Becoming a Better Songwriter

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Band rehearsalI’ve taught a lot of musicians, both young and old, and have hung around a lot of music teachers. And telling musicians that they must “practice” is as common a statement as telling kids to eat their vegetables.

I’m convinced that most musicians don’t know what the word practice means in any real sense. A lot of songwriting websites tell up & coming songwriters, “You must practice!” But what does that mean to a songwriter? How do you practice your songwriting?

It’s easy to know why instrumentalists need to practice scales, chords and arpeggios: eventually, those patterns are going to show up in the music they play.

And then, thinking outside the world of music… it’s easy to know why batters on a baseball team need to practice hitting balls: eventually, it’s going to directly relate to what they’ll be doing in an actual game.

But what should a songwriter be practicing?

Well, there is a lot to practice. Want some ideas?

  1. Improvise. Every time you sit and improvise with other musicians, you’re not only honing your playing chops, you’re also improvising songwriting ideas, and that’s a kind of practice.
  2. Do lyric-creating games. Try this one, “4 Fun Games to Hone Your Lyric-Writing Abilities,” or “Get Control of Your Lyrics – Try This Rewording Exercise.”
  3. Write small snippets of melody. Instead of writing full songs, concentrate on just short melodic bits, and do those exercises with the goal of improving aspects like melodic shape, climactic high point, and singability. Here’s a post that might help: “Practicing Verse and Chorus Melody Writing.”

And those are all great things that songwriters should be doing, if not daily, certainly weekly.

But I’ve got an additional thought about practicing, and it’s this: Sometimes, the best way forward is to not fixate on the word “practice,” but rather to just get busy and write.

I’m thinking of a quote by Ringo Starr in which he said, “I’ve never practiced drums unless there was another human being in the room… if I’m just playing by myself it gets boring pretty quick.”

I think Ringo has hit the issue right on the head. He’s found it unsatisfying, maybe even irrelevant, to do anything musical by himself. He’d far rather be learning his craft by sitting in a room with other musicians, listening, communicating, and reacting to the musical ideas he’s hearing.

And though he’s talking about drumming, which is almost by definition a group activity, I think a similar sentiment applies to songwriting. For sure, songwriters are people who do a lot of their work on their own, but songs themselves are the best teachers.

If you are really interested in improving your skills as a songwriter, using the same processes that you’d use to “do the real thing,” try this:

  1. Improvise musical ideas. Either solo or with your bandmates, set up an improvisation on a melodic idea. (A great example of this is listening to Paul McCartney working out the ideas for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road“, from the Anthology 3 collection.)
  2. Always record what you’ve improvised. And do a bit of mixing to get a good result. Listen to what you’ve done, and try to figure out ways to improve the structure of your song.
  3. Don’t worry if your session doesn’t lead to a new song. You’d be surprised how much you learn simply by casually putting ideas together in this way.

This kind of “practicing” is one of the best ways to improve your songwriting skills, because it involves getting lyrics and chords off the page and getting them into a form that resembles a final product. And doing that is the best way to bring the words practice and practical together in a musically meaningful way.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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