The challenges of songwriting
There’s something universally appealing about the act of songwriting. For non-musicians like myself, it can sometimes seem like this strange, almost mystical skill, one reserved for only the most creative minds on the planet.
But in practice, songwriting looks very different.
Any songwriters out there will know all too well how frustrating and difficult the writing process can be. It takes hours, days, or even months of hard work to finish a single track, and the only critiques you can really trust are your own. Only you know what this song should be.
If you have dreams of becoming a successful songwriter, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is I don’t have a super-secret tip that will send you rocketing into stardom with minimal effort. No one does.
But there is some good news – I recently talked to a bonafide pop songwriter to learn all about her songwriting process, and she was kind enough to share tips and advice for young songwriters trying to find their way in a notoriously challenging industry.
Most importantly, you’ll learn where to focus your energy when you sit down to work on a new song.
Introducing our guest songwriter: Sorana
Born in Transylvania, Romania, Sorana found an early source of inspiration in Whitney Houston and decided soon after that she wanted to be a musician.
From that point on, Sorana’s career has been marked by rapid-fire leaps forward.
Producer and songwriter Marius Moga scouted Sorana early on, which led to some of her first professional projects.
Since joining up with Tileyard Music Publishing, based in the UK, Sorana has featured on a number of big-name tracks, as well as writing tracks for DJ Alan Walker, the Chainsmokers, and Jason Derulo. Her collaborative tracks currently have more than 100 million listens on Spotify.
More recently, Sorana signed with APG / Atlantic Records.
I caught up with Sorana right here in New York to talk about songwriting and, especially, the importance of finding inspiration and crafting hard-hitting lyrics.
Verse or chorus? Where to start
When you’re beginning work on a brand new song, not knowing exactly where to start can be one of the biggest hurdles. Even the great John Lennon wrote a whole song about running into writer’s block.
When it comes to your own writing process, there’s no right or wrong about what to tackle first.
Let’s ask the pro how she starts her own projects:
“Most of the time, I start by choosing the song’s core concept. Once I know what the song is really about, I write the chorus first because it’s the most important part of a pop song. In many ways, the chorus is the heart of the song.”
For Sorana, this isn’t a personal rule so much as it’s a way of figuring out the identity of a song, which then makes it easier to flesh out the verses and the bridge.
As a quick exercise, take a look at a handful of your favorite pop songs. Now, try to summarize what each is about in just a few words. Chances are the chorus of each track will give you the best clues.
Building a strong and focused chorus for your own songs can help prevent sloppy or aimless lyrics that might leave listeners feeling cold.
Writing song lyrics without music?
If you don’t play any instruments, then songwriting can become even more challenging. You might be forced to write lyrics long before you have a melody in mind. But is this even possible?
Like many other aspects of songwriting, it depends on the artist.
Following some research, I learned that it really does vary from person to person. Plenty of famous musicians prefer to have a melody in place first, but there are many others who start with the lyrics.
Thankfully, Sorana can back me up on this one:
“I think writing lyrics first is definitely possible. Actually, a lot of rappers take that approach, writing their lyrics then jamming over a beat until they find cool melodies and hooks. I’ve tried it, too. I think it’s a great way to write because then you can just hop in the recording booth and sing whatever melodies come to mind. The results will always be unexpected.”
There will also be many times when the lyrics inform what the melody should sound like.
The big lesson here is that approaching songwriting in different ways can open up countless possibilities and creative directions, as Sorana explained during our conversation:
“It’s important to have diversity in your writing process. Otherwise, you’ll just write different versions of the same song over and over.”
It applies to many other creative mediums as well. For example, if a screenwriter creates a cast of interesting characters before writing the story, the script will be completely different than it would have been if the story came first.
Don’t let your own creativity get stale. Find new ways to write music. When you challenge yourself, new ideas come tumbling out.
Everything we’ve discussed so far is about how to focus and work with ideas you’ve already had. Having too many ideas is definitely a good problem to have, as long as you have a way to organize your different ideas so that you can find them easily later on.
Sorana mentioned that she tends to collect song ideas in her phone, so when she actually starts to work on a song, she knows exactly where to look.
But what if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas for new songs? If you find yourself feeling stuck, listening to your favorite music probably won’t help, either, since it will just remind you that so much music has already been written by so many talented people.
In a matter of minutes, self-doubt and personal insecurities can start to creep in. All of a sudden, you stop feeling confident in your own songwriting abilities. The idea of putting together a song from scratch seems nearly impossible.
Sometimes, the only way out of this negative cycle is to find a spark of inspiration. Unfortunately, inspiration remains an elusive subject, even to neuroscientists.
In fact, in the 2013 film ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’ famed linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky explained that scientists are still at a loss when it comes to explaining how inspiration comes about and how it affects brain activity.
Attempts to create a feeling of inspiration, at will, have been largely unsuccessful.
For many artists, Sorana included, inspiration seems to strike at random, while engaged in other activities:
“It’s like a lottery. Ideas for new songs come to me when I’m not expecting it. Sometimes it’s when I’m watching a movie or when I’m out walking and I have an imaginary conversation with someone.”
The trick is not to force inspiration or new ideas. Instead, try to stay open to song ideas as they come. If you draw inspiration from your dreams, make sure you have a way to record those ideas, whether it’s typing them into your phone or jotting them down on a notepad.
If you’re stuck on a particular song project, don’t be afraid to give it some time. Think really hard about it then don’t think about it at all. Let your subconscious do some of the work for a change.
Finding your path to success
It’s no secret that the music industry can be a cutthroat environment. Competition is fierce, and in the early part of your career, you’ll have to fend for yourself.
Her response spoke directly to the fickleness of music and creativity in general. Ultimately, there are things you can control and things you can’t. Choosing to focus your energy on the things you can control will be a much better strategy in the long run:
“Work work work! That’s the best advice I can give. Patience is also super important. I used to think it would take a week, at most, to write and release a song, but that’s just not the case. It could take years. If you focus on writing and being better at what you do, you will definitely get where you want to go.”
It can be difficult but try not to focus too much on what other artists and labels are doing. Feeling envious of successful musicians won’t help your career. Channel your frustration and yearning into your work. Write songs about how you feel, even when you feel bad.
If there’s a common thread among the origin stories of the most successful musicians in the world, it’s that they spent time finding their own artistic vision and building up the skills they needed to express that vision.
If you’re doing work that is truly unique and compelling, producers and labels will take notice.
Write the kind of songs you want to hear and there’s no telling where you’ll end up.