by Trevor McMaken
I read in high school that the first hundred songs you write aren’t very good, so decided that with every song I write I want to get better at it. Co-writing with other songwriters has been the way that I’ve grown most as a songwriter. Here are 8 things I’m learning about songwriting with others. If you haven’t done it before, give it a try—it’s worth the learning curve. —Trevor
1. Be a Fan of Your Co-writer
When you begin co-writing with someone, you have to believe that your partner’s ideas could be as good or better than yours. If you don’t, you won’t value their input or be excited about what you create together. But if you genuinely admire your co-writer’s style, perspective, and musicianship, you’ll be eager to collaborate. If you have trouble respecting other writers’ ideas, it might be that you think more highly of yourself and your sound than you should. Co-writing has to be approached with humility and an admission that you need one another.
2. Play to Each other’s Strengths
Everyone brings different skills (melody, rhythm, lyric, harmony, concept, structure, hooks, etc.). Ideally, your strengths and weaknesses will balance each other out. My strengths are thinking conceptually about and creating structures and arrangements. Bonnie—my most common writing partner—her strength is crafting more poetic lyrics and marrying them to interesting melodies.
Know your strengths and weakness and know your partner’s as well. Talk about them. Then you can play to each other’s strengths and help each other grow in your weaknesses.
3. Surrender Your Ideas
In order to write with someone else, you have to surrender control of the song that you’re working on. When you bring an idea into a collaboration, it is no longer exclusively yours. It now belongs to everyone in the room. Each of your opinions is equally important. Each of you has equal ownership.
This is why bringing a song that is almost done to a co-writing session can be challenging; you’ve already grown too attached to it to want to change it. By bringing a song that is too far along, you’re basically saying to your co-writer, “I don’t need much from you; I can handle it one my own.” If you’re just looking to workshop your song—get some opinions and make a few final tweaks—that’s fine. Feedback like that can be really helpful. But that’s not co-writing.
Bonnie and I have had a number of occasions when we haven’t really wanted to surrender a song to one another. One of us had a clear vision of what we wanted and all we needed was to workshop it with one another. Once we realized that, we knew how to approach the session.
But, if you let go of the song, it has the possibility of becoming something greater and different than what you would have done with it on your own.
4. What Do You Bring to a Songwriting Session?
You don’t want the song to be too far along, but it usually helps if you have an idea to start with. Some people like to start cold without anything at all. I’m sure this can work, but in my experience, having a jumping off point helps you get to the good stuff more quickly.
It could be a single phrase of the lyric, a musical hook, a groove, a chord change. Maybe it’s just a concept for the type of song you want to write, a passage of a text or an experience that you are inspired by. Or it could be an entire fragment of the chorus.
A friend and I were writing and he played one of his songs that was nearly done. I made several suggestions, but he wasn’t very interested in them. Then we worked on one of mine that was almost done: same thing. But then a fragment of one of those songs intrigued us and we started writing a third, completely new song. It was so exciting! We wrote it in an hour and I don’t remember exactly who came up with what parts. I think we both liked that new song better than the two we had each written individually.
Bringing something to the table helps get the process started, as long as you are ready to surrender it to the other person and the process. The goal is that at the end of the process, you have a song that everyone involved is excited about.
5. Rules for Brainstorming
Brainstorming different ideas and suggestions in front of someone else can be scary. What if the other person thinks it’s a bad idea? What if it is?
The truth is, you’re both going to have terrible ideas, write insipid lyrics, play tired progressions, and reach for cliched melodies. But it’s not the bad ideas that matter; it’s the good ones. Bad ideas lead to better ideas which lead to something incredible that you would have never thought of if you hadn’t had really bad idea. Every idea can be a stepping stone to a better idea. Don’t be afraid to throw out lots of ideas and then sift through them like you’re panning for gold.
Co-writing can be embarrassing at first, until you begin to trust that the other person isn’t going to judge you. That’s why brainstorming has to be under an umbrella of safety—free from criticism. You must learn to suspend judgement, withhold final decisions, and think gray (instead of black and white). If there’s an idea you don’t connect with, then let it go without a comment. Embrace the silence and wait for the next idea. Keep looking, keep sifting, keep digging, until you find the thing that captures you both.
That may mean that you may have to let go of an idea you really like that the other person doesn’t like in favor of something you both like. Don’t try to push for your way, or you’ll stifle the collaboration. Remember, the song doesn’t belong to just you anymore; you both have to like it.
If something perfect doesn’t come, move on. Get some ideas out on paper and work toward a rough draft. Not everything has to be finished. Don’t get too bogged down at first in the details— there will be time to polish later. Just keep running ideas up the flagpole and see who salutes.
6. Learning to Work Together Takes Time
It takes time to get to know one another and learn how you each like to work.
I’m very verbal so I like talking about things and trying lots of things. Several people I’ve written would prefer that I just be quiet and let them think! Writing with Bonnie, she needs to feel energized and at peace before she can write—whereas I like to write when I’m stressed because it brings me energy and peace. Another friend likes to figure out the instrumental groove before he works on the melody or lyric, whereas I always prefer to start with the lyric and melody and the work on the accompaniment part later.
When learning to write together, we have to learn to let the other work and learn how to meet in the middle.
One session is not usually enough to develop a good partnership. Regular writing times can provide accountability and a deadline. Write regularly for a while and see what clicks. Sometimes it won’t and that’s okay—not everyone is a great match. But when the chemistry clicks, a new style is born that is influenced by each person but that transcends the individuals and becomes something greater.
7. Write it Down
Bring paper or your computer to make sure you write down lots of ideas. It might not work for this song but it could spark another. Keep a journal or document where you can stick these ideas and return to them later. You should always have a dozen fragments you’re working on and a list of a hundred ideas that inspire you.
8. Record It
You’ll forget it if you don’t.