Ever wonder how you can get the words and melodies jumbled up in your head out on paper? Maybe you dream of lyrics all day and night and have notebooks full of scribbles and rhythms. Maybe you want to write a song, but have no idea how to start. Or maybe you are somewhere in between… Whatever group you fit into the Songwriter’s Secrets series is for you.
Getting started songwriting can be challenging, but like riding a bike you have to practice and fail many times before you can enjoy the ride. I’m going to share some helpful exercises to help you take those first steps to successful songwriting. You don’t need to be a trained musician to start. You just need the courage to begin your journey.
A quick clarification before we start: at this stage we are talking about writing songs not as a profession, but as a musical skill. Songwriters that write music at the highest levels have learned how to write whether or not they are inspired in order to meet deadlines and the needs of their clients! It often takes years of practice to create great tunes about any topic as a profession. Will you be able to write a snappy tune someday about toilet paper? Would you even want to? That’s not our focus today – and whatever you choose to do with your music skills in future, practice is key!
Musical Skills (not) Required
Writing a song is easier if you can play an instrument, sing, or know some basic music theory. If you have not had time to develop these skills or are just starting out, don’t fret! Instead, keep working on basic song-writing skills, and team up with a friendly musician or music teacher to help you develop the song. Later in the series you will also learn exercises and tips that will help anyone write a tune, even if you can’t read music or don’t play an instrument.
The first step to almost any musical endeavor involves finding inspiration for your music. Whether you are writing a folk song, a rock tune, or a hip-hop rhyme, you need to have something to say, and that something usually is inspired by something in your life that means something to you.
Here’s an example from my own experience. This song, Lonely Mother’s Cry from Libertaria: The Virtual Opera was inspired by my own experiences as a mother and daughter, both sad and hopeful. If you don’t read musical notation, don’t worry, you can listen below.
Look at the Billboard Hits of today – or any previous decade. Notice how many of these songs deal with love and relationships, break-ups, and hard times. Whether the performer writes their own music or not, the songwriter of those top tunes most likely was inspired by an event in his or her own life to bring those words to life. The emotions associated with the words reach out to the listeners, drawing them into the song.
Exercise 1: Write What You Know
A common tip for novelists is to “write what you know”. The same can be said for songwriters. While it’s not impossible for you to write about losing your job, suffering a difficult break-up, or losing your loved one to a street crime if you have never experienced it personally, you will be more convincing if you can at least associate the subject with something similar that you have experienced.
Why is this important? If you write words without any emotion, that will come out in the lyrics, and your music will lack depth. When you start out, most of your songs will most likely stem from something from your own life, whether it’s your family, places you have visited, or important causes.
In this first exercise you will explore what you know, and see which experiences in your life could translate to a meaningful song. You will need a journal or notebook for this exercise. See the image below for an example of brainstorming.
- Draw a circle with four “spokes” branching out from the center
- In the center of the circle write “Experiences”
- At the end of each spoke draw another circle
- In each separate circle briefly name an experience that has impacted you emotionally
- Around each experience add in words, descriptions, people, places, and emotions that you associate with the experience
Just by looking at this mindmap or the example one above, you probably can see a number of experiences and emotions that you can put to song. Using a basic rhyming scheme, take these brainstorming ideas and develop several different lyric sets. Don’t worry if this first batch of lyrics ends up in the trash can later! Right now you just want to experiment.
Remember that you do not need to keep the lyrics factual. These are just a jumping off point for your imagination. You can change the locations, the people, and the actual experiences themselves.
Took the Greyhound bus a quarter to eight
Scared but didn’t look back as I chose my fate
I was only sixteen years old
With no idea where I was goin’
But it didn’t matter now
Cuz the Greyhound bus was rollin’ out of town
Try to write at least one or two sets of lyrics for each separate experience. Remember that the key to good songwriting is practice. Your first attempts don’t need to be Grammy-worthy, but guaranteed that behind every Grammy-winning song was a musician who spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours writing lyrics that never saw the light of day.
Exercise 2: Rhyme Time
While there are countless songs rhyming “true”, “you”, and “blue”, in general you want to avoid such obvious rhymes, and instead come up with a more descriptive and diverse vocabulary that you can use for songwriting. Just having a broader vocabulary will help you avoid falling into hackneyed lyrics and being cliché. In the end you might end up using the simpler lyric, but developing your rhyming vocabulary will help make sure you’ve explored a variety of interesting options for your lyrics.
Madonna’s True Blue is an example of a popular song that uses simple rhymes to convey romantic love.
Here’s a simple exercise to try:
- Write down your first or last name (whichever is simpler to rhyme)
- Without using an app or Google, try to find at least fifteen words or phrases that rhyme with your name
- Repeat this exercise with at least five different names
- Once you are comfortable, try to rhyme book titles, newspaper headings, e-mail subject lines, etc.
- Repeat this exercise at least once a day
Start with strict (i.e. exact) rhymes at first. If you are stuck, move to words or phrases that just sound similar. If you cannot come up with any other words, then go to other resources like a rhyming dictionary to expand your vocabulary.
Be sure to vary your sources for the words to rhyme. Why? Most people will choose easy words to rhyme like “hat” or “dog”. By using names or unusual “inspiration” you will have to explore a broad expanse of words.
Example: Starting from my name, “Sabrina Peña Young”:
Exercise 3: Listen
What types of music do you enjoy? Country? Rock? R&B? Classical? Pop? Electronica? No matter what types of music you enjoy or like to play, it is important to expand your musical horizons.
One way to do this is to explore the music of other genres and listen to the music of key songwriters from all eras. While this list is not exhaustive, here are some good examples of musicians to start you out.
George and Ira Gershwin
Bob Marley Jerome Kern
For a complete list, check out the Rolling Stone magazine list of 100 greatest songwriters of all time, this list of top female singer-songwriters of all time, or The Ranker’s list of top rap lyricists of all time.
Use every moment that you have in your life to add a tool to your songwriter’s toolkit. Whether it is an experience you have tomorrow, practicing rhyming your boss’s name to less-than-pleasant words, or setting your playlist to a mix of the best songwriters of all time as you go about your day, being a songwriter is an everyday adventure!