Why evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your songwriting, an exercise that can be somewhat painful? Mostly because improvement is absolutely possible if specific areas are identified and worked on.
Think of it like a bodybuilder (which I’m not). If you do enough steady work on your arms, your abdomen, etc., you’ll see improvement; you’ll see more muscle, less fat (or whatever it is you’re going for) in that part of the body.
Similarly, if you can identify areas of your writing that need improvement, you can focus directly on them and they can get better. Really. Or you can start looking for someone else to work with who’s strong in those areas.
Your writing ‘talent’ is not something that’s fixed at birth. What you do with the talent you have, how much attention you’re willing to give it, makes a much larger difference than what you start with.
With that in mind, here are some areas, ones that will be familiar to readers of these articles, in which you can evaluate your writing (not you as a person!) and decide which are your…
Areas of Strength – Double down here. These is where you’re already good. This is your knockout punch; don’t let up, keep improving.
Areas of Weakness – This is where the challenges are, the opportunities for growth. Either put a lot of focus here on studying, learning, and getting better… or, if you feel your time is better spent in areas that are more natural strengths, focus on finding a collaborator who is strong in these areas and work with them.
I suggest making an assessment that’s as frank as possible in these five areas:
LYRICS – Ease with words; rhymes. A big vocabulary isn’t that important. What is important is having, or learning, the ability to use words to convey emotion, character, story, and information, in a musical way, within a song structure.
MELODY – Don’t underestimate the importance of this; songs don’t get very good without strong melodies. This is often considered to be the most ‘natural gift’ aspect of songwriting. There’s some truth to that, but I know that the ability to write good melodies can improve.
Take a look at your melodies, by themselves. Are they compelling, interesting, fitting with the style of music you’re writing?
CHORDS (Harmony) – There are many good songwriters with a very limited harmonic (chordal) vocabulary. But even writers with only two, three, or four chords at their command still have to use them in a canny and effective way.
Gaining knowledge of harmony is an asset… and it happens to be very teachable and learnable. You can literally expand one chord at a time. If this is a weak spot, are you willing to put in some time to acquire some additional tools?
STRUCTURE – Are you able to take a song you like, or are writing, and ‘break it down’ structurally? As in, ‘This is the Verse, this is the Chorus, here’s the Bridge, etc.’, or ‘This is an AABA song with a Tag at the end.’, and so on. Every songwriter should have some basic knowledge of this, both to be able to speak the ‘language’ of songs with collaborators and to understand how the different genres and styles of songs are put together.
Even if you don’t follow a traditional form exactly (and most songs don’t), having a basic knowledge of common structures can create some ‘sidelines and goal lines’ (which can be moved, don’t worry) in what might otherwise be a bafflingly open field.
PRODUCTION/BEATMAKING – This is an established part of songwriting now. If you work in contemporary Pop, Hip Hop, EDM, or related styles, you can’t write songs without becoming conversant with recording and production, or collaborating with someone who is.
If you write in more traditional styles (Singer/Songwriters, Country, Rock, Jazz), there’s more separation between the song and the production. But even if you’re mostly a performing songwriter you’ll still need to get your songs recorded at some point. Are you willing to learn or improve recording skills (which involve a related but different skill set)?
A lot of all this comes down to paying close attention to, and learning from, what’s been done by songwriters you love who came before you (and ‘came before you’ could mean 50 years ago… or last year!).
And even if you decide, for example, that you’re a music writer and not a lyricist… or that you’re a melody writer and lyricist but not a track maker/producer… or vice versa, it’s still going to help you a lot to learn a little about all the above areas… to have a basic idea of what your collaborators are dealing with and to be able to communicate with them.
So try making an honest evaluation of your songwriting strengths and weaknesses. And then make an honest evaluation of what you’re willing to do to improve your weak spots and amplify your strengths. If you’re not willing or interested enough in certain areas, then it’s great to acknowledge that… and find someone who is!
Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below: