I’m going to start this off by saying that by no means am I a professional voice teacher. I haven’t gone to school and studied voice like many professionals. I’m merely an enthusiast with a ton of practice and experience who wants to impart that knowledge to others.
I was about nine or ten when I wrote my first song. I had been writing random poems for a little while at that point, practicing the poetic forms like haiku and acrostics that we had been learning in school. I also knew how to read basic sheet music and the names of musical notes.
However, I had no idea how to put words and music together. How did the people on the radio do it? I had no clue.
One evening, I came to my mom and asked her in that very matter-of-fact way that children usually ask something, “Mom, how do I write a song?”
Mom was always willing to indulge us kids in whatever we were curious about, especially when it came to music. Mom told me to get out some lyrics I had written and then turn on my little Casio keyboard. For the next few hours, she went through my lyrics and showed me how to compose a song, which turned out to be simpler than I thought.
“You make up a melody to go with the lyrics you’ve written,” I remember her telling me. “That’s the key to writing a song.”
Once Mom showed me how to compose a song, I felt like a whole new world had opened up for me. Suddenly, my words could come alive with music. And all of this was done before I even knew how to compose music with chords. I was just using melodies and playing them on the keyboard and singing over them.
Those songs I wrote were very primitive forms of the stuff I write now. But one of the things I learned early on about writing my own music was that I wasn’t trying to sing something written for a voice like Celine Dion’s. I was writing for my own voice and all the quirks that go with it.
When I was a child, I realized that I could sing really low and really high. When playing around with the keyboard one day, I got up to a soprano high C! (the first note in the picture below)
Realizing that I had a wide singing range, I composed songs with impossibly high and low melody parts. Like this one:
These days, I’m less wild when it comes to my melodies, though I do enjoy swooping low and high to illustrate a lyric. That I can go from high to low really easily is something I like to take advantage of when I write.
Once I figured out what my personal style was (“multi-lingual choirgirl surrounded by synthesizers or a piano”), songwriting came even easier because I knew what vowels and sounds would work with my instrument.
Writing my own music also helped me to further develop as an artist and figure out who I was. In writing my own songs, I got to discover what makes my music stand out. What did I have that no one else does?
1) I can speak a foreign language.
Rather early on, I had a penchant for learning languages. Even though I didn’t speak a word of French or German, I would come up with lyrics in English and then try to “translate” them using a dictionary, looking up each word and writing down my new German or French lyrics. I didn’t care that I didn’t speak any of those languages. However, my mom warned me that my method of writing in a foreign language wasn’t correct. “You’re not conjugating the verbs or learning the grammar, so your lyrics probably aren’t correct.”
But that didn’t occur to me as a sixth grader.
Exhibit A: my attempt at writing a Christmas carol “translated” into German from English.
Once I began learning French for real in school, I wrote little poems and things even when I didn’t know much of the language. And I began writing some of my first real French songs, with real and correct French grammar.
I was always wary of sharing my French songs with people because I was worried they’d tune out from not being able to understand the lyrics. These days, I am more willing to share my French compositions. A self-composed French song at an otherwise English-language open mic night is different enough that people actually do listen and seem to get a kick out of hearing a French song, especially one that I wrote myself. You don’t hear French everyday in southeastern Virginia.
2) Being self-taught on the piano
People ask how long I’ve been playing piano.
About six years.
On a whim, I bought a Yamaha DGX keyboard. I’d always wanted to learn piano but never knew how to do anything more complex than the same melody in different octaves on both hands. And I figured it was a better time than any to learn the piano.
It took a while (read: hours of practice and experimenting and listening carefully to piano-based music), but now I can play countermelodies against a different vocal melody. You can thank Tori Amos and Charlotte Martin for their influence in my own piano playing.
The fact that I play piano makes me stick out, especially at an open-mic night. You don’t see as many keyboardists at open mic nights, probably because carrying around a keyboard is rather cumbersome. When I go out to play a song or two, I stick with places that have a real piano so I don’t have to lug my Yamaha with me.
3) My produced music is electronic
Or more specifically, synth pop (and all its subgenres of subgenres of subgrenres….. sigh the complication of electronic music). My peers were into Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. I was blasting Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys on my Walkman instead.
I love 80s music, always have, always will. And the more obscure, the better.
I love electronic sounds and melding them with pure, acoustic sounds like my piano and vocal layers. It makes the song more interesting. Even if it causes some misunderstandings when I describe my produced music (most people hear “electronic” and immediately think “techno”), I do like to fill out my songs with electronic elements. My friend Janae Jean is the only other one I’ve ever met who does electronic music like I do.
So with all of this said…. How do you go about writing your own songs so you can find your own voice?
Pretty easy, actually.
First of all, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to read sheet music in order to compose your own songs. I can read sheet music well, but I don’t use it to notate my songs unless I absolutely have to. I usually write the chord symbol above the lines in my songs so I know what chords go over which lines.
What I would recommend is that you learn the basic chords for a song and go from there. Pick an instrument, any at all, and learn simple chords to help you get started. Guitar, piano, autoharp, ukulele, whatever.
What do I mean by basic song chords?
I’ll let the Axis of Awesome show you what I mean.
Another way to learn how to write a song without sheet music is to look up the guitar chords for your favorite song online (sites and apps like Ultimate Guitar are really helpful) and puzzle your way through the chords as you learn them on your instrument. Then take those chords and try rearranging them and putting them with your own lyrics (so long as you don’t use the same melody as your favorite song, or you could get into copyright trouble). Hum or sing “do” over the chord and figure out what kind of melody would work for the lyrics you’ve written.
Do realize that your first few songs are probably not going to be very good. Songwriting is a skill like anything else. It’s like riding a bike. You are going to fall a few times before you learn to keep your balance when your feet aren’t on the ground.
And like any skill, it takes time.
But the more you write and experiment and practice, the better your songs are going to be.
My first songs written as a child were crap. But I applied myself to writing songs and now I can write a decent song in about an hour!
Writing my own music helps me feel confident in myself, more than when I’m singing someone else’s song, because I wrote those words and that melody. I know how it’s supposed to sound. And most of all, that melody is for me. Sure I’d be thrilled if someone wanted to cover my song (if you ever do want to cover any of my songs, please send me a copy, I’d love to hear it!) but I feel more comfortable with my own music.
And you can feel more comfortable with yourself too when you write your own music. It will take time, but it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do when it comes to finding your own singing voice.
Stay tuned for the finale, Part 4, where I talk about something that makes all the difference when singing: confidence.