Listening Outside Your Genre Improves Songwriting Skills

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Bach & DylanIt’s understandable; you usually only want to listen to the music that you love, the music you grew up with, and the music that you write. If you’re into metal, you’re not likely going to cozy up with the “100 Greatest Bluegrass Hits” album. But just because you write in one genre doesn’t mean that you should be ignoring other styles of music. And in fact, musicians who venture outside their instinctive areas of interest have a greater chance of writing songs that show imagination and originality. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to improve!

So what is it about other genres that boosts your songwriting skills? Since performance style accounts for up to 90% of what’s different between the genres, can you really learn all that much from a style that’s not your own? After all, you likely aren’t going to borrow bluegrass performance style to incorporate into your next heavy metal song.

While performance style does account for the bulk of the difference between genres, there are musical differences that can stimulate the imagination and affect how you write.

These differences chiefly center on chord choice, melodic shape, instrumentation, and song form.

But don’t worry so much about what specifically you should be learning from a different genre; just get listening! Every genre has its list of hit artists that made their mark in that world, and so a simple online search should tell you who they are.

We all tend to prejudge what our reaction will be to listening to something outside our favourite genre. So it’s vital that you cast your opinions aside and listen with an open mind.

Choose a genre that is the least likely one you’d normally be interested in, search for a hit song from that genre, and try the following:

  1. Listen several times, and don’t attempt to form an opinion about it. Just listen. Get it in your ear.
  2. Try to verbalize why you think the song works. This may be a strange experience for you. If you normally like rock, it may take you a few listens to be able to say why you think that country ballad you chose works. But the more you listen, the easier this should be.
  3. Sketch out the chords the song uses. Try to determine if it’s the kind of progression you could use in your own genre. Why or why not? What would you change about the kinds of chords used?
  4. Make a contour map of the song’s melodies. Try comparing it to songs you’re familiar with. How do they differ?
  5. Make note of the song’s instrumentation. This is an area where many become inspired. You may never have considered using some of the instruments you’re hearing, but why not? This is precisely the kind of thing that can open your mind.

And a final tip: research interviews with hit songwriters, and you’ll likely see that the best ones out there love to talk about other musicians. Make note of who they like to listen to. You’ll probably see that the best in the world have a huge list of musicians from outside their genre that they love to listen to. Let’s learn from their example.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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