6 Songs That Taught Us How to Write Songs

One of the best ways to learn how to write great songs is to learn from great songs and songwriters. In this video, songwriter Ben Romalis and I take 6 songs that each taught us a crucial principle or technique about writing great songs.

Drawing from a range of inspirations from Radiohead, Tom Waits, to Gillian Welch and John Mayer, Benny and I talk about the specific musical or lyrical technique that we learned from these 6 great songs.

Of course, these 6 songs are just a beginning! We picked these for this video because they showcase a range of different principles and techniques: we talk here about chromaticism in chord progressions, about borrowing chords outside the key, about balancing types of language in your verses, about narrative and non-conventional song forms, about verse development and great chorus writing, and how a great intro can set your song apart.

More will come out of this series, as we explore how to listen to music so that you can extract ideas, and put them to practice in your own songwriting.

Examples of Sense Writing

The first exercise I run in any lyric writing class is called ‘Sense Writing,’ which is essentially the same as Pat Pattison’s Object Writing (which you can find out more about here). I’ve written before about Sense Writing, and recently put out a YouTube video that explains it, which you can watch here:

It’s one of my top ‘go to’ methods for getting a song idea going, for finding out what I have to write about (even when I’m not starting out with any specific ideas), and also one of my go-to ways of fleshing out ideas for lyrics when I DO have an idea on the go.

I thought it would be a useful reference to also post some examples of what my Sense Writes look like (though there is no stylistic requirement here—the only parameter is to stay sense-bound, and push yourself to turn the dial up on the level of detail), and then to show you how one of the Sense Writes might then translate into lyrics. Here we go!

Sense Writing Examples

Prompt: ESTATE

"Destitute funeral", the woman's voice over the phone had a quiver in it as she said the words. I could suddenly feel the sweat of my ear moistening the plastic screen protector of my phone. I didn't realise that ears sweat. A small baby fist of tension opened and shut at my larynx, a trigger of righteous outrage flared somewhere in my stomach. That word, 'destitute'. t conjured images of grey dread locks with rat shit in them, and urine-soaked cardboard boxes. Or perhaps of wailing orphans, or dustbowl leather-skinned cowboys and grey-wood furniture piled onto the front of yellow grassed lawn, rusty nails sticking out. Of nameless locals driving by in their pickups, narrowing their eyes to a slit, glaring at you with sharp shadows, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the car door, window rolled down, a lop-sided cigarette precariously leaning of the cliff of their lip. Destitute was curled lips, snarling facial gestures, stuck in an ice-wall of silence."Oh ok, that's what they call it then. A 'destitute funeral," I murmured back to the social work woman on the other end of my iPhone. "Yes, sorry. I don't know why they call it that..." Well, I do. They call it that so that you feel this barrage of guilt and shame, and social knuckle to the solar plexus, because they don't want just everybody to know that it's not actually necessary to pay a company the extortion of $5000 to simply burn a body.


One thing I like to do shortly after a Sense Write is to mine it for interesting lines and ideas, and put them in a separate document. Here’s what I extracted from this:

LINES:

sharp shadows

leather-skinned cowboys

a lop-sided cigarettes

snarling

Prompt: POWERFUL

The sand beneath her toes makes a squeak like a mouse, like rubber, hot wheels on tarmac. It is warm but only on the surface. As her toes displace the upper crust, beneath is moist, darker sand, cooler, more secretive; earth's clay, more maleable, shapable, building castles and caves and channels for water to run, for worlds to emerge, for princes and princesses and dragons to suddenly burst into life, for the all powerful narrator to dictate outcomes, controlling tiny imaginary lives. Small, frail, hapless characters wrapped up in a fiction they don't even know exists; one swipe and the castle explodes, shards of sand hurling through the air, walls collapsing, the moat imploding, the water channel driven to chaos, spreading back into the dark sand beneath, joining with the waves that lick the shoreline and then sigh back into the vast glittering sapphire of sea. Salt and seaweed and hot chip fry. She abandons the narrative, and looks out into the blue, where the blue gradient gets almost black as it reaches for the horizon. Out at the edge of the water world, the line is not straight, but it's hard to even get a hold on. The horizon line quivers out there, a nervous distance, the arc of the earth actually visible if your imagination comes to stand next to you. The line out there shimmers, a magic portal, another world at the drop off, where gravity might make a mistake and flick you into space, or drag you down.The water imitates the sand. The top inch is warm, but as the sand slimes upward of the ankle, the water becomes cold, bracing, sticking to the surface of the skin, gripping goose flesh. The body responds with a frantic reciprocity, shifting its temperature to meet the embrace, trying to match the strength of the handshake.Her chest contracts, heart a little mouse in a cage suddenly submerged, quick gasp for air as the cold vice surrounds the shoulders, but the body somehow knows the water, and within mere seconds the borderline between skin and sea is gone.

Here I’ve just bolded the lines and ideas I was immediately drawn to afterwards.

Prompt: BIRTHPLACE

You just don't know how good what you have is as a kid.2 storey art deco house. Caramel coloured carpet, but for two kids, it was a place to roll around in, to lie down laughing, grasping at our bellies, wheezing laughter through tears. It was a place for me to put on my parents' records: Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, Donovan, Chuck Berry, turn on the gas heater in the winter - tick tick floooommmff! - and thrash my limbs around, spin my body til my mind entered the music and the music fused with my blood and we were one swirling whirl, one smoke curl burning,one small house on fire, dancing like there was nothing else.My room painted sky blue, then layered over in lilac. My room ha da door leading out to the top deck vernadah. On summer night, I would straddle my dad, and he would tell me stories. I could feel his voice in my legs, I could feel the bass rumbling in his guts. The Corkscrew Ballerina! His belly button was the animation of her legs leaping, until her own pirouhette overtook her, She spun and spun until she burned a hole in the ground and fell straight through the floor!I would squeal in anticipation and delight, somehow still ravaged by the tension, even though I'd heard the story 10 times before.Until one telling - some fuse in my brain rewired itself away from childhood delight, and simply short-circuited. The tension blinked out in an instant, and the story no longer had the same power over me. I knew it was a story, could not suspend the disbelief any more. AS if cynicism just blooms one day like an algae that takes over the whole river in a day. As if knowledge (becomes understanding) somehow means defeat. The defeat of delight.Our backyard was big enough to build speed on a bike. We would pick lilipillies in late winter, and catch stink bugs in summer. I would watch the bees praying at each purple jacaranda bell, their religiosity habitual and efficient, each prayer finished with thanks.

Turning a Sense Write into Lyrics

Here is a Sense Write, followed by a lyric idea I have drawn out of it. Notice how I am pulling together words and sounds that have a sense of sonic connection, and obviously adding in structural elements that help something sound like a lyric: rhythm, rhyme, a consistent number of lines per section, etc.

Prompt: RADIO

wicker baskets, bric a brac, nick knacks, garage sale. old paperbacks, dog-eared, year yellowed, brown framed pages blending to cream. old bits of metal, nails, screws, rust sprinkled, once useful, now objects without a purpose. old toys wrapped up in plastic bags. a once-pink teddy, now sun bleached and frayed. an old woman sitting under a hawaiian umbrella, smoking a cigarette like it's the 80s, with cigarette smoke curling around her fingers, snaking through her hair, and shrouding the air just above her in tufts of white. the crackle of the nicotine between her lips. lip stick seeping into the small cracks and canyons of her old lips. the radio on next to her, an old black and tan wireless, the antenna cocked at an uncanny angle, leaning hard to the left like an old man leaning on a wall. the fire crackle of an AM station. edith piaf warbling, beach boys crooning. i can't find what i'm looking for, as if you come to a garage sale with a purpose...and a small but laden grey cloud suddenly sprouts above us. it starts to rain lightly, but the old smoking lady is still sun-bathed, her smoke now overlaid by a romantic sparkle of silver rain, glittering in the sunshine. i can now see that she was once a total babe. the sinews of her arms were once smooth surfaces curving gracefully at angles - clean elbow, the precipitous shelf of a collar bone. those lips once drew attention to themselves, when the smoke would cascade out like a slow-exposure waterfall. and i see her dancing, by herself, holding a glass of wine, standing at a window, the reflection of herself superimposed onto a night dotted by the candles of light from the town below. her reflection adding beauty to the scene, as music filled the room, traced over her shoulders, brushed her hair, and laid its fingers on her collarbones. now she is selling everything. 

Lyric idea:

Wicker baskets and old paperbacks

Nick knacks and bric a brac

She’s selling off her memories

She doesn’t need them anymore

Her cigarette smoke is curling through her hair

She leans back in an old wicker chair

On request she slides off her wedding ring

She’s selling everything

How to Successfully Network as a Songwriter—my answer to a slightly petulant question on my YouTube channel

I was recently asked a question on my YouTube channel that went something like this:

The most important part of building a career as a songwriter is building a network, establishing good contacts, and schmoozing. Could you please tell us how you did that?

I’ve actually made it significantly more polite than the question was phrased on my channel. And hey, SPOILER: My number 1 ‘schmoozing’ tip is this: be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet. So you know, if you want to know how to do it, start by phrasing your questions with a tone of curiosity and kindness, rather than barking demands at people you don’t know…but my issues with people’s tone-blindness aside, I think there’s something in this that is very universal to songwriters (and probably a whole lot of people) starting out in a field, or struggling to get ‘inside’.

So here, I want to give you my top tips on how to build a career as a songwriter, and how to create strong networks of people around you. This is simply my experience, and my observations of the behaviours of people who I like and respect in the industry, not the ‘science of networking’, so take what makes sense to you. I hope it helps.

#1: Make. Good. Work.

The first thing to debunk in the question above is that “the most important thing” is your network. No, it isn’t. The most important thing is that you make excellent work. In this chicken and egg scenario, there is definitely a clear cause and consequence relationship: good work leads to good connections.

There isn’t any point trying to network or ‘schmooze’ (although I’m going to rip that idea apart in a moment) if you don’t have good work behind it.

Once you have good work, building a good network is not only then helpful, but also much easier. As marketing writer and thinker Seth Godin says, the best kind of marketing (which is just shorthand for communicating to others about yourself or your product) is when you can whisper quietly to people who are interested, rather than yelling loudly at strangers who don’t care.

Seth Godin

How do you get people interested? Make. Good. Work.

If you’re struggling to build a network, it’s likely that your work isn’t at a level yet where people will naturally have an interest. You’re spending too much energy trying to yell people into your corner, and not enough actually creating work of undeniably good quality. As Steve Martin says,

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

So spend less time marketing, and more time on your craft.**

#2: Be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet.

While you’re busy making good work, you can practice this with everyone you meet, regardless of whether they seem like someone who can ‘make something happen for you’, or they are the person getting coffee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a room with someone who seemed quiet and unassuming, and that very same person has become an incredibly successful musician, producer, or some other creator with a great career in music.

A spirit of curiosity, kindness, and enthusiasm, combined with being reliable (ie doing what you say you are going to do, on time, and with solid communication) is an absolutely winning combination. People (including myself, all of the time) prefer to hire someone who is nice and reliable and competent, rather than someone who is a genius and takes 2 weeks to respond to an email.

Let’s also put to permanent rest that this is ‘schmoozing’. Schmoozing implies that you are trying to get something from someone. If you change your mindset to one of trying to give, rather than get, you’ll find more success in the quality of the relationships that you form. As Austin Kleon says in “Show Your Work,”:

“Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network.”

Networking brings with it the idea that you are collecting contacts like coins. ‘Building relationships’ is much better. The idea in a relationship is reciprocity, but not necessarily transaction.

So, words matter. How you express yourself and your ideas matters (you’re a writer, right?). Be careful with your words. Let me give you an example. Here is how the asker of the question that inspired this post actually wrote their comment:

“The most important part of how you made a career as a songwriter is how you networked, used contacts, schmoozed etc. to get into the business to begin with. Tell us how you did that.”

Let me show you how this person could have phrased this that would have made me think, ‘oh this is a thoughtful person who I am willing to give my personal time to’:

“Hi Keppie! Thanks so much for all the content you’re putting on your channel, I’m learning a lot. It seems to me that building a career as a songwriter also involves not only the songs, but a lot of networking skills as well. If you have any time to answer this question, I’d love to know more about how you have approached that, and what are some tips you would give to people starting out? If not, I will continue to enjoy and support your work! Thanks again.”

That’s a message I would personally respond to. If I had time. Which I might or might not. But if I happened to, this is the one I would gravitate toward.

#3: Make yourself useful to others.

One of the most important ‘networking’ moves I have made was to start creating opportunities for others. While a student at Berklee, I started a student organisation called the Global Students Network, to give international students a chance to meet, and to gig together on campus. You know who my co-founder was? Arooj Aftab, now nominated for a 2022 Grammy as Best New Artist.

Arooj

If you’re looking for gigs, think about becoming an organiser. Invite 3 other artists to perform with you, and book a venue.

Find a young filmmaker, animator, or poet, and offer to compose the music for a video.

Or, you know, start a YouTube channel, and provide information that is of use to other songwriters, or invite other people onto it and use your platform to promote other people, too. Start a podcast, and share your ideas, processes, things you’re reading and learning. Invite other people on. Create a platform that you can use to elevate and promote other people. Brian Funk recently invited me onto his podcast.

He’s built a platform and is using it to promote other people. Brian and I are now ‘networked’ (but, really, we’re now friends and colleagues, which is way more interesting and fun and valuable than ‘network’…).

Meta note: See how I am using my platform here to promote Brian's work? Coz he's lovely? And didn't even ask for me to do it? But I will, because that's how it works...

If you find yourself in the position of wanting to ask a favour of someone, see if you can figure out a way that you could make their life easier or better (in a way that is appropriate and commensurate; it would be off-puttingly one-sided and bribe-ish to offer someone to build a website for them listening to your music for 3 minutes; but would be fine to offer to do the coffee and lunch run for the chance to sit quietly in the corner of a recording session at a studio, if you get the chance to meet a producer or engineer or recording artist).

And you know what’s even better than asking a favour? Asking for nothing in return. If you like something that someone else does or creates, simply use your platforms to promote them and their work. The value of that is worth 10x whatever you might get by asking for something in return.

#4: The practical stuff.

Once you’ve got good work, and are working on the basic operating system of kindness, curiosity, and value-adding, there are things you can do to put yourself in a position where you might meet the people you want to meet (just remembering there’s no guarantees, no paved road, it’s all speculating, but as the saying goes, “the harder you work, the more luck you seem to have…”):

Play open mics. If you are a songwriter starting out, cut your teeth at local open mics. It’s where I met the people who I still consider my closest musical allies and friends 20 years later. For example, Ben Romalis, Brian Campeau, and The Green Mohair Suits.

Release work. You need to have work in the world for people to be able to discover you. Don’t expect a single song to be “the song” that’s going to launch you. Keep making work regardless of whether it gets attention. As Bayles and Orland say in ‘Art and Fear’, your audience’s concerns (whether they be total disinterest or lavish attention),

“are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.”

Show up. If you are at school/college/university, go to your professors’ open office hours, with specific questions, or to show them your work, and ask for feedback—genuinely! Not secretly only wanting a pat on the back – REALLY get their feedback, and experiment with their suggestions. Then go back the next week, and show them that you followed their advice, and talk about what worked for you and what didn’t. This shows them two things: that you are dedicated to actually improving your craft, and that you are exercising your own taste and discretion about your work, not just following others’ ideas…turning up in Pat Pattison’s office on a weekly basis (with Good. Work. And a solid work ethic), was part of what put me front and center of his mind to invite me to be in the room with John Mayer for a week in 2008.

It was also what brought me to mind when a faculty position in the Songwriting Department opened up in 2010.

Have a good website. Again, make it easy for people to find you, and find out about it, and dive as deep as they want into your body of work.

Go to music and industry events. Every country has a performing rights association who very frequently will run an array of professional development seminars, panels, master classes, etc. In Australia, you can check out what’s offered by APRA/AMCOS, MusicNSW, MusicVIC etc. In the States, look out for what’s on through ASCAP and BMI.

Take a class. You can always take an online (or F2F) class to meet people, and find collaborators. I have talked about this in more detail here, and there are some links in the video notes there, too.

Make your emails personal, well-researched, and succinct. If you are emailing someone you have met, or even cold-emailing someone, make it clear in your email that you are writing specifically to them, and not sending out a generic email you have copied and pasted. An example of this might be to include info that shows you have researched them, and that there is a reason they might want to check out your music.

This is no good:

“Hey Michelle,

I’m a young songwriter looking for opportunities to get my work in front of people in the music industry. I would love for you to have a listen to these tracks, and let me know what you think.”

This is better:

“Hi Michelle,

I noticed you recently signed Pink Bottle to your label! I’ve followed their careers for a while, and my own band, The Scorpion Queens recently played on the same bill with them at The Candy Castle. The Queens have have another show coming up at The Candy Castle on June 13…”

You can see where this is going. Notice that it is clearly an email for Michelle, and no one else. It shows that there is a musical connection between a band she’s signed and my (totally fictional) band (ie a reason she might be interested), and that we are an active band, not waiting around for someone to do something for us, already playing and booking gigs, with more activity on the horizon. I would then follow up with offering to put a ticket for Michelle on the door, offering to buy her a drink, and then thanking for her time, and sending her a link to my website, and one or two of my songs.

Follow up and thank someone for their time. If you meet someone at an event who you’ve had a conversation with and they have shared their contact information with you, follow up with a short and polite email within the week. If they don’t respond to you, it’s okay to follow up once more a few weeks later. After that, let it go. Don’t hassle them. You never know when you might bump into them again, and if they happen to remember you, they will also likely remember that you were professional and tactful.

Deliver on time. Provide more than you are required to, where possible. I don’t think this needs much elaboration.

#5: Keep. Making. Good. Work.

Ninety-seven percent of people who graduate from a degree in the creative arts are not making work 3 years after they graduate. This means that all you need to do to eliminate 97% of your competition is to keep making (good) work over a longer period of time.

Honestly, this last point here is where a career as a songwriter is made. After all, what is a ‘career’ as a songwriter? What is success? Each person has to answer this question honestly for themselves, but if your only (or even main) conception of success involves fame and fortune, you are on a dark and murky quest bound almost certainly for the land of Profound Disappointment. The ‘careers’ that dominate the media (Ariana Grande, Adele, John Mayer etc) really only represent the tiniest fraction of people who are actually making careers that involve songwriting in some capacity. The flipside of this, however, is to understand that people who DO make a living as songwriters also make a living doing lots of other stuff. This describes me, and lots of songwriters I know. I write and perform my own music; I teach songwriting. The combination of these has established me as someone who can help other people make their songs better. Which has put me in the room with other artists and bands, co-writing. Continually producing work has led to other commissioned work in interesting and unexpected formats (I have a full album of original work that will be released interwoven into an audiobook published by Penguin Random House next year). Which is likely to lead to other writers interested in commissioning songwriters to collaborate on other work…etc. And even if it doesn’t, I have an idea for a musical that I plan to start writing next year…I do believe there is a mindset thing going in here: my ‘career’ is really just a string of projects that interest and excite me. Having a career, and a network, is really an offshoot of doing work that excites me, regardless of whether anyone else is giving me permission, or even giving me a hand.

And in conclusion…

So, dear reader—and dear Asker of Slightly Rude but Nevertheless Interesting Question/Demand on YouTube—networking is not the most important thing. Your love of writing songs, a determination to write better songs, the perseverance to keep doing it, a mindset of kindness and generosity, and making yourself findable, are way, way more important.

If you made it this far reading this, firstly, thank you. Secondly, you would probably enjoy (actually, I think your mind would be permanently ennobled) by reading “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon, and “Art and Fear” by Bayles and Orland.

**Footnote. I want to clarify that I am not a believer in pure meritocracy. Just because your work is good is often not enough, and very often is much harder for people who have histories and systems of oppression and marginalisation stacked against them (women, people of colour, LGBTQI+ folks, I'm shouting it out for us!). The experience of these people is often that their work needs to be even better to get the same attention. 

Getting to Great Chorus Lyrics

A great chorus is more than just the bit where the lyrics repeat. This video dives deep into the craft of finding and writing great chorus lyrics. We look at what a great choruses really do (beyond merely repeating), and look deeply at one of the most important concepts in great chorus writing: RECOLOURING. We reveal our favourite writing prompts for getting to a great chorus idea, and play a song that shows these ideas beautifully.

Here is a downloadable PDF of the prompts that you can use…forever!

George Saunders, Janis Ian, and Paul Simon—Where Meaning Comes From in Story

In a recent newsletter by one of my favourite writers, George Saunders, he writes of one of his characters in a short story, The Falls:

“A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.”

Photo: Zachary Krahmer

I believe (and experience) songwriting to be similar. As Janis Ian has said, often we write not because we have Something To Say; we write to find out what we are writing about.

Photo: Peter Cunningham

We often need to go spelunking through the dark and lumpy caves of the mind and imagination to arrive at some smooth pond that reflects a meaning back to us (that’s me, not Janis Ian, although I suspect that she, like me, has never been spelunking).

Paul Simon has framed a similar idea in a different way. Simon says that in his songwriting, he feels that his songs don’t need to have “meaning,” and probably benefit from avoiding it as the instigator of an idea. Instead, Simon says (in his wonderful interview with Paul Zollo, in Songwriters of Songwriting), songs simply need direction. Connect one idea to a second, and an idea has movement; connect it to a third, and the song has direction. Meaning will attach itself to direction, without needing to force it, plan it, or even mean it.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels

I like the idea that meaning is emergent; it takes the pressure off having to have ‘something to say’—or instead, it trusts the intelligence of a listener to bring their own experience and meaning to a story. It also encourages a trust in oneself as a writer—where there is story, there is meaning, and sometimes that meaning might be more complex, subtle, and personal, if we don’t set out from the starting point of ‘meaning’, but from the starting point of story.

Why Having a YouTube Channel is Awesome

…because an awesome person you didn’t know before creates a beautiful graphic recording of a video you made, not knowing who would receive it, or whether it would be helpful:

By Chris Malapitan

As I was checking in on Instagram the other day, I saw that Chris had tagged me in a post, and saw this incredible drawing. Chris made this one-page recording of my YouTube video “The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs”. It’s such a lovely representation of the ideas. I’m humbled and grateful that putting the ideas out there has impacted even a single person. Thanks, Chris!


Christopher Malapitan is an independent creative facilitator and trainer based in Brussels. With many years of experience working in creative industries, he supports communities and teams to explore and unlock what drives them. From big-picture thinking to storytelling, from body movement to collaborative arts-based approaches, he applies a unique blend of innovative processes and practises to his facilitation work.

The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs

In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.

Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.

More videos on my YouTube Channel, here.

Understanding Musical Genre for Songwriters

Professional songwriters often need or want to write in specific genres. This video explains 5 different ways to understand and emulate musical genre.

This video was made for a Songwriting class I teach at Collarts in Melbourne, Australia. A major project during the semester is to write a song to a specific brief provided by a music publisher, which asks for songs in a specific genre.

In order to write for this aspect of the commercial industry, it’s important to know how to listen to songs, and define the necessary characteristics of the genre so that you can emulate those characteristics, while still bringing in your own creativity to the project.

Genre is notoriously difficult to nail down, but in this video, I go through five concepts that are often at the heart of defining a genre.

How do you actually get better at songwriting?

A student emailed me this question today, and I thought it was beautifully simple, direct, and honest. Here is the answer I gave her (unedited):

The basic ingredients to getting better at anything are all the same: deliberate practice. The ‘deliberate’ part of that is key, though! Simple repetition of something is not enough to improve, or at least to improve past a certain plateau. You have to focus in on areas that you know need work, and then strengthen that muscle. You also need to get good feedback (which is where I, and other teachers, come in, of course), but good feedback can also come from your own practice. There is absolutely a way to be able to tune in to the things that are and aren’t working in your own songs, and the best way I know is to simply write A LOT OF SONGS. Get less attached to any one particular song, and more interested in the process of writing.


Here are my other hot tips for improving your songwriting:

  • Learn a lot of covers! Learn classic songs, but also anything that you just love. Seek to understand the chord progressions, the song forms, and the relationship of the melody to the chords and song forms. The Beatles played covers for a year in Hamburg for 8 hours a day before anyone had ever heard of the Beatles. Bruno Mars played covers in cafes in LA for 5 years before anyone knew who he was. 
  • Keep getting better on your instrument. The more you can do on your instrument, the broader your palette of choices will be.
  • Integrate music theory concepts immediately into songwriting (do not wait; do not think, ‘I will store this away, and use this concept next month/year…do it in the same few days that you learn something). For example, when you learn a particular inversion, or chord pattern, or bit of non-diatonic theory…write a song that uses it. 
  • And most importantly, WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Did I say that already? WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Aim for 1 a week. You can also set yourself a timer, and make it ‘one song in one hour’ so that you are not laboring over it all week to the exclusion of all else. For 2 weeks of every year, you should have a period of ‘write a song a day’. You could pick a month each year, and do it at the same time; that way you can claim that it is your job. Draw a boundary around it. Someone asks you to do something else, and you simply say to them (and yourself), “I’m currently doing a Song-A-Day Retreat, can we do that in 2 weeks?”

Hope that helps 🙂

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.