5-Minute Tips to Better Songs

Andrea Stolpe

Sometimes songwriting can feel like pushing a boulder uphill. But songwriting tools help us work through difficult songs or plateaus in our writing. These tools are like good collaborators, always ready to offer a new perspective. Songwriters in major music cities who collaborate a lot get their momentum from other writers and musicians. We all need other influences to keep the momentum going. When you are writing alone, use your knowledge of songwriting tools to help you solve problems melodically, harmonically, and lyrically. Below, I will move through several five-minute tools you can apply at any point you feel frustrated with your lack of momentum.

Take five minutes a day to write using sensory language. Sensory language is language describing taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement. Choose any place, person, or thing and begin writing using sensory language with that keyword as your topic. Doing this five minutes a day is key to writing more quickly and freely.  During this sensory writing, make sure to avoid judging what you write. Think about this exercise as a time when there are no good ideas and no bad ideas.  There is merely brainstorming. You are free to write exactly what you think and feel.

Take five minutes and check that the verbs you are using are interesting. Instead of ‘walk,’ try ‘saunter’ or ‘drag’ or ‘amble.’ When you describe a movement in more specific terms, you are showing emotion and character.  You’ll also notice that the more specific you are with your verbs, the more you are involving your senses.

Take five minutes and check that the tense is consistent throughout the song.  Great lyrics tend to read as well as they sing. We don’t change tense when we are speaking unless it makes sense to do so. Changing tense haphazardly within the lyric leaves the listener confused and disconnected.

Take five minutes and add pronouns where you would normally use them in natural speech.  Speak the lyric out loud, and notice how the added pronouns help clarify and personalize the story.

Take five minutes and cross out any words or phrases you don’t need. Look for extra prepositions, conjunctions, and the word ‘like’ that forces simile rather than leave us with simple metaphor.

Take five minutes and read your lyric out loud. Is the language natural?  Be very honest and ask yourself if any lines feel forced to achieve a rhyme or to fit a melody.

Take five minutes and listen to the music apart from the vocal. Does it ‘feel’ like what the lyric is saying? If not, Why? What happens to the message if you change the strumming pattern, the groove on the piano, or if you speed it up or slow it down?

Finally, take five minutes at the end of your writing session and write something new. Cut the ties with your previous song, and sensory write again, letting your mind drift. Prove to yourself you have more ideas then the one you’ve been working so hard on.  Next time you sit down to write, start with the new idea and return to the previous song after you’ve given something new a chance to grow.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

Andrea Stolpe
Andrea Stolpe

Andrea Stolpe teaches songwriting at Berklee Online and the University of Southern California. Her songs have been recorded by Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne. She is also the author of Popular Songwriting: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.