If you’re a musician, it’s probably happened to you. You know you have something to share with the world, something to say that’s yet to be said, something yet to be sung. But for the life of you, you just can’t craft it into something viable, something captivating. There’s all this brilliance dancing around in your head, but it just doesn’t seem to want to land. Songwriting, like any form of meaningful and piercing art, rarely consists of raw creativity, but rather channeled creativity. Just like you had to learn disciplines with your instrument to actually make music, so it goes with songwriting. If you’re struggling to put this into practice, or have written before but find yourself in a rut, these are some tips to help you get started!
I. Make Your Song Memorable
There’s a lot that goes into a memorable song, but let’s start with something easy and tangible.
The key to memorability is two-fold:
If you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to write simple repetitive music!”, hear me out.
a) Simplicity—done well—is king.
Too often young writers try to “say it all” in a single song, and it ends up being far, far too broad. Try to narrow your song down to a single idea, and elaborate on that idea. Instead of saying everything, try to say one thing really well.
Try to ensure that everything in the song, whether musically or lyrically, helps to convey the idea of the song in one way or another. Simplicity brings focus and direction to a song.
b) Repetition is what glues our brains to a song.
Music itself is based on repetition and variances of established patterns. The best melodies and lyrical hooks involve a great deal of repetition.
Hooks are the best way to make a song memorable. A hook can be anything in the song, but not everything is a hook. A hook can be a melodic idea, a lyrical phrase, a riff, that is repeated throughout the song.* The primary hook is what people would typically think about when trying to recall, describe or sing a song for someone else (“it’s the one that goes like ‘______________’”). There can be multiple hooks in a song (and different kinds), and the more deeply you hook, the more memorable a song will be.
(*people often mistake a chorus for being synonymous with a hook. A chorus absolutely can be a hook and often is, but it does not have to be the primary hook).
II. Musical/Lyrical Consistency
Be consistent with the rhythm of the melody. Make sure it flows—don’t force syllables into a phrase just to make sure it rhymes. And DO NOT flip syntax just in order to make something rhyme.
I’ll explain what I mean by that…
Here’s a negative example: the pop song Beautiful Soul by Jesse Mcartney. In it, he sings, “To you I’ll be always faithful,” flipping words around just for the sake of rhyming. In modern English we say, “I’ll always be faithful to you.” His wording is archaic, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, especially in writing for the church. With the right subject matter—or if done consistently in a song—archaic language can be awesome. But if it’s shoehorned in only one instance (as in this case) just to rhyme, it just sounds immature, like he doesn’t have command of the language.
Make sure the lyrics sing naturally—if you have to elongate or stretch certain words beyond what sings comfortably, or cram a ton of syllables into a small phrase just to fit them in, the song will feel amateur. The lyrics and melody fail to blend seamlessly, and even an untrained listener will instinctively feel that you have command of neither. And if you want to have command of the language…
III. Read Voraciously (if you don’t know what “voraciously” means, you aren’t reading enough)
Seriously, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, read as much real literature as you can possibly get your hands on. You will subconsciously be learning what makes for good writing, and it will provide you with a vocabulary and syntactical arsenal that will greatly expand your lyrical ideas and creativity. I strongly recommend reading British authors, especially from the late 19th Century to the early ‘50s. Their elegance and command of the language is perhaps the deepest well to draw from, while not being too far removed from our English today.
And in addition to reading…
IV. Consume As Many Different Forms of Art As Possible
Inspiration can come in almost any form. The best music helps people to truly feel and connect with something that words alone can’t do. Often, an experience had in one art medium can be transferred into another. For instance, I used to often be inspired with song ideas from attending my sisters’ dance recitals and competitions. The combination of the movement set to music would often spark up different lyrical and melodic ideas in my head that weren’t explicitly related to what I was experiencing in that moment, but they emoted in the same way.
Like reading, taking in as much art as possible in various forms expands your arsenal, and can inspire you in the moment or down the road.
And speaking of inspiration…
V. Read Scripture Until It’s Coming Out Your Ears
For those who want to write music to or about God, whether for congregational or non-congregational purposes, this is crucial. And honestly, even if you just want to write about anything. The hymns that have stood the test of time until today were written by individuals who knew their Bibles—and wrote from a depth and richness of understanding that was conveyed in their lyrics. Much Christian music currently being written treads in shallow waters for lyricism. There is no better place to find more nuance and subject matter for a song than God’s Word. And there is so much in Scripture we could take advantage of lyrically but don’t! Worship songs often go back to the same wells for lyrical ideas over and over, when there are so many different ideas from Scripture to draw from…so draw from new ones!
VI. CLICHÉS DISENGAGE THE LISTENER—DON’T USE THEM!
“We give you all the praise.” “All of my days.” “I give You everything.” “Your amazing grace.” “I will worship with all of my heart.” We’ve heard things said the exact same way thousands of times.
Clichés are tempting to use because they’re “tried and true.” It’s not risking anything to use a cliché, and so there is great temptation to use one in order to fill in a lyrical gap or lend credence to a song.
The problem with clichés is that they pretty much instantly disengage the listener. Clichés become cliché because they’ve been used a thousand times. When a person has heard a concept said the same way over and over and over, it becomes hard for them to really process its meaning when they hear it. The brain just shuts off.
Clichés are often very general as well, especially in worship music (see above examples), which, again, keeps people from engaging as fully. The broader the brush strokes, the lesser the impact.
More important than just not using clichés, however, is finding something new to say! Or a new way to say it! Don’t write lyrics that you think will “get by” by today’s standards. Write the lyrics you wish others were writing. Which leads us to…
VII. Make Sure Your Song is Actually About Something
Don’t just write music for no reason! Write something that’s from you. An idea, a feeling, or an experience you’ve had. If you can’t tell someone what your song’s about, the lyrics likely won’t convey it either. And it’s not that ambiguous lyrics are bad, they can be fantastic. There are plenty of songs where I’m not fully sure what the writer had in mind, but they’re still brilliant. But if you just are stringing together a bunch of phrases, hoping something sticks, there will be nothing to compel the listener. Like tip #1, you want to try to say one thing really really well. And even if your listener isn’t quite sure what that is, your conviction should be clear.
If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, here’s an exercise:
Try starting with an actual physical object. Could be anything Then ask some friends what comes to mind when they think of that object. What feelings it calls up in them. Do this until you end up with something a bit more abstract. Then, use that object as a vehicle to explain that abstract idea. Help people connect with the abstract through the tangible.
For example, I did this in a lecture at a young adults conference I played/taught at, and asked someone to name something. First thing was “popcorn.” I wrote it down on the board. Then, I asked people to start saying things that came to mind when they thought of popcorn. Eventually, someone said, “it transforms.” Another person talked about movies, and I led that towards shared human experience. First date. We tried taking different ideas in different directions. Specific, tangible things help people understand and feel what you’re trying to say. It’s more real. Or, try it in reverse! Start with an abstract concept, and try to figure out some physical thing that could convey that idea.
VIII. Write Leanly
Writing “leanly” means squeezing the most out of the words that you use. Try to find the shortest, most effective way to say something.
People often confuse lots of big words with strong writing, but that simply isn’t the case. Sometimes good writing will require a great deal of words, but it is certainly not necessary—or even ideal—for strong writing. Strive for what one of my college professors, Keith Molberg, called “pregnant brevity:” saying things that are full of meaning and depth in as few words as possible. Learning how to write like this goes back to the fourth tip—reading and listening to strong writers will help intuitively form a basis for lean writing.
Let the verbs do the work. Instead of using a regular verb and an adjective to colour it, use a more interesting verb that contains the idea of the adjective. Instead of saying “she walked slowly into the room,” say, “she ambled into the room.” You don’t need to say she “slowly ambled;” the idea of “slowly” is already packaged into the verb.** If you need help finding new verbs (or any words, for that matter), use a thesaurus, it’s a great tool and easily available online!
IX. Co-Write/Get an Editor
No matter how skilled a writer you are, we all have blindspots. We hear everything through our own filters (ones we aren’t even aware of), and because of that there are always things we miss. This is why writing with others and getting an editor is so critical.
Choosing who will be your editor is extremely important. It needs to be someone you can trust, someone you can be vulnerable with, someone you won’t be specifically writing for. You need to be able to feel the freedom to be yourself in your writing, the editor should only help trim the fat and make it better. So, you need someone who you know doesn’t have an ego at stake and desires to see you do your best work. They don’t have to be musical or a writer themselves, but it certainly helps! In fact, it can be great if you can show your music to one person who is savvy when it comes to music and writing, and to one who doesn’t know music and writing but has a critical eye and a good instinct. That way you can see how it will land with musical and non-musical audiences alike.
If you don’t have access to other writers or people to edit, you can also serve as your own editor, by using time. Simply write, and then don’t look at or think about the song for a while, at least a few days. Then come back to it. Sometimes we write something in a moment when we’re inspired, and the critical aspect of our brain shuts off. THIS IS A GREAT THING! It allows us to better exercise our raw creativity and come up with better ideas. Sometimes while in that creative mode, however, we come up with things that don’t quite make sense (this happens to me a lot). By spending some time away from our work, and coming back to it later, we get out of that space and are able to analyze with a bit more objectivity. Sometimes I’ll return to a song I’ve left for a while and look at a line and go “what was I thinking?” Self-editing is invaluable.
X. JUST DO IT!
We all know what they say practice makes…
But really. As much as you might not want to hear it, some of the best songwriters became great because they just write. A lot. Jon Foreman, one of the most poetic and creative songwriters working today, writes virtually every day of his life. And as far as a professional touring musician goes, it’s hard to get much busier than him, so a lack of time is no excuse. But in reality, lack of time is rarely the issue…
As musicians and creators, our art is part of our identity. It just is. And fear of failure, or a fear of making something that isn’t profound, may in fact be the biggest thing holding so many of us back. It’s as though we were to make something that wasn’t great, we ourselves are lacking in some way. And that’s just not true! The reality is we will all make art that’s not all great 100% of the time, but it’s in doing that that we learn how to do it better. Back to Jon Foreman—even with all the music he’s put out, between his solo music and Switchfoot and Fiction Family (not to mention all the writing he’s done for other musicians)—if he’s writing music daily, how many songs does that mean he’s written that will never see the light of day? We have to accept that not everything we do will be a work of genius. But it is those trudging, struggling times that help hone our abilities as writers, and it becomes an actual craft.
A common myth is that we have to be “inspired” to write good music, let alone write at all. Not true. This was debunked for me when I was in a songwriting class and had very real deadlines to meet in order to do the class! Deadlines force the wheels to turn, and while the writing that occurs in that time may need some refining, it will teach you how to quickly get in a “creative space.”
Deadlines and writing for a specific purpose give focus and (surprise surprise) purpose to your song. Is your church about to launch into a specific sermon series? Talk to your pastor about writing a song that the church can sing for it. Your friend’s getting married and wants you to sing at the wedding? Offer to write them an original. Are you leading worship at a Bible camp? Write a song around their theme for the summer. These deadlines will help you to get over the false notion that good writing requires the stars to align perfectly in order to happen, and simply write.
There you have it, those are the tips! Now, go write the music you wish was being written.
**A quick note: some of the ideas in this post (especially around memorability in a song) were things I learned from my mentor and songwriting professor, Ken Dosso. His work with me was invaluable in helping me learn how to channel my creativity and hone it into something stronger.
The verb example comes from Successful Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis (1998).
If you’d like to hear my debut EP, you can find it here (also available on all streaming services):