Songwriting presents an odd dilemma. You don’t actually have to be musically accomplished to write great songs, but bad songs are often a product of bad musicianship or craft. On the other hand, a lot of virtuosic musicians write a lot of really bad songs.
Here are two important examples to ponder.
1. Bob Dylan: Barely in tune vocals/instruments in “Queen Jane Approximately,” from the album Highway 61 Revisited, the Nobel Prize winning lyricist clearly DGAF, but wrote like a god.
2. The Sex Pistols: Bass player Sid Vicious had no idea how to play when he joined this influential band that ripped the top off punk, changing rock history forever.
The songwriting skill set clearly comes with different demands than expert musicianship. What’s most important is how to weld words and music into songs with a magic all of their own – packed with authentic, emotionally reverberant ideas that a large number of us want, urgently.
Exactly how you do this comes with no recipe book, and varies a great deal from artist to artist. There’s no single path laid out in front of us.
But even if your musical skills are “weak,” know that you can find ways to express what you hear in your head and feel in your heart. I’m going to prove this to you now; here are five ways to write songs when you can’t play for peanuts.
1. Your voice
I mean this both literally and figuratively. At the core of every song is the voice through which a songwriter chooses to speak, and it usually breaks down across the following attributes:
What’s your message, theme, or story?
What cool, contemporary, or commonplace phrases are you using?
What emotion(s) do you want us to feel?
Who are you talking to, and what are you talking about?
This is about your artistic voice, your taste, and your style. Bring it.
Secondly, whether it’s you, your bandmate, or another vocalist tasked with delivering your lyrics to the world, the song is the thing. Keep that front and center. Don’t worry if your voice is flat, or you can’t quite hit that high A; do what the song dictates.
When you’ve got swatches of melody, record them relentlessly on your phone, anywhere, anytime. And listen back to identify the fragments you like and develop those into phrases, verses, choruses. Capture as much as you can and start connecting those dots.
Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone (or other handheld recorder).
2. Vocables and body percussion
No band, no drama! Donate yourself to the science of song creation and experiment with tracks built from basic body parts. Okay that sounds weird, let me explain.
Vocables are the oos and aas, the na-na-nas, the la-la-la dooby dooby she-bops that are liberally sprinkled throughout contemporary pop music all over the world. Not a single word needs to be written to make these up; it’s studio magic more often than not.
This non-text vocalizing can make up a hook, or just be added to create energy and movement in dull song sections. Boom, guess what? No Quincy Jones-esque arrangements necessary, just shout and vocalize rhythmically and you’re most of the way there.
Beyond your voice, your body can also be an instrument — from finger clicks and snaps to hand claps, slaps, whistles and pops. Naturally, there is an app for this (in case you’re really out of your element here).
Lastly, have you ever tried beatboxing? If you’re no drummer, you can always tap away a beat on your body or in your mouth and record that to help your track come to life. Some folks are seriously good at this — of course, you don’t need to be a highly-skilled expert yourself to pull off a decent non-percussive beat — but here’s a link if you’d like to learn the basics in one minute.
Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone.
Optional extras: Internet connection, apps, one minute.
3. "If you play more than two chords, you're showing off.” (Woody Guthrie)
The overwhelming majority of songs released over the last 70 years use just a few simple chords, built from the notes of (mostly) the major scale. They can never be copyrighted and it’s well worth knowing them.
You can write songs with one chord, two chords, or “three chords and the truth”, and most listeners aren’t going to care as long as you can keep their attention. (Lots of songs use no more than four chords.) The point that Woody Guthrie and I are trying to make is that you shouldn’t let your lack of musical knowledge limit your songwriting imagination.
Even if you don’t play an instrument yourself, you can use MIDI in your DAW, or apps like Autochords or Suggester to plug in the chord progressions that have been the harmonic backbone of innumerable hits before you. Or generate your own!
Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone.
Optional extras: Internet connection, apps, basic guitar, piano or keyboard.
4. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
This is the digital software equivalent of having a recording studio inside your computer. DAWs allow you to create and edit music using preset banks of virtual instruments (or plug-ins) in MIDI, without ever needing to play and record a “real” note.
Apple products come with an entry-level preinstalled DAW called Garageband, which is a great place to start, while PC users can download FL Studio (once was Fruity Loops). Reaper and Audacity are completely free. And from there they get a bit more expensive, but that comes with even more possibilities for creative expression.
Add an audio interface, a condenser mic, and a decent set of headphones, and you can start recording your song ideas with little to no resistance from the privacy of your own home. There’s really no reason not to at least mess around with digital audio workstations, let alone set yourself a goal to finish a song or EP’s worth of material, and see what happens!
Ingredients: Songwriter, computer, internet connection, DAW
Optional extras: Audio interface, condenser mic, headphones, MIDI controller.
5. Guns for hire
You don’t have to be Jimi Hendrix, Questlove, and Flea all rolled into one musician. You can hire people to play instruments for you. You know that, right?
Plus, now during the COVID-19 pandemic, more web platforms and apps are popping up than ever to connect remote working session musicians to songwriters, producers, other musicians, etc. — so you don’t even need to be in the same room as these people! A project I’m working on currently has enlisted a trumpet player in Los Angeles, a bass player in New York, and myself singing and playing electric guitar in New Zealand.
In fact, nowadays you don’t even need to be the ultimate creative visionary. There are websites that offer complete, professional music production services, such as Tunedly, where you hand over your song to be recorded and engineered by pro musicians who probably know better than you how to elevate a basic song framework.
Sites like Drums On Demand also offer royalty free pre-recorded tracks as bundles of drums loops and more to songwriters and producers who want to write top-line (melody/lyrics/vocals) and harmonic content. PG Music’s auto-accompaniment software package, Band-in-a-Box, lets you manipulate real audio samples of piano, bass, drums, guitars, and more to your heart’s content in your DAW.
Sites like these are becoming ever more wide-ranging and intuitive to operate and engage with. Platforms like Splice and Jamstudio.com offer thousands of open-source loops, beats, melodic lines, and samples, purchasable at any budget level, that you can literally just plop into your songs if you’re in need of a new sound.
Ingredients: Songwriter(s), other players, computer, internet connection, DAW.
Optional extras: Audio interface, condenser mic, headphones, MIDI controller, online resources, collaborators.
Necessity has often proved to be the mother of invention, and songwriting is no exception to the trend. From jug bands to electric guitars to making beats on your iPhone, play to your strengths and look for ways and means to write the best songs you can. Now’s the best time to dive right in.
Charlotte Yates is an independent New Zealand singer-songwriter with a growing catalogue of seven solo releases and fourteen collaborative projects. She also provides a songwriting coaching service, Songdoctor.
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