How Can I Improve My Songwriting?

Guitar and Headphone with blank notebook for songwriting

Here are three main ways to rapidly improve your songwriting. First, get better at capturing ideas that you already have and turning them into complete songs. Second, experiment with using new instruments, sounds, and production techniques. Finally, learn and implement chord progressions, musical keys, and melodic ideas that come from different styles. We’ll explore these ideas more in the article.

After a while writing songs you may start to get the feeling that things are getting a bit stale. Don’t worry – the depths of creativity and expression are limitless!

Improve your songwriting with some of these techniques that can give you an instant “boost” of creativity and also set you up for long-term creative songwriting success.

Here are some techniques with a short explanation on how to start using them:

Capture and Record All Your Song Ideas

Everybody has creativity in them… And when you’re a songwriter you want to get good at capturing those creative ideas that seemingly “come out of nowhere.”

Some of the best songs have been written on a whim. Somebody just had a thought, or said something out of the blue in conversation and thought, “Hey, that would make a great song!”

To get good at capturing your ideas I recommend using two simple tools you probably already have: a songwriting journal and your smart phone.

Write Songs On A Regular Schedule

Every day at the same time (ideally) set aside some time to write songs. Sit down with a pen and your journal and your musical instrument of choice. Guitar and piano are the most common instruments for songwriting.

Make it a habit to write songs at the same time every day, or whenever your songwriting and practice sessions are.

For me, it helped to make specific time for writing songs and another time for practicing my instrument.

Why? Learning a technique on guitar or practicing a certain piece of music isn’t always creative.

Sometimes it just takes repetition to teach yourself how to use your instrument and to develop your skills. Repeating a skill on your instrument to master it is not the same skill as songwriting.

Therefore, make a regular time for songwriting, at the same time and you will train yourself to be extra creative at these times. It’s like your brain will think, “Oh, I’m supposed to be coming up with creative ideas for ‘songwriting time.’ OK – here you go!”

Carry Your Songwriting Journal and Phone With You – Capture Spontaneous Ideas

Sometimes you’ll spontaneously get an idea. Great! I’ve found it’s helpful to just sing or hum the melody into my phone to save it and capture all the spontaneous fresh new energy.

Then, jot down the lyrics and any other ideas that come to you in your journal.

I find that writing things down gives me an extra burst of creativity because I see new ways I can organize the song or rhyme things in a different way.

To benefit from all of these “happy accidents” I suggest always carrying your journal, a pen, and your phone with you. Whenever an idea pops into your head, record it and save it for your next songwriting session when you can complete the song idea or polish it up.

Learn and Use New Chord Progressions

Songs have a basic musical structure that are like the “skeleton” of its underlying music. The chords in sequence create a progression that is repeated throughout the song.

Once you begin to understand and know how to identify these chord progressions, it serves like a template or “songwriting recipe.” Chances are, you probably already use a few of these “recipes.”

It’s normal and common to write music inspired by the songs and artists who you know and love. This is one reason why “genres” form and artists in that genre have music that tends to all sound the same, in one way or another.

The most successful and creative artists are those who can mix the familiar elements of a style with new and exciting sounds, melodies, or lyrical ideas.

For a concrete example, many pop songs today use a chord progression of I – IV – V (1 – 4 – 5).

This means that if the song is in the Key of C Major, the chords being used would be C Major, F Major, and G Major.

‘La Bamba’ by Ritchie Valens is a classic example of this song structure.  

Here’s a full list of the most popular chord progressions. The numbers are Roman Numerals and they represent the chord in whichever key you’re using. Capital numerals are Major Chords and lowercase numerals represent Minor Chords.

I-V-vi-IV

Here are some songs that use this chord progression:

‘Bad Blood’ by Taylor Swift https://youtu.be/QcIy9NiNbmo

‘Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey https://youtu.be/1k8craCGpgs

‘Hey Soul Sister’ by Train https://youtu.be/kVpv8-5XWOI

I-IV-V

This chord progression is one of the simplest and you should definitely learn it. often called “The 50s Progression” because it was so commonly used during the 1950’s. It has a cheerful Major sound which was really popular in those days.

Here are some examples:

‘La Bamba’ by Ritchie Valens https://youtu.be/Jp6j5HJ-Cok

‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ by James Brown https://youtu.be/9ogGAiyjMNY

‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ by Poison https://youtu.be/_IynXh593Bg

This is just an example of the possibilities from using different chord progressions.

Chord progressions can be used in any style or genre so they’re definitely worth learning more about. This topic alone deserves its own article, but this should give you a start!

Use different chord progressions and keys

Now that you know common chord progressions form the basis most popular songs today, you can experiment with them.

Not only that, you can start using those same progressions… but using different keys.

For example, guitarists tend to use the same song keys because of how a standard guitar is tuned.

Keys for Songwriting on Guitar and Piano

Common keys for guitar are E Major, G Major, and D Major. This is because the open standard tuning makes the chords in these keys easy to play.

Common keys on the piano are a little different. C Major, G Major, and A Major are common keys for playing piano.

Now that you know this… what does it mean? Well, it’s likely that you probably tend to write songs in the same keys over and over. If you’re running into a creative dry spell, or if all of your songs are sounding the same, intentionally write songs in a different key.

An easy way to change keys on guitar is to use a capo. A capo is a little gadget that squeezes onto your guitar neck at different frets the simultaneously change the notes on all of the strings.

This changes the tuning of the whole guitar. It has the added benefit of allowing you to easily find a key that works best for your singing voice.

Use Minor Versions of Common Major Keys

Another easy way to use different keys is to use the relative minor key of the major key you most commonly play in. A relative minor key uses the same notes of a major key, but the focus is on the “minor sounds” of that key.

To give a quick example: If you play all the white keys on a piano starting from C then go up all the way to the next C an octave up, you would have played C Major.

If, instead of starting on C, you started on A then played all the white keys up to the next A an octave up you would have just heard A minor.

You’re playing the same notes (the white keys) but your ear will instead focus on the minor tonality, rather than the major tonality.

Try writing songs in the relative minor of the keys you typically use.

For C Major that would be A Minor.  E Minor is the relative minor key of G Major. B is the relative minor of D Major.

Use Different Instruments and Arrangements

Getting Creative with Guitars

If you write songs with the same instrument all the time, try finding something else. Even if you play guitar, try looking for a different style of guitar. Instead of writing songs with your electric Stratocaster, try a Dan Electro next time. You might get inspired in a completely different direction than you’d normally go.

If you play acoustic guitar all the time, try an electric guitar. Or try adding a different effect that you don’t usually use. If you play guitar, try writing a song just on bass guitar.

You’d be surprised how a simple change like this can completely mix-up your brain and kickstart a whole new rabbit hole of creativity.

Getting Creative with Drums

One time, I switched the drum set to a left-handed set-up. Instead of the snare and hi-hat on the left side I put them on the right side.

This simple change had the effect of totally changing my habits on the drums. I could still play the drums (of course, not as well as my usual style) but the different set-up caused me to play fills and try things I normally would not have.

A variation on this would be to add a new instrument to your kit, or use different cymbals, for example. There are a lot of ways to mix things up if you really want to.

If you’re in a band, try this and you’ll see how the group dynamic changes in surprising and interesting ways. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an easy and fun way to mix things up.

Summary

I hope these suggestions have given you some new ideas on how you can improve your songwriting.

These are some of the easiest and quickest ways I know to jump-start your creativity and rapidly write new songs.

The habit of keeping a journal and setting a regular songwriting session will really help you to be much more productive.

Using new keys will expand your musical vocabulary and help you become more well-rounded as a musician.

As for new arrangements and instrumentation? Well, variety is the spice of life and it’s amazing what just a little salt and pepper can do to an otherwise boring dish.

Have fun experimenting and if you’d be so kind, let me know how it goes for you down in the comments section.

Rock on!