If you’re a subscriber to our YouTube channel, you saw that we recently chatted with famous Nashville songwriter Steve Leslie! If you haven’t seen them yet, what are you doing here? Take a break and go watch those videos right now, then come back. Join us as we take a look at the finer takeaways of Steve Leslie’s guide to how to write a hit song, from songwriting exercises to songwriting tools to keep in your arsenal.
A lot of the advice on how to write song lyrics can be boiled down to one essential truth: treating this artform like it’s a full-time job. Steve Leslie recommends that singers or songwriters block out time every day to just write. It doesn’t matter if what you write is absolute crap, what matters most is that you’re exercising that creative muscle. You don’t necessarily need to dedicate 8+ hours like an office job, but by being consistent with your daily songwriting blocks of time, you’ll find the creative juices flow easier over time. Think of it as writing a song a day, even if the song is only thirty seconds long.
If you find yourself sitting down at your favorite desk or couch and drawing a blank, take up some of these songwriting exercises:
Non-Lyric Challenge: Open an instruction manual or read directions off a label, and try to make a melody for it. Examples: “Lather and rinse”, “Grab a Philips screwdriver”, “4 cups of flour and 3 teaspoons of honey.”
Powerwriting: This exercise is the no holds barred, full-on songwriting experience without any expectations. Just grab your paper and let the words flow out of you, even if you’re just writing the word “And” over and over again. Don’t use punctuation or sentences, but continuously write for 10 minutes (or more) and see what comes out.
4-Chord Song: The comedy band Axis of Awesome became renowned for their "4-Chord Song" which showed that nearly every pop hit was developed with the same four chords! You can do the same thing - find four chords that sound great together and play them over again until something sparks.
Leslie explained that while many artists came to Nashville with a platform they built on their own, a lot of them won’t get far if they can’t collaborate with their peers in the music industry. This means working with other songwriters and lyricists, vocal artists, instrumental musicians, and producers.
Collaborating with these fellow musicians can be your best songwriting tool. They’re people you can bounce ideas off of, and can be a real help in splitting demo and studio costs.
This notebook is the ultimate songwriting tool, that essential one you have to keep in your back pocket or your purse at all times, because you never know when a phrase or a public conversation will spark inspiration! A hook book stores potential song titles, lyrics, thoughts, phrases, euphemisms and whatever else strikes your fancy. Keep it handy when you’re out and about, and jot down what you’re hearing.
During the conversation, Leslie emphasized that Googling common phrases and “Americanisms” is a surefire way to get inspiration. No need for a songwriting app, as the English language is such a malleable, metamorphosing language, with new phrases and slang are popping up every day. And never more so than in America!
Singers and songwriters, you may be surprised how much meaning you can derive from common sayings you hear every day in your city. Phrases like “the wrong neighborhood”, “wait on me”, “touch base”, “normalcy”, “I could care less”, “hit the gas”, are all distinct and can carry many meanings depending on the context.
Don’t believe us? Just take a look at some of the most memorable song titles in 2019 so far. You’ll see that the artist can interpret their title many different ways to connect with their audience:
Old Town Road - Lil Nas X
All to Myself - Dan + Shay
My Type - Saweetie
You Need to Calm Down - Taylor Swift
Thank U, Next - Ariana Grande
Truth Hurts - Lizzo
The common misconception is that setting up limitations will stifle your creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth! In actuality, setting up those limitations becomes little challenges that your mind has to overcome. Having a blank slate is overwhelming, but forcing yourself to write lyrics in certain parameters can be a creative boost.
For example, instead of just saying “I want to write a love song”, allow yourself the limitations of “I want to write a love song, set in New York City during Christmastime.” See the difference? Did your mind instantly garner up images of ice skating at Rockefeller center, or sleigh rides through the park? That’s the power of setting limitations. They lead your mind towards specific actions, feelings, or events that listeners will relate to, instead of general thoughts that any Joe Schmo could come up with. Limitations won’t cripple you - they’ll focus you.
To get you started, here’s some songwriting prompts to get those creative juices flowing:
“I found the perfect birthday gift and…”
“Love is a fine wine, and tastes like…”
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“It’s 2 a.m. and it’s so hard to sleep because…”
“The blind date turned into a disaster when…”
Sometimes all it takes is just a little rearranging. Leslie mentioned that a song can absolutely be malleable, and another great songwriting exercise is to move the words around. If your song feels like a jumble of random lyrics and thoughts, move your lines around or move whole stanzas until a story emerges. Or try that limitation challenge above! And when in doubt, fall back on the most important basis of songwriting which is rhyming. “Rhyme gives you the line,” as Leslie stated, and you may be surprised where a rhyming word can lead to a hidden meaning you encountered before.
Now that we’ve given you six tips as your songwriting template, now it’s your turn! Are there any tips that you can share with us? How about great titles or phrases just begging to be turned into songs? Let us know!