Introduction to Songwriting

"Catching Seeds"

One of the most important habits to get into as a songwriter is keeping a record of inspiration. In Songwriting Strategies: A 360 Approach, Mark Simos discusses this process as "catching seeds." And seeds can be anything that sparks your creative interest and motivates you to write. Another great book that will help you to thoughtfully find inspiration for your music is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Both of these books essentially say the same thing: make a note of anything and everything that captivates you (even if you never use it in a song), and don't be afraid to take ideas from other sources (at least in the brainstorming phase). 

So, as you proceed through this phase of the course, be conscious of moments that strike you in your everyday life. Anything can be a seed, no matter how far removed it seems to be from music. This may be a conversation you overhear in a restaurant, street sounds, or a story you read. You will probably also take a lot of inspiration from other musical sources, but be conscious of how you use these seeds. Use these seeds as a jumping off point for your own original material. Finally, Simos mentions that you should capture your seeds in their purest form. Do not try to workshop the idea in that initial moment that it comes to you. For example, this will probably mean jotting down a concept rather than a fully formed lyric line. 

If time allows, you may choose to spend a week collecting as many seeds as you can before heading into the songwriting process. 

Assignment: Structural Analysis

Before getting into lyrics specifically, I want you to focus a bit on song structure, as this is something that you will have to think about throughout the following songwriting lessons. The main thing to take away is this: a song can have any structure. You are by no means limited to the verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus structure that is most common to popular music. What matters is that your song has a clear structure, and that it has contrast

For this brief "assignment," pick one of your favorite songs, or a song that seems to you - on the surface - to have a captivating form. Then, using that song, complete a structural analysis as the one I outline below. 

#1: Listen to the song while looking at the lyrics, lyrics w/ chords, or lead sheet.

The point of this is to look at the song as a whole. Notice which sections are similar and/or repetitive, and make note of what sections these are. Some songs may have one section that keeps repeating throughout (ex. Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue"), and that's okay. Just pay attention to how the music is organized as a whole, and where there are changes in lyric structure, rhythm, timing, melody, harmony, instrumentation, etc. 

#2: Looking at similar sections

Choose two sections that are either the same or very similar. In a standard pop song, this may be verse 1 and verse 2. Listen to the first section, and discern what the patterns. What is the "motif" of the section, or the smallest unifying unit within the section? This could be a fragment of the melody or a repeated rhythm. Also, where is there repetition and contrast within this section? Then, listen to the second section that you chose, and notice the similarities it shares with the first, then the ways in which it's different. This may be just one changed note in the melody, or a variation of a rhythmic motive. 

#3: Looking at contrasting sections

Much like #2, compare and contrast two sections, but this time choose two different-sounding sections. In a typical song, this may be a verse and a chorus. Again, notice the different motifs and how they are manipulated in each section, and think about how a motif from one section may have informed a motif from another contrasting section. You may also note broader differences, such as changes in tonality (some songs shift between major and minor modes) or chord progression. 

By doing this exercise, you will learn to listen for organizational elements in the music you listen to, and this will come in handy when writing and organizing your own music within this course and beyond. 

The Songwriting Process

One thing to think about before you get started: the songwriting process is not linear, meaning that despite how this course appears to be structured, as you're writing your final song, you will skip around between lyrics, melody, harmony, accompaniment, and realizing the overall form. In each week we will focus primarily on one aspect of the songwriting process, but keep in mind that you will likely find yourself adjusting other aspects of your song as you go through these next few weeks. 

And finally, remember that there is no one "right" way to write a song. Instead, what I hope to do with this course is help you to find your own unique voice as a songwriter, find your own process, and synthesize your musical ideas effectively. Don't worry about writing "good" music, just write music that you would want to listen to.

Let's get started!