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  • Charlotte Yates

5 Tips From A Pro Songwriter

Charlotte Yates is an independent singer songwriter who has released seven solo albums and fifteen compilation projects.

She studied commercial songwriting techniques at Berklee College Of Music .

She currently resides in New Zealand making a full time living from music

Songwriting presents an odd dilemma. You don’t actually have to be musically accomplished to write great songs, but bad songs are often a product of bad musicianship or craft.

On the other hand, a lot of virtuosic musicians write a lot of really bad songs.

Two examples to ponder:

1. Bob Dylan: Barely in tune vocals/instruments in “Queen Jane Approximately,” from the album Highway 61 Revisited, the Nobel Prize winning lyricist clearly DGAF, but wrote like a god.

2. The Sex Pistols: Bass player Sid Vicious had no idea how to play when he joined this influential band that ripped the top off punk, changing rock history forever.

What’s important is how to weld words and music into songs with a magic all of their own – packed with authentic, emotionally reverberant ideas that a large number of us want, urgently.

Exactly how you do this comes with no recipe book, and varies a great deal from artist to artist. There’s no single path laid out in front of you.

But even if your musical skills are “weak,” you can find ways to express what you hear in your head and feel in your heart.

Here are five ways to write songs when you can’t play for peanuts!

1. Your Voice

At the core of every song is the voice through which a songwriter chooses to speak, and it usually breaks down across the following attributes:

  • What’s your message, theme, or story?

  • What cool, contemporary, or commonplace phrases are you using?

  • What emotion(s) do you want us to feel?

  • Who are you talking to, and what are you talking about?

This is about your artistic voice, your taste, and your style. Bring it.

Secondly, whether it’s you, your bandmate, or another vocalist tasked with delivering your lyrics to the world, the song is the thing. Keep that front and center.

Don’t worry if your voice is flat, or you can’t quite hit that high A; do what the song dictates.

When you’ve got swatches of melody, record them relentlessly on your phone, anywhere, anytime.

Listen back to identify the fragments you like and develop those into phrases, verses, choruses. Capture as much as you can and start connecting those dots.

Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone.

2. Vocables & Body Percussion

No band, no drama!

Donate yourself to the science of song creation and experiment with tracks built from basic body parts.

Okay that sounds weird, let me explain.

Vocables are the oos and aas, the na-na-nas, the la-la-la dooby dooby she-bops that are liberally sprinkled throughout contemporary pop music all over the world.

Not a single word needs to be written to make these up; it’s studio magic more often than not.

Non-text vocalizing can make up a hook, or added to create energy and movement in dull song sections.

Boom, guess what? No Quincy Jones-esque arrangements necessary, shout and vocalize rhythmically and you’re most of the way there.

Beyond your voice, your body can also be an instrument — from finger clicks and snaps to hand claps, slaps, whistles and pops.

Naturally, there is an app for this (in case you’re really out of your element here).

Have you ever tried beatboxing?

If you’re no drummer, you can always tap away a beat on your body or in your mouth and record to help your track come to life.

Some folks are seriously good at this. You don’t need to be a highly skilled expert to pull off a decent non-percussive beat.

Here’s a link to learn the basics in one minute.

Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone.

Extras:t connection, apps, one minute.

3. "If you play more than two chords, you're showing off.” - Woody Guthrie

The overwhelming majority of songs released the last 70 years use just a few simple chords, built from the notes of (mostly) the major scale.

They can never be copyrighted and it’s well worth knowing them.

You can write songs with one chord, two chords, or “three chords and the truth”, and most listeners aren’t going to care as long as you can keep their attention.

Don't let your lack of musical knowledge limit your songwriting imagination.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can use MIDI in your DAW, or apps like Autochords or Suggester to plug in chord progressions that have been the harmonic backbone of innumerable hits before you. Or generate your own!

Ingredients: Songwriter, smartphone.

Extras: Internet connection, apps, basic guitar, piano or keyboard.

4. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

This is digital software equivalent of having a recording studio inside your computer.

DAWs allow you to create and edit music using preset banks of virtual instruments (or plug-ins) in MIDI, without ever needing to play and record a “real” note.

Add an audio interface, a condenser mic, and a decent set of headphones, and you can start recording your song ideas with little to no resistance from the privacy of your own home.

There’s no reason not to mess around with digital audio workstations, let alone set yourself a goal to finish a song or EP’s worth of material.

See what happens!

Ingredients: Songwriter, computer, internet connection, DAW

Optional extras: Audio interface, condenser mic, headphones, MIDI controller.

5. Guns for hire

You don’t have to be Jimi Hendrix, Questlove, and Flea all rolled into one.

You can hire people to play instruments for you. You know that, right?

More platforms and apps are popping up than ever to connect remote working session musicians to songwriters, producers, and other musicians.

You don’t need to be in the same room as these people!

A project I’m working on currently has enlisted a trumpet player in Los Angeles, a bass player in New York, and myself singing and playing electric guitar in New Zealand.

Nowadays you don’t even need to be the ultimate creative visionary. There are websites that offer complete, professional music production services.

Tunedly, allows you to hand over your song to be recorded and engineered by pro musicians who probably know better how to elevate a basic song framework.

Drums On Demand also offers royalty free pre-recorded tracks as bundles of drums loops and more to songwriters and producers who want to write top-line (melody/lyrics/vocals) and harmonic content.

These sites are becoming wide-ranging, intuitive to operate, and easy to engage with.

Splice and offer thousands of open-source loops, beats, melodic lines, and samples, purchasable at any budget level you can plop into your songs if you’re in need of a new sound.

Ingredients: Songwriter(s), other players, computer, internet connection, DAW.

Extras: Audio interface, condenser mic, headphones, MIDI controller, online resources, collaborators.

Necessity has proved to be the mother of invention. Songwriting is no exception.

From jug bands to electric guitars to making beats on your iPhone, play to your strengths and look for ways and means to write the best songs you can.

Now’s the best time to dive in!

Credit: Bandzoogle original publication.

Visit: Charlotte's songwriting coaching service at Songdoctor.


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