Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?
Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.
In my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.
Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)
Sign up here.
More info here.
Giving and receiving meaningful feedback on your creative work is probably the single most important thing to actually developing your practice and seeing your work improve.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson, who famously inspired the idea of the ’10 thousand hours rule’ for developing expert performance level at anything, cites ‘meaningful, specific, and detailed feedback’ as one of the most critical aspects to moving beyond the plateau that most people stop at in their creative practice.
In that spirit, the Songwriting Workshop that I teach at the Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy is centred around the combination of weekly projects that fine-tune specific aspects of the songwriting process, with detailed and personal feedback on song projects throughout the term. The next term starts October 14. You can find more information here, and here:
Hope to see you there!
A new term of my Songwriting 1 course at the Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy kicks of on October 17! Get your creative juices flowing, and join me there!!
The most effective way I write songs is to immerse myself in songwriters. I like to remind myself of the songwriters who will always, without question, ignite something in me. Here is my list.
These writers don’t just write great songs; they are GREAT SONGWRITERS. Drenching myself in the structures, forms, and developments of lyrics and music of these songwriters will always set up my songwriting practice.
I will often then cross-pollinate this listening by immersing myself in a style or genre that I am either interested in or inspired by.
When I do this ‘stealing like a songwriter,’ I always keep in mind the most important lesson I took from reading Austin Kleon‘s (absolutely refined gem of a book) “Steal Like an Artist“:
Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.
“How do you write about a broad concept like “the extinction of species”?
Doris Folkens, Ontario, Canada
Click below to access a free downloadable PDF of this lesson! It contains the information summarized, key writing exercises, and song examples.
How do you get the songwriting process happening when you want to write about a broad concept like “the extinction of species”_
The music I listen to doesn’t always (umm…actually, never!) sounds like the music I make. Here are some of my favourite albums I listened to in 2018.
Nils Frahm – Solo Remains
Strawberry Heritage – Overgrowth
Anais Mitchell – Hadestown
Melody Gardot – Currency of Man
Adanowsky – El Idolo
Julia Michaels – Nervous System
I love this video of Ryan Adams revealing his daily songwriting method, that he calls ‘Stacks’. It basically involves taking one reference book (like the Roget’s International Thesaurus) on one side, and another random book—a novel perhaps—on the other side. Open each to a random page. Scan the page of the novel until a line or image catches your attention, then use it to create a version of that image. Go to your second book. Scan the page until you find a word or image that pops out at you…keep going, and fill in the blanks.
“Inside of me is some piece of information that is relevant. It’s relevant because I’m alive and because there’s electricity in my brain and I’ve seen things all day. But maybe they have’t become this beacon for me yet of something ideal. But if I scan information I’ll find what that is…like Madlibs, the ego will always come out to play if you can get the Id to tell it to…I just created this thing for myself based on this information that I chose that’s already relevant to me because instantly it reminds of someone…; and it will force me to fill in the blanks.”
It’s a beautiful approach that trusts in your own experience to join the dots.
“All you need is 3 chords and the truth”…I’ve heard that attributed to Bob Dylan.
In Dylan’s wonderful song, Ballad of Hollis Brown, he has clearly revised his position. Apparently all you need is one chord and a good story where everyone dies.