How to Practice Writing Songs

Whether you’re an absolute beginner to songwriting or you’ve been doing it for years, I’m guessing you would like to improve.

But what is the best way to continuously improve?

Practice!

Practice allows you to internalize the fundamentals, sustain the skills you’ve learned so far, and explore new techniques and strategies.

The content (what you practice) and style (how you practice) will both influence your songwriting habits. This can be both good and bad, because there are both good and bad habits.

So let’s explore how to practice effectively.

Practice songwriting the right way

What is the “right way”? Of course there’s no single correct answer. There are many effective ways to practice. But let’s discuss some aspects that are worth considering.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that regular frustration will lead you to quit. And regular boredom will do the same!

This means you need to strike a balance between making your practice too easy (boring) and too challenging (frustrating).

The easy side consists of doing things that are familiar to you, that you’re already good at. The challenging side involves applying new techniques, approaches, and concepts.

Think of effective practice as a way to make the fudamentals second nature, and also break out of habits creatively. Yes, I’m talking about a habit of breaking your habits.

Come up with exercises that develop skills

Try to mix up what you’re doing, whether in a single session or day-to-day. For example, you could write a chord progression in a major key, and then write another, and another.

This helps you learn the chords in major and also improves your ability to improvise progressions with those chords. You could choose to sing melodies over these progressions or not.

Let’s call this a single exercise, the “writing chord progressions in a major key” exercise. You want to find and create numerous exercises like this.

It could be a good idea to write them down in a practice notebook or note-taking app. The last thing you want to do when sitting down to practice is to waste time figuring out what to do. Better to choose from an existing menu (I describe a variety in my songwriting cheat sheet, for example).

Keep building on your exercises

Other possible exercises are writing in a minor key, or in a mode, or with only two chords. The possibilities are endless, and really depend on what you’re trying to learn.

For example, maybe you want to learn how to borrow chords more effectively, so you practice writing in major but borrowing one chord from minor.

One temptation might be to view these exercises as levels to complete and leave behind. But this is a mistake.

In theory, you could spend a lifetime writing songs in major, and the more experienced you are, the more you can draw out of that exercise. And revisiting exercises helps you sustain what you’ve learned over time.

Mix building fundamentals with freeform experimentation

Doing something very specific like “write a chord progression using only chords from G major” is a great way to focus your practice and learn habits. But you probably also want to develop the ability to improvise songs in a much less constrained way.

To this end, it’s good to spend some of your practice time in freeform experimentation, following your instincts and your ears. This could include trying new chords at random or according to the mood of the moment.

However, this would make pretty ineffective practice on its own. That’s for at least two reasons, which we should examine to help make freeform experimentation more valuable.

Practice should help build your vocabulary

The first problem with freeform experimentation is that you’re not learning anything focused that you can refer to later. Being able to name things is a great way to build a songwriting vocabulary.

When I say “songwriting vocabulary”, I don’t mean a list of words. I mean a list of techniques that are readily available to you when writing.

If you really learn the chords in the major key, for example, then you will have a feel for the relationship between I, IV, and V, or between I and vi. These isolated relationships are useful for creating effects in your songwriting.

You don’t get this from reading about them. You get it from using them over and over.

Ideally, when you engage in freeform experimentation, you should try to inject the vocabulary you’ve been building. This builds a different skill, and will also allow you to discover new ways this vocabulary can be useful outside of the more constrained context where you learned it.

Practice should help you break out of old habits

The second, and bigger, problem with only practicing in a freeform way is that you are very likely to be constrained by your own habits!

That’s right. If all you do is experiment, you might actually be reducing your chances of breaking your habits.

That’s because your habits are what guide your choices in the heat of the moment. They’re are a big part of your vocabulary, and they provide the resources you draw from when improvising.

Of course, you could try to make truly random choices, or just do the opposite of what you feel like doing, but both will tend toward noisy and unsatisfying results, which can lead to frustration over time.

It’s much more effective to break your habits by learning new exercises, concepts, and techniques, and practicing those.

Focus time on your weaknesses

One of the most valuable aspects of regular practice is that it gives you an opportunity to address your weaknesses. It’s valuable to reflect carefully on what you want to be able to do as a songwriter, and where you feel you are currently falling short.

Then you can pick or create some exercises that are focused on those areas.

Maybe you are great at writing an initial verse, but never know how to create a corresponding chorus. Practice can help here! There are many ways to do it.

For example, you could take a verse you’ve written that you really like, and practice writing different choruses, going to different chords and writing different kinds of melodies. You could do the same starting with a verse from someone else’s song you like.

Or you could break your habit of starting with verses and focus on writing choruses in isolation. It’s good to balance quality and quantity here. Carefully refining a melody and chord progression is a good exercise, but writing many chorus ideas will help you learn new ways of doing it and help break some of your old habits.

There’s a natural tendency to work around your weaknesses when you practice. If choruses are hard for you, it might be easier to just keep starting new song ideas, never getting past the verse. This gives you the satisfaction of writing isolated parts you like, but it’s not an effective way to progress toward your larger goals.

I’m assuming that ultimately you want to write complete songs!

So spend some portion of your practice time focusing on your weaknesses. Again it’s a balance. Too much focus there will be frustrating. But too little will slow down your progress significantly.

Record your results!

Finally, as I’ve said before and will say again, record your results! Each time you come up with something you think is interesting, quickly record it on a dictaphone or sound recording app.

This helps build your backlog of ideas, which is a valuable resource for a songwriter. And of course, it helps you track your progress over time.

And guess what, that backlog of songs can actually be useful for future exercises. For example, you can use chord progressions you recorded to practice improvising melodies.

Or you can try to stitch together different ones into a new song. Or you can write choruses to follow verses or verses to precede choruses. You’re only limited by your imagination.

Now go practice writing songs!

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that practicing songwriting can involve a lot more than just sitting down and playing random chords.

Come up with your own list of exercises, and experiment with different ways of practicing. Pretty soon, you’ll start to notice your songwriting vocabulary expand.

And with a bigger vocabulary, those freeform experiments will also start to get a lot more interesting. You’ll have so much more to draw from.

Write better chord progressions.

Chord Progressions Cheatsheet

Quickly get started writing chord progressions, or adding variety to your current approach. Techniques, tables, and sample progressions.

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