19 More Songwriting Tips
By Ken Hill
With such great success to 21 Songwriting Tips. I have decided to compile together a list of more songwriting tips to help you on your journey as a musician. As always, take what works for you and discard the rest!
#22) Get Critiqued!
As much fun as it is to get compliments from your mom, brother or your friends, they will most likely give you biased opinions because they know and respect you. This has nothing to do with your music and everything to do with you. This type of critiquing can get in the way of your music. My first piece of advice in my new article is to get critiqued. Getting critiqued can open doors that you have never thought of opening. It may also tell you to open doors that you’d never want to open (depending on who chooses you as their “victim” haha).
Critiquers can give you a new perspective on your song, and your musicianship may even grow as new ideas will be presented to you. If you get a bad critique, this can also prepare you for dealing with rejection. The secret to dealing with critiques is the same as this article. Consider the advice that is presented to you, have enough modesty to accept the advice (if you agree with it) and move on. Don’t respond back to the critiquers telling them “they didn’t understand the piece”. Your music just did not communicate it to them. You should never have to explain your music. It should speak on it’s own.
#23) Learning from Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde Critiquers…
I’ve found there are 2 kind of critiquers. The first kind of critiquer, my favorite, shows you ideas to help you express yourself while respecting the vision of the artist. These are the kind of people that can really help us grow as musicians because we are not being torn down and reconstructed to their image, they are building off of our vision and riding it out from there.
The second kind of critiquer (grain of salt critiquers) judges music by using their own style as the the thing to compare it to. Many times, I find that these critiquers do not make your music better, just different. Usually, this will just change the appeal of the different types of listeners instead of enhancing the experience to the listeners who would have liked your music originally. They may give you ideas to help your vision, but they are also tearing down walls that you have identified as your style. You can learn from these people, but you just have to be careful. Use tip #22 when dealing with these types of people. Consider, possibly change and move on.
#24) Everyone will love my song! E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E!!!
As with songwriting tip #2 (who are you writing your music for), understand that if you’re writing music for kids, don’t take offense if metal heads aren’t jammin to your music. I’m sure you guys all know that kids TV show, “Barney”. As cool as it sounds for little kids, realize that their music will probably never be played on MTV! What a shock! Could you imagine the theme song right next to a top 40 hit, “I love you, you love me”. No? Well, there are many other more relevant styles of music which will never be played on MTV either.
The “masses” should only apply to the type of people who listen to the style of music that you write. Back to our group, we write New Age music. It is not nearly as popular as rap or rock music. This is something that we accept, and do not take offense if those who do not normally listen to “New Age” do not necessarily enjoy our music. Once again, there is no “bad” or “good” music. Only songs people can and can’t relate to. So don’t feel bad if your music doesn’t reach out to everyone. There isn’t any one style of music that can. The trick is that you need to find people who already enjoy the style of music you write. From there, you can more accurately judge how well your music communicates. When writing music, try not to appeal to every single type of listener. You know what will happen? You’ll most likely confuse everyone! Write the music in the style you love to make, and write it for those people.
#25) The more money I spend, the more talented I am!
“If I only had that $8000 guitar… oh! Then I’d be the best!”
Ever met that guy. You know. That guy who continually must purchase the best gear. What happens when he gets it? He will dance around and show everyone his cool new toy. Six months from now it will be collecting dust with his other dozens of new toys. What will he be doing? You guessed it! Buying more expensive toys to show off!
Remember that it’s not as much what you have as what you can do with it. Does that mean you can buy a $50 Casio keyboard and blow a Yamaha MOTIF ($2000 keyboard) out of the water? Ha! Let’s get serious. But if your song isn’t catchy on the $50 Casio, it probably won’t be catchy on the MOTIF. Money does not substitute for talent. By all means, if you can afford the best gear, you may as well go for it! The one thing you should avoid is letting that expensive gear collect dust while you are upstairs reading your new music catalog thinking “man if I only got this newer edition model I could be making awesome music….” Stop waiting for your next purchase before you write music. Use what gear you have. Become Jedi Master with it. Make Yoda happy.
#26) Ahh, young grasshoppa!
Be like a kung-fu master and teach others how to play or write music. Strangely you’ll find that as you’re teaching them, they’re teaching you! You may find that you’ll have to demonstrate things that you took for granted as well as be surprised at things that you thought which were complicated really weren’t all that bad! I recommend that everyone give it a shot to teach someone else music. As many teachers would vouch for this, you learn about as much as you are teaching. Want to improve your craft? Help someone improve theirs. You’d be surprised what you can teach yourself.
#27) Destination Procrastination…
Procrastination is that evil thing that we all do when we decide to put something off till later. Well, when later arrives we either push it off some more or we finally do it. When we do it, we usually wonder why the heck we didn’t do this awhile back ago!? Don’t procrastinate with music. Like exercising, if you relax too long- you will lose some of that hard earned ground that you worked so hard to gain. Try to practice every day, even if it is only a few minutes. Practice never makes perfect, it only makes you better. You can always improve your abilities. Even though we may think there are some “perfect players” out there, they usually know their own flaws and are trying to improve as well. So what are you doing reading this!? Get to work!
#28) Flooding your song (Newbie Tip #1)…
Two tips dedicated to the new songwriter. While running a music lab, I have found that many new musicians often fall into one of two categories. So he tosses me the headphones. I slip them on, not sure what to anticipate. All of a sudden a tidal wave of sound explodes in my ears and I’m screaming in agony as waves and waves of tortured notes erupt like a massive angry volcano to consume the land and every living being. Does this sound familiar? It is what happens when you take 10+ years of the ideas that you’ve stored and pounded them all in one 3 1/2 minute song. A flash flood of ideas.
Many of the best songs that I’ve heard only have a few ideas. Give your ideas time and space to grow. If you only take a couple of ideas, you will find that they can evolve with each other, never having to fight for space. As the song goes on, these ideas can mature, and even meld with each other to bring about new ideas. Please don’t flood your songs with too many ideas! Keep it simple. Build from there.
#29) The art of stealth ninja (Newbie Tip #2)…
The second tip that I feel new musicians tend to overlook is the bluntness of introducing ideas and themes. With #28, the point was to keep the ideas tamed. #29 is all about taking those ideas and weaving them into the song instead of stamping them on your forehead. Is stamping ideas always a bad thing? Of course not! It’s music, there are no rules. Still, most of the times it wouldn’t hurt to try to sew it into your music a little more. What if you knew everything that was going to happen in a movie because the first five minutes
tell it all? Like in my songwriting techniques (I know, it’s not as fun to read) article, music and movies have much in common. In a movie, they slowly feed you the plot. It’s like laying little M&M;’s out so ET will follow. In music, if you can lure them with your M&Ms; (Music & Motivation), they will follow. Reward them for following by giving them a big treat later.
Of course you can give them the big treat from the start, but will they be as inclined to follow the trail when they know they already have the tastiest portion upfront? The art of stealth ninja is all about how your ideas enter, evolve and exit. Sometimes it’s a quick stealth blow, sometimes it’s a lingering presence that never quite comes forward, and sometimes it is a slow and gradual movement which will escalade into the final showdown. It’s up to you to decide what stealth tactics you dare to use. If you find you have been just stamping ideas out, try being more stealthy and see if this tip is worth the 10 minutes it took for me to type this up.
#30) Return of the Living Dead…
One thing that I’ve learned is that you should never delete your songs. Especially unfinished ideas that never quite evolved into a song! I know it gets frustrating, but you never know when you could use that idea later down the line. The important thing that you are preserving is the idea, not the actual notes. Who knows!? Maybe a year from now, when you’re stuck on your newest song, you’ll go over an old riff that you never used and found that if you just changed a couple of things, it would fit perfectly in your new song. Not only that, you may find that you can finish those songs later because your songwriting (or musicianship) skills have improved. Don’t delete old songs. Even if you think they suck. If nothing else, keep them so when you get famous you can show people where you came from.
#31) Stay humble but be confident
There’s nothing like the euphoria of finally reaching that next musical plateau! As we continue to make new songs, teach others our craft, critique music, and learn, we will become more and more confident about our musical vision. Good for you! You’re finally doing it! A word of caution. Be careful. Short sentences. No fun. You know what else isn’t fun? That three letter word that can inflate just like our gas prices. Ego. Make sure you always have a pin handy to pop any bubble you might get as you find success. Of course you can and should relish your successes, but don’t let it go to your head. It seems the better we get, the more picky we become.
My example could come from martial arts. Being a martial artist myself, I can’t watch most crappy martial arts shows (movies or TV). Of course I can respect and enjoy the most popular ones (Jackie! Bruce! Jet!), but when I watch these cheese ball movies where people are fighting ridiculously fake, getting thrown ten feet farther than any mortal man could be thrown, I cringe. Many nonmartial artists are in awe of these flashy fancy moves, but I see it for what it is. Flash. In a real fight, that guy would have gotten clobbered. That group of guys wouldn’t wait to fight him one at a time. They would mob him all at once and that little man would look like what a ten year old boy would do with a toy soldier and a wood burning kit.
In music, as we get better, it is *harder* for us to enjoy music. It is harder for me to listen to many songs that are made today because I can sense things that most nonmusical people don’t know or think about (like why all the latest bands all sound alike). Most people don’t care. They’re just hearing music they love. As much fun as it is to break down other music, stop! Stop talking about how terrible the industry is. Stop talking about how untalented a band is. Stop talking about how you could play everything that one band could play so easily. Stop stroking your ego. If people love that style of music then those musicians are doing something right. Analyze. See if you can find something that you can use for yourself.
Breaking them down to make yourself feel better will only do two things. 1) Isolate yourself from being able to possibly learn from them (Just about every band has at least one good thing about them.) 2) Every time you break down another musician, it will make it easier to do it again. This could eventually lead you to become that one bitter guy that noone likes to hang with. If you’re a musician you should be writing music because you love to. So stop comparing other people. See if you can learn something and move on. You owe it to yourself to not let your ego get in the way.
#32) The mountain climber wins…
I want to write a CD! I’d better hurry! I want to be done in three weeks!
Great! I’m glad you want to make a CD. My question, are you more concerned with making a CD or making music? The most important thing that I would like to stress is to take small steps. Don’t try to jump up that flight of stairs. You’re likely to trip up! If you want a CD done in three weeks, are you writing those last songs because you love to write music, or because you’re freaked and stressed because you have seven songs to complete in three days? Don’t rush it, but always keep a forward momentum. If you’re to expand and grow, you’ll need time to think and consider what you’ve done and where you’ve come from.
Who gets the more personal experience: The guy who flies to the top of the mountain, gets off his plane and yells “Yahoooooo!” or the guy who climbs up the mountain, gets to the top and yells “Yahoooo!”. The guy who climbs the mountain will see sights that the man in the plane would have never seen. He will have a newfound respect for that mountain, and as he climbs other mountains he will have the strength and knowledge to become a better climber. The guy in the plane? Well let’s just say that you get out what you put in. I’m sure he’s getting his thrills, but he will never come to understand the mountain like the climber.
#33) Collaborating is fun!
Stuck? Can’t figure out what to do next? Try collaborating with other musicians out there. The internet is a wonderful way to meet new and exciting people. Obviously, one of the greatest benefits of collaborating is that you’ll learn how to accommodate other people’s styles with your own. Since you know how to accommodate their styles with your own, that also means that you can learn from their style much easier since you’re trying to integrate it with yours anyways. Collaborating is an excellent learning tool.
#34) Get some friends! (online music friends. network!)
Get some friends. Online friends that is. How about some online musical friends? How much fun would that be? Find some musicians whom you respect and send them an e-mail. No don’t say “Hi I’m …. would you please be my friend!?!?!” Don’t you dare do that! Ack! Say “Hey this is … and I really enjoyed your music!” Be like that. Having other peers can help you in many ways. Easy to find people to collaborate with. Finding musicians who you have respect will bring about more ideas that you can integrate to your style.
Between the two of you, you can share successes with each other. You can learn off their mistakes and vice versa. So, yes, peers can have an impact on your songwriting. They can also have an impact on your success as a musician.
#36) Nitpicky death vine traps kills vibe dead
You are a musician. You know all the intricacies of music. You are the master of your own domain. Most people don’t have the slightest clue what you’re doing. Think about this when you’re fretting over
“Should the second note of the third measure have a velocity of 79 or 84”
Let me say this again in different words. Most people don’t notice. Most people do not notice. Most people won’t notice the difference…. Some people will notice. You will! Maybe your band mates. Make sure that the changes that you’re making will actually be a change for the better. As cool as it may seem to meticulously nitpick your music to precision, most people who listen would never know the difference between a MIDI controller change of 11 (which is Expression) that switches between 79 to 84. Most people only notice the dramatic things. Keep that in mind. You could literally spend months fine tuning your song. The big question is: “Is my music communicating effectively?”. If you find there are traps that are in your way, you should remove them. If these traps are something that you and you alone only notice, then I say leave it be (unless you just have to). Do whatever is in your power, but try not to be too nitpicky. This may shock you so I’ll only say it once. Most people don’t notice.
#37) Zombies revisited
Don’t let your music get cursed to be a zombie. It takes a zombie ten minutes (I counted! My pet zombie is very slow! Maybe it needs more brain food.) to get up a hill. Not only does it take a long time, it’s boring to watch the zombie go up the hill. It flails around aimlessly, groaning. Don’t let your music get zombified. What am I talking about? If you utterly slay the life out of your song, try to resist the urge to bring it out from the dead. Save your work and use it as a reference to a possible idea in a new song, where that idea can live in a lush, beautiful world instead of that dark dismal world. By strangling the dead husk of a corpse of a song that it once was, you might be taking that great idea and cramming it into a mediocre or poor song.
#38) Don’t betray your listener
Sounds like a soap opera. “You betrayed me! It’s not my baby” Actually it is your baby. It’s your music. This tip is a simple one. Don’t betray the listener. If you are a hard rock musician and they buy it, don’t cram half of your CD with country and pop tunes (unless you let them know). It’s just simple. Just let the audience know exactly who you are. Don’t try to betray them just to get them to listen to your music. Sure it could work, but it
could easily backfire too.
What if Steven King wrote a love story, labeled it under horror and called it “The black queen of death bringing morgue snatching evil darkness of unholiness”. As people read the book they will feel very betrayed if it’s about a nurse’s relationship with a patient and how it never could be. Why? They want to meet the black queen of death bringing morgue snatching evil darkness of unholiness and they want to see her lay the smack down on some innocent people who always have to take showers when there is danger ahead! I understand if you enjoy making a variety of styles, just let the listeners know what they are getting. Steven King could write a love story, he just needs to give it a fitting name and put it in the romance section. I think everyone has come across that “one album” where the one song they play on the radio is the one oddball song of the album.
#39) Find your vision as an artist
What makes your music unique? How does your art form stand differently than the millions of other songs that have emerged throughout time? More importantly, do you have a vision for yourself as a musician? Let’s face it, if you’re in a hard rock band, we can conclude that there are thousands upon thousands of hard rock groups currently out there. Vision is that extra identity that makes your music different.
The only way to attain vision is to have reworked and redefined your musical style and ability to the point to where you become aware of yourself as an artist. One cannot tell you what their musical vision is, they can only show you. A musician with a vision has the ability to meld his personality into his music. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. Every factor is a building block to their music. When you realize your vision as an artist, you will begin to understand what you want, and where you need to go to get it. If you haven’t found it yet, don’t fret. Keep making music and analyzing yourself as a musician. It will come in time. Will it help you grow as a musician? Most definitely. It will put that extra edge in your music that screams your name whenever people hear it. It’s the difference between reading an action book and visualizing what is happening and reading an action book that is so vivid your heart is racing with every page turn.
#40) When the chips are down, get some ice cream
Last tip of this article! Take a break! You’ve got your whole life to figure out what you want to do. Just take it step by step, and every so often you’ve got to get away. Enjoy life! Go skiing! Go sledding! Get out of your room for cryin’ out loud! As a musician you should be expressing aspects of life in your music. So go out there and have something to come home and write about. Till next time. Good luck and happy songwriting.
Ken Hill is a guitarist and keyboardist for the New Age band, Torchlight Creek. If you enjoyed this article, why not stop by and say hi! If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas about this article, please be sure to e-mail him.