Advice for Beginner Songwriters

Hey everyone! Katt here. I figured I’d publish this post on this blog instead of on my studio blog, as the question I’m endeavoring to answer was asked of Wax Chaotic rather than Dragon Scale Studios.

A few months ago, we were asked on Facebook what advice we have for aspiring songwriters. Since I’m currently the one doing the songwriting for Wax Chaotic, I thought I would try my hand at furnishing an answer. The reason I’m doing this as a blog post instead of in a video Q&A session as was originally intended is because it got a little long…

So we might as well begin! First and foremost:

If you’re writing for an audience, figure out who that will be
It might be useful to be cognizant of the tastes of anyone you’re writing for. They should not be the end all, be all of your songwriting existence—it is imperative that you write for YOU, too—but if you intend to show your pieces to anyone, it is highly recommend that, at the very least, you be aware of when you might offend them, for example. A song like “Fall from Grace” isn’t likely to go over that well at a festival sponsored by, say, a Baptist church.

Don’t weed your garden too closely
Don’t be afraid of your ideas. Don’t worry yet if they’re good or not. You’re just starting out. Just see what comes out of your mind and play around with it. Even if you’re not sure it’s good, it might turn into something amazing in the future. Alternatively, your audience may surprise you by latching onto it as something they really love.

Study the language you’re working with
By its very nature, lyrical songwriting requires more conciseness than writing prose. If you better understand the language you’re writing in, you will be able to use it more effectively.

Study music theory—at least the basics
You don’t have to be a master at music theory to be a musician, but knowing something about it will definitely help. For example, it’s useful for all of the parts of your song—verse, chorus, and middle eight if you’ve got one—to all be in the same key. Since I tend to write songs piecemeal rather than all at once, it’s not uncommon for me to get a tune idea for one part that’s in a different key than a tune idea for another part. Understanding the basics of how that works not only allows me to recognize when I’ve done that, but fix the problem, as well. That saves us a lot of time and trouble down the line.

Plus, if you understand how stuff like that works, you can add in intentional key changes and the like where you want them.

Don’t be afraid to sit down at a keyboard
If you have trouble writing melodies to go with your lyrics, even just a basic keyboard will help. Make sure it has at least as many octaves on it as you can sing comfortably (or that your vocalist can sing comfortably, if you’re writing for someone else). Don’t worry if you don’t know how to play piano. Just plunk around and see what sounds you like. I find this very helpful sometimes when I’m working on a new melody; hunting and pecking with my own voice only gets me so far for some songs. It’s nice to hear what other alternatives exist, and sitting down at the keyboard allows me to do that.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
When you’re ready to start sharing your pieces with other people, don’t be afraid to ask your friends and those you trust to help with your writing process. Sometimes a second set of eyes or pair of ears can be the difference between loving something you’ve written, and remaining lukewarm about it (or hating it).

Don’t ever go anywhere without a way to jot down an idea, or a way to record a melody sample
This is pretty self-explanatory.

Just don’t. Trust me.

You could use a notepad, your cell phone, or anything else that works for you. I have an .mp3 player with recording capability that I’ve used more for songwriting than I have for playing music. I’ve also been known to whip out my phone and sing and/or talk at it for a few minutes. The means by which you record your ideas don’t matter, only that you record them.

If this is something you’re serious about, remember that this is WORK, and treat it as such
You might hate working with deadlines. You might prefer to only write songs that come to you in a flash of inspiration, rather than sitting down and teasing an idea out over a period of hours or days…or years. While there is nothing wrong with either method of working, if songwriting is something you really want to do seriously, you’re going to have to get over yourself. Yes, you are an artist. But yes, you need to work with some measure of discipline, or you will never get anything done. Be prepared to dedicate a lot of time to your craft. Be prepared to make sacrifices where necessary. And yes, be prepared to force yourself to write sometimes. I know this is probably counter-intuitive because we’re used to the idea that forcing creativity produces nothing but crap, and while that is true to a point, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t make yourself work at it. Even if all you come away with is an outline for where you want your song to go, that’s more than you had when you sat down.

I very rarely ever sit down and braindump an entire song into the world. The majority of my songwriting is done over a period of days, weeks, or months—and yes, in some cases, years—and is something I really put a lot of thought and effort into. There’s a lot of brainstorming. I absolutely work with deadlines. So if time management is not your forte, it might benefit you to look into learning how to become better at it.

Important note: The word “serious” as used in the above paragraph is meant to denote “those who wish to be professional songwriters”, but it might also be used to denote “those who really, really enjoy songwriting, but who may or may not wish to be professional songwriters”. As far as that goes, there is no right or wrong way to do this. You go with whatever level of activity or definition of the word “serious” works for you. As long as you enjoy what you’re doing, that is all that matters.

Find the process that works for you
It’s not uncommon for me to write something in my notebook only to then cross them out. Sometimes I come back to a song later and, upon realizing that it doesn’t quite say what I wanted it to, I will rewrite the entire thing. This is a legitimate way to work. You are not doing anything wrong by taking your time, or by rewriting things. You are finding your way to a process that works for you. And as long as whatever process that may be works for you, then that is what matters.

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And I think that about covers all of my thoughts on this subject for the time being. If anyone reading would like some clarification on the above, or was hoping I would discuss an idea and failed to, please let me know in the comments!