6 Essential Tools

For Your Songwriting Toolkit

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Looking for 6 essential tools for your songwriting toolkit? Look no further!

Before climbing a mountain, it is always a good idea to go to the outdoor activity shop at the mall and make sure you have got all the equipment you need in order to make the expedition safe and successful. 

Likewise, when writing a song, there are several bits of kit that I have found extremely useful and wouldn’t write a song without!

When writing songs, it is important to get your ideas down onto a piece of paper, or into a voice recorder as quickly as possible.  I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to remember certain melodies or lyrics shortly after singing them. I have to get them recorded in one form or another or risk losing them forever.  In this chapter I will be making a few suggestions as to how ideas and sounds can be recorded quickly and easily. However, technology does change and not everyone has the same access to it, so you need to find what works best for you.

1. Songwriting Journal

Here is a form of technology that is unlikely to change soon and hopefully everyone has access to – pencil and paper!

When I first began writing songs I would write down my ideas on any scrap of paper that I had to hand at the time.  Writing is a good way to record lyrical ideas quickly and easily. I have also adopted my own version of shorthand to help me get my ideas down even quicker.  Ditto marks are also very useful. The only problem with writing songs and ideas onto lots of different pieces of paper is that they get lost! So I went out and bought myself a hard-backed exercise book that I’ve covered ‘creatively’.  I call it my ‘Songwriting Journal’.  

It’s great to have a record of all your songwriting efforts in one place. It is encouraging when you are having a bad day and your creativity seems to have dried up, to look back over those ideas and songs that you have written.  Also, it is handy to have past ideas at your fingertips to draw upon when you are writing. Sometimes a chorus from an unfinished song will fit perfectly with the new song you are working on.

I once spoke to an author who wrote fiction books. He had his writing draft manuscript with him and showed me part of his method. He would only write his actual text of the story on the right-hand page which left the left-hand page available for him to write revisions, add extra bits, jot down research etc. After speaking with him I adapted my method of writing my drafts of songs in my journal.

I too use the right-hand page for the actual lyrics of the song. The left-hand page is used to jot down key words, Bible verses, pieces of research, experiment with different lyrics or rhymes etc. Sometimes both pages end up with so much writing on them I have to turn over and use a clean sheet to write the final version of the song.

2. Recording Devices

Another way to record your ideas, especially melodies, is on a recording device of some kind.  In the early days I found using a Dictaphone an ideal songwriting tool. It was small, light and portable and very easy to use.  It was perfect for recording spontaneous melodies that I just start humming while walking down the street, as well as recording my ‘song writing sessions’ where I’m in the zone, playing my guitar and singing, just worshipping the Lord.  It freed me up to stop worrying about missing any good ideas or phrases that may or may not arise.

As technology has developed and advanced I now increasingly use my mobile phone or tablet computer in the same way as I did the Dictaphone. There are several apps available that allow you to record voice memos.  This means that wherever I am, I have a recording device I can use. Although, I have received some funny looks from people on the train when they see me singing into my phone.

3. Musical Instruments

Songwriters do not need to know how to play a musical instrument in order to write great songs.  If you have a melody in your heart and some awesome words to go with it, you’ve got a song in the making. However, if you do know how to play an instrument, it does help.

For those who can’t play, find a friend who does play an instrument to help you work out the notes and chords that make up your song.  It would also be helpful if you tried to learn a little bit about music, such as the names of the notes and how many beats are in the bar.  This will help you communicate a lot more easily with those who are musical.

If you do play an instrument, try not to get too stuck in your ways.  What I mean is, try to change the chords and chord sequences that you use to stop your songs from sounding too ‘samey’.  If you find that you are getting stuck in a rut, try to write away from your instrument for a while.  

I’m often asked what comes first, the melody or the words?  This is another difficult question to answer. I find it is a combination of things.  It all goes back to what has happened to spark my creativity at that particular moment.  Sometimes a word or phrase really excites me and I try to write a song around that idea. Other times I can just be playing my guitar and stumble across a different chord and the new sound leads me into wanting to use it in a song.

4. Dictionary and Thesaurus

It may seem obvious, but as we craft the lyrics to our songs, we are dealing with words, so it is important that we know exactly what those words mean. A dictionary will help with word meanings and definitions as well as spelling. A rhyming dictionary is not cheating. In fact, it is a very useful, sensible and time saving way of finding words that rhyme – especially if you are using a strict rhyme pattern in your song.

I love thesauruses. I have found them to be an invaluable songwriting tool. Very often I get stuck either because I do not want to use the same old words or cliché to explain something or I find I have already used the word ‘good’ in the first verse, so I need something different elsewhere. Thesauruses are a treasure trove of vocabulary and using one will help to make your vocabulary richer.

5. A Bible App

Bible apps are great as they contain so much information all in one place that can be accessed quickly and easily. When writing Christian songs having a Bible handy is a really good idea. Having different translations of the Bible help to shed new light on certain topics or give you a deeper insight into something that you are looking at. Often, I find one translation works better if used in a song than another, so having various options available is a good idea. Translations can easily be switched between on an app such as Bible Gateway or The Bible App (YouVersion).

Also searching for a specific theme within the Bible such as ‘baptism’ or ‘slavery’ could be done in an old-fashioned concordance. However, apps and search engines do help to make this process easier and quicker.

6. Music Theory

Writing songs is not limited only to those who know music theory just as much as it isn’t restricted to those who can play an instrument. However, knowing some of the basics of music theory does help as you have a better understanding of how music works and what makes it work in the way that it does.

My basic knowledge of music theory was gained partly through the few years I attempted to learn the piano, from being part of a church choir at senior school where you had to know how to read sheet music as well as a music theory class I took at roughly the same time. My understanding only goes up to about a Grade 3 level (there are 8 Grades in total) so I don’t transcribe, or write, the music myself. I use other tools and methods to help record the melody such as chord charts and audio recordings. However, for those songs that have made it to the studio recording stage and have been officially released, I have invested in getting a professional with more music theory knowledge than myself to transcribe the song as sheet music as I know that this is a method of reading and understanding music that is preferred by some musicians, rather than just having access to a chord chart.

Although having a notated piece of sheet music is not a necessary part of writing a song, music theory does need to be understood to some degree.

You will have a better grasp of time signatures and key signatures. You will have an idea as to which chords and therefore which notes you could use as part of a melody. It will be easier to identify the length of notes in a given melody and therefore help repetition or variation. Most importantly it will give you a bit of vocabulary to help you communicate your ideas a little more clearly with a band or a producer.

As my flurry into music theory was decades ago I admit I have forgotten a lot of it. So as a way of dipping in to remind myself of the odd thing or two I have bought a book about basic music theory called: ‘Music Theory for Dummies’. I am sure there are many books available that give a few of the basics of music theory so you don’t have to use the same one that I do.

You may feel you want to go one step further and take a music theory class. If you ask at your local college or a music teacher, they may be able to point you in the right direction. Alternatively, you could take an online course or watch some YouTube videos.

Extract from the book ‘Songcraft: Exploring the Art of Christian Songwriting’ by Matt McChlery – used by permission

About The Author

Matt McChlery has been writing songs for 25 years. After recording his first single in 2002, he won various awards for his songwriting and blog, racking up airplay on hundreds of radio stations around the world, including the occasional appearance on television. His songs are also sung in numerous churches around the globe. Songwriting runs in the family. His great, great, great grandfather, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote the classic hymn…

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