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Top 10 Songwriting Tips To Take You From Imitator To Innovator

Posted on 04.05.21

At City Vocal Coach, we have put together our top ten songwriting tips, which will help you move from imitator to innovator.

Songwriting is often seen as this magical dark art, bestowed by the gods of creativity to those they deem worthy, where right from the first song, the songwriter's creativity should flow onto the page fully formed, original and authentic. This approach goes against all other art forms in which learning, practise and failure are embraced, and a step-by-step learning process is usual. No master painter ever started their career with a masterpiece; they likely began in the same way most art students do, in the classroom drawing flowers, landscapes, portraits, and self-portraits, studying the masters, and receiving feedback from their teachers. All the above would have been part of the learning process towards finding their style, as well as understanding that they will fail, and that feedback, study, and practise will lead them to where they want to be. 

In stark contrast to this, the songwriter expects their first song to be gifted to them without study, purposefully avoiding any advice or outside influence which could contaminate their authentic style. Would Picasso be more authentic and original if he hadn't gone to the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts? Would Claude Monet have led French Impressionism any better if he hadn't gone to Le Havre School of the Arts, where he first learnt how to mix colour? Is songwriting a higher art form? No, it is no more or less creative than painting, sculpture, acting, architecture, or dance, all of which take years of study to master. 

The beginner's first few songs will undoubtedly have a sense of uniqueness as, after all, we are all unique, and our identity will always shine through when we create. However, these songs will often be an imitation of the music they like and there will come a time when the beginner songwriter wants to switch from imitation to innovation. At this point study, practise, experience, and failure becomes a necessity.

Songwriting tips: No. 1. Imitate better - Yes, we are trying to move on from imitation to innovation; however, we should never give up imitating the songs we think work, as it’s a great tool for developing our writing style. But we can imitate better by going beyond what we might typically listen to. For example, try listening to the guitar riffs of death metal to find inspiration for a vocal riff or translate an Italian opera for lyrical inspiration. One of our favourite things at City Vocal Coach is to do song re-imaginings; think of this as practise, take a song from another artist and re-imagine it in your style as if you were writing the song, how would you do it differently? 

Songwriting tips: No. 2. Title first - The most challenging part about writing is starting; many beginner songwriters grab their guitars, open their notebooks, and wait for inspiration, often coming up with the same ideas again and again. Instead, only approach your guitar when you have a title in mind. Having a title will limit the creative routes you can go down, which might sound a bit restricting; however, you'll be amazed how freeing it is. By having your possible routes laid out before you, you can choose the one you've never been down before, one which may lead to innovation. 

Songwriting tips: No. 3. Daydream - Have you ever been in a confrontation with someone, and it's not until the moment is over that you think of the perfect retort? When you are not consciously thinking about the problem, your unconscious is working on the solution, so during a writing session, take a coffee break now and again; creativity takes time.  

Songwriting tips: No. 4. Write to a meter - Counting stressed and unstressed syllables is one thing that beginner songwriters’ rebel against. Granted, it's not the most romantic part about songwriting; however, like with the title first technique, giving yourself a blueprint of how your meter will flow will narrow down the possibilities, inspiring you to craft rather than relying on guesswork.

Songwriting tips: No. 5. Aleatoric music - Also known as chance music, some popular methods involve using dice to decide your chord choices and the cut-up technique, often used by David Bowie. Bowie would cut up journal entries and jumble them up, creating interesting collisions of words and phrases to use as lyrics. It's a fantastic way to come up with a unique figurative language. Listen to Bowie talk about the cut-up technique here.

Songwriting tips: No. 6. Collaboration - Hands up if you've ever collaborated before? A surprising amount of beginner to semi-professional songwriters have never collaborated before, yet most professional writers will do so regularly. Creating in front of other people can be daunting. Imposter syndrome is something that all songwriters experience; however, the professionals have learned that failure is ok. When these moments happen, they rely on technique to take them through. Sure, your collaborators will probably see your weaknesses, but so will you, which will give you a great insight into the aspects of your writing you could improve upon. 

Songwriting tips: No. 7. Cause and effect - Every aspect of songwriting affects the listener; the songwriter must connect the intended effect to the right cause. For example, a rhyming couplet has the effect of stopping the flow, like a full-stop in grammar. If the songwriter wants to continue the thought in the following lines, then a rhyming couplet won't necessarily support that idea. A more obvious example is how a minor chord projects instability, a major chord projects stability. Linking the right effect with the right cause will enhance the listener's experience; not linking cause and effect leaves the listener confused about how to feel. Once you embrace this idea, you can then rebel against it, of course; something The Smiths did a lot in their songs, playing with the listener's emotions where sad lyrics were accompanied by happy, upbeat music.             

Songwriting tips: No. 8. Embrace failure - We have said it a few times already, but it's a message that deserves repeating. Try asking yourself, what did I fail at today? Change your relationship with failure as it is not a negative but a positive.

Songwriting tips: No. 9. Mindfulness - As human beings, we constantly dwell on the past and fret about the future. Fretting and dwelling do have their places in the creative process; however, being in the present will allow you to notice things in the world that collide with one another, and if you look close enough, you'll see ideas emerge from the chaos. The beeping of horns, the screeching of brakes, the slamming of doors, the busker and road rager might sound like a wall of sound, but take a closer listen, can you hear melody, harmony, and metaphor?

Songwriting tips: No. 10.  Edit - There is nothing wrong with serving your song to the public raw, but only if this is your intention. Take time to understand your song and how it was written; not only will this allow you to edit things that could be better, but it will also help you know your strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter. By analysing the outcomes via the process, we will know ourselves better and gradually develop from imitator to innovator.  

Remember, songwriting is an artform like all others, not gifted but learnt. If you're looking for more guidance with your songwriting, all our vocal coaches here at City Vocal Coach teach songwriting techniques, and you can enquire about lessons here

Songwriting tips - guitar