What does it take to be a songwriter? Is it possible to learn how to write great songs, or do you just need talent?What is a hit? Are there any tips which can help you to write one? Let's take a closer look.
Sources of Inspiration
Every songwriter has idols and role models - whether they are consciously aware of it or not, these idols are often the first source of inspiration for a writer. They evoke a kind of musical fascination, which matches our own feelings exactly. When you look at the many sources of inspiration which excite songwriters it is impossible to see the task as a normal job. Unlike other jobs, you can't just learn songwriting at school - many songwriters are self taught, simply following a hunch after their first song just popped out one day. Audience feedback will soon let you know whether you've got what it takes or not! But who is the target audience for a songwriter? Everybody has different tastes, which can vary between being terrible, complicated, alternative, or commercial, just to name a few! There are of course a few basic rules - simple, well-crafted songs with great hooks usually have more 'hit potential' and commercial success that a 7 minute epic track that only uses minor chords. 'Simple' songs are often more popular (hence the term 'pop music') and have more commercial success because the public can easily connect with them.
A songwriter can write because of their inspired urge to express something, or they can decide to target a particular audience. These choices are hugely influential upon the path of your career, and your earnings. The type of songs you write and the audience you're writing for can also change during your career. There are several example of songwriters who started off in the pop industry before changing course and earning their living by composing music for films, such as Hans Zimmer.
Authentic songwriters often use their own emotions and experiences in their compositions or lyrics, thereby creating a sense of 'truth' in their art.
How do I write a song, or even a hit?
The ability to write a song or a hit is a mysterious and powerful gift - without hits not even the best sound technicians, musicians, producers or mastering engineers can do their work. A true hit should sound great on a piano or a guitar, without any trickery from effects and technology. There are of course exceptions, but songs matching the description above are usually the ones that survive for decades, constantly being re-interpreted or covered.
There's no quick fix solution, and it would probably be presumptuous to try and define the process completely. Those of us who haven't written hits probably can't advise others how to do so, so it's good to exercise caution in this case!
However, there are of course certain song structures, melodies and chords which are easy for the public to digest, and fundamentally suited to commercial songwriting purposes. These features can make any song a potential hit, especially if you're just writing a single. If you are making an album, then you should be working with a whole conceptual thread, giving you more room for experimentation. The final thing to remember is that the 'packaging', (i.e the production) is also extremely important in determining how your song/songs actually end up sounding.
Perhaps we should not ask 'How do I write a song?' But instead consider 'what should I write about, and for whom?' What are the specific features of the genre of music I'm working with, and how should I construct my song? Do my melodies and/or lyrics reflect the current 'Zeitgeist'?
The standard 'radio friendly' song structure is 2 verses, 1 bridge, and 3 choruses. Total playing time is around 03:20 minutes, apparently the most accessible length of time for the public! Once again, there are always exceptions.
The spark of an idea
Perhaps there are two ways of writing a song. You can either be possessed by 'divine' inspiration ('art'?), and simply let this process flow through you, or you can sit down and work out a song ('craft'?) under pressure, sometimes with collaborators. Whether the text or the melody is written first depends upon your method of working and your creative flow. In the best case, the hook (the musical centre of the song) comes first. Electronic and hip hop producers are often also songwriters. They tend to start with a beat, another incredibly inspiring way of working. Ideas can also be developed through jamming. The main point is that the energy has to be flowing in the right way, and rational thought should be pushed into the background, to enable creativity to flourish on its own. Ideas for songs come from a gut feeling, not from your head.
Songwriters often get the spark of an idea when they let their thoughts drift, i.e when they are not actually in the studio or surrounded by instruments (for example whilst driving a car or having a shower!) Once this has happened, you have to try and find a way to remember the idea! Luckily this has become a lot easier since the widespread use of smartphones!
There are a few pieces of essential equipment for composers and/or songwriters. These include: something to write with (whether it's a pencil, a computer or a tablet), recording equipment, and at least one instrument (usually a piano, or instruments on your computer.) As already mentioned, ideas don't always come when you are expecting them. It's useful to have a way of noting down audio or text at all times - smartphones, tablets and notebooks are all ideal for this purpose, due to the range of software they offer including thesauruses, rhyme dictionaries, dictaphones, whole DAWs, and simple text programs. There are also special programs for lyricists, such as 'Master Writer'. If you want to record instruments or vocal parts then you will need a low latency audio interface and a microphone. If you really want the most mobile solution possible, there are many audio interfaces and MIDI keyboards suitable for iPhones, iPads, and other devices.
As a songwriter you should make sure that you register yourself and your works with a collection society (e.g PRS, GEMA, SUISA, SACEM) as soon as possible. You can only claim author's royalties for radio play, physical and digital sales after you have registered. Music Publishers or music publishing administrators can also be responsible for this on your behalf.
Here are some links with more information about songwriting:
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