Guest Blog: How To Teach Songwriting In The Classroom

28th October 2019

Our guest blog post this month is from Donna Maurer – music teacher and music education writer who shares her ideas for getting students feeling confident with songwriting, the benefits of teaching songwriting in the classroom and how to teach practical songwriting techniques.

HOW TO TEACH SONGWRITING IN THE CLASSROOM

Teaching music has its challenges. Songwriting is an especially difficult form of music teaching that involves not only musical talent but creativity with words as well as basic knowledge of the songwriting process. There are techniques that can be taught to help children learn how to write songs, and learning songwriting in the classroom has many benefits. It can be therapeutic to write and students who are gifted musically should be encouraged to try their hand at it. While you cannot teach raw talent, you can effectively teach songwriting within the classroom with some easy-to-follow steps.

MUSIC LANGUAGE AND STRUCTURE

What you should first understand when teaching songwriting is that music itself is a language. Music theory is the base of any good musician, and in turn, will apply to songwriting as well. Hopefully, your students already have a basic music theory understanding or background so that you can dive into the structure of how to create a song. 

There isn’t any one cookie-cutter or specific music structure that works in songwriting since it is a creative process. However, if you follow a structure that is similar to storytelling, your students can work to identify the musical patterns they find within songs and their lyrics. So a song that follows an A/B/A or A/B/A/C/B pattern is recognised with the verse (A), chorus (B) and bridge (C) arrangement. Having your students listen to the radio and recognise the patterns is a good beginning step.

FORM OF EXPRESSION

Music has the ability to allow people to express themselves in ways that just speaking cannot. Songwriting takes that expression a step further by offering emotional stability, where someone can actually and literally “pour their heart out” on paper. Songwriting takes your student on a journey of self-discovery, and ultimately overcoming challenges that the music brings out and possible difficulties that they may not have been able to identify within themselves otherwise. Keep this in mind while teaching, because as your students are able to assess their own situation and apply it to their exercises you are able to recognise their creative talent.

LYRIC WRITING

The next step to guide in songwriting is lyrics. Tracey Reina co-founder and owner of the music school Music To Your Home and an expert in vocal training and lessons states that “the way lyrics “work” when creating a song is important to break down with a student learning songwriting. The lyrics are the voice. If you can analyse their meaning and why a word works specifically against a melody compared to another word, you have the ability to become an excellent songwriter.”

Melodies, or what is better known in the songwriting world as the chorus, are the “catchy parts” within a song. You should work with students to break down the lyrics to a chorus and figure out what makes them good. Once you’re able to go through and create multiple-word phrases and create some catchy rhymes, you’re ready for the musicality. 

MUSIC COMPOSITION

Now that you have the wordplay going, you can add in the actual music. The repetition of the music will be what your students will form into the melody or chorus of their songs. Simplicity is key here; they don’t have to create a melody with a lot of chord progressions. They can use simple and effective chords that are memorable and that have an impact with just a couple of easy changes.

For example, think about the bass line to the Queen song Under Pressure. It’s almost the same exact bass line to the song Ice Ice Baby. It’s a very simple and recognisable pattern that is on repeat. You should engage and encourage your students to think this concise to create small melodic patterns. If you need to, you can go outside of the classroom and into the online digital world for more resources on songwriting.

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ADAPTING TO STUDENT’S LEARNING

At this point, you should be able to identify how easy this process is coming for each of your students. Everyone learns at their own pace, so being able to cater to and come up with certain exercises that adapt to your students’ specific needs is the best approach when learning songwriting. When you reach the composition part of the songwriting phase, you can challenge your students to come up with catchy lyrics put to a simple melody of their own creation. 

Be sure to advise your students that they should be expressing a certain mood with their work so that the song is telling a story. Music theory teaches us that minor keys tend to have more somber feelings whereas major chords convey feelings of contentment. These are things they should keep in mind when creating their songs. 

If you find you have students that are struggling or maybe too shy of their own abilities, you can try another exercise. This one is a more collaborative approach, where you have one student start with two lines of lyrics to start a “story” and then have another student add in his/her two lines, and so on. Having the students work together to create the song helps them each build confidence from one another.

Discipline and follow-through are huge components of songwriting. You should be able to assess and evaluate which students are working through the steps and/or have a real knack for the process of songwriting and encourage them to venture into more advanced opportunities available to help develop their talents.

SONGWRITING IS SUBJECTIVE

Though songwriting is subjective there are techniques that can be utilised to help anyone improve at it. Recognising the patterns, breaking down melodies and lyrics, and leaning on others for support are all great jumping-off points to use in the classroom. Other things you can do include: 

  1. Have accomplished songwriters come into the classroom and discuss their own tips and tricks for writing songs. If they can’t physically come in, there are great online resources online, like this TEDx Talk on being a songwriter.
  2. Take a field trip to a local concert or a “writers round” if possible – a lot of musicians present how they came up with the songs before they sing them, giving you a little bit of a backstory, that can better help students gain perspective on where the ideas for songs come from. 
  3. Simply set aside time in class for your students to write, write write! Consistency is key in improving their practice. Carve out writing “workshops” where they will bring their song to you and you will work through it together to improve their work with them.

As with anything, practice helps you improve. So the most important task you can give your students is to write daily – have them jot down anything and everything that could possibly turn into inspiration for a song. This can be lyrics or the idea for a clever hook or melody. Even if their work doesn’t become the next chart-topper, there will be students who do have a natural knack for songwriting, and this could be the true start of their exploration into that career path. No matter their talent level, all of your students can benefit from challenging and expressing themselves creatively through the songwriting process.

Excellent workshops ‑ extremely accessible for all abilities and levels."

Claire Armour, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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