[Editors Note: This article was written by Neal Gomberg and is part one of his three-part songwriting series, The Songwriter’s Toolbox.]
You know those articles that claim anyone can write a song?
This isn’t one of them.
Here’s what those articles should say: anyone can write a bad song. Because the truth is anyone can’t write a good song. Fortunately, however, there are a host of tools you can use to greatly increase your chances of writing a pretty decent song. Or twenty.
First off, it’s important to understand that even for the most epically talented among us, songwriting is a craft. And there’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and working hard at honing it.
Sure, inspiration is a plus. But you won’t be able to do much with it unless you have what’s commonly referred to as a “Songwriter’s Toolbox”. Meaning a box full of indispensable, tried and true songwriting methods.
Let’s start with some of the most basic:
Tool #1 – Listening. Listen to a few of your favorite songs. Not as a casual listener, but as an analytical songwriter. What are the chord progressions? Are the songs melody-driven? Beat driven? Lyric driven? All of the above? Do they use the traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus? Do any of them work because they have no bridge or chorus?
Tool #2 – Immerse yourself. Do a deep dive into a few of your favorite songs by playing and singing them until you know them intimately. The best songwriters absorb their influences on their way to creating their own recognizable style.
Oh, and remember: it’s okay to borrow from the best. Just don’t be obvious about it. As a very wise artist once said, “Originality is the art of concealing your sources”.
Tool #2 – Write for someone else. Meaning try writing a song for a specific artist. When the great Lennon and McCartney did this, the song would pass through their own idiosyncratic filter and end up sounding like it could only have been written by and for them.
Tool #3 – Switch it up. Start with the words. Or the title. If that doesn’t bear fruit, start with the music. Find some chords that gel, then sing nonsense lyrics over them until you land on a melody. Then keep singing nonsense. Some of the best songwriters say they discover lyric gems while singing total gibberish.
Tool #4 – Stop thinking. Shut off your rational mind, your harsh inner critic, your uptight, rule-worshipping editor, and let your subconscious run free. Don’t stress about making sense. Jot it all down, record what you have on your iPhone’s Voice Memos, then review it with your rational mind and save what works.
But please: don’t prematurely fall in love with your own “brilliance”. Too many clueless souls go out there and perform truly cringe-worthy songs – because they become attached to them, without having been detached from them.
How do you avoid that pitfall? Walk away from what you’ve written – for an hour, a night, a day. Then go back and revisit your work with fresh eyes and ears. Imagine you aren’t you – instead, you’re some hard-to-impress guy, wondering what he’s doing at a lame open mic, totally prepared to think you suck.
In sum, be brutally honest with yourself. Keep asking: could this word, phrase, chord, melody, bridge, chorus, be better?
Okay. You now have some tried and true tools with which you have a better chance of writing a good song. Or twenty. And more tools are on their way in the next two parts of this three-part series.
Until then, grab your toolbox and start working on a song that not anyone could write – but you.
Neal Gomberg is a singer-songwriter who has won national songwriting contests and performs at venues in New York. You can hear his album “Lovers and Other Strangers” on iTunes and Spotify. He’s currently rummaging through his songwriter’s toolbox.