How do you actually get better at songwriting?

A student emailed me this question today, and I thought it was beautifully simple, direct, and honest. Here is the answer I gave her (unedited):

The basic ingredients to getting better at anything are all the same: deliberate practice. The ‘deliberate’ part of that is key, though! Simple repetition of something is not enough to improve, or at least to improve past a certain plateau. You have to focus in on areas that you know need work, and then strengthen that muscle. You also need to get good feedback (which is where I, and other teachers, come in, of course), but good feedback can also come from your own practice. There is absolutely a way to be able to tune in to the things that are and aren’t working in your own songs, and the best way I know is to simply write A LOT OF SONGS. Get less attached to any one particular song, and more interested in the process of writing.


Here are my other hot tips for improving your songwriting:

  • Learn a lot of covers! Learn classic songs, but also anything that you just love. Seek to understand the chord progressions, the song forms, and the relationship of the melody to the chords and song forms. The Beatles played covers for a year in Hamburg for 8 hours a day before anyone had ever heard of the Beatles. Bruno Mars played covers in cafes in LA for 5 years before anyone knew who he was. 
  • Keep getting better on your instrument. The more you can do on your instrument, the broader your palette of choices will be.
  • Integrate music theory concepts immediately into songwriting (do not wait; do not think, ‘I will store this away, and use this concept next month/year…do it in the same few days that you learn something). For example, when you learn a particular inversion, or chord pattern, or bit of non-diatonic theory…write a song that uses it. 
  • And most importantly, WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Did I say that already? WRITE A LOT OF SONGS. Aim for 1 a week. You can also set yourself a timer, and make it ‘one song in one hour’ so that you are not laboring over it all week to the exclusion of all else. For 2 weeks of every year, you should have a period of ‘write a song a day’. You could pick a month each year, and do it at the same time; that way you can claim that it is your job. Draw a boundary around it. Someone asks you to do something else, and you simply say to them (and yourself), “I’m currently doing a Song-A-Day Retreat, can we do that in 2 weeks?”

Hope that helps 🙂

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

My Favourite Blogs

Here is a list of my favourite blogs right now. I have all of these saved as shortcuts on my iPhone homepage, and recommend them with much clapping and whistling.

1. The Whippet, by McKinley Valentine.

What is it?

From McKinley herself:

Science, history, weirdness and 0% contemporary politics because oh my god sometimes you need a break.

Always free, always interesting.

I hope she won’t mind that I post a few snippets here, to give a taste of how wonderful and diverse (and yet somehow glued together) all her writing is!

For example, this, from the most recent Newsletter:

Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts

So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.

And the questions people ask completely threw me.

They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”

These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.

Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:

  • what are prologues for?
  • what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
  • how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?

If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.

These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.

And this (from Issue #121):

Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages

Feldhamster - European hamster - Cricetus cricetus | Flickr
European hamster, admire his stripes
  • Fat cheeks (Welsh)
  • Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
  • One who hoards (Hebrew)
  • Silk fur rat (Japanese)
  • Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
  • Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
  • Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
  • Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
  • One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
  • Eating mouse (Hungarian)

This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.

He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —

“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”

Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).

2. Austin Kleon

Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.

This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:

Credit: Austin Kleon, ‘Steal Like an Artist’

3. Bad Astronomy, on syfy.com

I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.

Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.

The Most Beautiful Chords in Songwriting

Hi friends,

I’ve recently made a short series of quick videos that cover two of the most beautiful modes in songwriting: the Mixolydian mode, and Dorian mode, as well as how to use that knowledge to pick out the most beautiful chords, in a chord technique called Modal Borrowing. Here is the series this far. Enjoy!

Why write it as a song?

It’s a question I ask of myself all the time. Why write this idea as a song, and not as a poem? A short story? A blog post? An angry rant to a neighbour? 

What function does a song serve that draws me to it as the vehicle for an idea?

One answer is that a song has the capacity, like no other thing, to make us feel thought. Songs translate ideas into emotion. We get the beauty and nuance and narrative of words, with the unspeakable colours of music. Nothing else does it quite like that.

And what draws people to song? There are obviously lots of reasons, ways, places and purposes for listening to songs (Dan Levitan’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ is a nice anthropological working on the social and biological function of song throughout human history), but I recently had another inkling about the strange addiction to writing and listening to songs, while reading Matthew Dicks’ ‘Storyworthy’. Dicks starts by outlining what he means by storytelling when he does it and teaches others to do it. One of the core principles is this: write only your story, never anyone else’s. It sounds obvious, but the idea is that even when you want to tell a story about someone or something other than you, it only connects with an audience (which is to say, they will only be moved, changed, transformed by it), if it is told from your perspective; how that story happened to you; how it changed you. As Dicks puts it:

People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to Pete, even if Pete’s story is better than your own

Dicks distinguishes this type of storytelling from fables and fiction, that both have a different (and important) function; but there is nothing that cracks our own hearts into a shape capable of bending and changing like a true story told by the person who experienced it. 

This is also what songs are at their best. 

I am, admittedly, a fan of fiction in songwriting. I like bending the truth—often so out of shape that I end up singing from the perspectives of infanticidal primary school teachers and self-sabotaging scientists awash in delusions of grandeur. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Gillian Welch (songwriters who revel in persona-driven stories). I love feeling that there can be truth, honesty, and discovery that can only be reached by searching beyond our own autobiographies. 

But it is undeniable that we as listeners crave the “immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you” (to quote Dicks again). So it is with story; so it is with song.

I’m only a third of the way through Storyworthy, and loving every page. There will be a lot in here that I will borrow and translate into my songwriting classes. 

This is Your Brain on Metaphor

When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example. 

Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words. 

How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to. 

As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.

Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?

Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other. 

In Fiona Murphy’s gorgeous book, ‘The Shape of Sound”, she talks about a piece of research that,

“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”

Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!

The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.

Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

120 Sense Writing Prompts

If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.

What is Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt. It is like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.

Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here.

Why Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter. I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about. I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea. Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.

Prompts

Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world. As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.

Enjoy!

OBJECTS:

COFFEE CUP, OLD T-SHIRT, FIRE PIT, MILKSHAKE, WALLET, PAINTING, MARBLE, SANDWICH, ANKLE, CABINET, BITUMEN, SUMMER RAIN, DUCT TAPE, FUTON, MOON, WEED, SKETCH, FINGERNAIL, TICKET, TOOTH

PEOPLE:

FARMER, DANCER, OLYMPIC BOXER, GRANDFATHER, SURGEON, TEACHER, FIRST LOVE, QUEEN, RETIREE, MIDDLE CHILD, MAGICIAN, CLEANER, PATIENT, LIBRARIAN, ACTOR, WAITER, ROCK CLIMBER, NEIGHBOUR, LAST PERSON TO LEAVE, BULLY

PLACES:

MALL, COUCH, KITCHEN, CLASSROOM, ALLEYWAY, TRAIN STATION, AIRPORT, GRANDMA'S HOUSE, UNDER THE BED, SUPERMARKET, GRAVEYARD, HOTEL, TUNNEL, HOSPITAL, FRONT PORCH, CAMPSITE, CANYON, OUTER SPACE, FRONTLINE

TIMES/EVENTS:

WEDDING, FUNERAL, 7TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, GRADUATION, FIRST KISS, NEW YEAR'S EVE, 3A.M., AUTUMN, SCHOOL BELL, LUNCH BREAK, CONCERT, MOVING OUT, FIRST DAY, SUNRISE, FAMILY HOLIDAY, SWIMMING, MIDNIGHT, SAYING SORRY, PROTEST, WILDFIRE

EMOTIONS:

DELIGHT, BOREDOM, HUMILITY, NOSTALGIA, ENVY, DEFENSIVENESS, CONFUSION, UNCERTAINTY, CONTENT, SCHADENFREUDE, LOVE, RELIEF, SURPRISE, IMPATIENCE, DENIAL, ANXIETY, ANTICIPATION, NERVOUSNESS, REMORSE, SATISFACTION

CONCEPTS:

STUCK, CONNECTION, IMPRESSION, RESPONSE, CHEMISTRY, AFFAIR, COLD, CELEBRATION, FORGIVENESS, GROWING OLDER, ELECTION, TRADITION, PRIORITY, DEPARTURE, ECONOMY, OPINION, COUNTRY, NEWS, REPUTATION, OPPORTUNITY

Can you learn to be obsessed?

There is so much advice out there for writers about the importance of habit and ritual in your creative practice. But lately, I have become—frankly—a little suspect of it.

The insistence on habit as the conduit of creative output is embodied by the American painter Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.

But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive. 

But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.

I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root. 

The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?

Wintering

It always feels as though the seasons do not change gradually, but instead, that the sun takes a sudden jerk around its solar orbit, turns a sharp corner, and within a week the days are shorter by 3 hours, the evenings are cold, and the shadows are long and languid throughout the day.

My relationship to winter is one of conflict. I have a fantasy ‘winter’ in my head, in which the forced introversion equates to productivity. It’s a vision of me writing more, reading more deeply, making more connections, steeping in creativity, its output rising and curling in a scarf of steam out of my mind.

The reality is always one of fatigue, bodily heaviness, and a motivation for nothing more than thick socks, soup, and a fireplace (it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s warm.).

I heard a beautiful interview recently on my favourite podcast, On Being, with English author Katherine May who has written a book called ‘Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, and it has changed my feeling—or at least, my expectations, for this coming winter.

May weaves together, with gentle meandering threads, an exploration of wintering cultures and creatures, and uses them as a metaphor for the cycles of human energy. These times of personal ‘wintering’, she says, are:

…gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.

Wintering, for those creatures and cultures who literally cycle through its doors, is not a retreat from life, but a retreat into it. Summertime is a season of preparation, not relaxation. Embracing that energy is an acknowledgement of reality. Being inside—physically, figuratively—is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Quick side note: DID YOU KNOW that honeybees dislocate their wing muscles from their wings in the depths of winter, so that they can use these muscles to rapidly vibrate their bodies to reach temperatures of up to 45°C!? The 'heater bees' cluster together, and if you were to stick your hand into the centre of a hive in the middle of a northern winter, it would be around 35°C/95°F! The never-ending strangeness and marvel of bees...end side note.

This, of course, has so many tethers into the realm of creative process. The main idea that has struck me from this beautiful book is to stop expecting the creative process to march along in a linear fashion. That NOT producing work is not a failure, it is merely part of a cycle.

I feel like I am old enough at this point (a ripened 37) to have experienced this. I have had enough creative winterings that surely enough thaw that I trust that cycle to happen; I trust that I will come back round to a sense of energy in my writing and creative work and teaching. And yet, those winterings still come with a tinge of panic.

This winter, I plan to embrace my socks, soup, and fake fire with a gusto that you might not even see, because a giant scarf will be covering my face.