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The best composers are the ones who listen to a lot of music. Have you noticed that the best songwriters seem to talk more about other people’s music than their own? They’re always listening, always analyzing, always trying to figure out what makes a song work. And then they’ll talk about how they were able to incorporate other musicians’ ideas into their own work. It’s how all artists improve, whether you’re talking about music, the visual arts, drama… whatever the artistic endeavour, we learn from others.
I often hear songwriters express a fear of “listening too much” to the songwriters that they love, a fear of accidental plagiarism. But in my experience, that’s rarely something to be concerned about.
You’ll find that if your interests are broad, your own songwriting output starts to sound more like an amalgam of many different writers. So the fear of plagiarism can generally be put to rest.
But other than simply listening to other songwriters’ work, what else can you do to be a good student of songwriting? Here are some ideas you can try that will enhance your compositional technique:
- Transcribe your favourite songs. If you know a bit of theory and can read musical notation, try writing out the melody and chords to some of your favourite songs. Mark things like the highest note, the lowest note, the climactic high point, and so on. If you don’t know theory, you can still do this kind of analysis by ear: singing the melody to yourself repeatedly allows you to make note of those same important elements.
- Sketch out a map of your songs. Do a line drawing over a time line of your song. When I do this, I allow the drawing to show the basic energy level: as the song becomes more energetic, the line moves upward. Here’s a post that describes this in more detail. But if your worried about whether or not your melodies have good contour, allow the line drawing to emulate the basic shape of your melody. It can be a very revealing exercise.
- Try some songwriting “games.” Not everything you do needs to be (nor should be) an attempt to write a full-fledged song. Try some simple, short challenges that will allow you to focus on some aspect of songwriting. For a list of ideas, check this post.
- Chart the instrumental accompaniment for your favourite songs. This can be a very interesting form of song study. You can also do this with your own songs, once you’ve got a finished product. Classical musicians who write for orchestras spend a great deal of time analyzing their orchestrations. Even though your songs are likely using much smaller instrumentations, it’s still vital to control how your instruments are used. Bad instrumentation can turn a great song into something mundane.
- Lyrical study. Take your favourite songs and take a close look at the lyrics. You can learn a lot by simply answering some basic questions: Is the song written in the first person or third person? What’s the general mood? (Upbeat? Angry? Sad? Happy?) The subject? You’ll likely start to see patterns emerging, and the more you learn this way, the more you’ll see your own lyrical abilities develop.
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