Learn how to write better songs, finish them faster, and tap into a wealth of musical ideas you never knew you had. These are our top 10 tips for songwriters!
MAY 16TH, 2020
If you’re looking for how to write a song from beginning to end or simply have a collection of tips for songwriting, this article should prove to be a reliable companion through all your musical ventures along the way:
- Listen to as many genres as possible
- Steal and repurpose
- Stretch one idea as far as it can go
- Write, structure, record, produce, mix, and master separately
- Prepare your DAW template before writing anything
- Set a time limit
- Reference tracks in your genre before, during and after
- Create a song structure early on
- Focus on finishing
- It doesn’t need to be perfect!
Songwriting is the beginning of any song, no matter how well you’ve developed your production chops. Take the time to learn this skill, and you’ll find that your music dramatically improves in a very short period of time.
1. Listen to as many genres as possible
Whenever you’re looking for inspiration, the most obvious choice lies in the same genre you’re already writing in. After all, you can directly translate chords, melody fragments, beats styles, and a whole host of other things to your own work.
But the real magic comes from listening to sources that are as different as possible from your genre.
Simply put, the reason for this is that you’ll never be able to take advantage of all the ideas you have swimming around your subconscious--especially when you need them the most! Therefore, listening to one genre alone will never give you all the tools you need to create your best work. Virtually every brilliant producer and songwriter listens to a wide variety of artists.
Let’s say you write EDM. If you only listen to EDM, your inspiration will be quite limited, and it will only be a matter of time until you become frustrated and your stream of ideas dries up. But if you regularly listen to jazz, hip hop, classical, R&B, baroque, reggae, latin, far East, etc…
You’ll build a vast mental database of chords, harmonies, rhythms, melodic fragments and song structures that allow you to create more inspired EDM, do it faster, and put a unique imprint on your music.
And the most powerful exercise you can do: listen to every genre you’re convinced you don’t like. That’s where the real surprises come from, because every genre holds untapped opportunities for your own music (and if you look hard enough, you’ll always be able to find a few songs you like).
2. Steal and repurpose
The phrase “good artists borrow, great artists steal” couldn’t be more true. Do you know the feeling when you discover a song for the first time and feel this intense need to play it on repeat 3 or more times in a row? That song is a fantastic candidate for “ethical musical theft”.
Of course, you don’t want to copy anything verbatim. Not only is it unethical to do so, it’s against the law in nearly every country!
So what constitutes “ethical”?
When you take a small part of the original source material and develop it in a way that’s uniquely your own.
This takes quite a bit of practice and care since you should never actually be stealing someone else’s ideas, but there might be no better way to get your creative juices flowing than to take a page out of someone else’s book--as long as you use it as a branching-off point to write your own.
3. Stretch one idea as far as it can go
When you have a core idea for your song in each major category (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, etc.) that you’re happy with, don’t immediately start generating new ideas and adding them to the mix. Take each one and:
- Add to it and lengthen it
- Shorten it
- Create multiple variations of it (change some of the notes, chords, beats, and instruments)
- Change the key
There are numerous other ways to stretch and expand upon a single idea, but these should get you moving in the right direction.
There’s no great shortcut for this; it’s about patience, practice, and indiscriminately having fun while mangling your own musical ideas.
4. Write, structure, record, produce, mix, and master separately
Each of these 6 steps involves a very different mindset. In a very general sense:
- Writing is about creating and making sense of your ideas, and is only concerned with getting them down on paper or into a quick demo. Check out Captain Plugins if you’re struggling with jumpstarting your inspiration!
- Structuring is about placing your ideas in the appropriate place relative to each other (placing and deciding on the length of the verse, chorus, bridge, etc.).
- Recording is when you’re actually playing your music into your DAW through a keyboard/instrument or singing, and all your creative energy goes into getting the performance just right.
- Production is about taking the raw song and punching it up with different instruments, synths, and effects--which is where the majority of ujam’s products are focused!
- Mixing is about diagnosing issues in frequency balance, dynamics, and depth of field, and polishing the creative work you did in the production phase; unsurprisingly, it quickly becomes as much a technical endeavor as a creative one. iZotope has a great suite of plugins perfectly suited to creating professional mixes in virtually any genre.
- Mastering is the final phase, where you make adjustments to your mix as a whole (typically on a single stereo track); it’s highly technical and requires a lot of patience, and is the last opportunity to make changes to a song. If you need an inexpensive way to automate this process, LANDR is a great resource for creating finished masters on demand--but of course is no substitute for an excellent engineer!
Because songwriting is a distinctly different creative endeavor from the other parts of this journey, don’t burden yourself with all the other aspects at the same time. Focus on writing and then structuring your song before moving on to the other parts.
A quick note: if you find it easiest to record your ideas directly into your DAW as soon as you think of them, do it. But focus only on getting your ideas in, not on tweaking the actual performance. Save that for the recording phase.
5. Prepare your DAW template before writing anything
Most DAWs allow you to create template sessions you can work from, in which you’ve already assigned all your instrument groups, set up your commonly used sends and returns, and have your go-to instruments loaded. Don’t preload effects on the instrument tracks; if you do, you may develop the nasty habit of using the same settings for every song, which will invariably harm your production quality and cohesion. Use only the most basic building blocks so that you don’t start off the creative process by mucking around instrument lists when you already know your ideal workflow.
There’s not too much to say on this point except that it’s easy to go a bit too far. For example, having 5 reverbs already picked out, markers for the verses and choruses, plus your entire percussion kit chosen is a bit too much; you’re likely to back yourself into a corner or even have to start over again!
6. Set a time limit
This is different for everyone, especially if you don’t have years of professional experience under your belt. After practicing songwriting for years on end, it’s likely you’ll be able to write pretty quickly, but don’t force yourself to adhere to unreasonable standards for where you’re currently at.
If you can write, structure, record, produce, mix and master a song in 5 hours, awesome. If you need 15 or more, that’s perfectly okay too. Set a limit that pushes you to move faster than you’re comfortable with, but certainly not enough to induce extreme anxiety and self-loathing.
It’s helpful to practice this with song ideas you enjoy but wouldn’t be brokenhearted not to finish. That way, you can enforce your deadlines and refuse to work on them past the end time you set for yourself without resenting the process. The more you stick to your time limits, the faster you’ll become and the easier it will be to quell your judgments about your music as they come up (because there simply won’t be time to entertain them when you’re making quick decisions).
7. Reference tracks in your genre before, during and after
Compare your song to tracks you love and want to emulate. If you do this frequently and make honest critiques on whether your work stands up to your references, you’ll improve the quality of your work at a remarkable speed. Whenever possible, ask your musical and non-musical friends for their truthful opinions on what you did well and what you can improve upon; both types of opinions are valuable, because most of your listeners are likely not to be musicians themselves.
8. Create a song structure early on
This goes back to tip #4. As soon as you get your ideas down, arrange the structure of your song and you will drastically cut down on the number of decisions you need to make later in the process.
Whether or not your structure works will directly dictate whether your song is likely to sound good as a whole. A well-written chorus isn’t super helpful if your verse is short and your intro is way too long. Giving yourself parameters early on is key to streamlining your production process post-songwriting, and you’ll thank yourself for making the effort early on.
9. Focus on finishing
This one is heavily related to tip #6. The more songs you finish, the more you’ll accelerate the learning curve and the easier each subsequent song will be to write.
And the easiest way to finish more songs is to spend less time on each one!
Don’t worry about making things super polished when you’re going for speed; with repeat practice, you’ll naturally be able to fit in the appropriate polishing time. Think of it as an experiment--and in the long run, you’ll likely find that you’re able to finish high-quality songs in less time, simply as a result of placing emphasis on finishing.
Optimizing for quantity forces you to make decisions more efficiently. And you know that you’ll be able to immediately apply the lessons you learn to all the songs you write afterward!
Over-emphasize quantity for a little while, and slowly start to ease back until you find a happy balance of quality and quantity.
10. It doesn't need to be perfect!
A nice little segue from tip #9. The easiest way to contextualize this is to remind yourself that no matter how “perfect” you make a song right now, you’re bound to find multiple flaws with it later. And that’s a good thing! Foregoing the need to be perfect is about acknowledging that you still have a lot more to learn, and that finishing an imperfect song is simply a bridge to writing even better ones in the future. This process compounds, and the more “flawed” songs you finish, the more quality content you’ll be able to produce in your career or as a hobby.
It may sound slightly comical to say, but perfection is an illusion. Focus on making something great, but know that you’ll always have room to improve--every songwriter and producer still has the ability to improve on a regular basis, including the best of the best!
There are no tricks that will shortcut the immense amount of practice that awaits you if you’re serious about mastering the art of songwriting, but there are many ways to make the process go a lot faster and save yourself from a few burns along the way. This article presents 10 ways to do so, but it takes a bit of (totally worthwhile) work to execute them.
If you’re still hitting a creative block (which is bound to happen from time to time), try playing around with Virtual Guitarist CARBON! The Common and Style Phrases will help kickstart your creativity when you’re feeling stuck by giving you note patterns and licks to play with, and it’s one of a select few guitar plugins on the market that outputs a realistic performance just from MIDI. If you’re looking for something a little softer, SPARKLE will also get the job done. And if you just need a good rhythm to get things moving, consider having Virtual Drummer PHAT create a groove for you.
These tips are genre-agnostic, so give them all a try the next time you start writing a song! If any of them decidedly make songwriting less enjoyable even after significant practice, feel free to stop using them. Everyone has an optimal method of songwriting that’s unique to them, and the most important part is discovering what tips and tools make your life as a songwriter the most rewarding!