Guitarist - Songwriter

Technique and Musicianship: Improving as a Songwriter

If you’re an instrumentalist, you know that practice is an important part of getting better. Practice requires you to put a magnifying glass on your technique — and sometimes your musicianship — and focus in on what you find difficult.

Some instrumentalists maintain that they make their best improvements by simply playing, rather than by working out technical problems in practice sessions. Ringo Starr has made this claim. I think most of the best players do both: they improve by taking the time to focus on technical (usually finger) issues, and also by focusing on musical issues, by playing through songs and listening keenly to what they’re doing.

Essential Secrets of Songwriting 9-Lesson CourseThe 9-Lesson Course gives you great ideas for practicing your songwriting technique. Each lesson ends with a list of activities that allow you to focus right in on the bits of songwriting that are giving you problems. 

To say that more succinctly: Music presents us with technical challenges and musical challenges. The best musicians I know deal with both, sometimes at the same time and sometimes as separate areas of focus.

As a songwriter, you can and should be practicing. And just as with musical performance, efficient practicing requires you to improve on two separate but related fronts:

  1. You should practice your technical songwriting abilities. This means dissecting music, breaking it down into its various components (lyrics, rhythm, melody, chords, etc.), and work on each aspect separately.
  2. You should practice your musical songwriting abilities. This means composing short sections of songs, and thinking about how any one or two elements pair up with the others.

For many songwriters (and I wonder if this includes you?), improving as a songwriter simply means writing more songs. There is a danger with simply writing every day, trying to complete your next song, and then moving on to the next one… You might actually be reinforcing the errors that many developing songwriters typically commit.

What are those errors? There’s any number of ways that songwriting can be undermining your own musical advancements, but here’s a short list:

  1. You start every song the same way. You haven’t spent time looking at your songwriting process, and so you tend to get stuck in a rut rather easily.
  2. You keep resorting to favourite keys, tempos and styles. By not dealing with the technical aspect of songwriting (i.e., spending time looking at each individual element within your songs), your musical brain keeps putting musical ideas together in the same way each time you sit down to write.
  3. You aren’t adventurous enough when it comes to developing lyrics and song topics. Especially if chords are your favourite starting point, you have your favourite go-to topics and phrases. You haven’t spent time focusing in on improving lyrics.
  4. You can only write when you’re inspired. The best songwriters can and do write whether “the feeling” hits them or not. But you can only seem to get started if you feel some kind of internal excitement, and you’re stumped when you don’t feel inspired.

There are lots of other songwriting problems that can become worse simply by not addressing them directly. Practically all of these problems are solvable if you take time to focus on each separate element, looking for ways to improve them away from trying to work them into a song.

A number of years ago I wrote a blog article called “The 5 Best Daily Exercises a Songwriter Can Do.” Rather than go through the possibilities again here, I’d recommend that you give that article a read.

Practicing is hard for songwriters, because every writer I know just simply wants to “get going!” But by slowing down, and putting the magnifying glass on the various aspects of what gets put together to make a song, you clean up the sloppy areas of your songwriting technique, and the end result is that you become a better all-round songwriter.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. I’m assuming anybody reading Gary’s blog is already a devoted fan of the podcast “Song Exploder”, where the host interviews a band to dissect and trace the development of one of their songs. IT IS SO GOOD! It has lots of parallels with what Gary writes, particularly the hard work that pros put into their songs. Plus the bands are an eclectic collection, fulfilling the oft-heard Gary advice to listen to various genres. Anyway, one that I just listened to, about a Weezer song, was exceptional in addressing how a radio-worthy song gets written. Here’s the link if you’re interested:

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