Get Smart: Shake Up Your Songwriting Approach

You may just play, and you may not be a wordsmith, but, hey, there are no tests you need to pass to become a lyricist, so write on. Why not?
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If you ask most musicians who write songs what comes first, they will tell you they begin with the music. This makes perfect sense, and if you are an instrumental musician, the music is all you need, so kindly put this article aside and go write a great song—the world needs it! The rest of you, however, have to stay after school…

Playing your instrument is obviously a reliable way to build ideas for songs, but I have a suggestion if you are willing to try something different.

Start with the lyrics.

Yeah, I know, you just play, and you aren’t a wordsmith, but, hey, there are no tests you need to pass to become a lyricist, so write on. Why not? Many great songwriters of the past 50 years only wrote words, and why cheat yourself out of an additional route to inspiration?

There are a number of ways to start, but one of the best is to begin with a title. Great song titles are waiting everywhere—in conversations, dreams, thoughts, or even good clichés. They can— and will—come to you at any time, so stay open to them, and write them down or speak them into your phone as they pop into your head. Don’t do what I have done too many times, and think that these phrases are going to be easy to remember!

Once you have a few titles collected, choose one, and follow its path to the music. Allow the emotional context of the title to help guide the music, and just play until something starts to take shape. The reward may be immediate, or it may take a long time, but try to conjure what the title phrase means to you through your guitar (or other instrument). And don’t think you have to write happy music to happy words, or sad music to a gloomy title. It can be quite compelling to write music that is counter-intuitive to the title. I don’t know about you, but I honestly think CeeLo sounded as “Happy” as Pharrell when he was singing the Bruno Mars composition “F**k You.” Mess around and be creative. No rules!

If you want to take things further, try writing some melodies that might fit with more complete lyrics down the line. Even if the lyrics never appear, approaching instrumental parts as a singer can produce ear-catching hooks. The main thing to remember is if the ideas are coming, roll with them. Never ever say “no” to the creative gods—they are your friends.

If the session ends without a complete song resulting, that’s cool, because the song hasn’t quit on you yet. I suggest you simply put it aside, and revisit the song (or instrumental work) later with fresh ears. In most cases, when you revisit your start, you’ll find some keeper ideas, some duff ones you want to toss, and some new additions to take the song further.

Obviously, this music-to-words approach is the usual path taken when co-writing with a lyricist who presents you with words to set to music. However, by writing words—or even just titles—all by yourself, you’ll learn a lot about the other elements of songwriting, as well as how to be sensitive and open when working with lyricists or singers who don’t play an instrument.

If you walk in their shoes— even as an experiment—the odds are that you will gain some of the sensibilities they possess in their world, and that’s always good for improving communication from artist to artist, and from artist to audience. After all, we may call ourselves musicians, but don’t ever forget that we are in the communications business.

Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 40 million units, and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues and dance genres.