How does Taylor Swift write such personal songs that connect with so many people? What makes an Ed Sheeran song so sappy but so likable? How did the Beatles write such simple songs that are beloved by millions? How is it that you'll remember every word of "Toxic" by Britney Spears for the rest of your life?
Getting started as a songwriter may feel daunting, and writing hits as big as the ones your favorite artists record feels nearly impossible. But it's not!
The first trick to any sort of writing, be it poetry or music, is getting started. But once you have put pen to paper, trying to turn your thoughts into a song can be tricky. How do you know when its finished? How do you know if its working? And what do you do with it if you can't write music?
Hackett explains that there are two ways to write a song: lyrics first or melody first. For the poets out there who want to start with lyrics, the first step is putting some ideas down on paper. Hackett advises aspiring songwriters to start paying close attention to what people say, because it can be a source of surprising inspiration. The spark of an idea for her single, "Good Intentions," came while she was in church, and her pastor told the congregation, while urging them to volunteer time outside of church, "We all have good intentions, but you can’t get to heaven on good intentions." When Hackett took the idea for a much more serious song to her co-writers, one suggested they could make it a bit sarcastic instead.
"We don’t realize how common phrases, when jumbled around a little bit and put into songs, can affect us," Hackett says.
In short: you don't have to reinvent the wheel when you're trying to write a song. You just have to customize it until it fits your aesthetic.
Once you have some lyrics you like, or if you're more a fan of starting with the melody and letting the lyrics come to you, Hackett suggests three methods of finding the sound you want. For people who don't play an instrument: hum or sing whatever melodies pop into your head a capella. "Like everybody, I sing in the shower and come up with some of my best ideas there because the melody is coming out of nowhere," Hackett says.
The second option is also for people who don't necessarily play music, but have a friend or collaborator who does. Tell (or sing to) them what you're hearing in your head and work out the melody together. Hackett does this with her producer, who she says is an excellent piano player. "Sitting down with a new person or a person who is really skilled on their instrument. [They] will bring out new melodies that might not have come to you otherwise," Hackett says. "A capella melody ideas can get you pretty far, until you are able to sit down with someone who knows an instrument and you can sing it to them."
The third option is for those who can play an instrument: Sit down with it and play around. "I love to sit down with my guitar and pick around on ideas until something falls out," Hackett ays. "Often, you may just make noises and sound silly, but as you’re sounding out the vowels you want to hear or the rhythm of the words you’re jumbling, they start to become real songs."
That advice goes for people who use apps and technology to create their music also, rather than a traditional instrument. Technology has made making music very accessible, and Hackett advocates for using whatever apps, loops, and existing music might work for you to write to. Songtrust recommends FourTrack to get a four-track recorder on your iPhone, Nanostudio for the more electronic-oriented music composer, Evernote and Songwriter's Pad for capturing lyrics and ideas, and Soundcloud to upload your music.
The most important piece of advice Hackett offers new songwriters is to treat it like a job and don't give up on an idea if it doesn't work on the first try. She has rewritten songs when the melody doesn't match the lyrics and is a fan of taking a song down as many paths as it needs to go down to polish it into what it is meant to be. In fact, she tells Refinery29 that she's still working on a song for her next album that has gone through multiple rewrites, but she can't quite let it go. "We have so much fun singing that song, but we haven’t gotten the lyrics quite right yet. No matter what words are in it, we know the melody is strong and it feels good."
Songwriters should hang in there when a song isn't working and wait for the "a-ha moment" to hit, Hackett advises. "There is a lot of discovery in songwriting," she says. "If you’re doing it right, you are constantly discovering new avenues. You could take a certain road for five minutes and not get anywhere, but it’s okay because you can go back to that fork where you left off and try a different road. Eventually you’ll land on the right path, and the song will unfold."