In order for an athlete to improve, something needs to change. A golfer who wants to improve needs to develop a different stance, or perhaps hold the club differently, or do some other thing in a different way.
Athletes work all the time on that simple idea of change. If they aren’t changing something, their rate of improvement will be limited, and they’re probably stagnating.
Not only are they stagnating, but with every passing day, it becomes less likely that they’d ever be able to change. Bad habits become ingrained, and much harder to solve over time.
To improve at songwriting means changing something about how you write, not just what you write. And the longer a songwriter works within their sphere of weakness, the less likely it is that they’d ever be able to break out and write something fresh or exciting.
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What I’m describing is the subtle difference between fixing how you’re writing your songs versus trying to innovate on what you’re writing about.
Let’s go back to the golfing analogy: If a golfer’s bad grip is causing, let’s say, tension in the arms, there are two ways to solve it:
- Try to reduce the tension while keeping the same “this-is-the-way-I-do-it” grip; or…
- Come up with a new grip that prevents tension.
Obviously, you want — you need — to go with option 2, but many don’t. That’s because a new grip feels uncomfortable at first, more uncomfortable than just dealing with the old grip. It’s so much easier to let muscle memory have its way, and try to make the old habit work somehow.
With songwriting, you deal with the same thing. You’re not holding a golf club, though, you’re holding a pencil and a guitar. But you still battle the same kind of muscle memory-laden “this-is-the-way-I-do-it” problem.
If you have that unpleasant feeling of stagnation in songwriting, you notice it most by the feeling you get from your music. That shouldn’t surprise us much: songs are ultimately about feelings.
So if you get the same kind of feeling from everything you write (everything sounds nostalgic, or everything sounds aggressive, or everything sounds warm & fuzzy, or…), the time to change is now.
So what do you change? You can change what you’re writing about, but do you see the problem? At least regarding stagnation, it doesn’t much matter what you’re writing about if everything has that same nostalgic sound.
So think more about how you’re writing. Change something about your approach. A new golf grip will change how you even pick up the club. A new songwriting approach will change your notion of what songwriting is, even before you pick up the pencil.
So how do you change the how? Mainly this way: Think less at the start about what you want your song to sound like at the end of the process. Leave production for later. Concentrate on the structure of your melodies, your chords, and your lyrics.
Your melodies, chords and lyrics all need to communicate with each other, and you can hear that communication (or lack of it) more clearly if your song isn’t encumbered with production issues from the very start.
Get a bare-bones version of your song working, where the basic melodies in their starkest form are well-supported by an intelligently-chosen chord progression. Make sure the melody expresses the up-and-down of the emotional content of your lyric. Get these pairings working well, and when you do, you can then turn your attention to production-level issues.
It takes time to think this way in songwriting. But if you can manage to make a stripped-down version of your song sound right, production will always make it sound better.
If you like starting songs by working out a good chord progression, you need to get “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It shows you the strengths and pitfalls of this very common songwriting process.