Songwriting is a difficult and somewhat mysterious process. Nobody can deny that.
The road to great songwriting is paved with loads of questions, uncertain steps, and a few mistakes.
In this article, I am going to guide you through five common songwriting mistakes I made (and sometimes still make) too.
Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned songwriter, you can audit your songwriting process and see if these faulty approaches are part of it.
If they are, worry not! Sometimes we need to make these mistakes to come out on "the other side" and realize our full songwriting potential. This is why we should not publish every song we write and accept that some of these are simply part of our training.
That said, here are five songwriting mistakes to avoid!
Mistake #1: Forcing it
Some of our songs never feel complete. Has this ever happened to you?
I started writing songs at around fourteen when I surely wasn't an expert songwriter. The feeling of having uncompleted songs was basically part of my everyday life!
Some of them were just not good enough to be shared publicly although, of course, I did!
While it is great to have an archive of past songwriting experiments (this is actually one of the most important things you could do to keep your inspiration up and running), we have to be able to edit ourselves and be aware of what songs just cannot make it.
Yet, it is very hard to "kill your darlings". It is very easy, instead, to end up with songs that feel forced and rushed.
When a song never feels complete, it probably means it just doesn't work. It is way better to either change it completely, and come up with a different concept, or leave it.
We make this mistake in another context too. Sometimes the song we are working on is completed and it works. It could happen, however, that we think it is too simple or not smart enough. That's usually when we mess up a functioning song with unnecessary proof of our cleverness.
We start adding key changes, tempo changes, odd chords, and other impressive technical solutions that end up feeling very forced.
Remember: good songwriting is not about showing off. It is not about publishing every experiment we make either. It is always about balance. A balanced song, no matter how simple it is, will always work better.
Mistake #2: Limiting yourself
Sometimes we find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum. We feel we are not good enough to enrich our tunes with clever lyrics, melodies, or harmonic solutions. Or we simply think that a "safer", simpler song will appeal to our audience a bit more.
This way we refuse to challenge ourselves and we never push beyond our limits and comfort zones. Guess what? This is never a good idea for an artist!
How do you know where your songwriting abilities can take you if you never try to push the edge?
The history of music is full of great examples of artists who went well beyond their comfort zones to deliver something personal and inspired. They took risks and probably alienated part of their fanbase in doing so. Yet, they created some timeless tunes we still enjoy and study.
Think about Joni Mitchell, who went from folk to jazz music in a very short time span, always maintaining her personal sound and lyric-writing approach. Think about The Beatles, who went from boyband to avant-garde music in the blink of an eye, changing the history of rock'n'roll forever.
Of course, we may not be as successful as Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. Truth to be told, they probably weren't successful either in the very beginning.
It takes time and patience to explore your songwriting. In fact, that is something I am working on right now, often using strange methods and devices to transform songwriting into a different kind of experience (for an example of what I'm talking about, check out this video).
It is an ongoing and probably never-ending process, so it doesn't matter where your journey has taken you so far. The important thing is that you have taken the first step!
Mistake #3: Thinking that best practices are unchangeable rules
Of course, there are some songwriting best practices we could all rely on to write the perfect tune. However, since songwriting is not an exact science, there is no set formula that could relieve you of the responsibility to be creative and inspired.
Not to mention that if we all followed a set formula, our songs would all sound the same, taking away every glimpse of individuality from the art of songwriting.
It could be tempting, at some point in your songwriting journey, to model your songs on pre-planned formulas. The Internet is full of lists, videos, and courses on how to write the perfect hit.
But where's the fun? Where's the thrill of discovery? Where's your creativity?
I am a strong advocate for learning the basis of Music Theory, Harmony, and Composition before you start writing songs. As I started writing tunes way before studying music, I know how hard it is to put the pieces back together and get rid of bad habits developed because of ignorance. It is obviously easier to follow the "right" order and study the basics before you even put your hands on your guitar to find a good riff.
However, I think that a mix between instinct and knowledge is the right way to approach songwriting.
Know your basics, but then feel free to experiment.
More experienced songwriters can certainly show you how to structure your song properly or how to make your melody more interesting. From that point on, however, the responsibility is all yours!
How will you turn those rules and guidelines into a truly personal and inspiring journey? Find your own voice.
Mistake #4: Not knowing about the flow
The various elements of your song should be combined into a cohesive flow.
Even very complex songs, that include key and tempo changes or complete different sections within a small time frame, achieve their level of complexity through that flow.
A clear example is Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen. This song is probably one of the most complex ones in rock history, yet every section of it effortlessly flows into the next one, through some clever links and harmonic solutions. Of course, the arrangement plays quite a huge role in it, but - believe me - you can play the whole song acoustically, without backing vocals and full arrangements, and still get a cohesive, great song.
Your tune should have this sense of unity too. Do the rhythm, the chord progression, and the melody make sense together? How about the passage between sections? Is the chorus the appropriate arrival point, after a great verse and a great bridge?
Bear in mind: in some cases, you fully realize this unity only through the presence of contrasts. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you can make a high-energy rocking chorus stand out by adding a very quiet and introspective verse.
There is no fixed rule here. It is all about the flow!
Mistake #5: Being boring
At the same time, it would be quite risky to write a song that sounds repetitive.
I once wrote a song based on only one chord, but even when I play it acoustically, you can perceive a beginning, a climax happening in the central section, and a quiet ending.
Treat your song as a story: it should have three separate acts, all linked together in a cohesive way, but each with its own "personality". You can repeat the same structure twice, usually changing the lyrics. You can also add a middle eight after the second round to add variety.
The middle act has usually a climatic role, so it often corresponds to the chorus.
These tricks should help you avoid being boring when writing your songs. Feel free to experiment as you wish!
That's it for today!
I hope you found this article useful. If you did, don't forget to share it!
Happy songwriting and rock on!