Guitar, headphones and music

How Listening Makes You a Better Songwriter

As a songwriter, you do something that many people find difficult: you create new musical ideas and pull them all together into a final product called a song. You may be the kind of writer that finds it easy to do, so perhaps you’re writing a new song or two every week.

But you might be the kind who likes to take time with the process. Perhaps you love the method of working and reworking ideas so that you eventually come up with one new song every couple of months.


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No matter what kind of writer you are, here’s hoping that it’s fun. And it should be. When the fun turns to frustration, you’ve got the makings of writer’s block, and we’ve all been there.

Songwriting as An Act of Creation

Back to my original sentence: as a songwriter, you create new musical ideas. That word, create, implies to many that you conjure up musical tidbits, more or less out of thin air. Like being the creator of the universe, but you’re a creator of music.

And certainly, that’s what it looks like. You noodle around on your guitar, you hum a few notes, and little by little, a song takes shape. And it’s something the world hasn’t heard before, or else you’re not writing an original song!

But in fact, nothing in the music world comes out of thin air. Nothing is truly original. Everything you create is inspired by ideas that have come before.

In that sense, you’re in the midst of an evolution of music, where your newest song might be an item in the fossil record. Every time you write a song, you produce something that’s the next step in that long, long evolutionary chain. And it’s based on and inspired by music that you’ve heard before.

So in that sense, nothing you create as a songwriter is truly original. Yes, you are a creator, but in the specific sense that you take musical ideas and you assemble them. The ideas come from your imagination (inspired by other songs you’ve heard) and then they get gathered together (again, inspired by other songs you’ve heard).

Why Listening Is So Important

If listening to music is not a daily activity for you, you’re missing out on one of the best ways you have to inspire yourself to write. Since as a creator of music you’re simply building on the ideas you’ve heard in other songs, you’re limiting your abilities to write if you aren’t listening.

I like calling it active listening, because when you listen actively, you make conscious observations about what you’re hearing. You need to be curious. You need to wonder why the music you’re hearing sounds that way.

The best songwriters I know will dig into the songs they know and love, and try to figure out the chords, the melody notes, the riffs, and so on. They’re musically curious. And practically everything they do, whether as a writer or as a performer, is building on ideas they’ve heard in other songs.

Originality is a funny word in the songwriting business, because nothing is completely original. True, what you’re putting together has never been heard quite that way before, but it’s all based on previous ideas.

So if you’re looking to improve what you do, and to give the world music that everyone wants to hear, it starts with daily listening. And if it’s not something you’ve been doing, it needs to start today.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  1. GREAT SONGS can often be built on Genuine Mistakes That

    amazing piece of dissonance where you played the wrong note

    above a Chord that was arrived by accident , that little moment

    of lost concentration , that stops you in your tracks and you realise

    you have something that works , and decide to keep it in

  2. Thanks for this article. I’ve been doing this for years, but could never articulate the process. Quite often, I will take one of my favorite songs and go through the process of figuring out chord structure, and especially chord changes that move me, then doing the same with melody and lyrics. It never fails to lead to another new song, although not always a good one. All part of the process.

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