When I was 10 years old and just beginning to write my own music, my first guitar teacher, Cheryl Hall, gave me some advice that guides how I approach songwriting, even today.
She said “Don’t edit yourself before the idea is out, and try to just feel it.”
These days I manage a community of artists at Musixmatch, and recently took a poll on Twitter and our Artist Community Slack Channel asking that community to share their own songwriting methods with us. The results were mixed, and quite predictably so.
Songwriting is subjective. It’s influenced by an individual’s strengths, interests, personality, and artistic experience. Let me try, however, to break it down for you.
Creating music, like any form of art can be boiled down to expression. You express music skillfully by implementing learned sets of musical laws or patterns, and within those pattern choices lie creativity. Each writer equips themselves with their own set of strategies that resonate with them. Starting with a firm understanding of the fundamentals (i.e. music theory, creative writing, etc) is helpful, but is by no means mandatory. Some songs are intrinsically simple, but also catchy and relatable. Some artists have an innate sense of what sounds good where…while others use traditional structures or even modern technology to help them craft a song.
A quick Google search will give you a slew of articles demonstrating the “correct way to write a song”, but all that guidance is just that, guidance. A songwriter determines for themselves what works for them.
When posing the same question to our artist community (What’s your method? How do you write music?) We got a slew of varied responses including:
“For me music with lyrics starts playing in my head. I just have to make an effort to record it or write it down.” @Bombay Smackers
“If I hear a catchy beat I just go with the flow” @Mr.Ginzburg
“First we choose a theme to write about, try a few chords on the piano and then the melody usually comes by itself.” @sombrerobeach
Like me, many other artists in our community process their emotions and experiences through the music they’re making.
“I write music according to my mood, it may not be a self incited mood, but mostly from what I see or hear. The music flows from how I feel about a situation.”@MosesPills
While others cite that modern technology has helped them to organize their creative energy for songwriting.
“I have a special app I use only for songwriting, that way I subconsciously know that it’s creative time!” @ToxiPlays
There is the theory-trained, analytical songwriter, who crafts a song almost scientifically; knowing before they even start what key they will be in and how they will manipulate the song with various modes or inversions. This type of songwriter is usually, but not always trained in classical music or jazz, and has imprinted upon themselves a large collection of music laws explaining why things sound and feel the way they do.
On the other end of the creative spectrum is the songwriter who moves from a place of intuition and feeling. They still have their bag of tricks, their comfortable ranges, styles of playing, and musical fluency, but these things aren’t actively thought about in the writing process.
Of course, this isn’t to say that these two personas don’t commingle in the effect of a final product. For many, a song is equal parts feeling as it is intentionality.
Much like the wisdom my guitar teacher passed on to me, I would recommend to new artists to take the pressure off the process. Often our biggest roadblock is our own perceived shortcomings, likely before we’ve even given ourselves the opportunity to try. I would say also, because clearly no two artists are the same, find out what works for you. Be aware of the people or places that inspire you, and don’t be afraid to branch out of your comfort zone every once in a while.
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