Over the years a lot of people have asked me questions about songwriting. Where do I get my inspiration from? What are some tips to becoming a better writer? How do you even begin the journey? Tough questions with complicated answers. 5 years ago I had very little answers. I never studied songwriting in school. I had read a LOT about it, but most of the information was formulaic and didn’t help much. My process of writing music is as unconventional as they get, so trying to give advice would confuse me as well as the person I’d be trying to advise I’ve been given a unique set of gifts / tools and honestly figuring out how to use / steward them has been a mystery. So 5 years ago I would have told you that songs just appear. That they just magically show up, either fall out of the sky or come out of some deep unknown place in my soul, and I catch them and try to articulate / translate them for the listener. I stole my motto from “Stranger Than Fiction”, when the character Karen Eiffel said “Like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without merit.”
But just recently, in the past couple years I have learned 4 valuable principles that have helped me more than anything I learned in all of my prior years combined. They may or may not help you, but I figured I’d share them anyways
Before I share them though, let me say this: I believe that we’ve all been born with a unique set of gifts / talents : things that we are inclined to be good at, that come naturally to us. For example, I am not good at drawing. I could potentially become better, but it would take a lot of UNNATURAL development, and I would question if it would be the best use of time. I would have to ask if it would take away from developing the talents that I’ve been given that come more naturally to me. So whatever gifts you’ve been given, please, develop and share them with the world. If it’s not songwriting you maybe can still learn from the following.
1. WRITING IS A MUSCLE
A great friend of mine, Michael Farren, is a superb writer. He has written a lot for a lot of different people. He has a natural gift, a knack for great melodies and poetic lyrics. But it’s not just a gift. He has developed it into a skill. I have had the privilege of living close to Michael and mooching off of meals and stealing tips and advice from him over the years. One particular thing he said to me about a year ago changed my perspective forever. He was encouraging me to write more. I always had quality down pretty good, but quantity, well, not so much. He said,
“Brian, writing music is a muscle, and you can develop that muscle. You can spend more and more time training that muscle and gradually get stronger, become more consistent, and write more, without compromising quality.”
If you know anything about weightlifting you understand that through lifting weights you break down muscle fibers. Then those fibers heal back together and develop the muscle. After doing this over and over again for a while, the muscle becomes stronger. So, through facing RESISTANCE and CHALLENGE a muscle is weakened, then strengthened, and develops PERSEVERANCE.
That’s how developing the muscle of writing is. It encouraged me to know that not only do I have a great gift, but I can develop it further through exercise. Now “how do you develop that muscle” you ask?
2. INFORMATION + INSPIRATION
I stole this one from John Mayer. He gave a lecture at Berklee a few years ago. It’s on YouTube, lots of good advice, you can watch it here : John Mayer Clinic
But basically it’s combining what you can learn about music “scientifically” with what you feel “emotionally”. If all I can do is be inspired, but I don’t develop the skill to communicate that inspiration, I’ll be creatively frustrated. And if all I have is information, but I don’t combine it with my personal emotion, well it won’t be very relevant or tug strongly at the heart of listeners. The more chords I learn, the more scales I can understand, the more information I intake, the bigger framework I’ll have when I’m inspired by an idea to communicate that idea artistically. Now if I was writing a book I would try to give you a bunch of tips on how to learn music “scientifically”. But this is a BLOG people, and it’s my BIRTHDAY today, so this is all you get hah!! I’m sure if you want to become a better songwriter the drive in you will lead you to find out ways to study music and grow. Here’s a few things I recommend:
- Study music theory. Learn scales on piano or guitar. Learn chords.
- Listening to a variety of different music. Enjoy it. Analyze it. Ask yourself why you enjoy it. Learn the chords and write out the melody. Study the lyrics.
- Read fictional books. Using your imagination exercises your ability to be creative way more watching television that paints the picture for you.
3. OBJECT WRITING
Okay. This is what has helped me grow as a lyric writer more than ANYTHING in the world. Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee. There’s a book called “Writing Better Lyrics” that is very helpful. The most practical and fundamental exercise I’ve learned (and you can do this at any level) is called “Object Writing”.
Basically, you set a timer to 10 minutes. Not longer or shorter, EXACTLY 10 MINUTES. It’s an exercise, so don’t exhaust yourself. You take an object, any object: An old upright piano, a sunset, a forest, a coffee cup… whatever, and DESCRIBE that object using your 5 senses. “Write freely. No rhythm, no rhyme. No need for complete sentences. Use all seven senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, organic and kinesthetic.” Write it out. When the timer stops, you stop. The goal is to make the reader FEEL what you’re describing. Be as profound & creative as you can but without pressuring yourself to be profound & creative If what you write is terrible, great!! It’s just an exercise. We can’t be afraid to fail. We’re developing muscles. You will get better at analyzing and articulating, I guarantee it. Do this every day, it’s a small sacrifice that will reap a great reward.
REMEMBER: The goal is to EXERCISE. It’s too overwhelming to sit down and say “I have to write a hit song.” Or “I have to write a book.” Nothing in life is easy. Climbing a mountain happens in taking smart strategic small steps. The goal is to grow, develop the muscles and be committed to the process.
4. LOVE THE READER / LISTENER
Stole this from Donald Miller, TODAY. I woke up and had a crazy thought, “I should blog about how to become a better songwriter.” That was followed by another thought, “Yea, whatever you’re crazy.” Then I checked my Twitter feed, Donald Miller (one of my favorite writers) wrote a blog entitled “The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received”. Confirmation? Hmmm… Well the last line in his blog was
“So the next time you sit down to write a blog, just remember somebody is going to read it and be encouraged.”
So the reason I typed this blog is…. YOU.
I wouldn’t go through all of this for myself. I don’t like to spend hours writing. But I’ve remembered to love the reader, that my work helps benefit others. That my gifts were given to be shared. I think good art plays a significant role in making this world a better place. And the better we get, the better the art gets, and the deeper the impact it makes. I wish the generations coming up were more consumed with growing as artists instead of making it on American Idol. Thoughts?