Most songwriters have something in common, and that’s the fact that they desire to be better songwriters than they already are. “Better” is a subjective term, of course, as it means different things to different people.
Bob Dylan. Elvis Costello. Paul Simon. Leonard Cohen. Carole King. These are considered some of the best songwriters of our time. But they each have their own process and signature style. And, though not everyone likes their respective musical projects, I think we can all agree they are skilled at what they do.
With that in mind, there are some concrete things you can do to improve your songwriting skills. Read on to discover what they are.
Keep Writing New Songs
If you remember nothing else from this guide, remember this – becoming a better songwriter involves practice.
That may seem obvious, but some people want to be a great songwriter so badly now that they have trouble imagining where they could be five or ten years down the line if they kept applying themselves.
You may look at your heroes and think there’s no way you could ever write like them. But your heroes are likely writing whatever comes naturally to them. It’s not like they’re staring at their lyric sheets thinking to themselves how brilliant they are (well, most of the time anyway). It’s just that they’ve applied themselves to their craft, for years and sometimes for decades.
So, don’t dismay just because you don’t like what you’re writing right now. If you stick with the process, you will improve, and your writing will be in a new place a few years down the line.
In Jr. high and high school, I was writing all the time and filled several binders with lyrics. It was all terrible. But it taught me how to rhyme, structure songs, create flow and more.
So, was it worth grinding it out? Yes. Feel free to use songwriting prompts for a stream of ideas you can try in your songs.
Spend Plenty Of Time Reading
There are so many ways to express yourself in writing. But it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone, in the world of familiar. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve probably come to rely on a certain way of writing. In other words – you’re in a rut.
I’m not saying that you aren’t inspired, because you may very well be. But when you’re the one doing all the writing, you’re going to have blind spots only others can see.
That’s why I suggest reading regularly and widely. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a magazine article or a book you picked up at a garage sale.
Now, it’s important to note that you can easily get into a rut in your reading too. Instead of reading something that challenges your viewpoint, you can end up reading in an echo chamber. That’s why you should read widely, especially on subjects that don’t normally interest you. Exposing yourself to fresh material is a good way to stimulate new ideas.
I read a lot. Most of what I read is in the realm of personal development, spirituality, leadership, entrepreneurship and marketing, but even within these categories, I’ve found many authors and topics that challenged my viewpoint.
Find a mix of topics you find engaging and start reading every day.
Try New Chord Progressions
There’s a reason why so many songs lean on the familiar I, IV, V and vi chords. They sound good together, and they have serious pop appeal. And, as songwriters, we all have our favorite chord progressions that we tend to lean on. Just admit it.
This is another common blind spot that many songwriters don’t see. They end up using the same musical devices to handle the same musical problems. So, all their songs start sounding alike.
Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself.
Here’s what I’d suggest. There’s a good chance you have dice sitting around somewhere in your home. Go and find a die.
It just so happens that a die has six sides to it, which is perfect for the exercise you’re about to try.
I want you to roll the die four times and write down the number you get after each roll. I think you know where this is going.
Now, I want you to write a song based on the numbers you got. So, if you rolled three, six, three, one, you’d write a song with the progression: iii, vi, iii, I.
It would be better if the die had seven sides, but I’m not sadistic. Writing a song with a vii chord in it can be challenging, especially if your other rolls don’t support that chord.
Imposing limits on our creativity can seem counter-intuitive. But typically, it sparks fresh ideas. Rolling a die and dealing with the constraints it imposes on you is much easier than trying to come up with a unique chord progression from scratch, all on your own.
One time, I had my sister pick four random numbers between one and seven and used that as the chord progression for the verses in a song I was writing. I was writing a pop song, and she picked seven as one of my numbers, so I had to find a way to make that vii chord work. But hey, it got me out of my comfort zone and that’s what matters.
Go & Experience Life
Love him or hate him, Tony Robbins has been a mentor to many, including the late and great John Denver. Now, you may not like Denver’s music. But I think we can all agree that he was a great songwriter.
Robbins was there when Denver needed him most. He was in a songwriting slump, unable to come up with new ideas. Robbins asked him what he was doing when his best music came to him. Denver said he was usually outdoors skiing, something he hadn’t been doing while in his rut.
Of course, you can guess what happened next. Denver started getting outdoors again, and the ideas started to flow.
Sometimes, we’re so focused on the end goal that we forget about the journey entirely. Life is meant to be experienced.
So, experiencing life might look like hiking, snowboarding, bungee jumping, skydiving, getting into a new relationship, starting a business or otherwise. It doesn’t need to be extreme by any means. But experiencing something new is a great way to awaken those old songwriting chops.
Now, while we’re on the topic, I know this can be a touchy subject for songwriters, but I want to poke around a little.
Have you become dependent on a specific emotion, such as sadness, depression, anger, infatuation, love or something else to fuel your songwriting? You need to begin writing from a different place entirely, as soon as possible.
Not only is it difficult to force yourself into an emotion every time you want to write a song – it could be detrimental to your health and relationships because you’ll constantly be in pursuit of those feelings and nothing will stop you from trying to evoke them.
Robert Lamm of Chicago was said to have written “25 or 6 to 4” about trying to write a song in the middle of the night. Yes, inspiration does exist in seemingly bland and ordinary places. And, we all know that’s one of Chicago’s most recognizable tunes.
So, I challenge you to write from a space you’ve never written before. Once you’ve done it, keep doing it.
Be patient and give yourself plenty of space and time to improve as a songwriter. Even those who had a natural knack for it still took time to work on their skills.
Maybe one day you’ll be recognized as a great songwriter. Maybe you won’t. But it’s not about that. It’s about the joy of creating and the person you become in the process.