The Value of Small-Scale Songwriting Tasks

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It used to be that composers of music spent a great deal of time practicing the craft of musical composition. And I wonder how many songwriters today can make the claim that they practice their writing skills? Do you practice? It may be that you don’t know how to practice something like songwriting, so I want to give you some ideas in this blog post. The benefit of songwriting practice is that it can take a bit of the pressure off for having to compose an entire song every time you sit down to write. And of course the real purpose of practicing is to make putting songs together easier and more enjoyable.

To practice something effectively means to break it down to its smallest, most elemental tasks. In the world of songwriting, that probably means practicing melody construction, chord progressions, and lyrics.

Here’s a little list of songwriting activities that you can try, all of which should improve your songwriting skills. The activities can and should be fun, so if you find that they’re stressing you out, you may simply need a break. So put aside that song you’ve been struggling with, and give the following a try.

  1. Lyrics: Word Association. We all have our favourite words, our preferred way of wording thoughts and ideas. It’s a good exercise to work to expand that list a bit. Take one of the following words, and make a list of ten words that immediately come to mind. 1) LOVE; 2) HATE; 3) MAKE; 4) HOLD; 5) REACH.
  2. Lyrics: Phrase Rewordings. Like the exercise above, learning to say something in an entirely different way can be beneficial, especially if you find that your newest song sounds too much like the one you just wrote. Take the following phrases, and simply say them in a different way. They don’t have to mean the same thing, just something similar but different. For example, “I saw you walking down the street” could be reworded as, “I watched you walking in the park”.
    1. I saw you walking down the street: _______________
    2. You make me feel so wonderful: ____________
    3. If only I could tell you that my feelings have changed: _____________
    4. Let’s take a ride, and not look back: ______________
    5. My life has never been so good: ________________
  3. Melody: Verse and Chorus Construction. We know that verses are usually pitched a bit lower than chorus melodies. Here’s a way to practice this basic principle: Improvise a short melody (8-16 notes long, don’t worry about lyrics), that avoids the tonic note, accompanied by a simple chord progression. Then, using the same chord progression, try singing a similar melody that’s pitched higher, hitting the tonic note more often.
  4. Chord Progressions: Reharmonizing. Create a short melody, or take the ones you created for the 3rd activity above, and harmonize them in as many different ways as possible. To learn more about chord substitutions, read this post.
  5. Chord Progressions: From Fragile to Strong. A strong progression is one that firmly points to one chord as being the tonic, while a fragile progression is one that is a bit more tonally ambiguous. This is an important concept that can be practiced. Strong progressions will often start and end on a tonic chord, and will feature chords whose roots move by 4ths and 5ths. (For example, C F Dm G C is a very strong progression) So create 5 progressions in any key that could be identified as strong. Then create 5 progressions that are more likely to be considered fragile. (For example, F Dm Eb F  Cm might be considered to be fragile, since a tonic chord is not clearly indicated).

There are probably lots of exercises like this that you can invent. Feel free to post your ideas here. The benefit to these short songwriting games is that you get to practice that one thing that’s been bugging you, while taking the pressure off of having to compose an entire song.


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

  1. About three years ago I made a list of ten songs I had co written, and decided
    to work on each one until every vocal phrase sang properly, at the same time
    the story line had to make sense, and be told in a way that had not been done

    The only thing I never changed was the underlying chords to the songs
    instead , I found that by using repetition ( exact and approximate)
    plus phrasal contrast , I could eventually find an emotion that fitted the
    sing and record each phrase until I found a satisfactory finished product

    I chose about Six different genres; and would spend varied times on each
    song ranging from 30 minutes to a few hours, having said that I know
    my subconscious works on these songs constantly

    My days are normally made up of home do it yourself building and repairs and
    song writing, I know when to leave the writing and find either a bicycle ride
    or a walk or a spot of gardening so that way I never seem to get bored with my
    In this writing process I use two instruments Piano and Guitar plus a certain
    amount of listening to what is in today’s charts.

    I must admit that this method of writing suite me well, and the songs have evolved
    to a quality where most of them are being pitched .

    I have never written a great song in an hour or two , plenty of ideas, have come in
    a short time that have been nurtured and many more have been put to one side

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