12 Songwriting Tips For Music Producers
“Attack the song. You know, the writing part. With the rhyming. And the figuring out how to say things. Build the track up later. Attack the song.” – John Mayer
When was the last time you cooked a meal you were excited about?
I’m seriously asking you that question. First, I need to make sure you’re taking a break from the DAW to enjoy life. If you’re anything like me, eating well and cooking becomes more and more important every year. And second, it’ll help you understand this analogy:
Mastering is baking. It’s precise. It’s technical. There’s little room for error or wild experimentation. It requires keeping a close eye on levels, and the end result is lauded for consistency. A muffin is a muffin. A croissant is a croissant. A commercially loud track is a commercially loud track.
Mixing is cooking. There’s more subjectivity and creativity. Want a little more hot sauce? No problem – it’s your dish. Going for a charred blackfish instead of baked? All the power to you. Provided you’re focused on minimizing clashing frequencies, creating space, and keeping headroom on every track, there’s plenty of room to experiment and make the mix your own.
Songwriting is gardening. It requires planting, watering, and cultivating before you can build the meal from scratch. There is no instant gratification in the art of writing songs. It takes patience, focus, and honing your skill season after season, song after song. Yet it makes for the most delicious meal, because it was your hands that tended to the earth.
Sure, beat-making is a blast. And it’s satisfying to dial in reverb to get it to sit just right. But writing a song… that’s the real deal. That’s what it’s all about. People don’t connect with EQ and compression. They connect with stories. When we’re talking about songs, we’re in the arena of vulnerability and connectedness. Common humanity and honesty. That’s songwriting.
And here are 12 songwriting tips to make your next song memorable.
1. Finish the Song
You’re not a songwriter if you don’t finish your songs.
This is #1 for a reason. I want to repeat this until you’re sick of it.
Finish the song.
It’s easy to start songs. It’s harder to take an initial idea and to figure out what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. But that is the part you need to focus on as if your life depended on it. Your success as a songwriter certainly does.
You don’t get better by writing half-finished ideas. You get better by finishing entire songs. If we’re going to continue our gardening, cooking and baking analogy, not finishing songs would be the equivalent of planting seeds but never water them. Or worse, planting a few seeds, skipping a few others, watering some, not watering others…the end result of which sounds like a sloppy-ass garden to me.
Do yourself a favor. Get in the habit of finishing. Finish the song. Period.
2. Sit Down and Do It
This should be simple, right? But when something is important to us, we often face resistance to simply sit down and do it. Are you someone who wants to be songwriting but isn’t?
Then do something really simple to get yourself on track. Schedule a time to sit down and song-write. I mean really schedule it. Take a pen and paper, and write it in your planner. Put it on your google calendar. Set an alarm on your phone. Do anything you need to do to get yourself exactly where you need to be. Then force yourself to start.
Scheduling time to write songs won’t automatically make you an incredible songwriter in the same way that going to the gym won’t automatically make you ripped. You’ll need consistency, dedication, and steady, deliberate practice and patience.
And one of the best ways to do that is to invest in a course for some added accountability. For instance, will The Songwriting Matrix make you the next Pharrall Williams? Most likely not, but your songwriting will drastically improve.
3. Watch for “The Spark”
There comes a moment when a musical idea becomes a possibility. You will know this moment. You will physically react by sitting up straighter and leaning in. You may smile, you may start tapping your foot and nodding your head.
Some possibility has revealed itself to you. The Muse has shown you her face. This is perhaps the most beautiful moment a songwriter can experience. Do not resist. Do not fight. This song does not need to be perfect — just let it be what it is. You will write more songs in the future. Work with what’s there and don’t force too many ideas into what is right in front of you.
Once you feel the spark, the song will begin to assume an identity of its own. There may be words, associations, and phrases that come to mind immediately. Put them down! You have entered into the flow state, and it will not last forever. Above all, do not allow hesitation or feeling that these ideas are “not good enough” to rob you of your treasure.
4. Reference, Borrow, and Steal
Finish your songs. Reference your material. You’ll find me repeating some crucial points in every blog post, but it’s because they are the most important things you can do.
If you want to run a marathon, you need to get outside to train, and you need to fuel your body. Train and fuel. The rest are technicalities. It’s the same with songwriting: reference and finish. These are the two actions that will take you the furthest, every time. Reference and finish.
Your favorite songs are treasure maps waiting to be unfolded. They are laced with clues for how to structure, compose, and arrange. Listen for the interplay between sections. Pay attention to sound choice. Borrow chord progressions and movement. You can drop a song into your DAW to create arrangement markers as a reference for structure.
And never forget to Steal Like An Artist. Giving yourself permission to acknowledge the work of others is a huge mental leap — and it’ll make songwriting a lot more fun for you as well. We cover this extensively in the Masterclass.
Commit your MIDI tracks to audio. Commit to a title. Commit to a due date that you’ll finish the songs. Commitment means moving forward, and if you’re not moving forward, you’re not writing the song.
Commitment is a force to be reckoned with because it keeps procrastination and perfectionism from setting in. Commitment is how you finish a whole catalog of songs. And in this game, quantity = quality. The more songs you can commit to finishing, the faster you will win the game of becoming the best producer you can be.
If you don’t believe me, think of it this way: who is going to get better at writing short stories after one year? The author that tries to craft one perfect story in 365 total days? Or the author that writes 365 total stories — one story every day for the entire year?
If you are having trouble answering that question, let me make it easy for you: the author who flexed his creative muscle and finished ideas and committed to moving forward every single day will be significantly better. Music is no different. Commit and finish more ideas.
Composition is the art of creating music. It includes just about everything: rhythm, timing, rests, chord progressions, melody, arrangement, and sound choice. You can use hooktheory.com to familiarize yourself with common chord progressions, and you must start to embrace the idea that music theory will make your life as a producer a heckuva lot easier (and more fun).
And for an even more streamlined solution, you can use Unison’s Midi Chord Pack which I am a huge fan of. Just watch the video below to see what it is capable of.
6. Use 7ths and 9ths to Give Your Chords Flavor
The simplest chord shape is a triad, comprised of a root, third, and fifth. If this is new, bear with me (and check out A Simple Man’s Guide to Music Theory for Producers). The interval between a root and fifth is always the same: it’s seven semitones. Where you place the third note of the triad determine whether it’s a major or minor chord.
4 semitones (also called half steps) above the root is a “major third.” No surprises here, but that makes a major chord. Three semitones above the root is a minor third, and that is what gives a minor chord it’s characteristic sound. These are your most rudimentary building blocks when creating music.
7th chords sound more mature than a basic triad, and there are several types: A major 7th (a major triad, where the 7th is a half step below the root) a minor 7th (a minor triad, where the 7th is a whole step below the root), and a dominant 7th (a major triad, where the 7th is a whole step below the root). Dominant 7ths are powerful transition chords.
The 7th is simply an “extension” to the triad. There’s another extension that adds power to your chords, and that’s the second degree of the scale (two semitones above the root). Since the lower register is crowded with the root and the third, it often sounds better to move the second up an octave. Then it’s referred to as “the 9th”.
Keeping the same note but changing the octave is exactly how inversions work, and inversions are the best-kept secret for writing effective chord progressions.
7. Inversions Sound Professional
The concept of an inversion is simple. Let’s go back to our basic triads. We have a root, third, and fifth, right? Imagine if you took the root and move it up an octave. Now, from lowest to highest, the notes are third, fifth, and root. That’s called a first inversion!
As you might imagine, a second inversion is just as simple. Move the third up above the root, and keep the fifth in the bass.
Inversions are amazing tools. They can help you move between chords more easily. How liberating is it to realize that you do not have to keep the bass note of the chord as the lowest tone? If you’re moving from an F major to a C major chord, try an inversion to keep the distance between the notes from jumping dramatically.
8. Rhythm, Timing, and Negative Space is Important
The block chords in the photos above work for the purposes of demonstration, but they would not make for a moving composition. Consider that rests – pauses and breaks — are one of your best friends.
One of my favorite ways to advance a song is to leave gaps in one instrument for other instruments to fill in later. It creates a push and pull in the music.
Groove is all about the interplay between staccato and legato notes. Think about the bassline in Uptown Funk. You can hum it, can’t you? It’s simple enough to sing, and it’s memorable because the phrasing has both staccato and legato elements. Achieving a rhythm and timing that feels human is hard to draw in the DAW, so bust out your MIDI controller and get hands-on.
If you don’t believe me, then listen to Coldplay. I was watching ’60 Minutes’ before the Grammy’s, and there was a super quick tour of Coldplay’s studio. And in that tour, for a split second, the camera showed the band’s ‘Recording Rules to Live By’. Check out the image below.
My biggest takeaway from this list? They emphasize drums. They emphasize groove. In fact, they say that “Drums/rhythm are the most crucial thing to concentrate on.”
And regardless of how you feel about Coldplay, you can’t deny that they are arguably one of the most successful bands of all time:
The point here is that
Also, buried in their second rule of recording rules to live by is this sentence “diff. between bittersweet and science of silence.”
I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what that means, but listening to their music suggests that they know exactly how to utilize silence. They know that silence, much like an instrument, is a tool at their disposal that can help make their music more impactful and memorable.
Ah, the art of arranging a song. Arrangement is hard if you don’t have a centerpiece. Choose something: your lead synth, the vocal chops, the beat… anything. Whatever it is, identify it, and let everything else be the frame around it. This philosophy also applies to mixing. When done to support the song, mixing is indeed arrangement.
9. Borrow Structure From Songs and Life
Borrowing structure could be as simple as dragging a song you love into your DAW. There are no laws saying you can’t copy the AABA format of a Beatles song, or the Intro, Verse, Buildup, Chorus, Breakdown format of a dance track. Begin to familiarize yourself with how your heroes structured their material, and all of a sudden you will be on the playing field vs. out in the wild.
Taking this a step further, and outside the norm of most music production blogs, you could take the structure of something that already exists in life, and use is as the structure for your song. Stay with me here.
Vivaldi wrote a symphony called The Four Seasons. You could write a song that explores the contour of your morning commute to work. Or what about a trip to the dentist? Anticipation, buildup, DRILL. Relax, release, buildup, DRILL.
Sure, it’s an off-kilter example to demonstrate a point, but the act of seeing a situation in your life as a possibility for something else is a highly creative act.
10. Move With the Big Legos First
Try to avoid the temptation to make miniscule adjustments when you’ve only got an 8-bar loop. Instead, copy that 8 bar loop across your timeline, and start iterating and adjusting sections. It’s simple, but effective. You need to start somewhere, right? Use what you have as a foundation.
Once you copy your initial idea across the timeline, you can set about muting clips, creating variations, and building out a B-section. When you’re arranging, stay focused on the prize: the song. Focus on the chords and the melody. Details can come later. Take the 20,000 foot view first and you’ll see results faster.
11. Exaggerate the Differences Between Sections
This is your invitation to play with the concept of dynamics. Is your A-section loud and full-frequency? That will have a greater impact if you arrive from a point in your music that was soft and mellow. Ask yourself “What is already here? How can I change it to make the arrival more satisfying?”
Really explore this concept, and I promise you’ll discover the power within dynamics. Use what you have, and write TO it. Music is the change in sound over time. To write music, you must write the changes.
At the heart, songwriting is storytelling. Some artists choose to do that through music alone. Others use lyrics and poetry to convey a message. No matter what type of artist you are, the key to meaningful storytelling is simple: it lies in your senses.
12. Spend 10 Minutes Destination Writing
Destination Writing is a concept popularized by Andrea Slope, and it’s a variation on Pat Pattison’s highly regarded “Object Writing” exercise. It’s a specific type of writing. It’s timed, stream of consciousness writing. The only mistake is to hesitate.
To begin, choose a destination. It could be a location, person, time, season, object, scent, or just about anything that stirs your imagination. Start the timer, and begin! This is an exercise in getting out of your own way, and connecting to your senses.
Do not worry about staying on topic, this is free-association, where one idea can feed into the next. Embrace the connections! There’s no way to do it wrong. If you’re stuck, keep bringing it back to a sense. Let’s use the example of a cedarwood candle.
How would it feel, the smooth glass in my hands? How would it smell when I deeply inhale? Do these associations conjure any tastes to mind? Here’s an excerpt from one of destination writing from one of our Masterclass alumni that really stood out to me:
“A crackle of the wooden wick, freshly lit, an organic answer to the refrigerator’s hum. Little charred pikes, raised to the rising of the moon. The backs of my thighs dig into the wooden frame of a grey vinyl chair, sticking to my bare legs like a poncho in a rainstorm. Splashes of water on my face, eyes squinted against the early spring wind. Fragrances of driftwood, sea salt, and dunes. One wick extinguishes, its flame dying valiantly in a blaze of sparks. It smells like evenings and closed blinds, the soft hum of electric lights and the waterfall of white noise - the passing cars on 12th street. Cool aluminum, sleek to the touch, warming slowly from the inside. A single pool of molten wax, honeycomb in color (time!)”
Destination writing is a hotbed for sense-bound imagery. And sense-bound imagery is the language of songwriting. From here, you can underline passages and phrases that stand out. Find a few rhymes for these, and all of a sudden it’s like you spread out the jigsaw puzzle on the table, and you’ve got the box in front of you. Time to start assembling the pieces.
Songwriting Like a Professional
There are a few common traits that professional songwriters share.
First, they finish their songs. Just like you.
Second, they do not shy away from vulnerability, openness, and common humanity. They give up the pointless task of censoring themselves, and focus on writing a story that will stir the hearts of others. The more you can write a story you feel, the more a listener will feel the authenticity in what you’re saying.
Great songwriters speak in the language of sense-bound imagery. The details of their lives become the details of ours.
And finally, they embrace the importance of music theory. Dominant chords, extensions, and creating musically relevant surprises…when these tools are used to support the message of the song, the song begins to resonate on more levels than one. And when that happens…there’s no other word for it. That’s where magic is born.
Songwriting is a lifelong journey, and it’s just about the most rewarding one I’ve found. When you’re writing a song, what helps you? Let us know.