5 Songwriting Challenges to Sharpen Your Skills

If you’ve read through my blog posts, you probably know by now that I rave on about the Song A Week Challenge. But I want to share some specific songwriting prompts that you can use to improve your skills. Here are five challenges to help spice up your writing!

1. Write a song using magnetic poetry

This was one of the first songwriting prompts I came up with! I used to do this all the time in highschool.

Visit this website to create free magnetic poetry online! Pull generated words from the side onto the main board and arrange them. Click “more words” and continue building your work! My favorite is the “nature poet” kit.

It can be helpful to have an external source come up with the words, and you can rearrange them like a puzzle!

2. Write a song in 20 minutes

I’ve done this challenge a few times now. The idea stemmed out of my song a week challenge. I was doing the Song A Week Challenge, and one week I simply didn’t have the time or energy to spend two or three hours writing a song. I decided to write a song in 20 minutes. I took my notebook and gave myself an outline:

Verse 1 - 5 min

Chorus - 5 min

Verse 2 - 5 min

Bridge - 5 min

*Note that you don’t have to write a verse-chorus song. You can write a refrain song or toy around with different structures.

I set my timer and wrote each section in five minutes. By the time 20 minutes had passed, I had written a full song!

Was it the best song I've ever written? No. Did it improve my songwriting skills? Yes!

In all honesty, this particular challenge stemmed out of laziness. But I do recommend it. When you only have five minutes for each section, you have to force yourself to give up perfection and just write.

3. Write a song in another language!  

I’ve been doing this more and more lately. It might sound like a weird challenge, but there’s a reason behind it! When I try to write a song in another language, I am forced to focus on the melody, the placement, and the composition. I use simple lyrics and words because my vocabulary is limited! Google translate gives me a hand, and it’s not always perfect, but it’s a great way to escape my analytical lyrical mind and focus on other aspects of writing.  

Try this challenge if you struggle with overthinking your lyrics and want to focus more on melody and composition.

4. Write a chorus that only uses 10 words

This assignment was given to me in a songwriting class at Berklee College of Music.

The challenge is to write a song with a chorus that only uses 10 words. You can repeat the same words, but you can’t use more than a total of 10 words.

This was my initial chorus:

“Are you darling coming home again

Are you darling coming home again

There are pieces of you that need to

There are pieces of you that don’t give a damn”

The chorus above uses a total of 17 words.

This was the result when I turned it into a chorus with under 10 words:

“Are you darling coming home again

Are you darling coming home again

Been gone so long

Been gone so long”

I still use this strategy to write sections that are less cluttered, more memorable, and straight to the point.  

Try this challenge if you struggle with getting to the main point of your songs and eliminating word clutter.

5. Write a song in a mode you’ve never used

This challenge requires some music theory knowledge and is not for everyone. But if you have spent some time with theory and are familiar with musical modes, this is an incredible songwriting challenge!

First, decide which mode you want to write in. I like to choose a mode based on the feeling that I want to convey. Each mode has a different feeling; major scales and chords are often associated with happiness, and minor scales and chords, with sadness. Below, I've briefly described each mode, it’s defining quality, and the feeling that it’s often associated with. I've also given an example of a song that was written in each mode.

Ionian is a fancy word for a major scale and is often associated with a happy feeling. The song Ho Hey by the Lumineers is an example of a song written in Ionian.

Structure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Dorian is a minor scale with a major sixth. The minor third gives a sad feeling, but the lifted sixth brings in a note of optimism. The song Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel is a great example of dorian.

Structure: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Phrygian feels dark and moody. It is a minor scale with a flat second degree. Because of this, it’s slightly darker than a minor scale. Superstar by Sonic Youth is written in the phrygian mode.

Structure: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Lydian is a major scale with a sharp fourth degree. Lydian feels light, uplifting, and dreamlike. But the sharp fourth creates a tritone against the tonic and can create some tension. I find this extremely interesting. I’ll often use lydian to write a song with an overall happy feeling, but sometimes, I’ll highlight the sharp fourth to show tension! Waltz #1 by Elliot Smith is in lydian.

Structure: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian is a major sale with a flat seventh. Because it is very similar to a major scale, it feels mostly happy, but the tension of the flat seventh gives it a darker edge. The song Royals by Lorde is in the mixolydian mode.

Structure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Aeolian is a fancy word for a minor scale and is often associated with a sad feeling. The song Family by Noah Gundersen was written in aeolian.

Structure: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Locrian is the darkest mode. It’s a minor scale with a flat second and a flat fifth. These tensions make it feel extremely unstable, odd, and even scary. Locrian is hard to write in and especially difficult to make it sound pleasurable. Army of Me by Bjork was written in locrian.

Structure: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

Lydian and Dorian are my favorite modes to write in!

I hope these songwriting challenges gave you some ideas. Try one of them. Try all of them. Try some variation of these suggestions! I hope this helps; if it does, let me know in the comments, and I’ll create a second posting with more songwriting challenges!

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