A screenshot of the young carers and Jo taken from their video

Eight songwriting tips from a music therapist

Jo Humphreys is a music therapist working in the South West & South Wales, from her experiences as a Nordoff Robbins music therapist she shares her top tips for approaching the songwriting process

I’m lucky enough to live and work in Wales, famously known as the Land of Song, and I’ve recently been thinking about the power of song to connect, to challenge and to comfort. 

Not just on the radio and at gigs, songs can be heard in sports stadiums, protest marches and in recent times, on doorsteps and balconies across our communities. 

As music therapists, we use songs a great deal in our work. Whether it’s for building familiarity and recognition by using the same greeting song at the beginning of each session; motivating and inviting someone to engage in musical structure with a play-song, finding common musical ground to unite members of a group or learning about others’ musical identity and preferences by discovering their favourite songs – we appreciate what a powerful, valuable and flexible musical form the song really is.  

Encouraging people to write their own songs as part of their music therapy journey can also be a helpful and rewarding tool to support expression, process thoughts and feelings, celebrate creativity, and provide motivation to work towards a tangible end product.

Eight top tips for approaching the songwriting process

1. Listen 

A great way to approach writing your own song is to take a song you love and really listen to it. Can you pinpoint why it makes you feel the way you do? Maybe it’s the content of the lyrics which draws you in? Or an irresistible beat. It might be something in the way the singer uses their voice, or a specific instrument being used in a certain way. This close listening can really encourage you to think about all the elements which combine together to make an appealing song before you begin writing your own. 

2. Experiment

If starting from nothing feels too daunting, why not try writing some new lyrics to a tune you know well or taking a piece of poetry and creating your own melody for it. If you’re feeling creative and can begin playing around with your voice or an instrument, record yourself and listen back afterwards. You might find a snippet of melody or a chord progression that you’d like to develop further. 

3. Make it personal

When it comes to writing lyrics, try to write about your own authentic experiences and feelings, perhaps using single words at first then building up gradually to whole lines. 

You might find that you’re able to say things through your lyrics which you haven’t been able to say before, and if you decide to share your song with others, it might help them better understand what you’ve been through or how you’re feeling. 

Writing lyrics can also help organise your thoughts and feelings in a different way, which can in turn make them more manageable. Carrying a notepad with you or using an audio record function on your mobile phone is really useful if you have an idea and want to capture it quickly.

4. Find the music in your words

One you have some lyrics, reading them out loud can really help you decide how you will set them to music. 

We all have natural pitch, tempo and inflection when we speak which can guide you intuitively towards shaping a melody. This will help the song sound authentically yours, and may mean you feel more comfortable if you then decide to sing it. 

The content of your lyrics might also lead you to a particular musical style – whether that’s bold and energetic, reflective and solemn or anything in between.

5. Keep it simple 

Some of the very best songs are written using only a handful of chords (if you’ve ever heard the Axis of Awesome you’ll know this is true!) 

Don’t underestimate the power of simple harmony and repeated melody. In fact, the most memorable songs are those which use very short repeated musical phrases, so once you find a musical idea you’re happy with – repeat it! 

6. Collaborate with others

Working together with other people to create a song can be a very rewarding process. 

Having songwriting as a focus might help start conversations, explore ideas and find common ground that you didn’t know was there, and combining the strengths of many can make for a very fruitful and perhaps unexpected outcome. 

Technology can be a wonderful asset too – from online tutorials to start learning an instrument, to apps like GarageBand and BandLab which offer ready-made loops and accompaniments, you can quickly create your own musical accompaniments.  

7. Enjoy the ride

Don’t expect a fully formed song to emerge straightaway – songwriting is a process that can take time, but that’s part of the enjoyment. 

If you find you have lots of ideas that don’t work together in one song, make more songs! The commitment and work you put in will be rewarded when you’re happy with your completed outcome. 

Whether this results in a public performance, sharing it online for the whole world to hear or allowing a trusted friend or family member to listen to it – the feeling of someone else hearing your musical expression can be incredibly validating. 

8. Give it a go! 

Remember: you don’t need to be an expert to try writing your own songs. 

Every single one of us has unique thoughts, experiences and creative talents which deserve to be heard and celebrated. 

The most common reflections I hear from people who have tried songwriting for the first time in music therapy are ‘I didn’t think I could do that‘ and ‘I’m so proud of what I have achieved!’. 

So go for it – you might just surprise yourself! 

Carers Trust Carmarthenshire Young Carers 'Stand Together'

In December 2020 Jo held a songwriting workshop with Carers Trust Carmarthenshire Children and Young People’s Carers Service. Their song ‘Stand Together’, written and recorded using Zoom, allowed them to express themselves and talk about their experience of being young carers during the pandemic; they sing about how difficult it has been but also celebrate their strength and express their optimism for the future.