Tyler and I often receive emails from aspiring songwriters asking how we go about writing. While we try to answer each email, it is difficult to give every one the attention it deserves. I’ve decided to address the question here.
Let me begin by saying that we definitely do not have this whole songwriting thing figured out or mastered in any way, nor will we ever. Songwriting is a craft, and the more you do it, the better you get. We frequently write songs that are duds. A lot of the songs we write are never recorded or heard by anyone but the two of us. But that’s okay. Sometimes you just need to write a song to help you process something that’s going on in your heart or help you get through a situation. It can be very healing.
With all of that in mind, I’d like to share some of the tools we use when we write.
Tyler and I have very different styles of writing and we go about the process differently. Most of the time one of us writes the majority of a song. We then bring the song to each other to finish it. It’s incredibly helpful to have an extra set of ears and eyes when writing. I’m not much of a guitar player, so I especially need Tyler’s help to make the chords in my songs interesting. I’ve said it before, but I really would write a lot of predictable country songs if it weren’t for Tyler. We’ve learned to critique each other in a healthy way. It was difficult at first. It’s hard to hear criticism from your spouse and not take it personally. We’ve learned that we have a professional relationship as well as a personal one.
I’ve kept journals since I was about 10 years old. I have each one lined up on a book shelf in our bedroom. It’s really wonderful to be able to read through them and remember what I was feeling and thinking at the time. I try to be a faithful writer. When I’m writing a song I often flip through my current journal or one from the past year or so and look for thoughts or phrases that I think are interesting or memorable. A good example of this is the song Skyline Hill. I was flipping through my journal and noticed the line, “There are no words for this.” Originally that line was written about a very painful situation, but I didn’t feel like writing a sad song this time. I decided to flip it around and write about beauty. I started brainstorming the beautiful things in my life, and came up with creation, Tyler, and grace. I try to write very visually, so I wanted to create scenes that the listener could really see and be a part of.
I tried to write with imagery again in Little Balloon. The images in that song are meant to evoke feelings of failure – trying to catch a balloon that is just out of reach, giving up when it gets too hard to climb a tree, growing weary while running through an endless field. In the bridge I tried to communicate the idea of resting in the Lord’s hands instead of striving to do things on my own.
I tend to write lyrics and melodies at the same time. I’m not really sure how to explain this. It sort of feels like it just happens. This isn’t always the case, but I feel like my best songs are written this way.
Tyler writes very differently. He frequently has a melody or lyric stirring within him and leaves himself lots of messages on his phone. Tyler writes about relationships, his heart, our culture, books he is reading, etc. He manages to write about what he observes in the world around him in a powerful way that isn’t cliche or preachy. Tyler is really honest and often writes about the depravity of his own heart. He writes a lot of songs to his own soul, sort of the way David did in the Psalms. Abide is an example of this sort of song. He’s essentially saying, “Hey Tyler, get with it!”
Tyler also writes directly from the Bible. Tyler wrote Kingdom of Heaven and Psalm 86 on Open Your Doors – both of which come from from the Scriptures. I still remember the day he played the beginnings of Kingdom of Heaven and Fear Thou Not for me. I looked at him, amazed, and said, “Where did that come from?!”
Tyler often writes music and lyrics separately. Sometimes he writes lyrics to fit a melody, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes a melody or lyric will sit unused for quite a while. Psalm 86 is a good example of this. It took a year to complete. Tyler wrote the chorus first and left it alone for a while. He wrote the lyrics to the verses next and then I helped him put a melody to those lyrics much later. That’s how it happens sometimes. You can’t rush a song.
Well, that’s essentially how songwriting works for us. I’m sure it works very differently for others. I will leave you with a few tips you might employ while writing. Of course their are exceptions to all of these little tips.
1. If you’re having a hard time finding a melody, try playing a chord progression over and over and humming to it. You might find something you like. Record the melody to your phone or computer immediately.
2. Focus on variety/contrast. You probably don’t want the chorus and verses to start on the same note. Think about dynamics. Songs that stay the same throughout – even with an awesome melody – can get boring.
3. Think about time signatures. See The Conqueror from Open Your Doors began in 4/4 and was changed to 6/8. I think 6/8 makes the song much more powerful.
4. Rhythm is really important. Don’t strum the guitar the same way on every song. You might switch up the strum pattern on the verses and chorus within a song.
5. If your bridge doesn’t say something new or add to the song in a powerful way, don’t use it. There are quite a few songs on Open Your Doors that do not have bridges. A bridge didn’t seem to fit Kingdom of Heaven. On Fear Thou Not we kept the bridge instrumental – it serves as more of an interlude. Do not feel like you have to write verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Feel free to explore. However, if you feel that the song really needs a bridge, work until you get it right. We wrote 5 bridges for Little Balloon before settling on the right one.
6. Study your favorite songs. What do you like about them? How do they make you feel? Think about the form and structure of those songs. How many notes are in the melodies? How much repetition is used? Obviously you do not want to copy the songs, but its okay to use them as a guide.
We hope this is helpful. Tyler plans to write more of a music theory approach to songwriting within the next week or so. Stay tuned!