On Songwriting 11 The basic tools
You need to listen to a lot of music….
by J.P. Kallio
I was asked for some advice on songwriting for beginners. So I thought I’d write down few things here to help you get started. I took the long road. When I started to write songs back in my early teens, there was no internet to turn to for resources. I did try to get my hands on any book our local library did have, but for the most parts, I was left to figure it all out by my self. So what I did was what so many songwriters did before me, I looked at some great songs, broke them down and tried to figure out what they are made of. I did this over and over again. And along the way I tried to make some of my own.
This still today in my opinion is the best way. And I still love getting into a great album and figuring out what it is in those songs that makes me tick. But apart from all this there are a set of skills you should work on, so l’ll try to break it down here.
The music is built out of three ingredients: melody, harmony and rhythm. For you to fully understand these, you do need to learn the basics of an instrument, guitar and piano are the obvious as they can cover all three ingredients, but any instrument will be beneficial. Yes it is true you can create music, these days with just computer, but to get an understanding of the three main components, you really need to learn even the very basics of a real instrument.
Second thing you need to do is train your ear. The basic music theory lessons include ear training, where you learn to recognise intervals (the space between the notes), rhythmic patterns, chords… These are extremely beneficial, but most untrained musicians do develop these skills over time. But if you want to acquire the skills faster, theory lessons will help.
But also apart from the theory, you need to train our songwriting ear. You need to listen to a lot of music, and not just the style you are into, but everything! If I walk into a store, and there is music playing (often music I might not like…) my mind starts to analyse it straight away. It is actually so natural to me that sometimes people find it funny when I comment on a song line or a chord structure of a song while picking new socks… And I need to remind my self that not everyone even notice the music playing in the back ground.
As to the lyrics, you need to listen to a lot of songs again, but also read a lot. Learn the basic rhyming structures (every line, every second line…), learn the rhythm of the lyrics. Learn to describe things, your surroundings, tastes, smells, feelings. I have mentioned few books before, but convenience sake here they are again:
Murphy’s law of songwriting, by Ralph Murphy and On writing, by Stephen King. Two fantastic books packed full of great advice.
After this you need to listen to more music! (am I starting to get through to you?) Listen to the music, break it down, lyrics, melody, chords, rhythm. Figure out what’s hiding under the fancy arrangements. In songwriting you really need to put your ego aside and learn from the greats that did it all before. I will leave you with a great quote form the one and only Tom Waits
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”