Songwriting Challenges

Here are 12 challenges for you to work on throughout the year. Try to complete one every month to keep yourself motivated and inspired. Having goals is a great way to stay on target and every time you finish a song it will remind you how much progress you’re making.

For feedback on your songs, post them into our free community and see what other writers around the world think. You can access the community here

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Tips
1

Christmas Song Challenge

So often you’ll hear about songwriters talking about writing a Christmas song when they see the lights going up in the streets, endless toy adverts showing on the TV, and they hear those old familiar tunes playing relentlessly in the stores. Of course that’s when we feel the Christmas spirit and are in the mood but the reality of the music business is that new Christmas song release campaigns are being planned way in advance of the event, and the songs being written much earlier in the year.

So as weird as it may seem it’s actually wiser to start writing your Christmas tunes in Spring!

So what makes a good Christmas song?

We’re all familiar with the old style songs talking about sleigh bells (often featured on the track too), Santa himself, the tree, presents etc. but when was the last time you heard a new offering that does the same? No, you’ll rarely hear that style of lyric today.

The discernment of the listener has changed somewhat over the years and it’s very possible that a song with those kind of lyrics would now be snubbed by the labels and the public.

So how do we capture the spirit and magic of Christmas without being too overt and obvious?

One approach would be to talk about the feeling of having everyone around you, or maybe to talk about what the ultimate ‘gift’ for christmas would be (no…not an Xbox!).

You could also think about it this way; If you were playing one of those fun word games where you were trying to describe Xmas to someone without using the usual cliches, how would you get them to guess what you were talking about?

The key could be to focus more on capturing the sentiments that surround Christmas: Joy, Peace, Warmth, Happiness, Loneliness, Nostalgia etc. without being too obvious with the lyrics (and speaking of obvious keep those sleigh bells out of the production!)

Try to keep a more modern approach to the production but keep some organic elements in there for warmth and familiarity and you may just write a song which will be played for decades every single year just as the tinsel starts to be unravelled from the storage boxes…

Challenge

Write a Christmas song that captures the spirit of the season but also would sit next to current tracks on the radio and appeal to a modern day audience.

Have fun!

2

30 Minute Challenge

For many songwriters their greatest enemy is themselves. We overthink when we write, we pre-judge whether an idea is good or bad before we even say it and often this stops the creative flow.

Although it is true that some hit songs have been penned in 10 minutes or less, it’s more often the case that while the initial idea may have taken 10 minutes, the subsequent crafting and detailing would have been a much more lengthy process.

This challenge is all about unlocking the stream of conscious thought and not allowing yourself enough time to second guess whether your idea is good enough or not. It’s also a brilliant tool to help writers who struggle with finishing their songs.

Challenge

Every day for a week, write a complete song in 30 minutes

TSA Tips

  • Prepare for each session by having a list of ideas you already like and think could be good song material
  • Consider each session as a’first draft’ session. Remember you can always come back and craft the finer details another time
  • Don’t waste time if you get stuck on a line. Leave a gap and come back to it later in the session. You’ll be amazed how your brain will continue to work out missing lines whilst thinking about other things!
  • Record everything you do!
  • Don’t try and be too clever, either musically or lyrically, it will only slow you down! Use your heart and your instinct more than your brain
  • If you’re approaching the end of the session and you still have unfinished lines, use placeholder lyrics to finish your song. You can always change them later
  • At the end of the week, listen back to your seven songs and rate them according to how good you think they are. Prioritise working on the songs with the highest rating first but don’t feel you have to revisit/rework all of them.

Have fun!

3

AABA Challenge

Not all songs need to have a chorus! Look back through the years and you’ll find many hits that don’t have a chorus including:

Pinball Wizard – The Who
Make You Feel My Love – Adele
My Way – Frank Sinatra
Yesterday – The Beatles
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue – Crystal Gayle
Somewhere Over The Rainbow – Judy Garland

What is an AABA song?

It’s a song which typically starts with a verse (A), then has another verse (A) followed by a separate musical section (B) and finishes with a final verse (A)

You’ll sometimes also find a short instrumental after the B section which musically mirrors the verse. It’s also possible for the B section to repeat to be followed by a final A section, making AABABA.

So how do we make people remember our songs? Where do we put our all- important repetitive hook?

The trick with AABA songs is to embed the hook (also often the title of the song) in the verse itself, and it’s a great idea to place it in a prominent position. That’s why you’ll often find that the hook/title line as the first or last line of each verse.

Let’s look at “Yesterday”

Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hanging over me. Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say. I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.

Yesterday love was such an easy game to play. Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday

Verse 1 not only begins, but ends with the title of the song! Although verse two differs, the last line still uses the title word. After two verses, we hear a B section, which interestingly also nails down the title by using it again as the very last word. Finally verse 3, repeats the technique used in verse 1, using the title twice again!

The song does go on to repeat the B and final A section (creating AABABA) however there is clearly no chorus in the song, and is one of the most successful songs of the last millennium!

In “Make You Feel My Love” and “My Way” the key hook/title is found as the last line of every verse. This also happens in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” which follows the classic AABA form with a final additional line at the end.

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream Really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

Musically you’ll notice in all permutations of AB songs there are only two musical sections and no pre-chorus or middle eight. There is also less of a tendency for the melody to climb in the verse towards a climax. It’s worth noting that the higher notes of these songs are often found in the B section to help define it from the A section.

Challenge

Write a song using only A and B sections, with no chorus! Try and use the title/hook as either the first or last line of every verse.

Have fun!

4

Anthem Challenge

Every year, organisations around the world are looking for anthemic songs to represent prominent events.

Where do we hear anthemic songs? What comes to mind first might include:

  • Football matches
  • Charity fundraising events and charity singles
  • Olympic games etc.
  • Public gatherings

What makes a song anthemic? The dictionary definition of anthemic is:

anthemic
anθiːmɪk/
adjective: (of a song) like an anthem in being rousing or uplifting.

If you think about your favourite anthems you would probably realise that they are indeed rousing and uplifting but of course written in many styles and genres. To really understand why these songs have the power to lift the spirits of huge crowds, listen critically to your favourites. Analyse the lyrical and musical content and try to identify the common denominators.

Ask yourself:

  • How do they make you feel?
  • Why?
  • What techniques and devices have been used in these songs that can you also use to create similar emotions in your song?

Challenge

Write an anthemic song using the following criteria:

  • Any genre
  • Tempo above 90 bpm
  • No longer than 3:00 minutes long
  • Uplifting, unifying or inspirational lyric with a positive message
  • Very simple and basic chorus lyric that is so easy to remember the listeners are able to sing along by the end of the first chorus!
  • Use repetitive hooks
  • Positive musical feel in a major key
  • No more than 4 chords
  • No more than three musical sections
  • A rousing chant somewhere in your song e.g. whoa/yeah so people speaking any language can sing along!

TSA Tips

Don’t just write what you think people might want to hear. Write something that genuinely makes you feel the super strong emotion you would like to evoke in a stadium full of people listening to your song for the first time. Be genuine with your lyrics and the emotion, and try plenty of melodies until you land on a winner!

Have fun!

5

Back To School Challenge

Sometimes the most obvious song titles are staring us in the face day in and day out, but it takes the keen eyed songwriter to spot them.

Take school subjects as an example; Mathematics, History, Geography, Biology etc..

For this challenge we’d like you to go beyond what the subjects meant to you at school and see how any of those words could apply to what has happened, or is happening in your life. This is called the second concept when you surprise the listener with what the title really means.

Challenge

Write A Song Using A School Subject As A Title

TSA Tips

  • Try to think outside the box and surprise the listener
  • Keep your lyric away from the obvious e.g. If you song is called Politics, don’t write about world politics or if your song is called Sociology don’t write about the development, structure and functioning of human society!
  • Try to withhold the title of the song so you don’t give away the punchline too soon. That way it will have more power
  • As many of the subjects can evoke memories of dark/heavy subject matter, try and keep the song more ‘heart’ related than factual

Have fun!

6

Classical Music Challenge

This is an exercise to find the perfect marriage between lyrics and an existing piece of music.

Even if you’re not into classical music, there’s a lot to be learnt about amazing melody writing from the classical masters. Many modern pop songs use the same techniques, and even the same melodies!

Challenge

  • Find a piece of public domain* classical music that you love, with a strong melodic line
  • Listen carefully to the piece and using prosody**, decide what the story line/theme should be
  • Write a lyric based on your theme, that fits the existing melody – you can also write a top line that counterpoints the original melody if you want
  • Make sure your new song evokes a strong emotion in you!
  • Recording: You can either sing over the existing recording or recreate the track with your own instrumentation.

TSA Tips

Remember, just because the music is classical, it doesn’t mean your lyrics should be old fashioned. Try and be contemporary with your writing and give the music a new lease of life!

Have fun!

*public domain music
A piece of music with a copyright that has expired. In the UK typically 70 years from the end of the year in which the composer/author died. This means that the general public is free to use that music as part of a new composition without having to share royalties.

**prosody
Where the lyrical theme matches the mood created by the music. To explore this, listen to a piece of music and imagine what story is happening, as if in a movie. Is it happy? Sad? The music will often tell you everything you need to know about the lyric.

 

7

Cheesy Song Challenge

One of the songwriter’s biggest enemies is overthinking. We create filters when we write that don’t allow ideas the freedom to be expressed.

We say things in our head like “I can’t say that it sounds cliche” or we try and substitute a simple message by replacing it with complex metaphors.

The moment we learnt to let go fully and say exactly what we want to say we give ourselves, and our songs, freedom.

This exercise is a challenge in letting go.

Challenge

Write the cheesiest song you have ever written!

TSA Tips

  • Cheesy does not mean insincere in it’s meaning. Write about something that means something real to you
  • Give yourself a deadline of three hours
  • Let every lyrical line, melody and chord progression that comes to you have an equal chance
  • No longer than 3:00 minutes long
  • Don’t worry about using cliches, remember you can always excite them with an adjective or replace them later
  • Keep the harmonic content simple to avoid getting caught up in being ‘clever’
  • Use repetitive hooks
  • Write super hooky melodies
  • No more than 4 chords
  • No more than three musical sections
  • Switch off your filters!

Don’t judge yourself while you do this exercise. Just let go with it and see what happens! As this is very much about stream of conscious creation, remember to record everything as you go in case you miss something.

Have fun!

8

Dance Track Top-Line Challenge  

More and more dance producers/DJ’s are dominating the charts around the world with records that use featured vocalists, and many of these producers don’t actually create the top-line melodies or write lyrics. 

So where do they get the top-lines? Lots of pro songwriters who previously not only wrote songs but created finished demo recordings are now also writing super hooky songs at suitable tempos for dance tracks but just sending out demos with only vocals and simple piano or guitar. This leaves room for the producer/DJ to work his or her magic.

Challenge

Write a top line track for a producer/DJ to create a dance record to

  • 128bpm
  • Keep the overall song structure simple
  • Keep the harmonic structure simple
  • Write using a kick drum or metronome running so you can feel the vibe, but remove the kick drum and any rhythm tracks when you bounce your mix
  • Make sure you have repetitive hooks in your song
  • If you are not a singer don’t sing on your demo. Find a great singer to perform it for you
  • You may use vocal harmonies and backing vocals
  • Ensure the timing of your instrument and vocals is perfect or DJ’s will not want to use it
  • Try working in an anthemic chant
  • Be lyrically positive, uplifting and unusual. Use powerful lyrical ideas but keep the delivery simple

TSA Tips

Do your homework. Listen to plenty of tracks from current dance producers, and use your critical listening checklist to analyse how songs and tracks in this genre are put together.

Work hard to create memorable, repetitive hooks as these are the cornerstone of chart dance hits.

Have fun!

9

Final Words Challenge

We believe the job of the songwriter is to evoke a strong emotion in the listener. When you think it through, in order to do that we have to feel a strong emotion ourselves when we’re creating songs, whether it’s happy, sad, excited, romantic or otherwise. If we don’t feel anything, our listeners won’t feel anything.

OK, it’s understood that we don’t necessarily wake up every day feeling something incredibly powerful. Sometimes we just meander through the day feeling pretty neutral, after all we are human. But, when we sit down to write songs it’s important to be able to access the powerful feelings we store inside our hearts and minds, and that means tapping into either:

  • Current feelings
  • Memories
  • Imagination

Challenge

Use your imagination and think about a conversation you may have in the future.

We’d like you to ask yourself this question:

“If I were approaching the end of my life and the person I loved the most were with me…what would be that last thing I would want to say to them?”

TSA Tips

Don’t immediately think this will be a sad song. It could just as easily be an uptempo positive song celebrating life, an uplifting song passing on advice to someone younger, or just a simple “thank you” song. It all depends on how you look at it.

We suggest you think about all this carefully before picking up a guitar and launching into your song. Grab a pen first and brainstorm all the possibilities, the memories and the feelings and try to crystallise what would be the one final thought you would like to leave someone with. 

Try to make it an important thought, honest, and although it’s about a personal situation, remember the listeners who you hope to touch with your song. That means keeping the lyric universal, so people can relate to them and feel that you’ve written the song they wish they could have written themselves.

Good Luck!

10

Household Object Challenge

Believe it or not there are song ideas all over your house just waiting to be written, it just depends how you see things.

Some while ago I wrote a song called The Table. Sounds really boring doesn’t it?  

Well, I started by describing the table; How it was worn out and how the polish was cracked and faded from years of just being there. Then as the song moves on the listener discovers that the table is more than just a piece of furniture, it’s where people come together, and when they have a problem they “put it on the table”.

It’s where family disputes are talked through, voices are raised and tears are shed until the problem is solved. The table then becomes less of an inanimate object and actually one of the most important things keeping people together. It’s strong, dependable, always there and has emotional value. 

I’ve also written a song about a door! Here, the significance was that a door is what people walk through when they leave…or when they come back, both of which are potentially powerful moments.

Giving an unexpected significance to an otherwise meaningless object is a powerful way of creating emotion in a song, both happy and sad.

Do note that this is a different technique to using something inanimate as a metaphor or simile for something or someone. This is more about illuminating in the song how relevant that object is in real life to something more personal.

Here are a few more examples of everyday items given importance:

Object: Coffee Cup
Emotion: Passion/Excitement or even Guilt
Story: Still has the lipstick on it from the night before…
Point: Excited about a new relationship…or…We shouldn’t have done that!

Object: Wooden spoon
Emotion: Nostalgia/Family/Love 
Story: What Mum used when we were kids to make cakes on a Summer afternoon
Point: I miss you…or…I miss the innocence of being a carefree child

Object: Trash Bin
Emotion: Empowerment 
Story: Where I threw my wedding ring
Point: Get out of my life, I’m starting again!

Practising thinking laterally like this is a great way to develop the your originality as a songwriter.

Challenge

Write a song about a household object, in any style. Don’t worry about production, just focus on a fabulous lyric, melody and harmony.

TSA Tips

Try and get the story clear before you start writing, make sure you know what the point of the song is and bear in mind that it’s sometimes better not to give the meaning away too soon, much like the punchline of a joke.

Have fun!

11

Sam Cooke Challenge 

This challenge is all about going back to basics and not being afraid to write a simple song with a great tune! Sam Cooke was a master at this and whether you like his style of music or not, there is plenty to be learnt by listening to his songs.

Challenge

Write a song in the stye of Sam Cooke

  • Keep it between 2:00m – 2:30m long
  • Use one of the classic four chord tricks e.g. I VI IV V
  • Keep it positive and fun
  • Keep it simple with only three working parts
  • Resist the urge to write a ballad!

TSA Tips

Do plenty of critical listening to Sam Cooke’s songs, how they are constructed, what he sings about and the melodies he chose. Work hard creating fabulous melodies and try to embrace the carefree style of his material. 

Have fun!

12

Positive Song Challenge

Yes, we all love hearing a ballad and boy do we love writing about how miserable life is since we broke up with our exes etc. etc. How many times have you heard someone saying “Sad songs are so much easier to write than happy ones!”. That may be true but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be more “up”.

If you want to be a successful songwriter in today’s market let’s start by looking at the Math.

Let’s say the average album has twelve songs on it. How many of those would you say are slow ballads…one, two maybe? If there are two slow songs on an album of twelve, that means you are statistically five times more likely to get an mid to upbeat song placed on that album. 

Any gambler would look at those odds and know exactly where to put the money.

Now let’s look at the Psychology. You’re an A&R executive looking for songs for one of the huge artists on your major record label. Songwriters from all over the world are sending you their mp3s. Hundreds of them. Do you…

a. Want to spend the day listening to negative, slow songs, of which you only need two?

b.Want to spend your day listening to uplifting, positive tunes, of which you need ten?

See what we’re driving at here? So if you only write sad, slow ballads, we strongly suggest you get over it!

Challenge

Set yourself a target of writing the most uplifting song you have ever written in your life. Feel free to co-write with others as that may help you get in the right frame of mind.

TSA Tips

  • Writing a really positive song is not just about having a positive lyric (super important), but also about staying clear of minor keys, discordant clashes, and it’s about keeping production ideas uplifting. That means steering clear of darker, heavier or ominous sounds. Distorted guitars might feel great but they can sound threatening too so tread carefully!
  • Keep that melody happy! Watch out for the melodies that make you tear up. Emotional they may be but stay focussed on keeping your song cheery. Try and make sure your chorus hits a high point melodically and has a euphoric feel.
  • OK, we know songwriters like to wallow in self pity and bare their soul, but surely something happy has happened to you at some point in your life? You’ve had maybe at least one amazing day? Draw on that experience, remember how you felt at the time and inject that strength of emotion into the song.
  • Keep the lyric simple as people are rarely poetic when they’re euphoric and keep it real. Don’t fake emotion.

Most of all, imagine how incredible you want the listener to feel when the song plays for the first time. Write something that will knock people off their chairs and get them dancing round the room involuntarily with pure glee.

Now thats a positive song.

Have fun!

Tips
  • Record everything you do when you’re writing. You may think you’ll remember those amazing ideas but they will drift away like autumn leaves if you’re not careful.
  • Do your very best to co-write with others. It’s more fun, more productive and the quality of your songwriting is far more likely to improve.

 

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