Learning how to play the guitar and learning how to write songs are two different sets of skills.
It took me a long time to understand this. As a consequence it took me longer to start writing songs due to my false belief that I needed to get better on the guitar before I could.
Truth is, if you can even play just a few open chords on the guitar, you can start writing your first songs and developing your songwriting skills.
The following are the most important songwriting skills you should be developing. Notice how many of them complement your guitar playing skills.
The elements of music
Writing songs involves manipulating some or all of the 9 elements of music.
These are melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, timbre, dynamics, texture, form and lyrics. Go to this lesson for a detailed description of each.
Once you’re aware of these elements, start observing how they work together when you listen to your favorite songs.
Note: Musicologists argue over the exact number of music elements. Some claim there are more than 9, some less. This is not really relevant to us songwriters since the reason the numbers vary is that either two or more elements are grouped into one, or that one of these elements is split into two or more.
What really matters for you as a songwriter is to understand how these elements work together to make a song.
Also, note that most of these elements are good places to start writing a song. For instance, you can start your song from the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the lyrics and even the dynamics.
Music theory is a set of tried and tested ways these elements of music have been used by composers and songwriters over the years.
Rather than a set of rules, learning music theory is an organized set of options you can choose from when writing songs.
While music theory may be less important if you just want to play other people’s music, a basic understanding of music theory is very important for songwriters.
These are just a few situations where music theory will prove useful for songwriters:
- Writing your songs in a key.
- Finding the right chords for your melodies
- Deliberately using chords that are not in the key (but still sound good)
- Communicating with other musicians
- Resolving dissonance into consonance to create catchy melodies
- Developing a motif to create a melody
- Knowing your rhythmic options, for both the melody and the harmony
Once you understand a new music theory concept, use it.
An interval, a scale, an arpeggio, a chord, a rhythm or even a concept (such as consonance and dissonance), can be used to write a melody and/or a harmony.
As a guitarist and a songwriter, you should take a different approach to learning music theory from those who are studying the subject for exams.
- You don’t need to learn everything: A music theory student has to learn whatever it is in his syllabus whether he’s ever going to use it in real life or not.
For instance, you don’t need to learn how to transpose music for different instruments of the orchestra unless you plan to compose music for an orchestra.
Nor do you need to learn figured bass unless you plan to compose Baroque music. Or memorize hundreds of Italian words you will never encounter again.
- Apply everything you learn: A student studying for an examination can stop at the level of understanding of a music theory element or concept.
If he proves that he has understood that element in the exam, he does fine.
The songwriter also needs to be able to apply that concept and use it to create music. (This happens to be the fun side of music theory).
In other words, if you learn how diatonic chord progressions work, start creating progressions and turning them into songs.
I used to believe that music theory and ear training compensated for each other.
Some, like myself, could study a lot of theory to “tell me” where I need to go, while others are born with a good ear and could figure everything out by themselves.
It took me more than a decade to realize that music theory and ear training complement, rather than substitute each other.
Not training my ear until much later affected both my guitar playing and my songwriting skills.
When you learn a new music theory concept you should not just understand it and apply it to an instrument, but also memorize its sound.
This way, over time you will have an organized collection of sounds in your head you can use at will when writing songs.
Once I had a student, let’s call him Tim, who could play very well on the guitar but used to reject any of my attempts to teach him how to write songs.
Knowing that joining a band was one of his major goals, I asked him:
“Do you know that being able to write songs will make you an asset for any band you may want to join in the future? Why aren’t you even slightly interested in writing songs?”
“It’s not that I’m not interested. It’s not my thing because I’m not a creative person.”
“Who told you that?”
He didn’t know the answer to my question, but I did.
When he was a child Tim, like all kids his age, was a very creative person.
Then, at school and eventually, at work, he started learning that he should limit his creativity, or there may be consequences.
That if he leaves his imagination to run wild in a school composition it will be struck as out of point and he’ll get a zero.
That the clothes he would like to wear might attract laughter and rejection.
And that if he proposes a strategy that works better with less work, his boss might label him as lazy.
The “creative muscle” exists in all of us. We use it when we need to, such as when we need to solve a problem.
But since we have learned to limit our creativity, most of us only use this muscle when necessary, thus it remains weak.
On the other hand, if we train this muscle at every opportunity, it will get strong, like the muscles of someone who pulls weights regularly.
There are many ways you can deliberately train yourself to be creative, I’ll just give you one example:
In the next 24 hours come up with 10 lyrical phrases and a melody to go with each phrase.
Anytime your brain doesn’t have to be focused on something, such as while walking, waiting, or taking a shower, try to come up with a phrase and a tune.
I come up with stuff like this during such times, just to train my creativity muscle.
Most of what I come up with ends forgotten or discarded but occasionally I come up with something that will end up in a song.
That’s just a bonus.
All the ideas you generate, even the ones that you discard, are part of your training as a songwriter and have served their purpose.
Sense of melody
A good songwriter has the ability to create catchy melodies.
While studying the theory behind the components of a good melody will surely help, the best way to develop a good sense of melody is to actually come up with as many as you can.
In the creativity exercise, I gave you above, try to make your tunes as melodic as possible.
Also, listen carefully to your favorite hooks and notice what makes them melodic.
For instance, you will notice that one thing that makes tunes catchy is having dissonant intervals resolving into a consonance.
Writing a song doesn’t require you to play every instrument, or even to write the parts for every instrument.
However, you do need to be able to communicate clearly with the musicians playing the music.
For instance, though I’m not a singer, I communicate with singers by actually singing the tunes I create with my untrained voice. It’s enough to show them how the melody should be – they will then adjust the phrasing and add the vocal techniques I do not have.
If I’m playing with a bass player, he’ll usually come up with a bass line himself, but knows what key we’re playing in, over which chords he’ll be playing and an idea of what style of bassline I would like to have in my song.
Point is, you don’t need to compose every detail yourself – the musicians, as well as arrangers and producers, will be more specialized in some areas.
But you do need to develop the ability to communicate your ideas clearly.
Though a lyricist is sometimes considered as having a different role than a songwriter, I suggest that if you’re going to write songs, you write the lyrics yourself.
You do away with the hassle and expenses of having to find a lyricist and I also believe it’s more satisfying if you express yourself with both the words and the music.
Once again, you can learn about lyric writing techniques, but you will learn how to write lyrics mostly by actually doing it.
Write as much as you can. Not all of it needs to make sense.
Then choose your favorite lyrics and find a melody for them. Harmonize that melody, and you have a song!
Conclusion: Where to go from here
The threshold for starting to write songs is very low. All you need is a few chords, a few words and a tune!
What distinguishes the amateurs from the pros is how they develop the skills mentioned above as well as experience.
Thus, while you should dedicate some time to each of these skills every week, you should also be writing a lot of songs.
If you study the skills that make the craft of songwriting as well as practice doing it frequently, you will soon find the quality of your songs improving, and the ideas flowing in more easily.
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