Someone asked me for songwriting tips the other day, and I realised I don’t have any really specific tips on my blog. I always thought that I couldn’t write a list of songwriting tips because I don’t have decades of songwriting experience! But maybe it’ll be helpful for songwriting newbies to hear some tips from someone who’s not quite a newbie anymore, but still remembers what it was like 😉
(I can’t wait to look back on these tips and cringe 😅)
1. Follow your ideas, even if they don’t start at the beginning
Idea: Looking up at sky-scrapers, I realise just how far the raindrops have to fall
A common question is: ‘should I start with lyrics, or with music?’
To which I would reply, ‘What do you have an idea for?’
I’ve seen both approaches. I usually start with the lyrics, but a lot of my musician friends start with the music, writing chords or a melody, and then make lyrics that will fit that. Both approaches are legitimate.
If you have an idea for a song, (in the words of Colin Buchanan) scratch it down before it’s gone! Then, when you have a moment, expand on it. Flesh out the lyrics before working on the tune and chords, or set down the musical bones before deciding what the song will be about. The lyrics and music are intimately connected, and each will spark ideas and guide the other.
When writing lyrics, it can be helpful to start with a one or two sentence summary of what you plan to write the song about. I like to brainstorm it above where I’ll put the lyrics. But I also have random post-it notes for chords, and in some cases melodies, that I want to incorporate into a song.
The key is to start wherever the idea is. Is it a killer lyrical hook line for the end of the chorus? Write it down, then go back and write a chorus that build lead up to that. It’s okay that you don’t have a verse yet, you can get to that later.
Is it a sweet chord progression? Where in the song would you put that?
You don’t have to start at the beginning of the song. Each idea you have will lead to the next one until, like a puzzle, all the pieces fit together to form a full song.
2. Don’t be afraid of rhyme
A couple of years ago, when songwriting was still just a hobby, I didn’t think too hard about my writing craft. I didn’t want to have to hunt for a word that rhymed and fit each line. It was too hard, and took too long, so I pretended that no one would notice.
But one day, I thought, maybe I should actually try to rhyme in this song instead of pretending it’s too hard.
Hm, good call. I remember that song as a turning point because of that effort. Okay, there are awkward lyrics, and made-up words to fit rhymes (yes, actually), but the rhyme scheme forced me to put more thought into it, and be more deliberate in the words I chose.
I would like to be delicate, but it actually does annoy me about modern poetry when
Their writers put
In strange places
And pretend that now
We have found something truly profound.
But doesn’t it stick all the more–
A rhyme prancing round in three/four
As the writer I have to be strict
Picking only the words that will fit.
Every rhyme has a purpose to speed or to slow
The scheme that I choose affects where we will go
The song is more interesting, feels more secure
And words that I wouldn’t have used feel more sure.
Not my best work, but still, I think it makes the point. Being strict and deliberate with your rhyme will change the words you reach for, and even the meaning of the song.
Your rhyme scheme has power. Did you notice that you paused at the end of each line of the first verse? Or that you sped up in the second verse? You can use rhyme and rhythm to make your words feel unsettled, quick or witty, regardless of what the words themselves mean! This is a powerful tool when writing a character who is lying or deceived, for example.
There’s nothing wrong with free-form poetry; good poets work hard to make sure it is still beautiful and profound.
But rhyme is a tool. Don’t shy away from it just because it’s hard; it will improve your songwriting instantly!
3. Verses show outside; choruses show inside
Eg ‘Supermarket Flowers’ (by Ed Sheeran)
Summary: The singer is sorting his recently deceased mother’s things.
Each section of a song has its own function. Your verses are best to describe what’s happening around the singer, clearing the way for your choruses to give insight into their internal thoughts and feelings.
Ed Sheeran is my personal hero for this. He goes further, and I may geek out about the implications and associations of each line, but I will try to stay on topic *determined face*.
Let’s look at ‘Supermarket Flowers’. I’m not going to put the lyrics here because c o p y r i g h t but you can Google them and read or listen to them for yourself.
In the verses, Sheeran describes the things he’s doing to pack up his mother’s room after her passing away. The descriptions are incredibly specific, and therefore vivid in my mind.
But the verses don’t show us what he’s thinking. They show us what’s around him, and what he’s doing.
This gives Sheeran somewhere to go in his chorus. After all that mysterious moving around the room, he tells us outright what he wrote the song to say.
When I’m stuck writing a verse, I look back at my one-sentence summary and imagine how I can give clues to the story through things that are happening to the singer.
For example, in ‘Supermarket Flowers’, ‘John says he’d drive then put his hand on my cheek / And wiped a tear from the side of my face’.
John’s offer and the unnoticed tear are things that anyone observing could notice and describe. They’re things outside the singer.
When I’m stuck writing the chorus, I look at my summary again and a random Jamaican voice in my head (probably from a film or something) yells: ‘Spit it out, man!’
Why is the singer singing the song? What are they feeling? What are they really trying to say? Spit it out, man!
4. Use your second verse as a plot twist
Summary: A person retells falling in love, but they don’t realise that now it’s in the past, and they’re living in a memory. They are suffering dementia.
Verse two shouldn’t be “chapter two”. It should be a plot twist.
When I write a song, I think about each section like this:
Verse 1–describes the setting, using clues that give detail to emotional background and relationships
Chorus–shows what the singer is thinking, what they want to say, why they’re singing the song in the first place
Verse 2–provides further details into the surroundings that clarify what’s really going on, in unexpected ways
Chorus–the same chorus as before, but because of verse 2, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Here’s an example: a song I wrote with the band Balloons for Hire, called Time in Yesterday.
|Verse 1||Describes the setting||The sun makes crystals of the sea|
The perfect day for a hidden beach
We laugh and play till our throats are sore
We’re not just “good friends” anymore
A faulty clock
Sixty years behind
I’ve found a way to turn back time
|At the beach, laughing and realising that this friend is more special than previously thought–youth, playfulness, fun.|
|Chorus||Why we’re singing||Come back to the sea with me again|
We won’t have to say goodbye to friends
I’ve found a place where we can stay,
Spending our time in yesterday
|The singer has found a way to go back to those happier times, and invites their lover to join in.|
|Verse 2||Unexpected details||I wrap you in a sandy towel|
All my sheets feel too clean now
Endless ocean hides the walls
But they can’t keep me from your warmth
The sun comes up,
You seem hazy
You’re one thing my nurse can’t get for me
|Two settings superimposed: the beach (sandy towel) and a room (clean sheets, walls that hide the ocean)The person seems to be more memory–hazy and out of reach.|
|Chorus||New meaning||Come back to the sea with me again|
We won’t have to say goodbye to friends
I’ve found a place where we can stay
Spending our time in yesterday
|We (audience) realise that not only can the person addressed not come back to the beach, but the singer can’t either. The way they found to go back in time is to use their imagination and get lost in their memories.|
Did the chorus feel different the second time you read it? Did it have a new weight?
I struggle to do this in most of my songs. I’d write my first verse and chorus, and have nowhere to develop the song in the second verse.
It helps to start your first verse with this in mind. Take your one-sentence summary (they’re handy, aren’t they?) and divide the story into two:
- A person retells falling in love
- but they don’t realise that now it’s in the past, and they’re living in a memory.
- The singer is going through a heart-wrenching breakup
- But they’re a jerk. We’re shown why their lover left while the singer remains oblivious to their own faults.
In your first verse, only reveal enough to show your first dot-point, which will leave your ‘plot twist’ for verse two.
But what about verse three?
However many verses you have, each one has to earn its keep. If you need verse three, make sure you can justify not only the extra lyrics in the verse, but the extra repeat of the chorus. Try to find the plot twist lurking later on in the story.
5. You can’t write a song wrong
Summary: An angsty teenage girl is surveying her broken dystopian world and mulling over the war she’s about to end after twenty years of fighting.
When I graduated from my Learner’s driving permit to Probationary, the examiner told me that when I start driving on my own, I’ll learn heaps more than when I was driving with a parent supervisor driver.
It’s the same with songwriting. I can give you tips and tricks that have helped me, but when you sit down and write your own songs, you’ll learn heaps more. Better yet, they’ll be tailored to your writing style, genre and process.
Having said that, (if you’re still reading after that) you can still learn a lot about how to write songs well.
What I’ve listed above are the techniques that made me love my songs more as soon as I implemented them. And I’ve given some examples that will hopefully help you implement them into your own songwriting processes.
But as you practice and learn, you’ll find other tips that make your songs feel better. One day, you might write your own five tips for newbies, and they might be completely different! (Awesome, then we’ll have ten! XD)
So what are you waiting for? Get to it!
Okay, songwriters, what was your favourite tip? Do you have any tips to add?