Getting good at songwriting takes time. Plenty of time. And plenty of practice.
And while the Internet is full of people promising to make this process super easy for you, the simple truth is that 90% of your growth as a songwriter comes from you sitting in a quiet room and getting on with it.
It’s true: the best thing about songwriting is that it can’t be taught, only learnt. In other words, the only way to become really good at it is to teach yourself how to be the best version of the artist you are already.
Still, great songwriters don’t come from nowhere. They learn from the artists who came before them. They learn from the artists who are around them today. They learn from people who are the top of their game as well as people who are going through the same challenges they are right now.
Let’s talk about five great ways to learn from other songwriters at all different kinds of levels.
Get to Know More Songs
As Tom Lehrer once said, “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”
And that’s true of your songwriting brain too.
In other words, your skill as a songwriter is directly proportional to the volume of songs you know, that you can draw from (i.e. steal from) in your own work.
Because while there are plenty of places, like this website, where you can pick up songwriting techniques in theory, those techniques make a lot more sense when you see them in use first-hand in the songs you admire.
And the good news is there’s no limit to what you can learn about songwriting.
So get to know as many songs as you can. Always be listening to something new. Make yourself playlists. Ask your friends for recommendations. And don’t just listen passively – dig out a lyric sheet or lead sheet and listen in detail, a few times over. Try to figure out what makes those songs tick. You might be surprised by what you discover.
Join a Workshop, Class or Online Community
One of the best ways to become a better songwriter is surrounded by like-minded songwriters – both for the sense of community that brings you and the opportunity to work with and learn from each other.
There are thousands of workshops, classes and other opportunities around the world – online and off – where you can learn new things, interact with new people and often meet great new people to write with.
Ask around – see what’s in your area – or do some research on online communities and see what feels like a good fit for you. (And if you’re interested, check out the live masterclass series I host here at The Song Foundry once a month.)
In any of these communities, there’s usually a mix of writers with different backgrounds and levels of experience – and not all of those writers will become your best friends or favorite co-writers. But meeting other writers is a great way to become a better songwriter yourself, and if joining a community helps you find that one friend or co-writer that’s going to take you amazing places, it will have been totally worth it.
If you’ve ever wondered why I create so much written content for this site when it’s 2018 and video content is still king or whatever, I’ll tell you why: reading makes you think in a way watching doesn’t.
Reading words on a page or screen is an active process that challenges you – and changes you – in a way that video content can’t.
I know, every man and his Udemy affiliate link are trying to sell you their video course these days. Audiences love them because they’re convenient – and convenience sells – but learning isn’t supposed to be convenient. It’s supposed to be inconvenient, it’s supposed to put you out of your comfort zone, it’s supposed to make you think, not just consume. And that’s why quality written content is king.
Mix up books on songwriting, books by songwriters, books about songwriters and books that are about, well, anything that gets you inspired. Ask your friends for recommendations. Check out the recommendations on our bookshelf. Go where your curiosity takes you. You’ll learn a ton.
Find Other Writers for Co-Writes
One of the best ways to become a better songwriter is to learn from people who are at a similar level to you but who aren’t you.
Yes, insert cliched line about how virtually every chart hit these days has multiple co-writers so you should learn to do the same. But whether you’re interested in writing chart music or not – and whether in general you prefer to write on your own or not – collaboration is an essential skill to pick up as an artist and a great way to learn new things.
Reach out to people in your area. Join one of the many collaboration communities online. Ask friends for recommendations. Fix a couple of hours to get together, start something, and see where it leads.
Not every co-write will lead to an amazing song. But that’s how it goes. And anyway, whatever happens – whether you end up best friends or never see each other again – you’ll learn a lot.
Work with a Coach or Mentor
I was lucky as a music student to spend a lot of time learning either one-on-one or in small group classes. These kinds of situations are much more challenging – there’s no way you can half do the assignment and get away with it – but they’re exactly the kind of environment where I learned to think for myself, ask good questions and do things my way.
That’s true whether you’re talking about writing essays, building a business, raising your kids or learning to write songs. Having someone who’s experienced in the thing you’re trying to get better at – to bounce ideas off, give you personalized feedback and answer your questions – is the way to make the quickest progress.
Of course, there’s an art to finding a mentor who’s a good fit for you. But whether you set something up formally or informally, and whether it’s once a week or twice a year, spending time with a dedicate mentor is one of the best investments you can make if you want to take your creative skills to the next level.
And Don’t Forget: Write More
If you’re a regular reader on the site, you know the drill: none of the theory and ideas you pick up from these five tactics mean anything until you put them into practice.
So put them into practice.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something you’ve never done before. More than anything, that’s the only universal secret to becoming a better songwriter.