I constantly get asked by songwriters in various stages of their development whether songwriting lessons could benefit them and help them write better songs. I suppose the first place to start is acknowledging that different songwriters are in different stages of their development, and have completely different obstacles to hurdle as they hone their craft. The answer is a resounding yes for all the writers who are at beginning to intermediate levels of songwriting. For entry level songwriters and even songwriters who have a handful of songs in their catalog, the more instruction that you can sift through regarding your lyric writing, melody writing, and harmonic development or chord progression creation, the stronger your toolbox is in terms of what you know how to do. You can then additionally benefit from finding some kind of Master Class, song circle, songwriter’s guild that has a true song evaluation process, or even by joining organizations such as Taxi, in order to test the success of how you are implementing the tools you have learned.
The more challenging group of songwriters to talk to, are those who could be considered advanced-intermediate to advanced or even professionals. Quite often the songwriters in this category have had some success; songs published, a CD released, a list of credits and a big song catalog, and they have a lot of confidence to go with that success. The question I would ask these songwriters is how much mastery do they have of the tools of their trade? I know that they have their system of writing and their process of completing a song down to a science, but how repetitive are their songs? How innovative are they in their songwriting and could they be a lot better?
The person that I usually point to when having this discussion is the consummate songwriting icon, Paul Simon. Paul had enjoyed monstrous success by anyone’s measure, with gold records, Billboard hits, and massive popularity. If anyone had ever earned the right to be complacent and over-confident about their songwriting prowess, it would be Paul Simon. However, in the early 70’s, acknowledging that he didn’t have as much music theory knowledge as he wished he did, he began two years of private study with Chuck Israels and David Sorin Collyer on music theory and harmony in an effort to master the guitar fingerboard, voice leading, and chord progression development. After two years of study, with either direct or indirect impact on the songwriting, the Still Crazy After All These Years album was recorded. Without getting too technical, songs like the title track showed a much greater sense of harmonic awareness than anything Simon had written previously, and he actually credits Chuck Israels and David Sorin Collyer on the album in the credits. That recording garnered Paul seven Grammys. Not a bad evening for someone who could have easily thought that with all his prior success, he had no need to study his craft in order to become a better songwriter.
For me it comes down to a simple axiom, become a lifetime learner. Music will evolve, shift, and change. Styles and structures will come in and out of favor. As a songwriter, you owe it to yourself to know as much as possible about the process, and then don’t stop at knowing it, but practice implementing it every day. Take a day and look at the evolution of the songwriting that the Beatles exhibited from their first songs until the end. Notice the risks they took, the new ideas they implemented, and the way they pushed the envelope around what was a Beatles’ song.
I would say that there are examples galore of major artists who have pushed, pushed, pushed to become as good as they can get. Does it make any sense at all that you should stay stuck in your way of doing things when an expansive universe is in front of you? Could Songwriting Lessons Benefit Your Songwriting? I’ll let you answer that one.