Updated: Jan 18, 2021
After spending the better part of the last 45 years writing songs, I feel like I am finally starting to get good at it. Maybe. It's a life-long pursuit: a quest, really, to reach a pinnacle that will always be out of reach. To be sure, some writers go much farther than others, but we're all human. We're all trying to get better, to write that perfect song. Here are some thoughts (in no particular order) about how you might be able to improve your songwriting.
1. Study Your Craft
Like every art form, there is a lot of craft behind songwriting. "Craft" is the combination of technique and rules - written and unwritten. It's important to know the craft part of songwriting, because it provides the foundation upon which our work of art will be built. One of the greatest songwriters in recent decades, Jimmy Webb, has a book called "Tunesmith: Inside The Art Of Songwriting" that I highly recommend. Read it. Digest it. Try some of the things that he recommends. Learn from the best examples of songwriting. Listen to "A Song For You" by Leon Russell. Play it yourself and figure out how what makes it tick.
2. Images Are Word Pills
There's a rule of thumb in country music that every line in a song should paint a picture. Every line should conjure up an image ... a memory ... a connection in the listener's heart. This is one of the best bits of advice that I ever got and it changed my songwriting for the better as soon as I started trying to do it. And it applies to all genres - not just Country.
One of the complaints I hear from my students is that they don't have enough metrical feet or spaces for words in their songs, but there's so much more that they want to say. Using images solves this problem. If you can "draw" an image with a few words, you can convey 1000 words. Images are words in pill form.
3. Make Emotional Connections
Great songs are emotional connectors. Even sad songs are compelling, especially when you're going through a rough spot in your life, because when you hear someone else's pain you know that you're not alone. When you're feeling happy and a joyful song comes on, you similarly feel like someone is sharing your bliss, and it amplifies it.
Someone asked me once how he could add emotion to a song. That's like baking a cake and then asking how to add flavor to it. The flavor comes from your choice of ingredients and the love and care that you imbue them with as you mix them and prepare them. It can't be added later in any satisfactory way. After thinking about it I suggested that he put aside his existing lyrics and write down the main emotion that he wanted this song to convey, then write the lyrics again, focusing every single word toward achieving that goal.
4. Don't Write the Same Song Over And Over Again
Nearly every songwriter I know gets stuck in a box from time to time, writing the same kind of song all the time. A good habit is to consider different song structures - write them down and hang this list up where you write so that you can see it. Some examples:
Write a song in AAA format. This is a very old structure where there was just an A part and it contained the title of the song either at the beginning or the end. Boring, you say? Not if you write a great one.
Write a song with no introduction. The Beatles did this a lot, coming straight in on the chorus ("Help!") or the first verse ("Hey Jude").
Write a song where the song starts with the chorus. That will focus you on the chorus for sure, because it better be good!
Write a song in a key you rarely or never use. You will find voicings and harmonizations that you wouldn't normally go to.
Write a song on a different instrument, even if you're not very good at it.
Write a song with no instrument at all. This will focus you on melody for sure. Instead of writing a melody based on the chords you're playing, you'll be forced to write a better melody that will stand better on its own. The Bee Gees used to stand in hotel stairwells (great acoustics) and sing together with no instruments. They wrote many songs that way.
Write a song about a real person or event from history. Read about them and then try to capture the essence of their life in a 4 minute song. You can't literally describe their whole life so this forces you to find the essential truth, i.e., the "hook" that describes them most efficiently. Word pills to the rescue...
If you're a woman, write a song from the male perspective (and vice versa).
Those ideas also work for those times when you have writer's block. The blank piece of paper is staring up at you, and you don't know where to begin. Now you have a place from which to start.
5. Break A Rule
If you've been studying songwriting for any length of time, you know a million "rules" that you are not supposed to break, right? Well, pick one and break it. And don't just break it: throw it to the dirt and stomp on it, then set it on fire.
But make it work. Make a great song from it. Prove that rules are meant to be broken. And don't worry, there are no songwriting police that are going to arrest you or give you a ticket for breaking a rule. All the great artists in history broke the rules of the day, and in so doing they redefined what the rules should be.
Songwriting is a never-ending quest for improvement, just like anything else that's worthwhile in life: our relationships, our health, and more.