How Your Performance Level Often Dictates Your Songwriting Level

If all your songs are sounding the same, it may not be a songwriting problem at all.

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Rock guitaristOne of the best ways to improve your songwriting skills has, at first glance, not much to do with songwriting at all: improve your performance skills. That’s because for most songwriters, musical ideas happen when you sit down and improvise on your instrument.

There are many songwriters who will say something to the effect that “three chords is plenty” for writing songs, particularly country music. While that may be true, that should never mean that improving your instrumental skills is an option. It’s part of basic curiosity – about how music works. If you don’t feel curious enough to improve, you have to examine what you really want from music.

By improving your performance level, you’re more easily able to create melodic and harmonic fragments that can serve as ideas for new songs. If your guitar abilities are limited to those same three chords all the time, think of how that’s going to limit your songwriting ideas, no matter how creative your imagination is.

So here are some ideas for becoming a better instrumentalist:

  1. Commit to playing your instrument every day. Even if you don’t have time to practice, even just 5 minutes will be better than nothing.
  2. Practice your instrument (almost) every day. And that means consciously working to better yourself, not just noodling around on your instrument.
  3. Play transcriptions of your favourite music. Find recordings of great solos and do your best to emulate them. If you’re stuck, you’ll often find YouTube videos of people isolating solo tracks.
  4. Take lessons. Learning without a good teacher can sometimes reinforce bad habits and mistakes. A good teacher will make the most efficient use of your practice time, and  you’ll improve at a faster rate.
  5. Where possible, experiment with alternate tunings and performance styles. If you’re a guitarist, a whole new world awaits as you try different string tunings, and different ways to play the instrument. Use your imagination and watch the songwriting ideas appear.
  6. Don’t brag about how lousy a player you are. “Yeah, never seen the need to learn more than 3 chords…” is not something to boast about. Expand your abilities daily, learn new voicings, and learn how to incorporate them into your regular playing.
  7. Learn performance styles from different genres. You may be a rock guitarist, but your musical abilities will increase immensely if you learn other styles: folk, country, bluegrass, classical. Again, it’s all about being musically curious.
  8. Think before you play. Don’t always rely on your performance abilities as the source of your songwriting ideas. Think first. Imagine musical ideas, and then find them on your instrument.

Personally, I think that final tip – thinking before you play – is probably the most important one, and it has always been so. That tip bridges the difference between writers of classical music and writers of pop. Classical composers usually played one instrument, but often wrote for an entire orchestra. That means they were usually writing for instruments they didn’t play. Their musical imagination dictated what the music would be.

But pop musicians are usually writing songs for which the main ideas first appeared under their fingers as they played. Determining to think first is a simple way of becoming a bit more sophisticated with your songwriting technique.

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3 Comments

  1. Re Songwriters who say “Three Chord Is All You Need” -For a Country song.
    I believe that is true there are many who think that way, but these co called
    Song writers are not getting cuts , because it’s an old fashioned response.

    Songs like “Release Me” –“Lonesome Me” -Three Chord Rock and Roll
    the latter known as Twelve Bar Blues> were okay for the sixties, for Elvis
    and his many disciples , but contemporary tastes demand much more including
    writer modulations. jumping from Minor to Major in one song, and even borrowing
    chords from Classical Music re the suspended seventh followed by a major seventh Et-cetera

    Even The Beatles owed their phenomenal success to the use of borrowed chords
    and what is now known as Supplementiing by Function. any Composer worth his or
    her sort would have a complete understanding of Harmonic Function of Chords and
    every Scale or Mode known to man.
    Just look at the success of Dianne Warren a self contained writer who can write songs in any genre.

    • I tend to agree with you for the most part. But I often encourage songwriters to go simple, just for the reason that at least with short, strong progressions, you know you’ve got something that works, and you can be as creative as you want on top of that. The Beatles’ creative use of chords provides a good lesson for all of us, which is that complex chord progressions still need to have a sense of direction and purpose. Where weaker songwriters get in trouble is that they often mistake “complex” for “random”, and think that the way to create a captivating chord progression is to simply use chords no one was expecting. But that kind of chord muddle usually results in listeners being confused and turned off. Complex progressions usually still need to make sense on some level. Of all possible elements that go together to make music, I’d say chords are the one that can tolerate simplicity and predictability more so than any other. I’d rather hear predictable chords accompanying an imaginative melody than the other way around.

      Cheers,
      -Gary

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