Teaching Songwriting (When You’re Not a Pro)

Teaching songwriting to piano students can be hard when you’re not a master songwriter yourself. This article and podcast episode has everything you need to guide your students who want to become songwriters.

Teaching Songwriting When You're Not a Pro FACEBOOK 2

⬆️ Listen to the podcast above or keep on reading, whichever fits your style. ↙️

As a normal music teacher, you can absolutely teach songwriting skills to your students. All you need is the confidence to dive in and a few tips to get you started. So here you go. 🙂 

Where to Start with Piano Songwriting

There are lots of different ways to start the songwriting process, and there’s no right answer. 

When you’re teaching songwriting, have your students experiment with these 4 different kickstarters until they find their groove.

Songwriting Kickstarter 1: Writing Lyrics for Songs

Many songwriters like to start with the words first. Try having your student write the lyrics at home (they can think of it as writing a poem.) When they bring them to their lesson, you can work on the music together.

If they’re stuck for topics, you can give them a simple writing prompt like:

  • Something which happened at school this week
  • A time I felt disappointed
  • A day in the life of my dog

Songwriting Kickstarter 2: Composing a Hook

An alternative way to write a song is to start with a hook, riff or little chunk of melody

My favourite story about this is of Paul McCartney writing ‘Yesterday.’ He carried around that little hook for such a long time before finding the perfect words to go with it and filling in the rest of the song.

Songwriting Kickstarter 3: Songwriting with Chord Patterns

Maybe your student isn’t inspired to write lyrics right now, and they find coming up with a hook to be a conundrum. In that case, a chord pattern might give them the breathing room they need. 

Have your budding songwriter:

  • Pick a key 
  • Choose 3-5 chords at random from that key
  • Play them in different orders to create a progression

Once they have their chord progression they can experiment with it and try different rhythms before putting words and a melody on top.

Songwriting Kickstarter 4: Craft from a Chord Chart

To teach songwriting this way, I recommend the app iReal Pro. You pull up the chords from pretty much any song on this app. Your student can then practice the chords with their left hand and find a scale which fits to improvise with.

Yes, this improv will be based on the song they chose, but it’s not a breach of copyright and this is not about imitation. 

They’re just using this song as a kick starter for their own creation. And it’s a great place to start. 🙂 

My Creativity hub page has loads of resources you can use to help your students write melodies, improvise over chord progressions and more as they embark on their songwriting journey.

Songwriting Best Practices

Experiment

Create 10 different ideas, then create 10 more.  The more your student gets used to creating songwriting ideas, the easier it becomes.

Create Songwriting Templates 

Once you find a songwriting structure which suits your student, make a note of it or have your student jot down their own notes. 

Encourage students to work with their template and refine it over time. This will help them define the steps involved in their personal songwriting process. 

Listen to a Wide Variety of Music

What goes in, comes out.  

variety of music

Make sure your students are listening to music regularly and encourage them to share what they have been listening to each week.  

It’s astounding how narrow many students’ listening habits are these days! You can create a playlist of songs from a wide selection of genres to inspire them if they seem lost at sea.

Keep an ‘Ideas File’

Once you’ve gotten your student started, encourage your piano students to keep files of their ideas.  Make sure they know they can make recordings or write out music when they want to share with you and you’ll be delighted to give them feedback.

Create a Songwriting Group in Your Studio

If you really want to dive into teaching songwriting in a big way, start a supportive feedback group. 

Students can share their ideas and receive constructive feedback.  Before you know it, you might have several songwriting teams or bands in your studio. 

Pitfalls and Issues When Teaching Songwriting

There are many valleys on the songwriting journey. Here are some of the most common so you can be prepared to coach your students through them.

Blank Page Syndrome

Staring at a blank page is just as common for musicians as it is for authors. And it is NOT fun. 

Make sure your student starts their idea bank right away, so they have a wealth of notes and nuggets to call upon when they’re feeling uninspired. 

Working Out Rhythms Woes

Rhythms can be tricky to figure out and students often accidentally compose very complex rhythms. Try to give your students a solid rhythm vocabulary so this hurdle doesn’t stop them from creating.

Knowing When to Finish (and How to Finish)

When your student is struggling to put the final chords in place, the best resource is all the music which came before them. 

Encourage them to borrow ideas from other songs they like and try them out in theirs. Over time, they’ll collect a piggy bank of endings they can draw from and have made their own.

Finding the Right Idea 

Too many people are focussed on that one great idea. Instead, shift your students’ focus to creating an abundance of ideas. 

If they focus on quantity, the quality will come.

Not Taking Enough Time

Sometimes music just takes time.  Allow time to let things mull and encourage breaks. 

pausing taking time

Reassure students that in the writing process, sometimes the best thing to do is to set a song aside and come back to it later.

Tips From the Pros

You may not feel like a pop expert, and that’s totally OK! But your students will definitely be inspired by hearing the processes which some of the best songwriters on the planet use to write great music. 

Here are some of our favourite quotes from the best of the best.

John Legend | Songwriting Templates

“I have a structured songwriting process. I start with the music and try to come up with musical ideas, then the melody, then the hook, and the lyrics come last. Some people start with the lyrics first because they know what they want to talk about, and they just write a 9bunch of lyrical ideas, but for me, the music tells me what to talk about.” – John Legend, in Seventeen Magazine

Leonard Cohen | Make Songwriting Part of Your Teaching Routine

“The only thing I can say is, a song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression.” – Leonard Cohen, in Far Out Magazine

Lisa Lukas | Set a Timer 

“One example is the idea of ‘automatic writing’ – setting a timer for 5 or 10 minutes or so, and just giving themselves permission to write anything and everything that pops to mind, without editing or second guessing. When the timer goes off, they’re done!” – Lisa Lukas in the ComposeCreate blog

Beyonce | Get Students Collaborating   

“I love being around great writers because I’m finding that a lot of the things I want to say, I don’t articulate as good as maybe Amanda Ghost, so I want to keep collaborating with writers, and I love classics and I want to make sure years from now the song is still something that’s relevant.” – Beyonce on Berklee Online

WHAT APPROACH DO YOU TAKE TO TEACHING SONGWRITING?

Have you ever taught songwriting to your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts and songwriting ideas in the comments below. 🙂

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BAKING & BIKING

Talking to Parents about Practice


Join Nicola Cantan and Samantha Coates for this live masterclass on September 22nd.

In this masterclass, Nicola Cantan and Samantha Coates will discuss their favourite analogies for educating parents about music practice. You’ll bake a metaphorical practice pie with Nicola, ride a fictional practice bike with Samantha, and by the end you’ll feel much more confident discussing practice with parents in your studio.

This session will be oodles of fun as well as having lashings of practical ideas to use in your teaching. Come play with practice with us!

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