Songwriting Tips For The Ungifted
If you're like me, music and great songwriting taps into places emotionally that I can't travel via logic and reason. Maybe it's the "right-brainer" quirks, or a deeper knowing that life stretches far beyond what is tangible. Music bridges the gap between myself and others via shared human experience. There's comfort in realizing we aren't traversing this place alone. It's for those reasons that I wanted to connect with others like so many have done for me through music. Because at it's core, music isn't about me, it's about the other 7 billion of us.
So, what do you do when you aren't born with perfect pitch, you aren't a musical prodigy the first time you pick up an instrument, and you didn't grow up in an environment that expressed feelings, like, ever?
For me, those three obstacles were too much to bite off at once. I grinded up my fingertips learning A E & D with the added un-naturalness of a right-handed guitar. Wait, then I'm expected to try and sing along with any rhythm?! Forget about it. Let alone try and sing in front of other humans when strumming is new and and critics are harsh. I distinctly recall playing a Radiohead song in front of my mom for the first time, and watching her physically cringe and listen with such painful discomfort that I'm surprised I didn't burn my guitar that day.
But I hung in there. Remember, music isn't about us and our ego. I didn't always realize this so I'm sharing it to keep you going. My ego was too fragile to continue playing in front of others at that point, so I went underground. Elvis was my only listener; the household cat that lacked both interest or judgment. In relative solitude I crashed through some new chords like a bull in a china shop. My much more coordinated left-hand started grasping the chord shapes, while my right-hand lagged behind with the predictability of a dropped football. I listened more closely to songs in a much narrower vocal range (thanks Rob Thomas!) and simply worked on mirroring notes and tone.
Now about the ability to express myself. That was an excavation project that was no where near funded, but I still wanted to advance as a writer and composer. So I took a much safer route for myself and potential audience in song parody. My first full song was crafted to the simple chord structure and vocal range of Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight. I wrote it about meeting and falling in love with a monkey at the zoo, while working as a zookeeper. Take Eric's melody of the first verse and insert this instead:
I met a monkey
When I worked at the zoo
We dated for three months
Been married for two
The laughs were addictive. The audience less critical. Well, except for mom who felt a song that encouraged inter-species relationships would derail my ability to ever run for office (a common stance for her, bless her cautious heart). If nothing else, it gave me the courage not to quit while developing the often finicky nuances of performing for others. I'll cover more on the long excavation process of writing from the depths of your being some other time.
For most of us, like anything else in life that you want to be good at, you have to start by sucking at it for quite some time. Also for most, that is too painful to even consider, and so safely we remain tucked away in "what could have been". Well life is short, and people will criticize you no matter what you do, so you might as well try doing something you love. Some unequivocal tips for learning how to write songs.
-Don't quit because you can't play guitar or piano, just get a little better each day. You'll be surprised at how much better you get from hour 10, to 50, to 100. If you don't think you have the time, check out how much time you spend per week trying to become the best there ever was at Candy Crush or Hearthstone Battlegrounds (damn you and your Murloc Madness!)
-Don't quit because you're pitchy or can't vocally cover a Panic! at The Disco song, because there's only one Brendon Urie...and it's not you (unless you're reading this Bren-dizzle). Instead start small and more manageable in your vocal range. Jack Johnson was another good one for me...but you could probably pick any male country music singer ever if you wanted.
-Don't quit because you can't craft a song about your ex-lover without curling up in the fetal position, bite off an easier topic. Comedy may not be your thing, but maybe a kid's song is? Or a commercial jingle for something in your house? Oh the songs that could be written about fireplace accessories!
Six months from now, 99% of the folks that dove into songwriting will have quit, and you'll be a couple hundred hours more seasoned into something that brings you joy. Trust me, there's so much to be proud of in an accomplishment like that!
-Mostly...don't quit because you think you aren't "gifted". I'll bet on perseverance and passion over natural ability any day. The naturals and prodigies of the world who navigate the arts without struggle can't relate, or connect with the rest of us quite like you and I can. The ungifted are some of the best in our field.