Like anyone else, songwriters look for ways to improve what they do. How to improve as a songwriter is a topic that gets discussed a lot, and there are many, many opinions.
If you want to improve as a geologist, everyone will agree that the best way is to combine studying at a university with in-the-field experience (collecting rocks, studying formations, etc.)
If you want to improve as a plumber, everyone agrees that you’ll probably study at a community college, and then combine that with in-the-field experience: apprenticing with a professional.
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But what about songwriting? True, you can certainly study songwriting at universities and colleges now. Decades ago, some universities started offering studies in popular music, under the description “illegitimate music.” In the context, “illegitimate” simply meant (or implied) that it was music guided by instincts, not by official learning. The term is still amusing (and perhaps astonishing) to us today.
But most of the world’s best songwriters have never studied their craft at a college or university. They just, as they say, “get out there and do it.” Other than writing as much as you can, is there any good way to study songwriting?
What Popular Music Really Is
What we have come to call popular music is music that encompasses pop, rock, country, folk, and many other genres and sub-genres, the number of which is in the thousands. Songwriters improve mainly by listening to other songwriters. That’s because of two important characteristics that pertain to popular music genres:
- Popular music is an oral tradition, by which we mean that music is experienced and then passed on most importantly by “word of mouth.” Marvin Gaye was the musician he was because he sang in church as a young boy, he loved doo-wop and Chuck Berry, and each of these experiences and many others shaped his eventual musical persona.
- Popular music is mostly an improvised art form. That is to say, we get our ideas mostly by playing around until we hear something we like.
When you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem as though there’s much call for studying to improve your skills. You learn most by listening, and you do the actual writing by improvising ideas until you find something you like.
How to Study Songwriting
I want to put a plug in, however, for studying as an important way to improve your songwriting skills. Studying to be a geologist, however, and studying to be a songwriter, will necessarily look a bit different. Here are some tips for studying popular music in a bid to improve your songwriting skills:
- Keep a songwriting journal, and make your observations in written form. If you want some ideas on how to keep a journal, you might try these. But the idea is to write down what you hear, why you think a song works, why you like or don’t like a particular song, etc. You might also make note of a song’s chord progression, its form (AABA, or Verse-pre-chorus-chorus, etc.), and anything else that catches your attention.
- Compare songs. This is a vital part of truly understanding music. You may love the lyrics of both Joni Mitchell and Carole King. So compare them, and try to find the common characteristics that grab your attention. Make a list of your favourite song melodies, and make line drawings of their shape. Is there anything you notice that’s the same? Comparison is a crucial part of learning.
- Expand your experiences. Listen to music outside your genre of choice. Become familiar with the sounds and lyrics of reggae, metal, country, bluegrass…
- Talk to other songwriters about what they are listening to. Ask questions, and make their knowledge yours.
- Purposely try to write in the style of someone else. If you love the music of Adele, try to identify what — beyond her singing style — makes an Adele song sound that way, and then deliberately try to sound that way. By doing that, you’re showing that you’ve internalized someone else’s style, and you can learn from it.
You can do actual studying as well — reading texts written by good people who have made it their life’s work trying to understand popular music and conveying what they’ve learned to others. And these days, many universities offer courses and degrees in various aspects of pop music.
But by far, the best way to improve as a songwriter is by listening to music, and making mindful observations. The more you engage in that kind of active listening, the more you learn, and the more you can incorporate those ideas into your own music.
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