Encourage your teen to pick up their guitar and get inspired to write (Photo: Getty Images)

The value of songwriting in a quiet world

Being stuck inside all day might be wearing you and your kids down, but there’s never been a better time to encourage them to pick up their musical instrument and get stuck into writing songs. Mike Chunn from Play It Strange explains how. 

Mums and dads and households with teenage children. New Zealand is full of them. And they are finding it all very quiet right now.

The spinning wheels of that domestic environment have been under the brake recently. While the reason behind it is serious, the national quietude in our households also represents something of an opportunity.

Our passion for sporting and fitness pursuits finds homes in gerrymandered gyms, runs and bike rides and old All Blacks games on TV. But what about the mind? Is there a better time than right now to focus on an imaginative pursuit like playing a musical instrument, writing a short story or painting a watercolour?

As for our teenagers, a lot of them will know how to play a musical instrument. Many may be looking at the family piano. The piano stares back, its black and white keys wait patiently for something to happen. You can almost hear it calling out for some action. 

“PLAY ME!”

Our teenagers should be writing songs. 

Songwriting requires striding over a threshold of confidence. It’s looking at the world and writing words that sum up in colour and metaphor what is happening out there, or in the mind. Weaving through those words is the mystery of music. We all know how they fit together because every living New Zealander has heard thousands of songs in their life, many of which they hold dear until their dying day.

It seems to me, here in the Play It Strange world of secondary school songwriting competitions across New Zealand, that the parents of young songwriters find that craft to be one that borders on impossible. It’s not. It just needs to begin. 

During my days at Sacred Heart College, some time ago, Tim Finn, my brother Geoffrey and I gave it a shot. We recorded five originals (sorry but they are under lock and key) and found that songwriting is an evolutionary process. You start out in an exciting, naive fashion. Would you want to post on YouTube a video of you playing in your first game of rugby? Your debut cricket match aged eight? The first time you tried shot-put and it landed on your foot? No. Same with songwriting. You begin, finish a song, move onto the next.

The opportunity to explore, concoct, reflect, imagine, proclaim, invent, and summarise the world you live in – it’s all there to be had. The words that can be drawn on; they are in a teenager’s head just waiting patiently to be put in an engaging order. And then the excitement of music, all those notes are there too. They are waiting their turn to be played.

Songwriting is a unique and vibrant activity and right now young New Zealanders are isolated and have time on their hands. Let’s encourage them to fire up their imaginations and write songs. 

Five songwriting tips for beginners:

1. It’s important that the song you write answers three questions. Keep them pinned to the wall as you tell your story: Who is talking? To whom? And why?

2. You’re going to need a chord structure. Try finding the sheet music to a song you love (I recommend musicnotes.com), then turn it upside down and play the chords backwards. Easy – there’s a chord structure. Make adjustments as you see fit.

3. Use metaphors. My brother Geoffrey wrote a song where the first line goes: “Like rust in my car, you hold the thing together.” I reckon that’s a lot better then if he’d written: “Our relationship is shabby despite your trying to make it good.” Metaphors are crucial.

4. Seek feedback, and not just from your family and best friends. If you have a music teacher, email it to them and ask what they think. Act on their responses.

5. Take five songs you love and analyse everything about them. What is it that makes them special? Draw on what you discover. Be a sponge.

And there you are – you’re away!



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