guitarist - songwriter

5 Important Lessons I Learned Over the Years as a Composer of Music

Like anyone who writes music, I could probably write a book regarding advice I’ve been given over the years — advice that’s helped shape the musician I’ve become. The best lessons I’ve learned have come from individuals, not necessarily from the pages of a book. That’s not because books aren’t good; it’s more because I react more positively and strongly to impulsive, spontaneous advice given on the spur of the moment.

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So what are the best bits of advice I’ve ever received? I’ve listed them below, in no particular order, and I hope you find them useful as well. These bits of advice have appeared, one way or another, in other blog posts I’ve done over the years.

1.  You can get excellent songwriting/music composition advice from non-songwriting musicians.

The people in the music world who don’t primarily write music can give you great advice from a completely different perspective. So when you identify problems with your songwriting technique, don’t limit yourself to asking other songwriters. Great players, producers, managers and the like can be very important sources of help.

2. The best editing of music I’ve ever done has made songs shorter, not longer.

If you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with the song you’re currently working on, whatever changes you make to it will likely involve removing something, making it a little shorter, a little more concise, and a little more structurally sound.

I can barely think of a time when a problem song I was working on was helped by making it longer.

3. Only ask for help with a song if you have reason to expect that the advice will be good enough to act on.

In other words, asking random people, especially non-musicians, for advice, more often than not will discourage you and make you feel worse about what you’ve written, not better.

The best advice will come from other musicians — the ones who have spent serious time in the music world, who have good experience with good music.

4. Think like a writer, evaluate like a listener.

At some point, you need to develop the ability to hear your songs the way others will hear them. That kind of objective listening is a skill that can take a long time, perhaps years.

Listening like a listener as opposed to listening like a songwriter helps you to evaluate your music the way your audience will evaluate it. It moves you away from being a creator and toward being a consumer, and that perspective — that distance — is a vital step in music assessment.

5. Assume that some will love what you write, and others will hate it.

It’s unreasonable to hope that everyone will like everything you write. Even the world’s top hits have people who hate them. That is normal.

What this means is that even if someone is able to express what they think you should have done differently with your song, that’s not an indication that you should change it. If you like your song, that’s all that really matters. If you dislike it, that’s the indication that you should change something. Nothing else. Assume someone will dislike something you’ve written, and wear that as a badge of honour.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. #5 seems especially important. You’ll never please everyone! As I listen to songs on YouTube it never fails to make an impression on me that while 200k May have given the song a thumbs up, there are always a few hundred at least who give it a thumbs down.

    • That’s true Judson. The whole like/dislike thing on YouTube and other social media sites has been both a mystery and a revelation to me over the years. I recently watched a video of a musician talking about what a wonderful guy a certain guitarist was, and even that video got dislikes. It makes me shake my head — how can you give a thumbs down to someone saying, “He’s a great player, but more importantly, he’s a great human being.” It serves as a reminder that there are always haters, no matter what we do, and we have to get used to that.

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