The 5 Most Valuable Lessons I Learned Working with a Songwriting Coach
In just over a week, I’m releasing my first original song into the big wide world.
Yes I’ve bitten my fingernails all the way down. And yes I’m a chaotic blend of nerves and excitement.
The whole process from start to finish has taken just over 18 months, and I’ve learned A LOT. Over the next few weeks I’ll write a few posts detailing all the AHA moments and steep learning curves throughout, in the hope that you’ll find it useful.
Okay, so first things first - THE ACTUAL WRITING OF THE SONGS.
#1: Bringing a fresh set of ears in is a great idea.
Sometimes we can tend to get stuck in our own heads with only our own ideas and it can be really valuable to have a new perspective. Sometimes we don’t know why things don’t feel right or sound right and an expert in the field can shed some much needed light on this.
For me I didn’t really have any formal songwriting training so I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just winging it!
So when my producer suggested that I might like to have a session or two with the song writing coach I swallowed my (hurt) pride and decided to take his advice.
Sure there was a part of me who wished that I had absolutely nailed it from the first try, but we need to be open to advice from people who have been doing this longer than we have.
Thank goodness I managed to wrangle my ego into submission and humbly accept help, because I learned a lot and has given me the insights I’m sharing with you in this post.
#2: DON’T be too precious about your demo but DO stay true to your art.
One thing my song writing coach told me very early on in our first session was to not succumb to Demo-itis.
This is when the artist is so in love with the initial demo that they aren’t open to any changes that might make it even better.
I’ll admit I found it quite challenging to take constructive criticism and allow myself and the coach to play around with different ideas. It was my baby after all. It was tricky to know what I was simply familiar with in the song that could use a fresh approach and what things I wanted to stand by and not budge on.
I don’t know that I have a clear-cut answer for how you know in these situations what advice to take and what to leave, but for me it was a visceral, gut feeling.
If I felt a very strong reaction against a change, I said no. However if I didn’t feel strongly either way, I would let us make the change and sit with it afterwards to see how it felt.
Interestingly enough, I was much more open to music changes (the melody or the rhythm) than lyrical changes. I suppose because this song was an important experience in my life, I knew what felt right and wrong about the way it was described.
Some changes I allowed initially, but then didn’t feel right when I listened to the track back later. It’s very much more a feeling or instinct when this happens and I strongly suggest that you stay open initially and then follow your gut.
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#3: Think about how the shape and emphasis of your words sound.
One thing I hadn’t taken into consideration when I wrote my first songs, was the vowel and consonant sounds of the lyrics I had written and the way that they flowed together or sat within the rhythm of the music.
This was something that has dramatically changed the way I write.
As soon as it was pointed out to me, I could hear that some words just didn’t sing as well as others. The shape of them didn’t flow or sound quite right.
Sometimes it was a small closed vowel or word on a long note (as in the word “it” if you tried to stretch that out and hold it on a long note), and sometimes it was the opposite, a broad longer vowel sound crammed into a very short note.
Sam goes for the rhythm and melody emphasises words or parts of words. A big jump up to a high note on a word that isn’t that important tends to sound odd for example.
They can be subtle changes that actually make a big difference to how it sounds.
#4: Patterns are important.
The words “catchy” and “repetition” made me bristle initially.
I didn’t want to write repetitive bubblegum pop. I wanted to create something innovative and unexpected. But my coach reminded me that people need patterns in order to be able to recognise and memorise the song.
One of my favourite artists released their second album a few years ago and I remember finding it frustrating to listen to.
After a while I realised that it was because I didn’t know where the melody was going. I couldn’t sing along even after about five listens through the song because the melody was so convoluted and swerving around the place.
Luckily I remembered this experience during my songwriting session, so I was more open to exploring patterns or “hooks” and changing the melody to be more accessible for the audience.
It doesn’t need to make it boring or repetitive, it makes it more enjoyable and comfortable for the listener to experience.
#5: Mix up the way you write.
Ever since I was about seven or eight, I have written lyrics or poems. This is the way I’ve started almost every song I’ve ever written.
The problem with this is that I don’t write it with the end goal in mind (to be set to music). This means that my lyrics may have often sounded like (and I quote my songwriting coach) journal entries.
As much as there is something nice about this because it’s very personal and raw, it then makes it very difficult to create patterns with catchy rhythms and melodies. Reworking my first song was a pain in the butt for this very reason and I’d never do it this way again.
My coach gave me some homework - to write a song based on the rhythm first.
This was very new to me, but also quite liberating.
I realised that so many songs that I love are based on really interesting rhythms that get in your head and into your body. The track I wrote based on rhythms, was much easier to edit or rework than when I went from lyrics that were more of a stream of consciousness than a structured song.
I know songwriters each have their own method and process of song creation, but I have enjoyed experimenting with new ways of pulling a song together. Coming up with a chord progression before writing lyrics, was also foreign to me, but is proving to be just as interesting.
OH AND ONE MORE THING!
Start with an intention in mind.
Are you wanting to write a country ballad?
Are you wanting to write a song that 20-somethings dance to in the club?
Are you wanting the write a modern take on the classic power ballad?
If you know what kind of song you’re writing it’s much easier to say yes or no to ideas that crop up.
You might find a melody you like but decide it’s too “musical theatre” for your rock anthem. Or a line that has too many syllables might mess with your sparse ethereal track.
So there you have it, the nuggets of gold I gained from working with a songwriting coach that have given me more clarity and more confidence when working on my music.
I know I’ll get better with every song and every misstep I make, but for now, I’m having ALL THE FUN exploring the possibilities.