Monday, 6 December 2010

5 Things You Should Know About Songwriting

(If you want to just skip to the list, do so. I felt this needed an introduction.)
Songwriting is not complicated by nature. It’s as simple or complex as you choose to make it. It totally depends on what you’re writing and how ambitious about it you want to get. Want to write a multi-movement concerto for a full orchestra? Yes, that will probably be quite complicated and will likely take a lot of thought and musical knowledge. On the other end of the scale, if you feel like writing a song for yourself or a friend to sing with simple chordal accompaniment, you’re likely to find that to be a lot simpler.
I’m not trying to deny that there’s a skill to songwriting – there is. As with all skills, you will gain proficiency at it the more you practice. However, some people I’ve talked to seem to think there is some sort of mystique surrounding it, that there is a multitude of unwritten rules and secrets that one must obey. (I’m looking at you, certain cousin who shall remain nameless :P)
That’s stupid. Writing songs is something that is – or at least, should be – accessible to everyone. Yes, it’s an art form, but everyone can pick up a pencil and try to start drawing, right? Why should songwriting be any different?
Anyway, on with the list. Just to clarify, this list is by no means an instruction manual for how to write a number one song. I’m most certainly not qualified to write anything like that, what with being sixteen and practically penniless. What this list is intended to do is help you on the way to writing.
Thing One: You can write what no one else can.
Pic related: Thing 1.
You’re a unique individual, just like everybody else. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times before – so many times, in fact, that it’s beginning to lose meaning. Well, the repetitiveness of that phrase doesn’t make it any less right. You – yes, you at the computer screen – are different to every other person on this planet we call Earth. You have your own individual collection of personality traits, likes, dislikes, relationships and experiences. That’s just for starters. All of things give you a unique perspective on life.
It makes sense that the songs you’d be able to write are unique to you. As your individual perspective means that you view and interpret everything in a different way to other people (even if this difference is only minute), it is also logical that it allows you to create in a different way as well. Unless you write your songs, nobody is going to hear them. I can guarantee you that your songs will be different to songs written by others, one way or another.
Example: I wrote a song about Alice in Wonderland and I am most definitely not the only person to do this. All of the songs are different to one another. Compare my song (Hey Alice) to Avril Lavigne’s ‘Alice’. Same basic subject matter, completely different songs.
Thing Two: Write what you like. Forget profundity.
There is no steadfast rule saying that your songs must be powerfully emotive and contain eighteen layers of deep, hidden meaning, so don’t feel pressured! It doesn’t matter if your lyrics don’t tell of an epic saga, star-crossed lovers and the final battle between war and evil. If they do, that’s cool too. But there is nothing wrong with a fluffy little love song, so don’t hesitate if you want to write one. Write whatever you feel like writing when you pick up your pen or computer keyboard.
I mean it when I say there are infinite things to write about. No topic is too trivial. If you have a good idea, you really should take it and run with it, rather than arguing with your muse. Arguing with my muse tends to get me nowhere. If you have a burning urge to write about ponies, don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re ‘above that’. Have fun and write the damned thing! Suddenly feel like writing about Digimon? Great! Send me a link to the song once you’re done!
How do I know? I write songs about seemingly random material. I do that a lot. Take Paranormal Investigator {Still Walking}, for instance. I wrote that about a certain webcomic that I adore with my entire heart. As for A Thousand Angels, it’s about Neon Genesis Evangelion (with a few Rebuild references thrown into the mix for good measure). Even the previously mentioned Hey Alice could fit in to the “seemingly random” category.
If you want examples that aren’t by me/don’t feel like listening to my voice, try out Dental Care by Owl City, Rock Star by Nickelback and Just A Song About Ping Pong by Operator Please. No prizes for guessing what any of those songs are about.
Thing Three: Learn some music theory. It’ll help you out.
Yes, I know I said in the introduction that writing songs is something everyone can do. I’m also aware that I implied fairly strongly that you don’t have to be a through and through virtuoso to write. Well, I stand by those statements, because that’s not the point of Thing Three. The point is not that it is totally necessary but that it helps. It helps an enormous amount. Sure, it’s well within the realm of possibility to hum a tune and put some words to it. People have done it in the past. I’ve been told that the boys of ABBA sang their music into a tape recorder and paid others to notate it (please do not shoot me if I’m wrong about this – my internet’s acting up like a two year old who’s been denied candy right now, so I can’t check).
But it’s still really handy. Imagine trying to write a story without fundamental knowledge of characterisation and vocabulary. It would be quite difficult. Compare that level of difficulty to writing a story and being able to draw from a vast well of literature knowledge.
The most useful things to know are what notes go in which key signatures. It’s nigh impossible to overemphasise how important this can be. You’re unlikely to have much trouble with it, either. It’s easy and you can learn it for free on the internet. You can learn to read musical notation – also an invaluable skill - in the same way. Figuring out some of the different ways chord patterns work together is also worthwhile.
But remember, if you learn anything you don’t like the sound of, that’s what Thing Four is for.
Thing Four: Disregard any conventions that don’t suit you.
Although this ties directly in with Thing Three, it’s applicable to anything you’ve learned in the past. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but this is true of any art form. There are no rules and requirements, just guidelines. Most of the time, you should have no trouble following these guidelines. After all, convention in any kind of art usually develops for a reason, right? People are unlikely to keep writing melodies a certain way or using a specific kind of brush stroke if they think it sucks.
Does that make sense? I hope so. The general gist of Thing Four is the following: if it sounds good, do it, rules be damned. You can’t ‘do it wrong’. What matters is that you like what you’re writing.
Thing Five: You can’t ‘cheat’ unless you plagiarise.
Thing Five is here especially for my cousin.
 Are you finding a certain song easy to write? Good! Have you encountered little to no trouble thinking of ideas for it? Great! Have you suddenly noticed that the chord progression is a variant of Ice Cream Chords? That’s still okay. Are you worried about this and feel the need to change it? Don’t change it, it’s fine.
I don’t know how to put this any simpler. Unless you’re stealing from someone’s song or using bits and pieces of premade melodies and such, it’s not cheating. You don’t lose points. There are plenty of fantastic songs out there that use simple melodies and chord progressions. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not lazy.
It’s recapping time.
So, my main points are:
·         You’re unique. Your songs will be, too.
·         Whatever you want to write about, it’s okay.
·         Knowing stuff about music is a good idea...
·         ...but you can disregard anything you know, if you want.
·         ‘Simple’ does not mean ‘lazy’.
If you think I’ve said something stupid, let me know. Rach out.

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You write things here. Love is good, flames are too.