like. The rhyme isn’t that important. When you can identify a great sentence, then that becomes your punchline. Each verse should have two punchlines. For example, I have a song called “Martial Arts Movie.” I had an idea to write a song about an audience watching me acting in a karate movie. I wanted to include every martial arts pop reference I could think of. Creatively, I feel this was fun.
“This ain’t Wu Tang or Quintin Tarantino” was a line that made me happy, so I identified that as a punchline. The Wu Tang Clan is a martial arts movie reference in itself, but RZA wrote a great theme for Kill Bill and Tarantino wrote and directed the movie. The A line, or the setup becomes a little easier if the punch is written first. My setup line is “Get the popcorn. Turn the lights low.” Since I had identified my punchline, the setup became easier to focus on. My setup line is supposed to let the audience know that we are in a movie theatre. For the first verse, you should have two punchlines. My second punchline was, “I’m starring in a martial arts movie.” My 3rd line is an opportuning to set up the punch while also including a reference. My setup to the second punch is “I feel like Ryu, looking for Chun Li.”What do I want to say?
"Get the popcorn. Turn the lights low
This ain’t Wu Tang or Quintin Tarantino
I feel like Ryu, looking for Chun Li
I’m starring in a martial arts movie”
Once I have one verse written that I really like, then I have my verse formula. Mentally, songwriting is easier when you tell yourself you only have to write four lines. You want to try to plagiarize yourself by using a similar rhythm established by your one verse. I would copy the rhyme scheme as well. I try to overwrite verses. If the song calls for three verses, it’s a luxury to have six verses and pick the best three, or mix and match the best parts. It’s better to have too much than not enough. I will have an original verse that inspires all the other verses. However, during the process another verse or verses may be better. The original verse doesn’t have to be the first verse in the song. It can go anywhere. Sometimes, you may decide that the original verse gets cut. What really matters is that you found your verse formula.
3. What do I want to say?
Sometimes you won’t know what the song really is until you’re done. The easiest way to find a subject or an idea for a song is to write about the one thing you can’t stop thinking about. Without even writing lyrics, making a list of reference points will make the verses easier to write. I’ll give an example again from “Martial Arts Movie.” My stream of conscious list looked something like this.
Street Fighter 2
Big Trouble in Little China
Counting to ten in Japanese
80’s movie montages
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Martial Arts Movie
Every song has some sort of message to it. The message may not be spelled out for the audience, and sometimes the message is literally the title of the song. Below are some examples of the underlying message from some of my upcoming songs.
“No Heart Inside” - Accepting that I don’t have the ability to change someone else.
“Next Night” - Optimistic about my future though I’m unhappy with my current situation.
‘Martial Arts Movie”- I was weak, but now I’m strong and I’m ready to fight and get my revenge.
“Just Me” - Letting go of comparing myself to others will lead to a focus of becoming the best version of myself.
“End of the World”- Surrounded by pessimism and the masses saying this is end, I refuse to give up hope and the fight for a better world.
“On the Floor”- Letting go of the past and the future and embracing the present moment
I’m living in mindfulness.
“‘61 Ferrari” - Wherever I go, that’s where the party is.
I hope these three principles can help you. Being honest with your writing will make your songs more believable and more likely for you to be happy with your song. Find your own unique formula that will come alive during the process, and know that every song can be unique. No one else has your voice. You are one of a kind. Figure out what you want to say, and you’re ready.