There are many skills worth developing as a songwriter, like learning an instrument, learning chords, or learning about song structure. But in many ways your most valuable resource is your ears.
Developing an ear for music is not reserved for geniuses. Let’s explore some methods to develop that most valuable resource through thoughtful practice.
Songwriting as curation
At a very basic level, songwriting consists of trying things out, picking the things you like, and discarding the rest. This is a kind of curation. This applies to whole songs you’ve written of course, but it also applies to the individual ideas in a song.
For example, when writing a chord progression, you probably try out a number of combinations until you find something that “sounds right”. That’s where your ears come in. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you know what the chords are called or why they work together. Your ear for music helps you identify what works and what doesn’t.
The same goes for all the other elements of a song. Does this melodic idea fit these chords? Is this other melody better? Does the drum beat fit the melody? Does this verse transition well into the chorus? All of these questions can be answered by your ears.
Of course, I’m not saying your ears literally provide the answer. “Your ears” is a common metonym for your ability to hear harmony, melody, rhythm, and structure (with or without explicit knowledge) as well as your taste in music. Let’s look at some ways to practice and improve these.
Learning about music theory can help you develop your ears, but it’s not actually necessary. Even more important is immersion. The more music you listen to (and ideally the more diverse the music), the more patterns you’ll be able to internalize.
Just hearing music is an important part of this development (even if it’s only in the background). But even more valuable is active listening, where you pay careful attention to what’s happening in the song. Get in the habit of doing this everywhere you hear music, and listen actively even to music you don’t like!
Think of active listening as the core practice for developing your ears. Everything else flows out of it.
What is effective active listening? You can choose one element to listen to, whether that’s the melody, the guitar, the drums, or the way parts transition into each other. Or you can try to focus on a couple at once.
You can listen to how melodies are phrased, how the verses differ from choruses, or what sets the bridge apart from the rest of the song. For that matter, you can just try to work out the structure (Is this a chorus or pre-chorus? Does the song even have a bridge?).
You can listen to the same song multiple times, focusing on different elements each time. You can identify the parts you like the most and try to work out what it is you like about them.
Internalizing these patterns will serve you well when you sit down to experiment. But listening on its own can only take you so far.
Learn other songs. And modify them!
When I first started writing songs, I had the weird idea (though I wasn’t alone among people I knew) that in order to be original, you were better off playing only songs you’d written, even while practicing. Somehow, I thought, learning other people’s music would cause me to copy them. And that was bad!
I can tell you from experience that you can learn to write music this way. But it’s a little like tying your hands behind your back. Whether you like it or not, all of your musical ideas are deeply influenced by the music all around you. In fact, if you were “truly” original, no one would be able to understand your music, probably including you. The meaning of music is in many ways tied to the conventions it mirrors and breaks from.
Once you understand this, it’s much more efficient to actively learn a variety of songs. Memorize the chord progressions and play them on a regular basis. Actively listen to the songs while you play them. Pay particular attention to your favorite parts.
Just learning music is beneficial, but you can go beyond this by using these songs as a basis for further experimentation. Take a chord progression from a song and write a new melody over it. Or try to write a new progression to the old melody. Play around with the phrasing of the melody, or change the lyrics. Take the old verse and write a totally new chorus (or vice versa).
Not only can this kind of experimentation teach you a lot about how to write songs, but you can also come up with completely new ideas this way. In other words, this is one more way to write new songs (just be careful after you’re done to determine if they are genuinely different).
Keep a record
If active listening builds your ability to hear different patterns in music, actively learning songs will help build your songwriting vocabulary. It can be useful to have a notebook (or section of your note-taking app) dedicated to these practices. Take notes while you actively listen to a variety of songs. Try to map the structure of a song or describe your favorite parts. And do the same for the songs you learn. Before long, you’ll have your own list of tips and techniques drawn directly from your experience.
Much of songwriting involves curation among progressions, melodic ideas, rhythms, instruments, structures, and so on. Consciously developing your ears is a great way to improve your ability to engage in this kind of curation, whether it’s choosing between whole songs or making small choices as you experiment with a melody or chord progression.