Every waitperson in Nashville is a “songwriter” looking for their lucky break. A thousand Uber drivers keep their demos on their cellphones, always ready to Bluetooth-blast those babies if they happen to get a famous fare in the back seat for a little taxi ride around Music Row.
Songs are supposed to be little emotional mini-movies that pluck at our heart strings, or make us mad enough to get up and go change the world.
So, if your songs are going to stand a snowball’s chance in Dasht-e Loot, you’ve got to do something drastic to compete, standing out from a trillion others trotted out on YouTube every day. Here are three things to keep in mind that will help you take your songwriting to the next level.
1. Learn the difference between passive listening and active listening.
There is a difference. Passive listening is much more fun. You don’t have to pay any attention to form, rhyme, meter, pacing, prosody, contour, inflection or any such thing when listening to music strictly for enjoyment. You can blast out an endless Spotify playlist of EMINEM, Coldplay, and Eric Church, paying no attention to anything technical about the vast array of hit songs making these guys millions.
Or, you could listen actively and dissect those tunes like middle-school lab frogs and learn about repetition, anaphora (look it up), assonance, consonance, similes, metaphors, and all the other tools that make hit songs hit so hard. It takes a lot more than a massive marketing machine behind the big artists spinning out all those YouTubes to make songs stick. These people understand the science behind the hits and now you can, too.
Film composer Friedemann Findeisen’s “Holistic Songwriting” YT channel is a great way to start. The very first video on “How Taylor Swift Writes Melodies” made me drop my latte in my lap as he reveals her frequent one-note repetition and “trick” of simplicity she and her team use on the “1989” album.
2. Go back to the basics of what makes a song connect to listeners with sheer emotion.
Songs are supposed to be little emotional mini-movies that pluck at our heart strings, or make us mad enough to get up and go change the world. Remember Joan Baez? Dylan? Nina Simone’s militant Civil Rights or Streisand crooning The Way We Were or Adele crooning Hello? Point is, songs are supposed to evoke an emotion in the listener, whether it’s anger, activism, or melancholy. If they don’t, they’re dead.
I want to feel something like that when I listen to your song. I want to hitch my little emotional wagon to whatever it is you’re feeling and stop having to jump hurdles to actually think about what you’re singing about.
3. Lose your ego and learn more about the craft.
Hubris. Ego. Arrogance. Pride. The original sin of Lucifer. It’ll get ya every time. When you’re too proud to admit you don’t know that much about the real craft of songwriting, you keep yourself from accomplishing the very goals you dream of. Writing strictly from intuition and what you you think you know about songwriting probably won’t get you very far, but you may be surprised how far just a little more knowledge about the craft of songwriting can take you. Invest in yourself, read more, study, and take more responsibility for yourself and watch how the power and impact of your songs increase.
“Active listening” is an often overlooked key to take your songs from average to amazing. Think about the possibilities of actually knowing what you’re listening to. Go back to the idea of evoking emotion with your words and study how the greats pull emotion out of you. Listeners have signed on for an experience, an emotional mini-movie, so don’t disappoint them.
Finally, lose a little ego and admit that you could use some help with your songs. Do whatever you have to to gain the skill set and mindset you need to up-level your songs from wherever they are right now and you’ll be on your way. Do those three things and maybe, just maybe, you won’t have to apply for that Uber license, after all, and you can spend your time perfecting your next hit song.