3 keys to writing great songs
Writing anything is hard. If you’re like me, you’re never satisfied. Looking back at your old material is like puberty - painfully awkward and, unfortunately, part of growing up.
The good news is you are not alone. There are great resources for learning how to write better songs, but nothing improves songwriting like writing songs!
Most of what I have learned to do, or not do, has come from trial and error - lots of error!
There isn’t a magic formula or “drop and drag” solution. Songwriting, like all art, will always be deeply personal and somewhat subjective. We lose something human if we turn writing into a "10 step," mechanical process.
Still, I do believe there are some objective “truths” to songwriting.
Take them or leave them, but these are a few of the basic “rules” that I have learned and they have helped guide me as a songwriter.
1) Sum of the parts
A good song is rarely one great part but rather a sum of the parts. The ingredients of a cake aren’t worth eating on their own, but put them together and BOOM!
Nothing bothers me more than a band of individuals.
”Hey, guys, do you mind if I take the solo here?”
“Yes! We do mind. Better yet, maybe you should play nothing at all!”
In my opinion a good song is conscious of dynamics, covers but doesn't crowd the frequency spectrum, and skillfully balances how each instrument contributes to the whole. All of these elements should seamlessly coordinate to convey something important.
2) Safety in a multitude of counselors
This advice seems very obvious, and yet it is often ignored. There is no substitute for outside opinions and most artists, myself included, simply don’t get enough of them!
Every artist should surround themselves with many “counselors”. They should be skilled, objective (not your mother!), and honest. You should get their opinion early and often.
Serious artists are often busy, and reluctant to stop long enough to download and listen to your “rough bounce”. A solution can be to trade input. Find another serious artist and agree to critique each other's work. You will both grow through the process.
Accepting criticism takes confidence and thick skin. But if you keep your eye on the goal of becoming a great songwriter, then you will be able to detach your identity from your work and ruthlessly pursue growth!
If you write alone and refuse outside input, you will severely limit your progress. No artist has grown without the critique of others.
3) Leave em’ wanting more
I have lived by this principle in every creative project I've ever been a part of, but it took me a long time to put this into practice when it came to songwriting. I believe that every song has a "lifespan of interest." In other words, all hooks, melodies, or structures become boring after a while.
The problem is we fall in love with our work, and suddenly we’ve strayed into 5-6 minute songs - yikes! That may work for Tool but trust me, it won’t work for you.
When in doubt, shorter is better! If the song just rocks and begs for five minutes - then think how great it will be when you trim it down to three! Your listeners will have no choice but just to listen again!
Songwriting is never easy. It takes great confidence to expose something you've created to the world. Unfortunately, there is no easy route to great songs. Like anything, it takes great patience and diligence and a lot of failures. But learn from some of my mistakes, focus on turning simple parts into great songs, get lots of input early and often, and keep your songs short - I promise your songs will already be significantly better.