Habits are critical to how your life will unfold. Good habits generally lead to many good things, while bad habits on the other hand will slowly bleed you of the accomplishments you think you’ve made.
If you want to be an effective songwriter, you need to establish good songwriting habits.
The Two Critical Habits for Songwriting
- Create something every single day.
- Learn something every single day.
As a professional songwriter, you can’t rely on moments of inspiration if you want to have a long career. Creating consistently everyday is the only way around the problem of not having inspiration. You need to sit down and do the work, regardless of how you feel in the moment. Inspiration favors the well prepared.
Consistently learning everyday is just as critical. The online world is full of advice for writing songs, marketing and releasing music, networking, producing, collaborating and co-writing. But you cannot learn everything in a single browsing session after you get struck with panic over not knowing enough.
Creating every day and learning every day are the critical factors. They allow you to slowly build up a solid collection of songs you’ve written, and to continually improve on all those aspects.
Habit 1: Create Something Every Day
Creating everyday sounds great on the surface, but it can quickly become a bunch of random unused ideas. Part of creating is being organized, having an idea of where the music is going, and when you can say it’s complete. Let’s break this down.
- Finish songs. In my Bear app right now, I have 309 notes tagged with “song”, 74 tagged with “incomplete-lyric”, and only 17 tagged with “complete-song”. This isn’t a bad thing per se, as I’ve only been focusing on songwriting versus composing for the last few months, but it goes to show how easy it is to feel like you are creating without actually finishing things. A teacher of mine once said “The key to happiness is finishing projects.” I think he was right.
- Organize your music. As with lyrics, you can quickly lose track of all the little tidbits that you create, the finished songs, the grooves, melodies, sounds, etc. Your organizing doesn’t have to be perfect. It will change over time. But if all your stuff is randomly strewn about your computer, notebooks, and phone, then it’s time to have a spring cleaning session. Most important is having a place for completed music, so you can always share it when necessary.
- Change your musical constraints everyday. One way to have more variety in your songs is to change the constraints. For instance writing in a different key, a different time signature, a different rhyme scheme, using short phrases or long phrases, and focusing on different song forms. All of these can be set as constraints ahead of time, and will lead to different outcomes. This is one of the reasons I recommend learning to play chords and melodies in all keys, major and minor. It gives you creative freedom. Here’s an idea – F minor, 6/8, ABBA rhyme scheme, with short lines, write a Verse, Pre-chorus, and Chorus.
- Have a goal. If you know what you are able to do each week, you can set a goal for creating that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. If you’ve been finishing one song a week, then go for two. How detailed you get on your goals is up to you. It usually helps to split up big goals into smaller goals. Finishing a song could be – finish the lyrics, add the chord progression, create a melody, and create a basic work tape (a rough demo you do yourself).
Habit 2: Learning Something Every Single Day
With the internet, it can seem like you are constantly learning something everyday, but it can also trick you. What articles and videos did you read last week? What books? How much of the information stuck?
Learning requires not only taking in the information, but remembering and applying it. For me, this means that I also need to think about the habits within learning itself.
- Learn directly from the source – analyze great songs and great compositions. It should go without saying that one of the best ways to learn is to analyze great music. I believe all songwriters should learn to read music notation, and understand some music theory, but there is plenty you can learn without those tools. If you’re not comfortable with analysis, you can check out my articles on music theory to get you started.
- Find quality information on songwriting and composing, and take notes while you are studying it. What you learn doesn’t always stick the first time, so be prepared to go back. Highlighting, underlining, and taking notes in margins is a great way to help you focus on the critical information when you are going back.
- Apply what you are learning to a new song or something you’ve already written as soon as you can, preferably that day. For instance, I watched a lecture by Pat Pattison on YouTube, and a critical concept he put out was balancing and unbalancing verses. The reason I remember it right now, is because I went back to a song I had written and used it that day.
- Maintain focus on the most important songwriting skills first. At this stage in my songwriting journey, this has to do with understanding songs, their structure, and the options I have lyrically, melodically, and harmonically. I realize that I will have to also get familiar with publishing and legal matters, using Ableton, how all the streaming services work, and marketing. Just listing what you need to do, and then prioritizing will greatly reduce the time you’ll need to learn them, because you won’t be spread too thin.
- Study at the same time and in the same place. For me, it’s the studio, at about 4:30 am. I know a lot of people study late at night, but it’s never worked for me. I also have consistent studying music to listen to – mostly John William’s soundtrack to “Hook”, and a Philip Glass playlist. They don’t have lyrics, and they get my brain set in the right mood for focus and learning.
- Don’t be afraid to abandon a book. You may be excited to read a book that everyone has recommended, but as you get into it you find yourself bored. It’s okay to move on. You may comeback to it in the future, but there are plenty of other things to read and learn.
There are many songwriting habits you need to cultivate over a lifetime, but begin with the ones you know will really make a difference. And go write a song!