Improving Songwriting Skills Starts With Listening

The simple act of listening makes you a better songwriter. Here’s how.


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Harry NilssonNo matter how unique your songwriting style is, it’s always the case that you build on what’s come before. For every great singer-songwriter, there is a line that can be drawn back in time, connecting to generations of past musicians, all of whom have contributed to today’s greatest writers. But we want to sound like ourselves, with no obvious connection to others. It goes without saying that uniqueness is seen to be a positive quality in the creative arts.

But we shouldn’t worry about showing our influences. The Beatles unabashedly copied other musicians’ performance styles, instrumentation and compositional techniques, in a bid to stay ahead of the curve. Chuck Berry,  The Byrds, Harry Nilsson, Little Richard, Bob Dylan — that’s just a short list of major influences on The Beatles’ compositional and performance style.

There’s a fear by many songwriters that if they allow themselves to be too influenced by someone else, it comes close to plagiarism. And if not literal plagiarism, at least the fear that they’ll be labeled a copycat musician who lacks originality. But my point is that in a very real sense, nothing is original in the world of songwriting.

If you aren’t making listening a part of your daily musical routine, you are missing your best opportunity to improve and to make your music relevant to today’s audience.  Daily listening means that you’re constantly modifying your songwriting approach in very subtle ways. And those modifications keep your songwriting fresh and imaginative.

Most of the time the improvement that comes from daily listening happens at the subconscious level. But you can also improve by analyzing the music you listen to, and applying what you like to your own songwriting. A great quote, attributed over time to many different songwriters, is “Good musicians borrow; great musicians steal.”

But what specifically should you be listening for? Other than saying, “Gee, I really like that guitar sound,” what are the sorts of things you should be listening for when you immerse yourself in the music of others? Choose a song that you really love, and give the following some thought:

  1. Melody: Compare the verse and chorus melodies. What’s the same? What’s different? Can you pinpoint exactly why you like it? (For example, the chorus melody of “Somebody That I Used To Know (Gotye) benefits greatly from the rather large upward leaps on key words from the lyric.) How many notes are used to create the verse? The chorus?
  2. Chords: How often do the chords change? Does this change between verse, chorus and bridge? How do verse progressions compare to chorus progressions? Compare the use of major chords to minor ones throughout the song – Is there a pattern to the way they’re used? (i.e., do you notice more minor chords in one section, and more major in another?)
  3. Instrumentation: Make note of exactly how the backing instruments are playing. What rhythms seem to be used the most? How would it change the song if the backing instruments used a different rhythmic scheme? How would it change the song to use a different set of instruments?
  4. Lyrics: How would you describe the lyrical approach? Poetic? Casual? Narrative? Experiment by writing a verse of lyric in a similar style.
  5. Song topic. What is the song about? What’s unique about this song’s subject matter?
  6. Vocal style. What do you like about the way the singer performs this song? What might you do differently if you were to perform it? Think of 3 other favourite singers, and imagine what the song would sound like if they were to sing it.

There’s always a danger in copying someone else’s music too much, of course, and so you’ll always want to be careful. Plagiarism can happen accidentally. But what we’re discussing here is not deliberately copying someone else’s song as much as we’re borrowing song structure notions and performance ideas.

And for the best songwriters out there, this kind of borrowing happens all the time. It’s a crucial part of improving your songwriting skills.

Feel free to comment below with the singer-songwriters and/or bands that have shaped the songwriter you are today.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. I’ve been in the category of trying not to plagiarize.. but listening & being influenced by so many great poetic writers .. that style of writing stuck ..vocal and melodic structure has been more of the challenge .. accident theft happens .. even to myself .. that is frustrating

  2. Pingback: Just Listen If You Want To Be A Better Songwriter | Acoustic

  3. I have been influenced in my writings by Kurt Cobain verse chorus verse soft loud soft and also Gavin Rossdale of Bush in keeping lyrics interestingly vague. Guitar style and sound of the same plus a little bit of Fuel and Lifehouse. I like the old school sound of Bowie’s ziggy years and a little T Rex. the dark side of Joy Division and the lighter side of the Cure.

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