Songwriting is about this word called connection. A song's a story, and as writers we are the people who want to connect others with our story. I won’t focus on the nuts and bolts of songwriting so much right now, but instead I want to look at what makes really great songs and songwriters. Let's get right to it. If you're writing a song, your goal is to connect.
You're reading this because you want to get better at writing songs. Better, though, depends on who you’re writing for. For now, let's just say that you can write for yourself, or you can write for others.
Songs that I write for myself are a personal practice. They're written so that I can understand and externalize things which are either overwhelming or feel compelling to me at the time.
Writing songs for yourself isn't so much about those songs connecting with others. Some songs turn out to be so "me" that I think others wouldn’t get them. That's ok, these songs may not connect with others but they connect you to yourself.
Writing for yourself is meaningful simply because it's you and you're doing what you want to do. Writing for yourself can be some of the most authentic and beautiful writing you'll ever do, or it can feel like some of the most irrelevant and self-indulgent writing to someone else. The point is that you're doing it without anybody else in mind.
You probably remember being infatuated with someone so much that you just had to write songs song about them. You wanted that person to know how you felt, you wanted to express yourself in a way that they'd get.
Writing to connect with others is really writing for yourself when what you truly have in your soul is mostly care for the person listening.
Let's call this kind of writing empathetic writing. You're telling the story so that someone gets it. With this style of writing, if the person you're writing for doesn't get what you're saying, then you aren’t getting it right yet.
If you're writing for yourself, then there's nothing someone can tell you that can make you get better at doing that because nobody can tell you how to be more you. The only good advice to tell you is just keep doing it.
If you're writing for others, you'll want to learn the craft. The craft means the skills and the structure of songwriting which has been developed in our culture over a long period of time. This is a rewarding process because your writing can give you the ability to literally change what people believe and feel. Let's talk about the craft.
The key to writing a song that connects with people is understanding who they are and what it is that they want. Visualize who you're talking to and imagine what reaction you want them to have. Then work backwards from there.
If you want a commercial career as an artist, this is a great starting place. Find out what makes people feel disconnected and then create something that makes them feel connected. Bingo, that it. There you go!
An example of this would be my roommate. He felt horrible when his mother got into an accident (she's ok now). He said the experience made him feel so small because he now knew how little control he had over the safety of his loved ones.
That's real. And it's raw. It's everything that you want your songs to be. And channeling this type of connection to someone's suffering is what makes your songs relevant, authentic, and makes them MATTER to your listeners. Because I understood my roommate in that moment, I could write a song to bring healing and connect with him when he felt down, alone, and powerless.
I guarantee if you do that for people, you won't have to bug them about buying your record. Because, at that point, you record is really their record.
The danger with empathetic writing, is that you run the risk of coming off as pandering. Pandering is when someone feels like you're just telling them what they want to hear so that they'll like you. It's the opposite of authentic. When we think about pop songs, we can remember what this feels like. Pop tunes get a bad rep for feeling motivated by marketability sans authenticity.
This is the hard part but it's also where the magic is made in songwriting. The secret is to see what will connect with your listener and draw from your authentic experience.
"You can't write what you haven't lived."
Actor's do this all the time when they're telling a story. Jack Black isn't really a wanna-be wrestler trying to prove himself to the nun he's in love with. But in Nacho Libre, he's still able to connect with a part of himself that has felt like the underdog. This allows the story he tells to come off as authentic - and hilarious.
This is similar to what we do as songwriters. We dig into the part of our identity that can connect authentically with our listener's experience and we tell them the story that connects to their heart.
Let's talk briefly about the craft of songwriting. While I'm not talking a lot about craft, craft is really good too. But don't feel like you've gotta master ever aspect of the craft of writing to be able to express something.
"A scholar named Wang laughed at my poems. The accents are wrong, he said, too many beats; the meter is poor, the wording impulsive. I laugh at his poems, as he laughs at mine. They read like the words of a blind man describing the sun." -Han-Shan
There are a lot of elements to song craft. Here's a quick list of things to help you improve your skills.
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This part is really important. Just keep spending time trying to connect and observe what happens and the effects of your writing. People who have been practicing longer than you are going to sound stronger than you. It doesn't mean they're any better than you, it just means they're ahead of you.
Be patient with yourself, notice when you're trying too hard, and enjoy the practice. Have fun with it. If you need a community of songwriters to help encourage you and help you grow, check out our monthly songwriter nights.
"Creativity is intelligence having fun." -Einstein
So keep telling your story, because it's just getting good. As always, much Love!