According to Rolling Stone magazine, Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of all time. He even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for his collected lyrical works over almost 60 years. When we tend to think of all-time greatest songwriters, we tend to think of figures from that same era: John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb, Paul Simon, Freddie Mercury, etc. But, like Dylan, we’ve had 50 or 60 years to establish a shared culture around their music. In their day, they were still prolific and famous, yes, but ultimately no different than a figure like Ed Sheeran is for us today.
In 50 years’ time, it’s highly likely, in fact, that our list of all-time greatest songwriters will be skewed to include the likes of Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Sia, Katy Perry, Chris Martin, etc. Maybe the 2066 Nobel Prize for Literature will go to Lady Gaga. Who knows? The point is that all of these famous musicians I’ve mentioned, who are all prolific songwriters in their own right, have some things in common. They’ve all been involved in music and other creative, artistic pursuits from a very young age, they sing, play multiple instruments and seem to breathe music in the way that the rest of breathe air.
While I do generally encourage people to begin writing their own songs as soon as they can throw a couple of chords together, putting creativity into practice as soon as humanly possible when learning their instrument, there still seems to be this pause that occurs, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years, even 10 (or more) years, between the beginnings of learning the instrument and actually producing the songs.
Obviously, like all the greats mentioned above, the more practiced you are as a songwriter, the better songs you’ll come out with. Yes, everyone’s at different levels, but getting to the heights of what you are capable of tends to take a lot of time and experience. Ergo, the sooner we can get newer musicians writing their own songs, the greater the songwriting heights in music we can reach collectively, and I’m pretty optimistic that the best is yet to come.
So what skills do newer, still-learning musicians need to start writing songs?
I’m glad you asked. There are 5 fundamental skills that make up musicianship. I call these The 5 Pillars of Musicianship because they really hold up the whole underlying structure of musical creativity. Songwriting is a creative application of musical ability. So, the stronger the foundation you have, the greater knowledge and potential application you have in your songwriting.
Now, not all musicianships have all of these skills, but, well, that’s partly why there’s also so much bad music out there. You can over-compensate if you can do 2 or 3 or 4 of them really well, but you’re less rounded as a musician. You have these gaps in your knowledge that actively limits the lengths to which you can get creative on a basic level.
Everyone of these fundamental skills actually increases your ability to do all the other things.They have this cumulative improvement effect because they all tie together. So, if you’re serious about being a decent musician, even if you’re not that interested in songwriting, you need to work on all 5 of these things.
So, without further ado, here are the 5 Pillars of Musicianship that you need to learn. Seriously.
1) Learn an instrument.
This might sound really obvious, stupid even, as a suggestion, but you’d honestly be amazed at how many singers there are that fancy themselves songwriters, because they have some words and a melody, but couldn’t really tell you what a chord is.
And there’s absolutely no excuse for it. None. We live in a day and age where learning and teaching has become a science. There are so many free apps and programs and websites and YouTube channels for learning an instrument. So much information. So many people to learn from.
And it’s so easy to find instruments! Someone is literally giving away a free piano somewhere online every single day, because they just want someone to come take it away and get it out of their house. There are super-cheap mass-produced guitars. You don’t need a Gibson Les Paul when you’re just starting out. If it can vaguely keep pitch, you’re good. There’s really no excuse not to.
2) Learn to sing.
Again, you’d be amazed at how many great instrumentalists there are who can get up on stage and shred for hours but won’t dare sing a bar. I think it’s actually a problem with our culture. We’ve idolized great singers and placed them on celebrity pedestals to the point that we now have this whole generation of people teaching their kids that they can only really think about singing if they have inborn talent and are serious about doing it as a career. It’s so so so backward, it honestly pains me.
Singing is a fundamental life-skill. It’s the only truly organic instrument we have, and everyone’s voice is individual. Singing teaches you posture, breathing, diction and performance skills, not to mention it’s as intense a form of exercise as any other instrument you might play. It also inherently trains your ear differently because you need to learn to blend inner and outer hearing, which means that it naturally improves your sense of pitch and ear for music. What’s more, because your instrument is your own body, it has the potential to hit you deeper, physiologically speaking, than any other form of music.
Studies show that singers in choirs/choral groups experience a greater level of satisfaction, growth, social-bonding, spiritual uplift and overall happiness from their participation in said groups than any other instrumental ensemble. Honestly, the more you actually look into the statistics, the more you start to think that choir ought to be a mandatory subject in school.
3) Ear training (also known as aural training).
We’ve all heard the expression “play it by ear”, but did you know that it comes from early musicians and composers performing without written sheet music? They would use their well-trained ears, improvisational abilities and general sense for where the piece was going to successfully anticipate what came next, often building upon it live, and playing it a little bit differently every time.
Because music tends to follow common rules and patterns, even if you don’t read music or know all the theory, your ear is capable of distinguishing the difference between anything you want it to. You just need to train it to listen at whatever level of detail you require. Because of this, a whole slew of musicians in the contemporary era have (quite successfully) made careers as performers and songwriters and great improvisers. Carlos Santana for one is an amazing melodic guitarist, who has built a decades-long career on his guitar style and sound. He doesn’t read actual sheet music, but years and years of playing and performing and improvising have made him an expert in complex melody/song creation techniques. Most of what he’s learned has been gained intuitively by ear over tens of thousands of hours of playing, and it’s really paid off.
But why would you choose the ten-thousand-hour route when you can learn over 99% of that in a year or two of dedicated aural training? 20-30 minutes a day for a couple of years is only about 300 hours; that’s probably less a single percent of the time Santana spent building up those skills. Seems impossible, but there’s a whole slew of amazing ear training apps out there. Ear Gym on Google Play and Ear Beater on Apple are some good places to start.
The thing about ear training is that you’re teaching your brain to understand and effectively interpret and learn to correctly anticipate what it hears in music. It’s basically building a predictive scientific model for how music works, so you can fast-track it even more if you learn it hand-in-hand with musical theory. Aural training makes you the type of musician who can join in with anyone on the fly. It’s an elite skill that literally anyone is capable of learning (if they apply themselves) with the resources we have available to us.
Yes, obviously there are certain early childhood nurture advantages that you may or may not have. Kids under the age of 7 are capable of learning perfect pitch, while it’s virtually impossible to do so afterwards. But the important thing to remember is that there’s no such thing as tone-deafness. If there was, there’d be people born in China who couldn’t speak Chinese. If you were actually tone-deaf, all music would sound like the same monotonous note over and over again. You can hear it, and you can learn to hear it better with a bit of practice.
4) Learn musical theory.
Understanding the basic rules to music seems like a given when learning an instrument, but nowadays that really isn’t the case. With how-to-play YouTube tutorials, tablature and apps like Yousician, you can become quite proficient at your instrument without really understanding how all the music theory actually works. This occurs much in the same way a 4-year-old can know the entire alphabet without being able to actually read or write any words, or how a 6- or 7-year-old might be able to successfully read a lot of words and sentences and even whole books (appropriate to their age group), but have no idea about Latin and Greek roots, or how grammar works, or that half of English is actually French.
Music is every bit as much a language as English. It may not be able to articulate ideas in the same way, but boy, can it ever articulate feelings. Just as you can’t expect the 4-year-old or even 7-year-old to write a story in correct English, you can’t expect to know how to put a song together without understanding the parts. Yeah, you might have some intuitive sense of it, just like they might be able to tell you a story, and their spoken English might even be good enough to do it well. But they don’t understand what they’re doing any more than you can explain what you’re composing and how and why it works.
Long story short, without understanding music theory, you’re effectively removing one of your senses and trying to function in the normal world. You wouldn’t willingly go through life blind because it’s easier not having to worry about that vision stuff, and you shouldn’t go through music without a sense of how it works on a fundamental level. There are some amazing resources for this too. Hook Theory is the go-to one worth checking out. It was developed by 3 PhD students from Berklee School of Music to teach music theory using popular song hooks of the contemporary age. It does cost, but it is a fabulous resource.
5) Learn to read sheet music.
Everything I’ve mentioned is interconnected. Like I said in the beginning, you don’t necessarily have to gain all these skills to write songs, but they have this cumulative upskill effect. Learning to read sheet music gives you a pictographic representation of the way musical sound works. Pitch, rhythm, duration, speed, harmony, etc. It actually helps your brain conceptualize the sound in a way that makes it easier to understand both the theory on paper and the things your ears hear, which in turn help each other out, plus your ability to sing and play an instrument, which in turn help each other out. And of course, being able to sing and play an instrument helps you accurately conceptualize music in written form. Learning to read sheet music is just the last piece of the puzzle.
Sadly, it’s a vital piece that too many musicians ignore nowadays. Learning to read music is one of the only proven things that will help you create new neural pathways in your brain, increasing brain connectivity and function. It’s actually recommended for early Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. What’s more, kids who learn to read music do better on average in every other subject at school than kids who don’t. It’s incredibly useful in any other sort of industry relationships with other musicians, band members, instrumentalists, etc. Or, if you ever want to learn a second, third, fourth instrument, it gives you a base framework to keep coming back to and build upon. There’s a number of great apps and resources for this too, so that have already been mentioned above.
All of these fundamental pillars of musicianship will make you a much more adept songwriter. Just like how a great writer needs to understand the rules of the language they are using, and just like a great chef needs to understand the chemistry of cooking, any songwriter/composer who aspires to be great ought to have a working understanding of the rules of music. Every new piece of information is a tool in your songwriting toolbelt. I’ve found that learning about new ones is also a great source of inspiration for new song ideas.
So, wherever you’re at with these important pillars of musicianship, just know that you can always grow and improve. It’s never too late to learn something new, and you’ll be all the better off for it.