Songwriting might be cool and fun, but it is also very difficult.
Whether you are a seasoned or a beginner songwriter, chances are you found yourself struggling with your songs at one point.
Why is songwriting so hard? Here are five aspects that make songwriting quite challenging, and some tips on how to keep working despite them.
Photo by Kati Hoehl on Unsplash
Reason #1: Songwriting is about your true self
Let's get started with a reason that is quite hard to accept. Songwriting is (or should be) about your inner world.
Whether you are expressing an idea, an emotion, or a story, your song is always strongly connected to who you are.
It is not always easy to deal with that level of vulnerability.
As an example, think about all those amazing, very personal songs about self-discovery, grief, or heartbreak. Imagine how challenging it was for the songwriter to come out of their shell and express their truth to the world through words and music.
If you are struggling with one of your songs, this could be the reason: you might be scared to show a bit too much about yourself. And that's absolutely okay. Showing your true self is a very scary thing.
Here's a piece of advice, if that's what you are experiencing right now: write freely!
Put as much pain, joy, doubt as you feel like in your verses. Then leave your song there for some time.
When you get back to it, start editing yourself. If you think you shared too much, and that it would make you feel uncomfortable, get rid of some bits, but don't forget that it is okay to show vulnerability. Being vulnerable means being authentic, and authenticity is always a good foundation for a song.
This first difficulty is also linked to one's ability to express emotions.
Being able to portray your feelings goes through a long, and sometimes painful process. You need to step back from your feelings, analyze them or at least become aware of them, and then write about them.
This is not an easy process, even when you write about fictional characters.
It is always hard to dig deep into your soul, but it could also be an amazing journey of self-discovery.
Reason #2: Songwriting is a matter of balance
A song is the synergy of many different elements: a melody, a harmonic structure, lyrics, rhythm, and so on. Moreover, a good song is a careful balance of two main elements: repetition and variation.
Now, all this balancing can be really hard to master.
If you put too much in a song, you could end up with a chaotic mess. If you put too little, you may end up with a tune that's not so interesting and memorable.
Let's take two examples.
In Queen's hit Bohemian Rhapsody there's objectively a lot going on. Yet, it works.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Get Up, Stand Up, by Bob Marley & The Wailers. This song is quite repetitive and it is build over one single chord. Yet it works.
The point is both of these songs, despite being on the extreme sides of the spectrum, are very well balanced.
Bohemian Rhapsody has a lot of ingredients, but they are carefully placed in a specific pattern. The listener goes through a journey, by listening to that song. There are quiet and loud moments, slow and fast phrases, and so on. Even the different music genres contained in the song are mixed and balanced in a way that makes sense.
With Get Up, Stand Up, we might have just one single chord and a very easy melody, but, the rhythm is so involving and the lyrics are so powerful. All the elements are perfectly balanced.
So, yes, songwriting is hard because, to have a great song, you have to find the right pattern between elements that are often contrasting.
Reason #3: Words and music must go hand-in-hand
...and this is often easier said than done.
Linking the lyrics to the melody or building a melody over a given set of verses can be extremely challenging.
The spoken language has its rhythm and stresses. Your melody will have a rhythm and musical accents too, but what if they don't fit within each other?
This is one of the most common difficulties you can experience as a songwriter and the best way to overcome it is to work at the lyrics and the music together. Build your song line by line, verse by verse, starting with short and easy sections (both lyrical and melodic) and trying to evolve from there.
Reason #4: Songwriting requires a lot of skills
Some great songwriters out there know nothing about music theory. They might not even play an instrument.
As a rule of thumb, however, songwriters should have a good knowledge of music theory and harmony, they should be able to play at least one instrument and sing, they should have some writing skills or at least a genuine interest in poetry.
Sure, not everyone needs to deal with the whole songwriting process by themselves.
Some people decide to focus on the lyrics and delegate the composition of a melody to somebody else. Some other people do the exact opposite.
Songwriting can indeed be a joint effort, but if you work on your own, get ready to refine quite a lot of skills.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the number of skills you could work on, make a list.
What do you want to work on this month? Do you want to become better at your instrument? Then commit to practicing at least half-hour a day. Nothing more, nothing less.
When you feel you have improved at that skill, pick a new one, practice, and then move on again.
Reason #5: Results are not guaranteed
This is actually true about any creative endeavor.
Creating is difficult because you never know what the final result is going to be. In other (harsher and clearer) words: you might be spending your time creating something that won't really get anywhere.
You might react to this harsh truth in different ways, depending on where you are and what you feel at a particular time.
Sometimes you will gladly accept it, enjoying the process and having fun creating without caring about results. Some other times this will feel like a burden, and that's okay.
When this last scenario occurs, take a good rest. Use your mind to do something else. Employ your talent in some other way. If you really love songwriting, you'll finally get back to it with some renewed enthusiasm.
Now, I want to wrap up the article with an encouraging quote.
"If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often."
Leonard Cohen, one of the most influential songwriters ever existed, said that.
And if even Leonard Cohen didn't have everything figured out about his songs, I guess we can all afford to be in doubt and feel stuck sometimes!
Happy songwriting...and rock on!