Trying to teach someone how to write a song is a lot different than, say, teaching someone how to play guitar chords or pick a lock. Those things are cut and dry--you put your finger here and do it this way. Songwriting is more esoteric than that.
Writing a "how to" column on songwriting is like trying to teach someone how to kiss. In songwriting, as in kissing, you just have to do it--trial and error--and find out for yourself, no matter what the "rules" are.
With that said, here are my six rules for becoming a good songwriter:
- Have empathy. You must have the ability to put yourself in another's place and feel what he is feeling in order to write a good song. If you can't walk a mile in another person's shoes, you probably won't make a good songwriter. This rule also works for life in general.
- Be a huge fan of music. This is the easiest part of being a songwriter. We all have our favorite music and it informs us consciously and subconsciously on a daily basis. The Beatles were huge fans of American rock-n-roll from the 1950s and this informed everything they ever recorded.
- Know the craft. Take up an instrument and spend lots and lots and lots of time with it. Learn how to play the basic chords of your favorite songs and sing the lyrics loudly. Songs have verses, a bridge, and a chorus or some variation thereof. Verses comprise the bulk of the song--the idea, the theme that you want to put across. A bridge is just that--a musical link to the rest of the song. It exists to inject some energy and usually comes in the middle of the song. The chorus is the catchy part that you want everyone to sing along with. If verses are the bait, and a bridge is the reel, then the chorus is the string and hook that pull the listener in. It's the repetitive part of the song that you can't get out of your head. Of course, there are always exceptions. A twelve-bar blues may not have a chorus but a tag line or a rhyming couplet. A folk ballad might have ten verses and no bridge or chorus.
- Don't worry about borrowing from your heroes. A beginning songwriter will often try to cover his influences by overplaying, oversinging or overwriting. If Bob Dylan is your hero and your first songs sound too much like his, don't sweat it. The world will call you out. Dylan was aping Woody Guthrie at first. Woody Guthrie was borrowing from folk traditions but turned out wholly original material. As Woody himself wryly said when someone accused a young songwriter of stealing material from him, "He steals from me but I steal from everybody."
Copyright laws are murky waters but if what you're trying to say is a creative and original take on something else you've heard, you're in good company. If you find yourself taking actual lyrics and melodies from others and claiming them as your own, you should get a job as a used car salesman.
- Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. This is closely related to rule #2, but it can't be emphasized enough. In songwriting--more than any other form of writing--there's a tendency towards keeping the first draft of a song. Perhaps it's because you're dealing with music, which has more of a primal urge, but it's rare that the first draft of a song should be the last. Learn how to be your own best editor. Don't be afraid to kill that great one-liner for the greater good of the song. Reject what doesn't need to be there. Knowing what to leave out is one of the more important elements of songwriting. You only have a few minutes with your audience, and you never get a second chance at a first impression, so be precise.
- Find your voice. This doesn't mean your singing voice, it means your literary voice, or your vision. Ultimately, it means your style. You already have this--it's just a matter of finding it. This is the most existential, hard to reach and fulfilling part of songwriting. The artists you love have found their voices. They write with this voice. Like a good kiss, it's almost impossible to teach. Find it. Do it. Work with it until you get it right. Practice, practice, practice.