I have been a composer since I was a young kid (I am currently 36 writing this), and so when I got into songwriting over the last year, I felt somewhat out of place.
But I’ve also come to learn that the skills I acquired through studying the methods of classical, jazz, and film composition, have been enormously helpful in writing songs.
Songwriting vs Composing
If I were to say the core difference between songwriting and purely instrumental composition, it’s the deep understanding of lyrics, the use of the human voice, and the interaction of lyrics with the music. The music and the lyrics have to support each other.
The specific things you know about music, like song forms, chord progressions, production skills – they all function pretty much the same regardless of genre. This may be a bold statement, but I find it to be true.
You may use different progressions in pop than you would in classical, but they are still progressions. Your production over a 3 minute song may differ from how you orchestrate a 20 minute concert piece, but you’re still using the same mental process to bring those elements together.
The Actual Skills and Craft of a Songwriter
Craft for me is really the collection of individual skills towards an end goal. A lot of people will say you need to improve your songwriting craft, but then not be able to clearly articulate the craft of a songwriter. So here is an attempt to clarify the craft of the songwriter. This list will change as I grow, but this is as I see it now.
This list also assumes that you want to be able to do all aspects of songwriting without the aid of a writing partner. I think writing with others is good, but it shouldn’t be a crutch. If you don’t have any of these skills, it’s time to start learning.
Critical Skills for Songwriters
- Strong grasp on the use of language. In my case English. You can’t escape that you need to use words in songs. And words imply all sorts of things – rhythms, melodic motion, emotions and intentions, rhyming schemes, etc. Your knowledge of, and choice of words is critical. I find using a rhyming dictionary to be extremely useful here. Rhyme zone is my favorite.
- A solid understanding of the way harmony works and a bunch of chord progressions at the ready at your fingertips. So many songs are written based on the same progressions, that you’d think we would all get tired of them. But we don’t. More important, when you have the basic progressions at your fingertips, and you know how they work, you can modify them. That is where really cool stuff begins to happen.
- Being able to sing through your melodies and play an instrument. I have always told others to learn to read music and play an instrument. My preferred choice is piano, but guitar is also a good choice. Your voice is an instrument as well, and warrants spending time to improve. Just make sure you learn to read notation and chord charts. Other types of systems, like Roman Numeral analysis, the Nashville Number system (which is basically roman analysis), or Figured Bass can be helpful, but they will also come with time and experience.
- The ability to analyze music, both on the page by reading music, and by ear alone through listening, playing by ear, and transcription. Analysis in this case can mean many things. It could be about the story and lyrics in a song. It could be about the way the melody and harmony work. It could be about the form of a song, or it could be about production elements. But analysis gives you options, and options as a songwriter are like little nuggets of gold.
- Self-discipline. This should go without saying, but self-discipline is the cornerstone of any skill. You will need to work on these over time, and sometimes when you don’t want to. Songwriting is not about inspiration, although that can be a great feeling when it comes. Inspiration usually only takes you as far as a single lyric line, maybe a verse or chorus, or a melody. But then it has to be worked out. And more often than not, you won’t be inspired. You’ll be uninspired. You’ll be down about the state of the world, the fact that you don’t sound as good as you’d like, or you may think the song you wrote last week actually sucks. Self-discipline allows you to sit down everyday and make progress. Progress is more important than a single burst of creativity. Just look at how many songs have been written by songwriters like Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney. It’s partly a numbers game.
- Being vulnerable with your music. It can feel very raw when people hear your music. Just wait until you throw your life stories in there and you have to sing them to people you know and think they know you. Get comfortable with it. It is part of the process. And it’s in that vulnerability that you will find the deeper truths in your writing.
The Process of Developing as a Songwriter
Developing as a songwriter, composer, or really any skill, comes down to being honest with yourself. You may have written something you like, but can you write something you like… everyday. They won’t all be hits, but there should be a minimum standard.
If you can just accept that there are many people that have worked on their craft longer and harder than you have, then you won’t be as offended when someone critiques you or passes you up. And you’ll be more aware of your own weaknesses.
I find writing something and then coming back to it over successive weeks to be eye opening. Don’t be fully satisfied with what you know, or what you’ve created. There is almost always something that you can improve on.
Soft-Skills of the Songwriter
I moved out to Hollywood back in 2012, and spent the last decade in the film music industry. There seem to be many parallels to the advice I heard early in my career here, and what I am hearing in the songwriting world.
Phrases like “Having thick skin”, or “You’re gonna get a lot of no’s before you get a yes”, or “You don’t need a lucky break, you need a hundred lucky breaks to make a career.”
I think a lot of these can be put into context by understanding who you are, and where you stand in terms of your skillset. Most of the people I saw come out to California were hopeful about composing and “making it”. But many lacked basic skills in music. And it took them a long time to learn. On top of this, a few lacked the “soft-skills” of networking and being a decent person to hang out with.
The people who have done the best, by far, have been great networkers. They went to the parties, shook hands, and put in the work.
Looking back at what I’ve accomplished since moving here, it was almost always my personal skills first that got me the work, and my musical skills that allowed me to keep the work.
Why I Am Pursuing Songwriting
I was burned out of my house in the Woolsey Fire back in 2018 and that forced me to confront what it was that I wanted out of music, what I really enjoyed, what I really didn’t enjoy, and that is a big part of why I have made a change from pursuing film scoring, to pursuing my own personal music career first.
Developing as Songwriters Together
Just as with my original pursuits on this website, I invite you to join me as I learn the deeper craft of songwriting. It’s through teaching others that I’ve learned the most about music. Nobody has all the answers you are looking for, but I guarantee together, we will uncover most of them.