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Finding Your Place in Songwriting

Dan has been a musician since 1993 and has been producing music as a hobby since 2016.

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Countless musicians including myself have begun pursuing music without a goal. When beginning on guitar in 1993 and having no formal music training, I knew only that I liked the way guitars looked  —  and the sounds coming from them.

Because of no goal and training, I was like a leaf blowing in the wind. Passion for the instrument helped me endure, however. For the first few years, coming up with creative noises combined with a minimal set of chord progressions sufficed.

Unlike now, with access to high-speed internet  —  and an endless choice of blogs and videos to choose from  —  obtaining helpful insight was relatively difficult. I relied on tips from friends and informal lessons  —  for whatever reason, obtaining professional training never crossed my mind. Perhaps I was happy with the way things were. I can’t fully remember.

Whatever the case, I eventually realized good songwriting doesn’t require advanced knowledge or skills. What’s needed more than anything is a sound sense of inspiration and structure. Pardon the pun.

If the goal is to obtain bragging rights (unfortunately the case sometimes) there is never true satisfaction — only an amazing skill set generating temporary excitement. Where is true satisfaction when pleasing others is the end goal? I imagine some Hollywood actors can relate to that sentiment. This isn’t to say obtaining a high degree of skill is wrong, but check your motives for doing so.

On the other hand, if the goal is to pursue a sense of satisfaction  —  regardless of what others think  —  you’ll find satisfaction without a phony front. Learn only the instrument skills needed to reach the songwriting goal.

Choosing a Genre

I don’t like the word “genre.” It almost implies that your style must conform to somebody else’s writing style in order to be successful. Satisfaction can be achieved without conforming to norms.

The more different your style sounds, however, the harder it is to obtain a following, generally. When turning on the radio, you’ll typically hear progressive, pop, rock, jazz, blues, rap, or some combo of them  —  what most people are comfortable listening to.

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Musicians tend to write using known styles or genres as a framework because of the difficulty of obtaining a following otherwise. However, sometimes bands will start in one style and morph into another because of various influences or pressure. The Go-Go's transitioned to playing a sort of pop/punk fusion from strictly punk music, for similar reasons. If that’s what you feel led to do, there’s nothing wrong with it. I myself have used common arrangement frameworks even though my melodies have a unique sound.

Training or None?

Unless you’re a gifted genius who can play and write after the first time picking up an instrument, instruction will be a necessity. Understanding music theory and instrument best practices helps, although as successful musicians have shown  — such as Wes Montgomery who strummed and picked a guitar with his thumb  —  it is not required.

Some disabled musicians have even learned to play instruments with their feet. Make the pursuit of music about satisfaction, not rules rules rules!

Through the internet, tutorials and video lessons can be obtained for virtually any instrument. There are also video tutorials available for basic music theory. Listening to your favorite music, I would say, is a necessity  —  it helps create inspiration and ideas, without which there’s no originality.

When starting out, I gleaned ideas from other musicians and combined them with what little I knew about my instrument. That went on for years until I finally learned new approaches. Breaking out of old habits can open up inspiration and also rid boredom.

Putting It Together

Unless the goal is to achieve a sound/style deep in the avant-garde genre, creating interesting noise as opposed to traditional-sounding music, you’ll have to grasp some basic concepts of melody and arrangement. What’s important to remember, however, is that different cultures have different ideologies for what sounds pleasing. Acceptable melodic content is more or less subjective.

If you’ve already got an instrument picked out  —  including a singing voice  —  get a little knowledge under your belt and let inspiration take over. If not, do some checking up on the seemingly endless types of instruments available. I have found the theremin to be quite a unique instrument — the sky is the limit.

Keep in mind that once knowledge of basic theory is obtained, and the instrument is chosen, they can be transferred to other scenarios. Learning a four-string bass guitar, for example, would not be as difficult if first learning to play a standard six-string guitar. They are both stringed instruments and many concepts applied to guitar can also be applied to a bass.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dan Martino

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