Creative challenge: Song-writing – part 1.

Earlier this year my grade 8 classes were given the challenge of writing and performing their own song. First they had to work out how to play guitar, then they had to figure out the structure of standard pop songs and lastly they had to create lyrics that reflected how they wanted to change an aspect of their world. I am determined to inspire some new songwriters out there and this unit was linked to the question”What will your musical legacy be?”. I’ve written before about what I want my legacy to be but forgot to add a point about my own development as a musician.

I’ve always talked about wanting to embrace my natural singing voice (vs. my operatic) and to write my own songs, but haven’t acted on it. I talk to my students about their rock star dreams/ singer-songwriter dreams and how now is the best time to act on it, because after a certain age there’s less chance of making it a full time job (or at least a part-time-extra-money-on-the-side hobby). To get to the point, my 30th birthday is a year and five months away, and in preparation for the big three- zero I’ve set myself the challenge of writing 15 songs, 2/3 of which would be suitable to put on an album.

By writing this here online, I’m making my personal goal public, and thus harder to back out of. I ask you, my audience, to be part of this process. I will put my ideas online and would love for you to give me some feedback (as hard as it will often be to take the criticism).

Here’s a little bit about my process so far…

  • 1. Listening to the artists I want to sound a little bit like (click on the links)– The Weepies, Belle and Sebastian, Ben Folds, Inland Sea, Augie March, James Taylor, Tracey Chapman, Gotye … (and a few more)
  • 2. Setting up a garageband file to record my meanderings.
  • 3. Fiddling around on guitar (even though I’m a useless guitarist) to come up with chord progressions or mimic other artists’ progressions.
  • 4. Sifting through sentences I’ve written in letters where I’ve been proud of a particular turn of phrase, so that I can use them in my lyrics.
  • 5. Recording thoughts out loud that I’ve always wanted to say to the people in my life. Noticing the rhythm of my speech, the intonation, the spaces, the commonly used words, the not so commonly used words.
  • 6. Looking up words in the thesaurus. Reminding myself that I hate it when things rhyme too much in a song.
  • 7. Writing out note for note copies/ arrangements of pop songs I like into Sibelius. Noticing the structure and layers.
  • 8. Having conversations with fellow musicians/ reading interviews about songwriting for ideas about their process.
  • 9. Sleeping, doing housework, thinking.
  • 10. Sitting down and actually recording.

This is not the first time I’ve attempted to write songs, but this is the first time I’ve taken it so seriously. Here’s a recording of me aged 19 with my song ‘Up To You’ – I was exploring chords and trying to write proper lyrics. Wish I could go back and totally re-record my voice! I think that what I’m aiming for now is very different. In this recording I’m playing piano, and two guys I went to uni with are playing drums and guitar (Paul? and Josh – I can’t remember their last names). I love Josh’s guitar solo — I gave him my weird chords and he turned it into something special. I remember him saying to me that he didn’t understand why my chord progression worked — he was an excellent and dedicated musician with Kodaly training — and I liked the fact that it didn’t make sense!


If you have any tips and tricks about writing songs or articles along that vein, please share them in the comments.

About Alison Armstrong

Alison Armstrong BMus./BEd. (Queensland University of Technology), Dip. ABRSM (Performance- Singing) I have trained to teach Music (Elementary, Middle and High School) and Drama (Middle and High School). This is my 7th year as a teacher.
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22 Responses to Creative challenge: Song-writing – part 1.

  1. jabiz says:

    Sound great Allison, very low key but solid. I know nothing about songwriting accept that I am in awe of it as a talent.

    I do know what i love when I here it and it is usually simplicity. Ben Harper comes to mind both lyrically and musically of getting so much mileage from three chords, but beautiful tones and messages.

    Josh Ritter is another amazing story teller. Check out this article on his process.

    Good luck. Keep sharing so we can listen.

  2. That article needs to be read aloud. There are so many words that need to be tasted instead of just thought!

  3. deetiller says:

    Alison, your song is beautiful! I am a Composition Grad student and it is possible to explain the progression of your chords – borrowed chords or pan-diatonicism. Good for you to just let the music evolve without worrying whether they fit the traditional explanations.
    I look forward to hearing more of your music!


    • Thanks Dee! Yep, knew they were pan-diatonic, I was doing a class on 20th century art music and one on ‘The Groove, the Hook and the Sound in Pop, Jazz and Rock Music’ at the time and I was borrowing ideas from Stravinsky to put into my pop/jazz music. What Josh was trying to figure out was why the progression from one chord to the next made sense (we had quite a few conversations about interesting cadences in pop music). If only I could remember what the chords were. I do remember having to spell it out and one of them was something min9 #11. It came out of sitting down at a piano and just listening to all the possibilities of combining chords and then after finding the sounds I liked, working them into a progression. It was an enjoyable experiment, as was writing choral, piano and instrumental work that borrowed ideas from Debussy, Schoenberg and Phillip Glass. Writing this makes me miss university!!!

  4. Alison, this sounds like a great challenge. Seems to be a realistic goal and timeframe, with a lot of moments to be had along the way. Kudos on making it public, too (I struggle with that part myself:)

    I’m not a songwriter but thinking about it made me recall a story I heard about Townes Van Zandt. Folks would say that when Townes decided to become a songwriter, he locked himself in a room for days on end — listening to records and practicing/crafting/refining his language in seclusion, one song at a time.

    I tried to find the story online but no luck. While looking, though, I did find this piece with lots of folks (Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Jim James, Scott Avett, etc.) reflecting about him as a songwriter. Tangential, I know, but I ended up reading the whole long article and there are some nice nuggets in there. So fwiw:

    Looking forward to hearing the tracks as they develop.

    • I know what I’ll be reading in the middle of the night! Thanks!

    • Thanks for the pdf. A friend and I have taken the time to acquaint ourselves with Townes tonight because of your link. What a lyrical master! I’m not usually one to listen to American country/ folk music like this, but I like this. As I was reading the article I had Nick Drake’s ‘Bryter Layter’ playing in the background… that’s another songwriter I could learn a lot from!

      • Yeah, I was never drawn to country either — till I moved to Austin and was indoctrinated in Townes, Willie, and some others. Some rich storytelling. And Nick Drake is another thing altogether — so strong and so simple. One of those artists I always warm to when I hear it, anytime, anywhere…

      • It’s funny how ‘place’ changes how you listen to music. Opera on the beach just doesn’t seem to work, nor does folk music fit in a swanky metropolitan setting.

  5. Ross Parker says:

    Alison, your songs are bound to be great if hold true to the influence of the artists you listed in your first bullet point. More to the point I admire your drive to model in yourself what you are teaching to your students. This is something I have really been working on myself as an ICT teacher. I started with maintaining a blog ( and using Creative Commons and moved into writing an open source school manage system (, a huge ongoing project which my own students get to use). Of late using Twitter (@rossdotparker) to drive my own personal/professional learning, share my practice and to drive myself to be more creative.

    It is a lot of work with many balls to juggle, and it is hard to judge the benefits, but I think it is the only genuine way to teach, and a great way to inspire those teachers interested in your subject area.

    And if, at the end of the day, it is all a giant failure, you can model humility, reflection and grace in defeat ; )

    Have you considered putting your work under Creative Commons so others can remix? Or perhaps using Kickstarter ( to raise funds and make a splash?

    Let me know when the album is ready, I would love to have a listen. Also willing to give feedback on tracks in progress.

    Good luck ; )

    • Thanks Ross for the encouragement! I think I want to write it first, then share it through creative commons when I’m happy with it. There are bound to be tracks that I don’t want anyone to touch and others that could be tweaked.
      Jabiz is at my school and has taught me all I know about Creative Commons, blogging, soundcloud, and twitter, and it’s been a great outlet to talk about my craft as a musician and teacher — and a way for my students and parents to get to know me. This has been a year of saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘it’s too hard’ and I’ve really embraced all sorts of tech ideas. I’ll check out your work later šŸ™‚

      • Ross Parker says:

        Sounds like a good approach! I am looking forward to meeting Jabiz one day: he seems like a really interesting guy, full of novel ideas. In teaching it is tough to say “yes” to the extras, but really worth it. Good luck!

  6. Just to let you know, today I’m feeding the monster/ the muse this song
    It can’t get enough of it.

  7. musicwork says:

    Love the melodic contour of your verses – I think it will be replaying in my head now as I get ready for bed! Great project to set for yourself – and very courageous to set it out here! Good for you.
    Was the music course you mentioned with our friend Steve D? An inspiring, generous musician.

    • Yes. Steve Dillon was the first person to encourage my songwriting and pop singing, and he was the guy I went to a month ago to get more people to look at my blog. This post is kind of a tribute to him.

      • I recorded and submitted two songs during ‘the groove, hook, sound’ course (run by Steve) the day before I went to hospital for glandular fever. When I got back from hospital I got my results back and while there were a few things that could have been improved, Steve wrote on my assignment that the feel and lyrics were like something Cole Porter would have written. I was so chuffed that I went to see him in person to thank him because I was going for that older Swing/ Musical Comedy kind of feel in my song, he also gave me props for my lyrics for my blues which, twistedly, were about Death scratching at my door. (You can hear in this song that my voice is still recovering from laryngitis and that I haven’t quite got my strength back). Steve really gave me the impetus to explore genres of songwriting and to take it seriously. I would have loved to have had him as a supervisor for an M Mus.

  8. onepercentyellow says:

    such an awesome journey you are taking yourself on. Its really amazing what can happen when you turn on the intention switch! You are starting with an amazing base! I love writing and singing about just where I am. I also love putting ideas out to my friends and family and seeing what comes back to me. Songwriting can be fun and silly and liberating as well as deep and meaningful and structured. I really enjoy playing with both!

  9. Hi Alison,
    I stumbled upon your blog because I was searching to see if anyone had done a similar songwriting challenge to the one I just completed. I wrote a song a day in May – 31 songs. It was pretty tough šŸ™‚
    Here’s the first one:

    Hope you find it interesting.

    • Thanks for the share Dave! Wish I could play guitar like you! I hope when I move to Auckland in a couple of days I can buy myself a piano and spend some quality time doing nothing but songwriting. Sadly, I’m only 3 songs into my 15 song challenge and I hope to remedy that. Please stop by again!

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