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Dear Little Bobby,
I’ve been messing around with a guitar for a while and recently had a few piano lessons but I’m new to songwriting. I know some chords, and I’ve learned some covers but I don’t know how to choose which chords to use for my own songs. I only know a little bit about music theory, but I don’t really have confidence with composing. Can you advise someone just learning to write songs?
—I Wanna Write Rock ‘n’ Roll!
Dear Wanna Write Rock ‘n’ Roll,
First of all, if you enjoy the piano lessons keep taking them and do not be afraid to add some guitar lessons as well. The lessons can definitely help and you may learn quite a bit about music theory while you are learning to play an instrument. A good understanding of music theory can definitely help you begin writing, but it is not necessary.
Let’s discuss the idea of “music theory.” Like other theories, music theory is not an absolute. It is not a defined “law.” As a student of science, I believe in the theory of evolution. But that does not mean everything which someone might call “evolution” is correct or helpful or useful in every situation. Every aspect of the theory of evolution is open for debate. The same goes for music. And not every side of every debate is going to make sense. For example, some evangelists believe humans walked with dinosaurs—but I digress.
When we like what we play, it does not matter “why.” We just like it.
You can study music theory until your right brain bleeds but that still does not mean you can write a song, or that the song will be “good.” To start writing, you need to keep playing.
For me, piano is the easiest instrument to learn composing. My advice would be to sit down at your piano and start playing. Learn how to play songs that you like. Learn songs in different styles. The more you do this, the more chords you will learn and you will find different ways to put them together. The key is learning how to improvise. When you improvise, meaning that you develop new music on the spot, you are creating. The only difference between “improvising” and “writing” is that when we write, we record (or write down) what we just improvised. My favorite method is to just hit “record” on my recorder and start playing. Eventually I write down the parts that I like and want to work on so that I can play it again, or show it to a bandmate.
I also recommend that you try not to overthink the writing. Focus on playing, learning and improvising. If you really have trouble choosing which chords or notes to start with, maybe learn the chords in a certain key. Or if you need to start even more simply, which is fine, just choose any note, then another; pull them out of a hat, or start alphabetically with A, then jump to another randomly chosen note like F or D# (or both). Keep doing this. The more you play around, the more you will learn about music theory and how other people have written the songs you like—and the easier it will be for you to improvise and create your own songs.
If you also want to sing, take a voice lesson (or lessons) to learn your vocal range. That could also inform your chord/key choices on the piano. And as you do all of this, you will also be learning what you do not like, which is an important part of the process as well.
Remember that this is a PROCESS. No one will ever be able to teach you everything, and you will never be able to learn everything about music because much of it is still undiscovered to us. In many ways music is intuitive and we cannot explain why it makes us feel a certain way. When we like what we play, it does not matter “why.” We just like it. Then we put pen to paper and write it down.
Have fun. I feel like that is the best way to know you are doing it correctly. If it feels like a struggle, you are facing an uphill situation. Learn what you like, and then be patient with yourself as you learn how to express yourself in song. By being yourself the rest will come naturally.
—Little Bobby Tucker
“I wish they were all happy in the Lebanon | Wish somebody’d help me write this song | I wish when I was young, my old man had not been gone | Genie said ‘Consider it done.’” —Roger Waters, “Three Wishes” 1992