When you first start to write songs, it can be intimidating. The blank page is formidable. But, I have good news for you. There is no wrong way to go about writing a song. Sometimes an idea comes to us in lyrical melody first; sometimes it's a guitar riff or chord progression. There are many ways write successfully. That being said, one universally accepted songwriting practice is dedicating regular time out of your day to sit down and write a song. Grab your calendar, and pencil in these tips to get you started.
My favorite way to get to know a musician is by asking them about their songwriting process. I don't think I've ever gotten the same answer. Consensus among songwriters is that none of us use the same formula every time we write a song. For many creative types, there's a romantic notion that we wait for inspiration to hit us like a bolt of lightning before we are moved to sit down and create. Of course, that can happen, but a lot of the time it's helpful to give yourself some structure in order to be productive. Scheduling time to be creative and giving yourself a deadline is a great routine to follow. For example, treating songwriting like finishing homework. Carve out an hour to sit with your instrument and a notebook with the goal of finishing a song by the end of your time limit. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it, all the while keeping in mind that finished is better than perfect. You're not working to make a publishable song; you're working to establish a habit. You can edit later. It's more important to get your ideas written down.
My father is a lifelong painter, and he gave me some great advice about staying productive with your creative endeavors. He will dedicate time to sit and "sketch" on a piece of paper for 20 minutes. After the time is up, he throws it out. The lesson I learned is this: not every piece of art you create needs to get framed and put on the wall. Sometimes, it's just practice. I believe the same applies to songwriting: don't be too precious with your lyrics. In the past, I wouldn't finish a song for years because I hadn't found the perfect lyrics for the second verse. And yet, the words I had, or even an instrumental solo, would have done just fine. I find it important to remember that every time I set out to write a song, it doesn't have to define a generation. It doesn't have to be American Pie. If we consider songwriting to be a skill then we acknowledge that, just like playing guitar, we should practice using the tools of our trade. Songwriting needs to be practiced, just like playing an instrument. This is where the homework comes in: regular practice will help you be a better and more prolific songwriter.
Below are a few songwriting homework assignments that I think can help you either get started as a songwriter, or help you get out of a rut and exercise your songwriting muscle. These assignments need not disrupt your life, but it's important to be consistent with them. Set aside an amount of time you can stick to - an hour, the time it takes to cook pasta, the length of your favorite TV show - and get to work.It doesn't need to be a masterpiece, and it doesn't even need to be "finished;" it just needs to be written. Maybe you'll end up throwing these ideas out or maybe you'll come up with something you really like. Either way, you'll be writing!
1: Borrow the Chord Progression from Your Favorite Song
My brother gave me some advice on songwriting when I first started playing guitar. I learned a few cowboy chords, and he told me to look up my favorite songs and familiarize myself with the chord progressions. I didn't know music theory yet, so this was an easy way to learn and memorize common chord progressions. He told me to take a song I could play, write all those chords down and familiarize myself with the patterns of the progressions. Then, I played them aloud, changed the tempo, changed the feel, and found my own melody until the song turned into something of my own. In the back of my mind, I wondered: "isn't that stealing?" No. Remember, one of the beauties of music is that you cannot copywrite a chord progression. Across music history, the greatest composers and songwriters - from classical composers to modern songwriters - learned the same way. And if you were like me, a beginner who only had a general grasp of music theory, it's a great way to find common chord progressions and make them your own.
2: Make a List of Words
Do you like to read? I hope so! But even if you don't, books can be a great tool to getting language flowing in your brain. Grab a book from your shelf or pull up some text you like online and start browsing through it - not reading it, just flipping around and seeing which words on the page grab you. Physical books work better for this exercise but use what you have on hand. Get a pen and paper and make a list. Here's an example of some I just pulled off the shelf; affection, heat, glaring, nickname, sorrow, past, mouth, blind, migraine, drift, awake, morning, settled.
Grab your guitar, play a simple chord progression, and make a story using the words you've chosen.
3: Write a Song in Ice Cream
Some of the best songs we know share the Ice Cream chord progression, 1-6-4-5. It's got a special pull to it, and just like the Penguins' "Earth Angel," you can repeat the same progression in both the verses and the chorus, making it even simpler to finish writing a song and it drives straight the whole way. There's no need to reinvent the wheel; just like its name the ice cream chord progression is classic and universally liked, and you can't go wrong.
4: Write the Corniest Love Song You Can_
My brother recently put together what he called "the most simple, predictable chord structure" (not exactly ice cream, but close) and challenged me to write "the most basic love song lyrics I could come up with." In short, your assignment is to write a cheesy love song just to do it. I challenge you to do the same. Take an hour and knock it out, go with the first lyrics that pop in your head. Use the word love. Use all the basic words. Rhyme "You with "Blue." Break out all the classics. You don't have to be in love, either, take anything you love and write an ode to that. Like Billy Preston's "You are So Beautiful," it could be written about your Mom. Or, write about your housecat or your car. Just have fun with it and cheese it up.
5: Retell Your Favorite Story
Maybe it's your favorite book, the plot of your favorite movie, maybe it's your favorite childhood story. There's so much rich storytelling out there to inspire you. In most cases, the best stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, enriched with a solid plot, characters, conflict, and resolution. You can retell these stories in song form and be as vague or specific as you like. An even better approach - if you're ready for it - is to take a story from your own life, of course! You are the best expert on your own life, and can speak to it the most eloquently.
While these exercises are meant to get you started, don't forget to set a deadline for finishing your song. A finished song is better than a perfect one, and often the lyrics you keep as "placeholders" end up growing on you until they become a permanent part of your lyrics. Sometimes they're the most honest ones. Try to write a song in an hour if you can. The first thing that pops into your head can be gold, and some of your favorites were almost certainly written that way. Anything that doesn't work is just priming the pump for your real creativity to flow. Go for it and see what you make! Happy songwriting!
Emily Gude is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter living in the Bay Area. Prior to joining Rocksmith+, she studied art history at the University of California, Berkeley. Her band, [Radiokeys,](https://www.radiokeysmusic.com/ https://www.radiokeysmusic.com/) plays and tours regularly. With her brother Stewart, she also writes and co-hosts a podcast, the [Radiokeys Rock n' Roll Review](https://www.radiokeysmusic.com/podcast https://www.radiokeysmusic.com/podcast), sharing the mic with her two beloved cats, Django and Oscar.
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