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5 Songwriting Exercises Every Musician Needs to Know in 2023

Every musician knows that regular practice is essential to growth. So we slog the hours running scales, working finger patterns, learning to play songs and pieces that stretch and eventually refine our technique and overall musicianship.

But when it comes to writing new songs, most of us don’t know what to practice. We liken songwriting to a mystical output we can no more control than our own digestion.

This guest article is brought to you by renowned, multi-platinum creative consultant Andrea Stolpe. Here are some of her expert tips and songwriting exercises to help boost your music!

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Best songwriting exercises for musicians

We sometimes get stuck in the same old ruts, with a multitude of musical or lyrical ideas, never really completing anything to our satisfaction. So what’s the secret? Is songwriting purely an art form we receive at the mercy of the muse. Is it that we have the ability to write or don’t? Becoming a paid songwriter isn't quite as black and white as that.

In certain parts of the world, talent doesn’t usurp hard work. Success isn’t left to chance, but viewed as the result of discipline and work ethic. While creativity may feel more akin to whimsy and fate, it follows that if we don’t regularly write, we won’t see improvement in our songwriting skills.

And just like running the same scale over and over won’t help us nail the transitions over a difficult chord progression, writing verses over and over again won’t help us address the chorus or bridge we find so challenging to write. Most of us keep writing songs with the same approach we’ve always used, hoping that somehow we’ll end up with a different result. But to get to where we want our writing to go, the key lies in changing our process.

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5 Songwriting Exercises Every Musician Needs to Know in 2023

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When we aren’t sure how to change our process, we can just look to our songs to tell us. What sections of our songs are consistently missing? It’s likely we’re getting stuck in the same problem-sections over and over again. What element of the song do we start writing first?

It’s likely that one or two elements including chords, lyrics, or melody, or groove are spear-heading our songwriting process, leaving the other elements in the dust. When the stronger elements lead, what we’ve got left is a partial song dictating how our weaker elements will need to conform to fit in. No wonder we lose inspiration when we’re left trying to match the quality of the initial ideas with our less developed skills and ideas.

Everyone comes to songwriting with a skillset that is born of circumstance, made up of our exposure to music, language, and instrumental experiences. This personal history makes each of us unique, so the exercises that grow our songwriting skills are unique to us as well.

But at the heart of our nuanced journeys to becoming more effective writers are a few techniques that, practiced several times a week, always result in forward movement and greater insight into where our personal practice can use more focus:


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1. Write descriptively

Call it object writing, destination writing, sensory writing, morning pages, journaling, or stream-of-consciousness writing. Call it anything you want, as long as you do it. 10 minutes a day, 5 days per week is all you need to tap into a river of creativity that is always flowing beneath the surface of your consciousness.

Involving the senses of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell, and paying particular attention to the quality of the verbs we use to describe movement, we train ourselves to make significant the insignificant moment, scene, memory, or object we’re describing. Descriptive writing isn’t just for novelists. It’s for the songwriter, and when we’re attuned to this kind of language, we begin to hear it everywhere and in every style of music.

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5 Songwriting Exercises Every Musician Needs to Know in 2023

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2. Write from a title

Somewhere, a light has just flicked on and someone’s saying “that would make a great song!” Everybody can have an idea. But it’s not usually the idea that makes the song tick. It’s the way the song is arranged to have the verse lyric set up the main point, most often delivered in the chorus section.

Not all great songs require the verses to clearly set up the hook, but the ability to write this way and set up the hook with language that points directly to it means we have gained a competence and quickness to follow through with our best song ideas. We will know better how to lay out storylines, engage the listener with imagery, and narrow our song ideas to only their essential points.

To practice this idea, try writing only the first halves of your songs for a while. Always start with a title, choosing something with mass like ‘Coin in the Fountain,’ rather than an abstraction like ‘Maybe.’ Next, write a single sentence to express one possible meaning for the song to serve as the chorus. Then, try writing a verse to precede it that supports why that meaning is true. You’ll know you’re hitting the bullseye when your chorus feels like the only thought that could truly satisfy the verse content.

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3. Sing a strong melodic motif and repeat

There isn’t a memorable song alive that doesn’t carry a melodic theme - a string of pitches with designated rhythms that distinguishes this song from other songs. In fact, all of the melodies we ever sing stem from just a few melodic motifs making up each section of the song. Our trouble with melody-writing often comes from too many different ideas or variations on the theme rather than repetition of the theme itself.

A great daily practice is to write one or two strong melodic themes, each lasting from one to four measures long. Aim for a melodic theme that is strong enough to characterise the section of the song, and something you’d like to repeat. Measure the quality of your melodies by their ability to share the message of the lyric through their shapes and movement. Trust your human intuition more than practical theory. And don’t stop at the first idea you sing.

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5 Songwriting Exercises Every Musician Needs to Know in 2023

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4. Don’t complicate your chord progressions

We songwriters are always on the search for new chords. But a great tip to writing more memorable songs is utilising the chords we know more effectively rather than spicing up those old tried and true progressions with oddball chords. Chords and their accompanying groove color the lyric message with emotion.

They are body language, telling us how to feel about the words we’re hearing. So before any words are spoken, chords and groove have already said their piece. Instead of searching for new chords while you write, explore what message the chord progression, groove, and tempo you’re using already say. Then lean in to that progression and groove and its connection to the lyric you write, clarifying the connection for a more pungent song personality.

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5. Write what you would want to listen to

How many times do we sit down to write, only to be frozen with writer’s block or muddled in a cloud of uncertainty about the bits we’ve already started? Our music comes from within, but too often we insist on measuring it by outside dimensions such as commercial viability. It’s no wonder we feel torn between two impossible ends. Instead, let your creativity run rampant.

Separate brainstorming from organising, creative output from practical strategising, and allow both to have an appropriate space in your musical journey. Always start your writing sessions by warmly embracing the sounds and words you feel connected to. If you don’t like what you’re making or it feels inauthentic to you, change it. Start again and invest your time and energy into music you enjoy and feel grateful to have expressed. Later on, when the creative dust has settled, you can turn on your editor and organise the raw material into a form that measures up to how you’d like to be heard, seen, and experienced.

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5 Songwriting Exercises Every Musician Needs to Know in 2023

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I know what it's like to face songwriting alone. Whether you're in a major music city or not, it can be hard to know what steps to take to hone your craft and advance your music career. As a songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music, USC and through my songwriting retreats, I often hear the same struggle from songwriters - "People are giving me positive feedback on my music, but I don't feel like I'm breaking through. How do I get people to really care about my music?". 

 We've all had those moments where we've truly connected to an artist we love, and felt a strong emotion as a direct result of listening to their music. Our job is to create that strong emotional reaction in our listeners too. I created this free PDF ebook for you. In it, I reveal a series of simple tools that you can implement right now, to start writing better songs - helping you to better connect with your listeners.

 

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