Learn songwriting from Nashville Artists
Songwriting is a process. Everybody can learn how to write songs, and engaging in songwriting lessons with professional songwriters and artists is a great way to gain insights and skills into the process.
At Green Hills Guitar Studio, we have experienced, professional songwriters to provide feedback and nurture your songwriting and musical growth. Whether you are new to songwriting or you have been writing for years and just need a sounding board or spark, we are here to help your way into the process. Being a pro doesn’t mean you don’t help or support. We all have self doubts, feel unmotivated and can get lost in the tall grass. Here is an inspiring tale from Ray Lamontagne regarding a songwriting lesson he got from Elvis Costello:
“I had a batch of songs that wasn’t calling at me strongly enough,” LaMontagne relates. “It was all good stuff. I felt like everything had potential. There were good melodies. But they weren’t calling for my attention that strongly, so I just kept putting them down and not finishing them.” This, not surprisingly, was troubling, so LaMontagne reached out to Elvis Costello, a friend and personal hero, for some counsel.
“He sent me back a really lovely letter that said, ‘There have been times I’ve felt the same way, too,’ and he just sort of said, ‘You’re the only Ray LaMontagne there is, so just trust that voice,’ and that was really enough.” LaMontagne followed that by digging into Costello’s music — specifically his second album, THIS YEAR’S MODEL — for a crash course in what his mentor was talking about. “That record is just unapologetic. It’s so…Elvis, y’know. He’s just so unapologetically himself, and there was something about that that really struck me, and it was like a light bulb came on, like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s it! You’ve just got to be yourself.’
“I think that was sort of a turning point. I just kind of turned off the inner critic and got out of my own way and started making music.” You can read the full piece here.
Willie Nelson started writing songs at 7 and says, “I never had a problem writing songs. Whether they were good or not, I don’t know, but writing a song wasn’t hard.” Wow! What a statement! Willie sounds pretty free in his ability and approach. Isn’t he bored by now? He’s in his 80’s now, so why does he still do it? There’s Zen in there, I promise you!
Areas of Study
- Melodic study and writing
- Accompaniment skills
- Live performance & recording studio preparation and coaching
- Harmony, chord function and chord progressions
- Lyric study and writing
- Music theory and ear training
- Rhyme scheme
- Form/structure – how to define sections and set up the chorus/hook
- Song analysis and study
- Song arrangement
- Performance and recording preparation and techniques
- Finding and developing YOUR voice as a songwriter
- Charting songs and the Nashville Number System
- The art of co-writing
- Who are you writing for? – defining and embracing YOUR goals and aspirations
- Creativity, and the whole bag
- The critic and the judge (those voices in our heads, we all have ’em!)
- Seeing the choices and options within an idea
- Living as a songwriter – publishing, recording, performing, touring
- Staying “in the process”- how to get out of being stuck, and how to FINISH songs
Begin writing your songs TODAY! Finish those ideas that have been lingering around like ghosts, improve your existing songs, or start that new project and take off in a new direction.
All you need to know is in the music that you love.
– Bob Dylan
This Dylan quote describes a great way of looking at the songwriting process. What type of music resonates with you? What frightens and intimidates so many people, even more than learning to play guitar, is suggesting to someone that they COULD actually write a song. It is magical, but it isn’t magic.
The Dylan quote signifies the enormity and the simplicity of songwriting. It is also comforting because it is about exploring the music you already love. And importantly, that there is a process. Study the music you love and that will help you find your own songwriting voice.
Having a teacher or mentor who helps you understand all of the components of a song or piece of music is really key to this process. The process is not always the same or linear from project to project. But if you learn the tools and skills to work the spark of an idea when it appears, you can mold that idea into a song. These tools will also give you insight into how to go hunting for an idea.
Melodic study and writing
What is a melody? How do you begin trying to write one or improve on the one you’ve written? What are the elements of a “good” melody? All good questions! The way to find the answers is to STUDY good melodies. Take a song, strip away the lyrics and the arrangement.
Take away all the production and the singer’s voice. Play the melody by itself with no accompaniment or chords, just the melody. Once you’ve studied the melody: it’s contour and range, the structure and the intervals, the repetition and variation, go ahead and play the melody with the chords. You will hear the melody differently and the pieces will emerge and dissipate all at once. Suddenly you are left with the simplicity and the immeasurable complexity of a great melody. Go ahead, try it with ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Crazy’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’
Aside from the obvious importance of being able to play in tune time, what options do you have when accompanying yourself or someone else? Having options and a skill set with your playing is very important. Dynamics, tone, chord inversions, strumming, chord melody playing, finger style, and arpeggiation are elements and skills that need to be mastered in order to provide a good accompaniment.
Being a solid rhythm player that knows how help the singer or soloist BUILD a song and define the sections in a performance or recording session requires a fair amount of study and work.
Lyric study and writing
Like studying melody, isolating the words and lyrics is very important to becoming a better lyricist and songwriter. The study of phrasing, economy, rhyme scheme, imagery and structure will help provide insight into the songwriters you love and admire. Go ahead, try to write something as “simple” as ‘Free Fallin’ or ‘Imagine.’ And ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is just a series of questions, right? Go the other way and get out there, go wild and yet have it all work and make sense like ‘Desolation Row.’ Along with studying great lyricists and songwriters, there is a reason why songwriters also read a lot of literature, prose and poetry. You want to turn into a sponge and be paying attention to EVERYTHING, like when the drummer says, “It’s been a day’s night.”
Harmony, chord function, and chord progressions
The dictionary defines harmony as:
- the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.
- agreement or concord.
synonyms: accord, agreement, peace, peacefulness, amity, amicability, friendship, fellowship, cooperation, understanding, consensus, unity, sympathy, rapport, like-mindedness;
unison, union, concert, oneness, synthesis
What we are talking about here is the underlying chords in a song or piece of music. The foundation of harmony is the basic trait, and we have 4 types:
- Major – Root 3rd 5th
- Minor – Root b3rd 5th
- Diminished – Root b3rd b5th
- Augmented – Root 3rd #5th
It is very important to always think in terms of FUNCTION. How does the chord function in a key and a chord progression.
Once you understand how a chord is constructed and what it’s FUNCTION or role is in a key and a chord progression, you are well on your way to making sense of the music you enjoy listening to and having the tool kit to write your own songs and co-write with other songwriters and lyricists. Music will “make” more sense and you will be able to discern keys, pivot chords, tonicizations and modulations.
A chord progression is the order in which the chords are played in a song/piece of music.
As a songwriter/composer, It is very important to not only have an theoretical/technical understanding of harmony, but to have the skill and ability to apply the knowledge in relation to the music YOU want to write and perform. You gain this knowledge by learning music theory and then APPLYING the theory. If you aren’t able to apply the music theory, you will forget it!
Song Analysis and Study
A fantastic way to become a better songwriter is to study other songwriters…really study them. Get inside of your favorite songwriter’s songs and recording and live there for a while. To this day, I still enjoying learning and transcribing a new song or full record when one of my favorite artists puts out a new recording.
I spend a lot of time with my students teaching them how to listen… actively listen. I believe it’s important to pull the songs apart and study all of the components:, melody, lyrics, chord progression, structure, parts and instrumentation/arrangement. I also teach my students how to figure out songs by ear and chart them using the Nashville Number System and traditional song charting. Transcribing songs and being able to write them down is a great way to work on your ear training. Again, I believe immediate application of knowledge is very important.
I often tell my students, “If you wanted to be a great transmission mechanic, you would need to spend a lot of time in the shop with someone that’s been doing it for 20 or 30 years, smokes and swears too much and knows all of the ins and outs and wants to share the information with you.” Getting the information from a book is one thing, studying with someone that knows it AND can teach it, that’s where you want to be.
Form/structure – how to define sections and set up the chorus/hook
Knowing and understanding HOW the different sections of a song or piece of music work together and function individually is an area that is often overlooked when people are writing songs. Often times, songwriters will know the terms intro, verse, pre chorus, chorus, turn around, solo, bridge, coda, etc., but the sections and form can get confused in the process of writing.
Being intentional and clear with the form and structure you are working within is a really important way to keep from getting stuck or bogged down. Is there a big fat chorus or a tagline?
Is it a 12 bar blues? A “pop” song? a folk song? Sonata? Sonata Rondo? A fugue? Is it strophic? Ternary? Binary? Rondo? Arch form?
How we transition and move from section to section helps define those sections.
Often times when a songwriter is stuck, a good place to look is at the sections….and usually, deep down, the songwriter has a sense that “something was wrong with the pre chorus,” or “the bridge just didn’t feel right” but just didn’t know how to address it.
A bridge that doesn’t and feel like a bridge, or function as one, usually is not a bridge but what I call a confused verse.
Again, charting songs and labeling sections is a great way to learn this. Study your favorite songwriters and chart songs….lots of ‘em!