Ten Tips for Songwriting Success

Adapted from the forthcoming book Songwriting Demystified, by Christopher Kent 

1. Get yourself a feedback person ­ and treat their feedback as useful information, even if you don’t agree with it.

This is the single most valuable piece of advice I can give any songwriter. It means finding a person, or a couple of people, who’ll listen to the songs you’re working on and tell you what they think. Note: The idea is not to have them tell you what to write. The idea is to find out whether your song is having the effect you think it’s supposed to have.

Why is this so important? Because sooner or later, you’re going to get feedback (assuming you don’t hide your song in a drawer). If you never show what you’re working on to anyone until you play it in front of a room full of people, you may be in for a rude awakening. If you don’t get the reaction you expected from those people, you have a big problem. You’re unhappy because your new song flopped, and it’s no fun to change something that you’ve already decided is finished. And even if you decide to try and change it to get a better reaction from people, it may be hard to get useful information about why people reacted the way they did.

The bottom line is this: No matter how sure you are that you’ve created a masterpiece, there’s no way to tell how it will affect other people – except to try it out on someone. No amount of genius, experience or mind-reading ability will accurately predict how people will respond to something you create. I’ve seen the best songwriters in the world fall flat on their faces when they took a project to completion without getting any feedback during the writing process.

Don’t wait until your song is finished to get feedback. Go to your feedback person while it’s still a work in progress and see how he or she reacts. If you’ve chosen a person who wants to help, has a good ear and is honest, you’ll save yourself a whole lot of grief and embarrassment later. You’ll find out that your funny song isn’t all that funny (and why), or that your melody sounds an awful lot like a song that’s been on the radio, or that your story is too hard to believe, or that it’s a great song except for one word choice you made that ruins the whole thing….

You never know what you’ll find out. Maybe your feedback person will love it exactly as you wrote it. But if he or she doesn’t, you’ll be really glad you didn’t wait until the song was performed in front of a bunch of people to find out.

Of course, the unspoken assumption here is that if something isn’t working – if your words or music aren’t producing the reaction you want – you’ll change something you’re doing. That’s what I mean by “treating their feedback as useful information.” Don’t waste your time blaming the listener for not “getting it.” It’s your job to write a song that works.

This doesn’t mean you’re trying to write “what other people want to hear,” or “selling out.” If you want to communicate to a Frenchman, it’s not “selling out” to speak in French. Making changes based on feedback is not about changing what you’re trying to do. It’s about changing how you do it, so you end up having the effect on the listener you wanted to have in the first place. A successful songwriter knows that the art of songwriting is capturing an experience in the form of music, in a way that other people “get it.”

An important note: Pick your feedback person (or people) wisely. A bad choice of feedback person – someone who dislikes your kind of music, or who doesn’t have your best interests at heart – will be very bad for your creativity! And remember: each person’s opinion represents the opinion of some segment of your potential audience. If you really believe that the reaction you get from your feedback person isn’t what most people will think, try it on somebody else. Maybe you’re right, and maybe not. But it’s really important to find out!

2. When writing lyrics, insert concrete details drawn from your own experience.

Seventy or eighty years ago, believability wasn’t much of an issue in songwriting. (Remember “The Good Ship Lollipop?”) Today, things are different. If a song sounds pretentious, you’re in trouble.

How do you make a song come across as believable? One of the best ways is to pull concrete details from your own actual experience (even if it’s a completely different experience) and put them in your lyrics. Why? Because when we describe real experiences, that kind of detail is almost always in there. On the other hand, when we talk about things we haven’t actually experienced, those kinds of details are missing. The listener will pick up on that and assume you’re not talking about a real experience. So, regardless of whether you’re writing about a real experience or not, pull real details from your own experience and put them in the lyrics – even if it’s just to describe a location where something takes place.

For example: suppose you’re writing a song about a lonesome person in another country or time period, a place or time you never experienced personally. You’re trying to convey how lonely they feel on a cold winter night. Instead of making up details, draw real details from actual memories you have of a cold winter night. For instance: I remember noticing how the snow sometimes seems to hang in the air outside the window when there’s only a faint breeze. Or how sounds travel differently when the air is cold. Or how my breath condenses on the scarf wrapped around my neck. If you’ve never been in a cold winter night, pick a detail from a warm night that focuses on the night instead of the cold. When listeners hear these details, the song will sound believable to them.

Be careful: If you draw details from your imagination , not from actual experience, they’ll usually be cliches, and people will recognize them as such. (There goes the believability of your song.) Only details drawn from actual memories of real experience will make the experience in your song sound like first-hand experience – even if it isn’t. And the effect on the listener will be dramatically different.

3. Write about something you have an emotional investment in.

Make no mistake: one of the main reasons people listen to songs is that most songs provoke some kind of emotion. If you want people to enjoy your songs, they should contain some emotion, both in the music and the words.

Basically, if you write about subjects or events that have emotional meaning for you, your emotion will come out in the song. If you really don’t have strong feelings about your subject, that will also come across in your song. So, before you choose to write about something, make sure you have some emotion tied up in it.

4. Start your lyrics with a concrete (preferably visual) description of a situation that makes it clear what the song is about.

The words in a song go by very quickly, and if the listener isn’t sure what the song is about, you can be sure he or she will simply stop listening – at least to the words, and maybe to the whole song.

Some beginning writers think it’s okay to be mysterious or enigmatic. And it is – if you don’t care that most listeners will be turned off and won’t have any idea what your song is about. The bottom line is that no one listens to a song to solve a puzzle. People want to be entertained. If you expect people to work to figure your song out, you’re going to eliminate 90% of your potential audience. Unless you’re holding the listener’s attention through the use of a gimmick, all you’re doing is wasting the lyrics of your song. (Lyrics can be a big selling point in a song when they’re interesting and easy to understand.)

Assuming that you want people to listen to the words and understand them, you’ll need to make it clear what the song is about, right at the beginning, before people have a chance to lose interest. The best way to do that is to start with a concrete, visual scene that captures the essence of what’s happening in the song.

For example, check out the opening lines of my song Intuition :

Have you ever had the feeling you should walk down a certain street?
Have you ever thought of someone you knew, and half an hour later you meet?

Most listeners immediately know exactly what I’m talking about. Because of that, they continue to listen to the words, and even when the lyrics get more abstract and complicated later, they have a context to make sense out of them.

Another example of this is my song Doorway, which is about a fairly tricky concept: that we get trapped by things we believe without even realizing that we are trapped. I had the lyrics basically finished, but I knew the opening didn’t capture the idea behind the song clearly enough. After weeks of tossing around ideas, I hit on the image of the bird in the cage:

There’s a bird in a silver cage
His heart is breaking as he sees the open sky
The door is open, but he does not leave
Cause he believes he cannot learn to fly.

This image, right up front, makes it easy to grasp what the song is about. As a result, people listen to the words all the way through, and the lyrics become a big part of what people like about the song.

Remember: if it isn’t clear to listeners what you’re singing about within the first 15 – 30 seconds of the song, they’ll probably stop listening (at least to the lyrics).

5. Use the creative process correctly.

For a detailed explanation of how to do this, see the article Making Creativity Work for You in the articles section.

6. Think about the rhythm and tempo of your song separately from the rest of the song.

Different elements of a song affect the listener in different ways. The rhythm and tempo of your song affect the physical body in a very direct way, much more than other elements like melody or lyrics. For that reason, it’s helpful to think about the rhythm and tempo of your song separately from the rest of the song.

Listen to the rhythm by itself. Does it make you want to move to it? Does it “feel” good? Try making it faster or slower. Try changing the style of the rhythm a little. Try making it more complex, or more simple. When the rhythm and tempo work well by themselves, attach the rest of the song to them.

In short, don’t let the rhythm and tempo be determined by accident, or by how fast you think the lyrics should be said. If the rhythm and tempo work by themselves, they’ll add that good feeling element to the rest of the song.

7. Don’t write a melody that only uses two or three notes.

When people communicate using their voices, the range of pitch that’s used tells us how much emotion is behind the words. For instance, when someone’s speaking voice stays almost entirely on the same pitch, we usually interpret it to mean that the person doesn’t care much about what’s being said. If a person’s voice ranges wildly up and down in pitch, we usually hear it as highly emotional. We assume that what’s being said is extremely important to the person, and that there’s a lot of emotion behind the words.

Melodic movement conveys emotion exactly the same way. A melody that covers an extremely small range will usually convey a very minimal amount of emotion. (Of course, it’s possible to compensate for this somewhat with other elements of the song.) A melody that covers a greater range of pitch expresses more emotion. Since most people listen to songs at least partly because they stimulate emotion, writing a melody that stays on two or three notes is a surefire way to minimize the impact of your song.

(Important note: Don’t get too carried away increasing the range of your melody! There’s a limit to the range most people can sing. Consider the Star Spangled Banner. Many people have a hard time hitting the high notes, and that song covers an octave and a half. If you want most people to be able to sing your song, don’t let your melody cover too much more than an octave.)

8. Avoid cliches in your lyrics.

It’s not that cliches are some terrible, monstrous beasts. They simply don’t mean much to people because they’ve been overused, which is why they’re called cliches. When people hear a cliche, “it goes in one ear and out the other” (to use a cliche!)

Basically, a cliche doesn’t have any impact. It’s not going to turn most people off (lord knows, lots of songs on the radio are full of cliches). And cliches make some people comfortable because they don’t have to think about what they mean. But cliches will fill your song up with air, instead of real content that would grab listeners and make them excited about your song.

The other problem with cliches was mentioned in Tip #2: The presence of cliches in your lyrics tells the listener that you’re not writing from first hand experience – or, at the very least, that you’re not giving any thought to your experience. So they make your song less believable, more boring, and they waste space in the song that could be filled with more genuine, powerful material.

9. Don’t be afraid to edit.

One of the things beginning songwriters often have trouble with is editing. I’ve seen three rationales behind this kind of thinking:

1. Inspiration is “holy” and should be used as is.
2. I can’t cut something I’ve written! It’s my work and I can’t bear to see it thrown away.
3. I’m not sure I’ll be able to create something better if I edit out something.

Here’s my response to these three ideas:

1. If you understand how the creative process works (see tip #5) you’ll know that editing is a basic part of it, for very good reasons. The “inspiration” process gives you raw materials, not finished art. If you expect to create wonderful songs that other people will enjoy, without ever changing the first thing that pops into your mind, you’re going to be dismally disappointed.

2. Don’t ever think of editing as destroying something. Editing is about observing what works within a given project, and setting aside the things that don’t work in that context. So if a couple of lines of lyrics don’t work in your new song, taking them out doesn’t mean that you’re throwing them away. You’re pulling them out for use in some other song down the line. There’s no need to mourn them.

3. Being afraid you might not be able to replace something you cut is a perfectly normal fear, but it’s unfounded. If you’re not used to being creative, trust me – it’s a permanent ability. (All of us are constantly creative in our day-to-day lives.) If you’re worried about a creative block, it will pass. (Above all, don’t worry about it! The more you worry, the longer it’ll take to get past it.)

The moral of the story? Be fearless in your editing. You’re just making sure your song works, and when you’ve done a good job, you’ll be delighted with the response the song will get.

10. Write for the right reason—because you enjoy it.

If you think you’re going to get rich quick by writing songs, you’re not very well acquainted with the music business. It just doesn’t work that way. Using unrealistic expectations as your motive for writing will only lead you to disappointment and giving up.

When you write a good song, you’ll have fun, you’ll express your feelings, you’ll be appreciated (by some people, at least) and you may even become a force in other people’s lives. These are good reasons to write. (I’m sure you can think of others.) Just remember: If your reason for writing songs is to get rich quick, your songwriting career will be short – and depressing.

Write songs because it’s fun, and because of the impact that a good song can have on you and on the people around you. If you do it for the right reasons, you won’t be disappointed, and you’ll keep doing it. And as you keep doing it, you’ll keep getting better at it. After a while, you’ll get so good that you might just write yourself a hit song!

© 1996 by Christopher Kent. All Rights Reserved.