New Songwriting Series: How do I start writing and picking topics?

Getting started on lyrics with the prose and the poetry buried in your noodle!

Welcome to a new Songwriting Series of blog posts! As a Los Angeles voice and songwriting coach (and piano teacher!), I see a lot of young and older people alike come through my studio wanting to learn to write music. Some want to become singer-songwriters and I guide them with the various aspects of that; others just want to compose and look to partner with a lyricist; and still others don’t know yet what they’ll do. And that’s OK! Music-making like any art or endeavor is a process, not a destination.

Songwriting Series – Part A: How do I even know what to write about?

Susan - new songwriter! Susan – new songwriter!

One of my long-time piano and voice students and dear friend, Susan, recently started my songwriting group this year. I was so excited! She loves to play and sing a lot of 70s/80s music and some recent hits – think Adele, Gaga, and more – so long as it involves a piano, she’s game. She loves karaoke with friends too, so she’s not shy. But she’d never written music and casually mentioned it one day – as a question. Like did I think she could write music?

My answer is the same for songwriting as it is for playing music or singing: Yes, everyone can do it. Actually everyone should try it at some point, as a mental exercise. Everyone’s musical style comes out fairly uniquely when developed even mildly, which is fascinating to consider since we live on a planet with 7 billion people.

But this article is about the written word, I’ll save the music for later. How the heck do you even get started?

I invited Susan to join another friend and student at our group one night. It was just the 3 of us by design, and we began on object writing and sharing our work aloud. Susan immediately wrote some witty, hilarious things and really surprised herself.

But I was giving her those subjects to object-write on. She still didn’t know what to do on her own.

For her next assignment, she came to group with a parody song – right up her alley – after I asked the group to take Katy Perry’s California Gurls and rewrite the words. This is called scaffolding by the way, more on that later. Hers was incredibly funny and unique and crafty; she wrote about the recent zeitgest-y Ashley Madison website scandal. Everyone was cracking up in the much beginner songwriting group session.

At this point, there are 3 types of page-only writing (no music) that I gave Susan, who was eager and asking what to do next. She had no idea how to continue and write an original song, because though she could come up with ideas with a prompt and can sing and improvise melody and chords with ease, the meat of the matter – that “what” and “what if” that haunts so many lyricists, myself included – was eluding her. So I had her begin this regimen:

1) Journaling / free-writing. 5 minutes first thing in the morning, 4-6 days a week. This will be done in conjunction with #2 & 3, or 2 and 3 can be done separately, whatever works for you. But to start, try doing them all in one sitting or one day. Grab some coffee and go, and do it first thing after waking for the best, unfiltered results. (Your inner critic hasn’t fully awoken yet, and writing without judgement – no matter what – is very important).

2) Title writing – creating lists of OBJECTS, whatever comes to mind. Try pairing 2 words together that may not usually go together, like “Running Bananas”. You just don’t know what ideas, metaphors will come to mind. You can scrape news sites or your Facebook feed for random inspiration. You can also scrape lyrics of your favorite songs – pick a word or phrase to start with that really sticks out to you that isn’t the song title. Try this: “On the street.”

3) Object writing. This is essentially focused journaling; it combines 1 and 2 above, and prose writers frequently use object writing as an exercise. I mean exercise in the literal sense – this is like warming up or training for athletes, and the immensely wonderful Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison gets you rolling on it in the very first chapter:

  1. Set aside 10 minutes at the same time every day; preferably first thing in the morning.
  2. Choose any noun: something you can see in the room, something on your mind. It can be incredibly silly, in fact the less likely you’d use it for a actual song subject, the better – this is an exercise!
  3. Write as much as you can in 10 minutes about the subject; words, phrases, or paragraphs, if you prefer. Don’t judge, just observe what comes out. You’re practicing writing.
  4. Stop at exactly 10 minutes, no more, no less! If you go super long one day you may not want to continue the next day, and then you’ve broken your new habit.

That’s it for our first in the Songwriting Series. Why so short on tasks? This first article is about getting you started with a writing habit. Experts say is takes 21 days to form a new habit, so do yourself a favor – try the above steps for 3-4 weeks before even trying to write a tune or pick chords. Trust me and these other writers – this will make you a writer by making it a ritual, and the more you do it the more you’ll have topics to easily mine from. Your subconscious will be rolling, you’ll start seeing patterns and concepts emerge, and you’ll be inspired to jot down short ideas – a single word or phrase even – throughout your day.

Once you’ve gotten a hang of writing words, mining for ideas and speedwriting are next. For speedwriting you’ll need basic knowledge of chords and song structure. (Don’t yet? stay tuned for more on that). But if you’ve done your habit-forming writing steps above, check this out:

Get the book! Writing Better Lyrics will make you a writer, and a lyricist.

More on: List Writing, Scaffolding, & Journaling

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