Songwriting Tips from 11 Expert Songwriters in the UK
Published by Jimmy on July 9, 2015
The response that we had on our first songwriting round-up from world class UK musicians was quite phenomenal… so much so that we’ve had several artists contacting us asking for more tips from expert musicians.
Of course, since one of our goals here in Lyreka.com is to help artists in any way that we can; we are more than happy to accommodate. Allow us to share with you our next round of expert musicians. Enjoy!
How do you know when you’ve written a decent song?
If I can hear a song/track I’ve written and enjoy it in the same way I enjoy a great song written by one of my heroes, that’s usually a good sign. That is what I strive for (though I usually fail!) each time I create a new piece, whether it’s a song, or an orchestral piece for a TV soundtrack.
I still remember David Foster’s words when I was lucky enough to see him interviewed in Tokyo many years ago. Asked what the ‘Foster Magic’ was, he replied “It’s not magic, it’s hard work. I go to the studio every day, and if the song isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished”.
Those words have stuck in my mind for more than 20 years and I try to live by them. As a result, many song attempts end up in the trash! If I feel that part of the rough idea is ‘perfect’ I will work on it until I believe the rest of the song is as good. Lyrics are my weak point, but my regular songwriting partner Mike Brayn is an incredible lyricist. This brings me to something I tell other writers – I would rather be 50% of something great than 100% of something merely good. It’s very rare to be so talented that your work can’t be improved by collaborating. Look at how many great songs were written by a two person team.
Funnily enough, I co-wrote the two original songs on Rebecca Newman’s recent #1 classical crossover album, which features songs by greats such as Puccini, Mozart and David Foster! It is truly an honor to be on the same album as those writers!
Set Your Imagination Free
Writing music for a living is great fun, but remember to be true to yourself. Do not try to fit into a preconceived style, but set your imagination free and write the music you are dreaming of.
You’re working in the Music Business
First of all a reminder to all songwriters that you’re working in the music business and the clue is in the title – it’s a business. When I started out all of my songs were perfectly crafted works of art, written with true meaning right from the heart and not to be changed, amended or interfered with in any way. What I soon found is that if the market isn’t buying, you aren’t selling!
Now with BIMM, LIPA, BRIT School and sundry dedicated university courses, that naiveté is largely a thing of the past. But cannibalizing and mixing and matching material are par for the course. Another thing to be aware of is that all songs are derivative, some more so than others. Hello Eric Carmen (Rachmaninov), Greg Lake (Prokofiev), and Barry Manilow/Take That (Chopin). Okay, so it’s less blatant these days, but if there’s something that’s out of copyright fill your boots…subtly! And that means you need to listen to all types of music and soak everything in like the proverbial sponge.
Popular songs have a basic structure including verses, bridge, hook and middle eight. And many successful songs use what I call ‘cliché chords’, particularly the ‘anthemic’. I’m not going to tell you what they are because if you can’t spot them from listening then there’s no hope for you. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. But for now let’s stick to the basics because it’s the basics that need to be in place before we start experimenting.
So, having started writing, what are the key considerations? Well, if you’re ‘writing for yourself you should be aware of your audience and your image because that’s what you’re writing for. Then it’s down to production, working with the right producer to interpret your songs to capture that audience and get them to do what you need them to do, buy your music and support your gigs.
The same premise applies when writing for an artist and working collaboratively is incredibly helpful in developing your craft. After all that’s what you’re doing. Your writing and your songs will develop over time so sticking with it and believing in yourself is pretty fundamental.
Registering Your Songs
One thing I always recommend is registering your songs with a collection agency such as PRS. A successful songwriter can earn a healthy living from the royalties the agency collects on your behalf so think carefully before selling a song outright. Assignment and Licensing are viable options, but if someone offers to buy your song outright can bet your last dollar they are unlikely to be doing it as a philanthropic gesture!
And while most successful songwriters are also musicians in their own right, unless they’re also headline performers they don’t write for the fame and glory. Every heard of Rod Temperton? Okay – look him up and prepare to be amazed! And with hard work and dedication that could be you.
Don’t Force Anything
A song or a piece that has been forced to sound a certain way, or do certain things always sounds forced and contrived: always let your music come from a place of honesty.
If you’re needing to fill a commission brief, do your research – if you’re writing for yourself and have decided to write a blues today, fine – use what you know about the blues to guide you, but don’t be stuck by what ‘needs to be in a blues song’, let the song go where it wants to go – If you’re suffering from writer’s block it’s often because you’re trying to force your music to do something specific, either a particular structure, or writing lyrics about a certain subject matter – if one area of a song/piece isn’t happening, stop trying to force it and work on something else: If the lyrics are alluding you, focus on the chord structure for a while. If you’re not happy with the melody, play around with different lyrics. And don’t always assume you need to write in a linear fashion. If you can’t figure out the middle section but have an idea for the end, do that bit first. Also remember that timescale is relevant only to the piece at hand. One song you write in a day is not necessarily worse or better than one that took you months. Each song/piece will have it’s own timescale as to when it’s going to be finished.
Photo courtesy – Andrew LePoidevin @ Tall Pictures Photography
A Song is Pretty Much Everything
The thing that you need to know first is: a song is pretty much everything. It’s the most important connection to others. A well-crafted song will hold people’s hearts and attention more than style, flashy solos or just about anything else. There are gifted singers who can make almost anything sound wonderful but they are few and far between.
Consistent Practice and Work
Writing songs that truly touch people is a combination of things. Inspiration is part of it but the main element to great songwriting is doing it as often as possible. Consistent practice and work at your craft is the single biggest factor for success. It creates a foundation that allows the magic to come in and touch your melodies and words.
Listen to Other Songwriters Material
Listen to other songwriters material, especially hit songs. The idea is not to necessarily copy them but to gain as wide an understanding of what’s possible and what works. Check out material from 60 years ago as well as contemporary music.
In the end, write the music and tackle the subjects that matter to you. What others do is what they do, so remember to be true to you. Don’t let discouragement stop you. If you don’t like what you’re writing, keep writing! It will eventually lead you to where you need to be artistically. We all have fallow periods where we wonder why we’re even bothering. Do it because you love it.
Dig into What You’ve Got
Don’t get too caught up on expensive equipment and software. Your phone plus a couple of free apps can do more than most studios could, 30 or 40 years ago – buy wisely, dig into what you’ve got, and become an expert in exploiting that.
Write Something Every Day
Just like playing an instrument or learning a sport, composing is a craft that needs to be nurtured through practice, practice and more practice. Quite simply, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Don’t wait for inspiration to strike; write something every day so that when you do get that great idea, you have the technique and the experience in place to craft it into something meaningful.
It doesn’t matter if you end up discarding 95% of what you write. The process of creating it will have made you a better composer/songwriter and will pay dividends on the other 5%.
Be True to Yourself
The truth is that whatever you write. Some people will like it. Some will dislike it. Some will be disinterested. So, write to interest yourself. Write to express an idea or some part of yourself that you are curious about.
Write What Inspires You
Look into your mind and meditate on your artistic goal. Whether it’s a song, a big band score or a piece of production music, are you inspired? Are you interested? Is there something there that needs to be said? Go with that feeling. Listen to yourself. Entertain yourself.
Write What Interests You
Tap into that spirit of adventure and exploration that lives within us all. Allow your music to be discovered, to be born and to become alive.
Search for the Truth
It’s basically impossible to condense everything down to one important ‘must-do’ so rather than the host of other important aspects of writing music such as focus, discipline, cutting edge sounds, interesting orchestration, even networking and some kind of business ‘sense’, I have gone for the importance of finding an emotional truth and honesty in your music. What comes as a result will be a sense of originality too; because even you are musically treading a path someone else has already walked (which you undoubtedly will be) it will still be YOUR take on it. And furthermore, it will be music that you feel passionate about and committed to and willing to go the extra mile to make perfect.
Should you be a Great Writer From the Outset?
In my experience of working with new writers, the most common barrier to progress is the idea that you can and should be a great writer from the outset. This way of thinking is not only demoralizing but also inherently limiting in terms of creativity, as you are constantly judging and feeling frustrated with your work, which is likely to result in feeling ‘blocked’. Building your writing skill and experience is a development process, like learning any other discipline: you wouldn’t pick up a guitar for the first time and expect to be able to play like Hendrix! For some reason, when it comes to songwriting, people often seem reluctant to allow themselves to be ‘beginners’; they become disillusioned and frustrated with their work and then often become ‘blocked’ and unable to write. I find this video by Ira Glass both useful and inspiring.
In general, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced writer, adopting a philosophy that the process is equally as important as the outcome will really help to free up your creativity. We all tend to have a habit to judge, analyze and critique much too early on in the creative process, which limits our ideas and possibilities and often gets us stuck. You have to allow content to be created before you can critique and reshape it! I used to find the creative process highly stressful, much like the image below (see attached image). Since I adopted a philosophy of simply allowing stuff to happen and getting to a ‘crappy first draft’, I have found writing to be much more enjoyable! This approach allows me to explore more unusual and uncertain territory and to not worry about how it is sounding. Once I have this first draft, which will be full of terrible lines, dodgy chord changes and incoherent melodies, I can then move to the analytical and critical stage of the process, and use my skill and experience as a writer to methodically redraft, craft and shape the content into a finished song.
I also find the “4 stages of creativity” model for the creative process very useful. It follows a similar principle to what I have described above.
Keep it all!
There are so many times that I have started something and just not felt it, instead of keeping it, it gets deleted. Months down the line I am presented with a new brief, or working on a new track, only to find that the piece I had deleted would have fitted perfectly! Just because you’re not feeling it at the time, doesn’t mean it isn’t something that can’t be used later on. Keep everything, come back to it, play about with it some more and it may turn out to be one of your favorite pieces.
Big thanks to all the songwriters who gave this collection of amazing songwriting tips. If you have any tips of your own that you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section below. We hope you were able to gain some valuable insight from these expert songwriters.
If you like this article then we know you will like our previous songwriting tips round-up.