Rock and Enroll: Lessons from Great Songwriters

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Unsure of the best way to design your new song? Here are some uplifting tips from great songwriters that will have you churning out music all day.

We’ve all been there. Sitting at a keyboard, tapping your eraser on a piece of staff paper and waiting for something to inspire you, a place to begin. You know you have a unique gift and a message, but your not sure how to kick it off.  Here are some great tips from wonderful songwriters on the craft:

” With songwriting I spend a lot of time living life, accruing all these experiences, journaling, and then by the time I get to the studio I’m teeming with the drive to write.” Alanis Morissette

Use your own feelings and experiences as you take a walk, fall in love or order a sandwich. It can all be very eloquent, but you will lose their magic if you don’t write them down. Picking up a journal that you’ve been musing in all week and choosing your most original or impassioned lines can be a great place to start when it’s time to compose. It will also help to organize the beautiful chaos that persists in a creative thinker’s mind.

“I’ve always felt, even as a songwriter, that the rhythm of speech is in itself a language for me.” Cyndi Lauper

If you are stuck, a great way to start a song is to write down a compelling dialogue you might overhear in a coffee shop, cafeteria or party. Choose the most interesting phrases, and shape them into lines that rhyme. Your melody can materialize from the natural rhythm of the text. For example, in “Dear Future Husband,” Meghan Trainor’s lyric “I never learned to cook, but I can write a hook” is not complicated, but it is entertaining and mimics the intonation of someone speaking those words.

“Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds.” Prince

One of the most tried-and-true methods for songwriting is to begin with a melody, adding harmonies, lyrics and instrumentation as the song’s shape begins to appear.  As songwriters you can start with a fresh, catchy interval or a crisp new rhythmic pattern, and see what notes or words seem to compliment it. Anything inspired has a direction, and it will naturally emerge from your theme.  

“If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.” Bob Dylan

Do you think the Beatles wrote great music? Check out Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly, whose infectiously accelerated tempos and fun lyrics inspired them to write great rock songs.  Like Taylor Swift?  Check out the songs of Dolly Parton, whom she says is an “‘amazing example to every female songwriter out there.” While the style may seem dated, the music of older songwriters is impressive in its depth, originality, and innocence. There is so much we can learn about rhyming, form, and honest communication from the artists who influenced our favorite songwriters.

“It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true.  If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks.  Something simple and true, with a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.” Paul Simon

Taking on a personality or point of view that is different than yours may seem exciting at first, but the forced sentiments will be apparent in your songwriting. Stick with experiences close to your heart, and there will be a wealth of knowledge and perceptions to expound upon.

“I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before.” Dolly Parton

Most importantly, don’t lose your enthusiasm for the privilege that is songwriting. What you have experienced, turned over and labored after is never a waste of effort. Your listeners can revel in the clarity and singularity or your creation, and enjoy some great music at the same time.

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