Writing Songs: Americana songwriter/recording artist Nikki O’Neill shares useful insights and tips

By Nikki O’Neill

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 4.

Songwriting is a talent that I think is entirely different from being a gifted singer, live performer, or instrumentalist. Lots of singers and soloists can blow you away with their chops…for a while. But if they don’t have good songs, the audience will tune out.

Artists who’ve learned that songwriting isn’t their forte will let others write for them. Some make sure to join a band that has a really good songwriter.

Now, is ‘‘good’’ songwriting the same thing as ‘‘hit’’ songwriting? Not at all. There’s a time and a place for both.

You’ll Put It to Good Use

Can you learn to be a good songwriter? I think you can…to a certain degree. No songwriter starts off with a fully formed vision and artistic ‘‘voice.’’

But if songwriting doesn’t come easy to you, you can still develop an appreciation for the craft and an ability to recognize a great lyric, melody, hook, or chord progression when you hear it, even if you didn’t come up with it firsthand. This will make you a valuable collaborator, and it’s definitely worth your time and effort.

You don’t need to take classes or buy books to learn songwriting. What you need is to engage your senses and become a great observer. And you really need to study the masters.

Learn from Great Songwriters

If you aren’t doing it already, now’s the time to listen intently – not just casually – to songwriters who have a reputation for being great. Everybody from Courtney Barnett to Stevie Wonder. Don’t just listen to your favorite artists in your preferred genre or songwriters from your own era.

If you hear a chord progression that floors you, figure out what it is. If you hear a melody that you love, find out why. Does the chord underneath do something special to that note? Why is the beat so cool? Why is that lyric line so amazing?

Words That Sing

If you want to write lyrics, read literature. Song lyrics. Newspaper headlines and the catchy copywriting texts in ads. Listen to people’s conversations. Some lyrics “sing” better than others. Become aware of meter, rhyme schemes, and rhyme types. You might not like mainstream music or talent shows on TV, but watch one show and notice how the lyrics are loaded with vowels. That’s because vowels allow singers to stretch out the words and show off their singing. Ending consonants like b, p, f, or t have the opposite effect: They cut the words short.

If lyric writing isn’t your forte, team up with somebody who’s good at it. It’s amazing how much a lyric with vivid images, clever word choices, and good rhythm can improve your singing and emoting. As a composer, I’ve seen lyrics with so much flow and glow that they instantly made me hear melodies and chord changes.

It might take some searching to find a lyricist that you have a rapport with. In the meantime, learn about lyric writing so that you can make educated opinions and be a good collaborator. Maybe you’ll discover that you’re great with lyrics and that you love wordplay and coming up with fifty colorful alternatives to saying, “You’re the one”?

Ways to Tell a Story

Song structures (aka song forms) are ways to tell a story. It’s great to be able to write songs with different structures.

Some classic folk songs have multiple verses that each end with a short refrain (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). Many blues songs consist of three-line verses, where the first two lines have the same lyrics and melody but different chord changes (“See See Rider”).

The AABA structure is classic. The A-section works like a verse, but it features the song’s title. The B-section works like a bridge; it provides variation by using a completely different melody and chord changes. That way, we get excited to hear the A-section again. Some famous AABA songs are “Yesterday” (The Beatles) and “Blitzkrieg Bop” (Ramones).

For many current pop songs, this is the go-to structure:

Intro | verse | pre-chorus | chorus | verse | chorus | bridge | final chorus | outro

The intro sets up the song. Some songs don’t have intros at all; they’ll start with the vocals right away.

The verses introduce the time, place, and characters.

The pre-chorus (often nicknamed “the pre”) is a short section that builds the anticipation to hear the chorus.

The chorus is the summary or punchline. It’s the part that everybody remembers and sings along to.

We already covered the purpose of a bridge, so let’s jump to the grand finale: You might hear the chorus once or twice more. The outro can be instrumental, or it might feature the singer ad-libbing over the chorus lyrics. It can either fade out or land on a final chord.

Do you need to follow these structures? They’ve worked for thousands of songs, and they do help the listeners follow along in your story. But rules are also meant to be broken. Basically, you should follow one guideline: Keep the energy going! If the song starts to sag somewhere and you’ve tried different things to no avail, skipping a section might solve the problem. If you said everything that needed to be said in just two sections, great. Not every song needs to be three-and-a-half minutes long.

Working with Rhythm, Melody, Harmony

Here are some approaches that I use for these three areas.

Rhythm:

Rhythm is the most powerful way to communicate with an audience. It’s a very primal thing. Looking at your song from a rhythmic perspective can make it much more interesting.

Explore rhythmic variation in your melody, like staccato phrases in one section and legato in another.

If you’re a guitarist, learn to play and combine different strum patterns. Strong rhythm patterns are catchy.

Create rhythmic hooks that take us to the next line or section.

Let the music stop on a key lyric line.

Write a song with a drum machine.

Melody:

Can your melody stand on its own if you remove the beats and chords?

If your melody doesn’t excite you, try creating larger leaps between some of the notes.

The three most popular scales in Western music are major, minor, and minor pentatonic. Try exploring other scales. Lorde’s hit song “Royals” is based on the Mixolydian scale. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” gets its flamenco-like verse melody from a Phrygian scale, while the triumphant melody in the bridge is based on a major scale. The contrast between the two is genius.

Harmony:

The more you learn about harmony (song keys, chord movement, and the tension and resolution effects of chords), the more you’ll be able to touch people’s hearts as a songwriter.

If a song is in an uncomfortable key for a singer, make changes. Experienced songwriters who write for other singers are very aware of their vocal sweet spots.

Learn how to hear and use I-IV-V chord progressions, because these are extremely common in so many styles of music (google this).

Dealing with Writer’s Block

– There’s a time for wearing the “writer’s hat” or the “editor’s hat.” Resist the temptation to wear both when you’re creating.

-If you’ve had some success as a writer, you can get self-conscious as you attempt to write new songs (“I better have a blues tune on this album so that blues stations will play it”). Resist that thinking. Just create.

An EP or album is a collection of songs. The song you feel “meh” about might be the perfect one to fit in between two others.

The more you write, the less you’ll freak out about the dry spells. It’s like turning on a tap when it hasn’t been used in a while. Keep writing a bunch of awful songs and let the brown water out…it will clear eventually! 

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