How did you get started in songwriting? Did you start out writing poetry as a hobby before transitioning to song lyrics? Did you play an instrument at first and then began coming up with lyrics to match a tune? Was writing your first song a result of trying to find ways to express your thoughts? Or did you decide to pen a song one day to impress a guy or girl at school? For most songwriters, getting started in the craft pretty much involved one or more variations of these pathways.
This begs the question: can songwriting actually be taught? Do you need to enroll in a school program or course and obtain a certificate indicating your readiness to start creating songs? No famous songwriter has ever said they went to school or indicated taking any online courses prior to writing their first song.
Moreover, songwriting is considered an innate talent that some people are able to tap into. It is seen as a highly personal process of how someone interprets an idea or situation and harmoniously turns it into lyrics and melody that other people can relate to. There are no hard or fast rules dictating how to write a song. And, although there are recommended techniques and best practices you can find in many books and tutorials, you can still write songs without conforming to any of them. With this type of flexibility and general accessibility, it does not appear that songwriting is a skill that can be taught.
Yet, songwriting is something you can learn to do. Whether you are just starting out or became a songwriter long ago, there is a high chance you were not totally pleased with how your first songs came out. Once you realized you were serious about creating lyrics and music, whether as a career or hobby, you likely started thinking of ways to make your songs better. You have probably thought about:
• How to come up with more impactful rhymes.
• How to create unforgettable hooks.
• How to structure your songs so the lyrics flow better.
• How to find songwriting ideas and overcome songwriters’ block.
• How to create smoother transitions.
• And maybe even how to finish a song on a high note.
The bottom line is, if you were dissatisfied at any time with your songwriting prowess, you definitely would have attempted to improve your skills. Improvement means trying to learn something new. Of course, this still does not equate to being taught, but learning does require some form of teaching. With that said, while songwriting is not necessarily something that can be taught, it's a skill that can be improved through accumulated learning. Allow us to clear up any confusion.
Songwriting improvement comes from trial and error
By trying different styles and techniques, you will be able to learn what works and doesn’t work for you. For example, if you are used to writing the lyrics first before composing the music, you could try the reverse to see if you get better results.
If you tend to work on new songs in your bedroom, you could try another spot in your home or even find a place outdoors to see if you are able to give your creativity a boost. Or if you often work alone, you might try collaborating with other songwriters to see if that will help you to get new ideas or diversify your writing style. The more things you try, the more you will figure out your strengths and weaknesses and be able to further define your songwriting skills.
You learn by listening to other songs
Songwriters who are just getting started can learn through observation by giving ear to the works of other songwriters, especially songs you enjoy listening to. This is not just playing tracks for fun, but really paying deep attention to how the lyrics are constructed, the varying chord progressions, rhyme scheme complexity, melody sequencing, the scale and pitch, number of bars in each section, use of imagery, metaphors and other literary devices, overall song arrangement, etc. Over time, you can start incorporating some of what you pick up on, enhancing your own signature songwriting style in the process.
Learn by familiarizing yourself with songwriting best practices
As mentioned, there is no real wrong or right way to construct a song. There have been hints of a songwriting formula, particularly in pop music, but there is no evidence that songwriting success comes from sticking to a rigid pattern. However, there are some recommended songwriting best practices or fundamentals that are helpful for songwriters who hope to increase the commercial appeal of their songs. These include:
- Using a common songwriting structure such as ABAB or ABABCB
- Sticking to a song length of between 3 and 4 minutes (with 3 minutes, 30 seconds being ideal)
- Keeping song intros within 10 seconds
- Getting to the first hook/chorus in less than 60 seconds
- Keeping things simple
Improve your songwriting through practice
This should go without saying, but the best way anyone can learn songwriting is by continuously doing it. In most disciplines, it is believed you need 10,000 hours of practice in order to become an expert at it. This thought process applies to songwriting as well. The more you do it, the better you will get.
Finding time to practice your songwriting can seem difficult, especially if you have a fulltime career in another field and/or have kids and other time-consuming responsibilities. But you can make time for songwriting practice by creating schedules and setting goals.
So, can songwriting be taught or not? Most likely not in the traditional sense, but you can definitely learn to do it better.