by Denis Wilson
You could be practicing at your piano, trying out a bluesy progression in G, or plucking a fingerstyle riff in dropped D tuning on your guitar, when suddenly you get that feeling.
Perhaps the chord progression has pulled an image from your memory; or maybe a phrase you’ve been walking around with fits the riff you’re plucking. Either way, you’re sure it’s a breakthrough—this could be the beginning of an original song. Don’t freak out, there are some things you should know before you start songwriting like the main parts of a song, but this article is full of advice for beginner songwriters. There may be some writer’s block to overcome at first, but this guide will get you on your way to writing that first song.
Many amateur musicians play for years before it ever strikes them to write their own songs. The fulfillment a songwriter gets from completing a composition can be as magical as the inspiration that began the process, inspiration that can come from an array of sources, from work to literature to faith.
However mysterious the beginning of a song, or marvelous the end product, it’s important to remember that there’s plenty of work, no less fulfi lling, in between.
Songwriting is more than just expression. It’s a craft, like poetry or painting, that can be taught. Luckily, there are a number of programs and workshops available to budding songwriters to help them grow into masters of this craft.
Peg D’Amato, 44, had been playing piano for more than 30 years before she started creating her own songs. About five years ago the renewal of her faith went hand in hand with a musical revelation, and she felt compelled to write songs.
“Inspiration began to happen through my spiritual journey,” says D’Amato, of Wethersfield, Connecticut. “It came when I became a believer.”
Joe Manning, a 64-year-old retired social worker and accomplished songwriter, found inspiration elsewhere. Manning, who is also a creative writer, was able to incorporate his literary interests into his songwriting. The Florence, Massachusetts, native also feels his work has been informed by other art forms, especially film, and he thinks of his songs as “little movies.”
Manning and D’Amato approach the first stage of the creative process differently. Manning, who began writing songs while fooling with a guitar during a stint in the Air Force, starts by working out chords on a piano. For D’Amato, words usually come first, perhaps while sitting with a pen and a pad of paper.
Along with the words come a melody, and then she takes it to the piano to create the music. It’s after this exploratory stage that the lessons learned at a songwriting program come in handy. Listening to words of advice from a mentor or hearing the critical input of other songwriters is a useful step toward creating songs that will touch an audience.
Songwriting coach Bill Pere stresses the importance of shaping the raw material of inspiration. This can come in the form of a group oriented workshop or a one-on-one tutoring program.
Pere has experience in both forms of instruction. He is the executive director of the Connecticut Songwriters Association, where beginning songwriters can learn the craft in workshops, and founder of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy, in which more experienced songwriters hone their skills, with Pere acting as a tutor.
“The biggest mistake new songwriters make is to think that the initial creative surge that generates an outpouring of music and words is in fact the fi nished song,” Pere said. “It’s the application of techniques and principles that turns the raw gem into a finely cut diamond.”
However, before taking a song to others, some songwriters might have to overcome the fear of rejection. But opening a song up to critique doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience.
In fact, Manning found it relieving to be in a room full of songwriters. He knew they were all there to really listen, something you might not find at home. “You need to have a thick skin, but also the ability to say ‘I don’t agree with that,’” he says.
D’Amato explains that in her experience in the Connecticut Songwriters Association has enabled her to associate with positive, supportive people who share her interest in songwriting. From her experience she found that “people genuinely want you to succeed, and they’re very kind.”
While it may take a little courage, participating in a workshop helps your art evolve in many ways. Manning, who has worked with the songwriting association since 1980, says that critiquing the work of others, for instance, helps him look at his own songs with an objective eye, making him a better editor of his own work. “I wasn’t disciplined,” says Manning.
“I was getting it over with and going on to another tune. You kind of get drunk on your own creativity.”
D’Amato also thinks that songwriting programs really helped her learn the method of making a song better, in particular, the editing process. “On my own I never thought of rewriting.”
Desire to Create
Another obstacle some aspiring songwriters worry about is age. Pere has encountered this fear while guiding new songwriters. “I’m frequently asked ‘Am I too old to be doing this?’ I always reply that as far as creative pursuits go, it’s never too late to begin.”
In fact, age can be a benefit when it comes to writing a song, says Pere. The experience that comes with maturity provides a well of knowledge to draw ideas from.
D’Amato says he overcame her own self-doubts, and her advice to others is simple: “If you have the desire, just do it. You never know how your music can speak to other people.”
No matter what the source of inspiration, and despite any trepidation, both amateur songwriters agree that creating a song gives a great sense of accomplishment. If you do begin to write your own songs, you may just fi nd that communicating your own thoughts on a deeply emotional level makes your musical hobby even more fulfilling.
Bill Pere, executive director of the Connecticut Songwriters Association and founder of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy, and Joe Manning, critique session teacher, give this advice for budding songwriters:
- Set Expectations: It’s important to shape the vision ofwhere you want to go with your creativity. When Pere works with a student, setting goals is a first step. This helps a songwriter turn vision into reality. The underlying goal is often the desire to connect and share with others, he says.
- Edit, Edit, Edit: A novelist doesn’t turn in his first rough manuscript and expect that it will get published as is. Expect your song to go through several drafts until you achieve something you’re truly proud of. In order to communicate successfully with an audience, songwriting needs conscious artistic shaping, says Pere.
- Raise the Structure: “One of the things I got right away … is why it was so important for the music and the lyrics to correspond,” says amateur songwriter Joe Manning, who first participated in a songwriting workshop in 1980 and now teaches critique sessions. For example, a major key implies a happy feeling, while a minor key indicates a sad one. The melody should elevate the significance of the lyrics, not just accompany it, while the end of a verse should indicate to the listener that something else is coming and lead them into the chorus.
- Write What You Know: Imitation can be a major problem for beginners. “Sometimes beginners don’t write from a particular, personal emotion. You need to write what you care about and what you know about,” says Manning, adding that inspiration can be found anywhere, even at work. “People saysome very interesting things, at the office,” observes Manning.
- Reap the Rewards: As Pere puts it, “A good songcan get inside a person to forge connections, evoke emotions, and stimulate ideas.” Five years ago amateur songwriter Peg D’Amato attended her first songwriting workshop in Nashville thinking it would be a one-time experience. In January she released her own CD of worship-based songs and has put together a workshop at the Connecticut Songwriters Association to help others share her inspiration.