Five Songwriting Lessons Journalism Taught Me

When I started journalism school last September, one thing was clear - I wanted to improve my writing. I wanted to tell better, more compelling stories regardless of the medium (song, article, radio documentary, short film...). What was most interesting about this year was that fact that so much of what I learned is directly applicable to songwriting! So, here are my top five songwriting lessons my first year of journalism taught me. 

Lesson #1 – Paint pictures with your words

Do you listen to the radio? If so, you might find that a radio broadcast or documentary can paint a better picture than TV or photographs themselves.

I find songwriting is very similar to stories you hear on the radio. Good broadcasts, as my teacher says, are those that lead you to create a movie in your mind. The same thing can be said of songwriting. Often, a great song is one with which people can associate. But I also find myself remembering songs based on the movie that developed in my mind. That movie is directly related to the words and imageries.

Paint a visual picture. Songs are like mini-movies.

Lesson #2 - Capture people’s attention

Whether you’re writing an article or a song, it’s important to keep your audience interested. This can be achieved in different ways:
  • by bringing in an element of surprise
  • by creating suspense
  • through chord progressions and melodies
  • with a musical or lyrical hook

Lesson #3 - Describe rather than label

This is one mistake that I've done countless times before (and still do!!! arg!). When writing articles we are often told to describe what people do rather than use meaningless titles. We are also told to use verbs instead of adjectives: "He was a sad man" vs "He fought back the tears from his eyes."

As a songwriter, I find this extremely important. This is not to say that you can't use adjectives in a song, but you should try to combine them with verbs that describe what is happening. 

Lesson #4 - Tell a story

In journalism just like songwriting you must ask yourself a simple question: what is the story I want to tell? In other words, what is the message I want to deliver? While this process may differ, I think journalists and songwriters can learn from each other.

In journalism school, we are told over and over that the story is about someone doing something for a reason. Who is doing what and why

In Pat Pattison's songwriting class we learn that the story is about someone talking to someone else for a reason. Who is talking to whom and why

Obviously, not everything fits in to a neat box, but I do think that we can all learn from these two processes. My song Lake Superior for example is a clear example of who-what-why. "I am going North to prove to myself that I can do it." There's no whom... In a way it's a very introspective song. A first person narrative. My song Broken on the other hand is a clear who-whom-why: I am talking to you because I can't love you anymore. 

Bottom line: find what works best for you or change it up once in a while and see what happens!

Lesson #5 - Avoid clichés

It was really interesting to realize that journalists, just like songwriters, use clichés. In journalism, phrases like "and only time will tell..." or "at the end of the day" are considered plain and simple bad journalism. Same thing goes for songwriting. For the most part, using clichés means you took the easy wait out or didn't try hard enough to find a different word, rhyme, melody. Some have used them to their advantage and have pulled it of, but it's not for everyone. 

Clichés I've used....(and will try not to use again!!)
  • I packed my bags
  • We'll fly away
  • I'm pretty sure I must have rhymed tears with fears at some point in the past :)

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