How to Write Better Songs

Effective mental tools for songwriters

[This guest post was written by Dan Hazlett, an acclaimed songwriter, performer, and teacher.]

After spending more than thirty years writing and performing songs and producing recordings for other songwriters, I ended up with many opportunities to teach songwriting at various songwriting retreats, conferences and festivals. This led directly to me becoming a staff instructor for the Singer/Songwriter Summer Camp at the internationally renowned Interlochen Arts Academy.

Here are some tools I offer my students to help them break away from their usual practices and find new and interesting ways to inform their songwriting process.

These tools will be useful no matter what your approach to writing a song, or at what point in your process you choose to apply them.

Spoken Word

In the spoken word exercise, perform your lyric as a spoken word piece.

By taking the melody and chord structure out of the equation you’ll be able to pay attention to places where your lyric may feel forced, where words sound wrong in some way, how the cadence of the lyric fits and where phrasing seems unnatural.

This method is most useful when done with many repetitions over time and especially when you are distracted by other mundane activities. That’s when interesting ideas often show up, when you are not focusing your rational attention on your writing.

Sung Melody

The sung melody exercise is the other side of the same coin. Try singing your melody without the benefit of words, chords or accompaniment (use nonsense syllables or humming). In the same way as the spoken word exercise, using this technique helps to point out places where your melody can be improved.

Do this repetitively and while distracted (mowing the lawn, in the shower, doing the dishes, etc.) and you’ll be surprised to find yourself singing some new and interesting notes and phrases that you may not have otherwise discovered.  Okay, it’s true that if you do this around other people they may look at you as if you’re peculiar. Don’t worry, you’re a songwriter, you’re supposed to seem eccentric; it just enhances your mystique.

Step Away From the Instrument

One of the first things you learn when beginning to master a rhythm instrument is that singing and playing at the same time is hard. Over time you begin to master some patterns of playing which, through muscle memory become part of your musical vocabulary. After awhile you’ve built up a pretty good repertoire of grooves and progressions from which you can draw when putting music to your ideas.  The downside of this is that it becomes so much easier, when writing, to fall back on familiar structures than to try and learn a new way of playing while in the throes of capturing a fresh, exciting idea, and you often end up with lots of very similar sounding songs.

A good way around this problem is to step away from your instrument. Often, I will not pick up a guitar for days or weeks while I’m pondering a new composition. While it may seem foreign, this method helps you let the song begin to define itself for you. If you walk around singing your song repetitively, in a very abstract way, the groove, feel, melody, even chord structure will begin to suggest itself to you as if the song is letting you know what it wants to be. Try to visualize your song breathing itself out through your voice and into existence. This is the most powerful tool I have yet found for informing my writing process.


If you apply these tools, I guarantee you will have some very interesting and startling results. I wish you good fortune in your songwriting adventures — and please let me know some of your own tools and tricks for evocative songwriting in the comments section below.

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More about the author: Dan Hazlett has been performing and touring for over 30 years now, bringing his uplifting and heartwarming music all across the Midwest.

His soft cheerful voice, intricate acoustic guitar playing, and ordinary-life lyrics has gotten him attention from events such as the Chautaugua Songwriting Contest, Great Lakes Songwriting Contest, and the Billboard Songwriting Competition.  Dan has also been nominated numerous times for the Detroit Music Awards.

Not only has Dan spent years writing his own songs, but has also spent much of his time educating others on the craft.  Dan has been featured on staff at highly esteemed Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters, Madison Songwriter’s Guild Retreat, and has also taught at the internationally renowned Interlochen Academy for the Arts.

For more info, check out Dan’s VPK:

[Songwriter image from Shutterstock.]