How to Write Songs: Tips From the Experts
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How to Write Songs: Tips From the Experts

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Date: September 2, 2019

Reads: 1,249


Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He isthe founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.
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It’s amazing that we can get advice directly from our songwriting idols.

Thanks to the internet, we can easily find what Songwriters have said about how to write songs in interviews, YouTube videos, or tweets.

So in this post, I’ve compiled some of my favorite songwriting tips from the experts.

If you want to write great songs, you’ll need to:

  1. Shut up and listen (Bob Dylan And Stevie Wonder)
  2. Collaborate with others (Beyonce)
  3. Discover songs, don’t invent them (Paul Simon)
  4. Designate your own songwriting space (Billy Joel)
  5. Be able to write anywhere (Leonard Cohen)
  6. Write a letter to someone (Taylor Swift)
  7. Be real (Marty Dodson)
  8. The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel (Bruce Springsteen)
  9. Don’t write to please other people (David Bowie)
  10. Record all of your ideas (Ryan Tedder)
  11. Always keep learning (Paul McCartney)

Why We Should Listen to Expert Songwriters

It bugs me whenever I come across a blogger who’s giving songwriting advice when they’ve barely made any music (or any good music, that is). So why should I take their advice?

That’s why, whenever I’m writing about songwriting, I try to pull from people who have written great songs or from common mistakes I’ve made in my own songwriting.

So, for this article, we’ll be turning to some of the best and most well-known Songwriters.

11 Songwriting Tips from the Greats

Before you read these songwriting tips, I want to make one thing clear: there are no rules in songwriting. There are only tips, suggestions, and methods to help jumpstart your creativity. So I don’t want you to take these ideas as gospel.

These are tips. Take what you will and leave the rest.

1. Shut Up and Listen (Bob Dylan And Stevie Wonder)

One of the best songwriting choices I’ve ever made was to borrow Songwriters On Songwriting from my local library. It’s a collection of interviews with some of the most iconic Songwriters, including Bob Dylan.

In this book, he points out that “poets do a lot of listening.” And, Dylan being quite the poet, I want to listen to his advice.

Stevie Wonder also understood this idea, but he put it into different words.

“…When I feel that I don’t have a song,” he said1, “I just say ‘God please give me another song,’ and I just am quiet, and it happens, and it’s just amazing.”

Tangible Takeaway: go to your local coffee shop with your laptop or a pen and paper. Sit there and listen to whatever words and conversations hit your ears, and write down what you hear. You may get the beginnings of a song this way.

2. Collaborate with Others (Beyonce)

Beyonce is a force, as a Songwriter, performer, and visionary. She’s independent and confident. So what’s her secret?

Work with other people. Don’t go it alone.

“I love being around great writers,” she said2[2]. “Because I’m finding that a lot of the things I want to say, I don’t articulate as good as maybe Amanda Ghost, so I want to keep collaborating with writers. And I love classics and I want to make sure years from now the song is still something that’s relevant.”

She wants to keep working with other Songwriters, even though she’s reached such a height of fame and success, in large part due to her songwriting.

Tangible Takeaway: think of a Songwriter you know and respect. Email, text, or call them about writing a song with them. You can do this either in-person or virtually.

3. Discover Songs, Don’t Invent Them (Paul Simon)

A few interviews with Paul Simon are also in Songwriters On Songwriting (you should really get that book!), and he said something that changed the way I approach songwriting: he discovers songs rather than inventing them.

Paul Zollo (the original interviewer) followed up with Simon on this idea during an interview for American Songwriter.

“It’s like you’re wandering down a path and you don’t know what the destination is,” Simon said3. “Somewhere, toward the end, you can sort of see what the destination is and you can understand what the journey is about.”

When he’s writing a song, he said it’s almost like he’s a first-time listener.

“[The song] usually just goes along as a story that I’m telling, and I’m a listener, and at a certain point, I say, ‘Oh! That’s what it’s about,’” he said. “But that part of the process, I really can’t explain it.”

In the same way an Archaeologist uncovers dinosaur bones, Simon uncovers songs.

“I don’t really know why an idea comes to me,” he said. “But all of a sudden, an idea comes and from experience, I can intuit what something means when an interesting line pops up. Or I can intuit what an interesting choice might be. And I can try a couple of different choices, and see which one feels right, and then continue the song to see where it goes.”

Tangible Takeaway: start writing a song from your subconscious — don’t edit yourself at all, just write. I call this stream-of-consciousness writing. Try following the song instead of setting out to write a song about a certain topic.

4. Designate Your Own Songwriting Space (Billy Joel)

If you’re like me, you’re easily distracted. (It took me five minutes to write that last sentence).

One thing that can help you focus is to have a designated space to write songs. Somewhere quiet (or loud, if you prefer that). Somewhere that allows you to put your songwriting blinders on.

“I find I write best when I sit myself down, have a coffee, go into wherever my space is,” said Billy Joel4. “And I have to have something that I like to look at because there’s a lot of dead time in the writing process…I like to have a view of the ocean.”

Not many of us may have a view of the ocean on a regular basis. But we can find our version of that.

Tangible Takeaway: brainstorm a list of places that could potentially be your songwriting space. Then test each one out a couple times and see which one feels the most comfortable and helps your creativity flow.

5. Be Able to Write Anywhere (Leonard Cohen)

On the other hand, you don’t want to completely rely on your chosen songwriting space. What if you need to write songs while on tour, but you’ve chosen your home studio to be your songwriting space?

If you can only write productively in one place, you’re out of luck.

“Inspiration is for amateurs,” said the legendary Leonard Cohen5[5]. “The rest of us just show up and get to work…A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Tangible Takeaway: create to a songwriting schedule, even if it’s only 15 minutes at a time. And commit to that schedule, whether you’re in your special songwriting space or not.

6. Write a Letter to Someone (Taylor Swift)

People tend to have strong opinions about Taylor Swift. Typically, people either hate her music or love her music. But I feel like I’m more in the middle. I don’t listen to her music, but I respect her songwriting chops, at least when it comes to pop music.

I mean, she has won a bunch of awards, including Songwriter/Artist of the Year6 seven times from the Nashville Songwriters Association International Award. The Songwriters Hall Of Fame gave her the Hal David Starlight Award7.

I’d say it may be worth listening to her songwriting advice.

She actually has one of the best pieces of songwriting advice I’ve heard.

“My advice to first-time Songwriters would be you know the person you are writing the songs about,” she told The Boot8. “First know that. Then write a letter to them, what you would say if you could.”

Tangible Takeaway: sit down and literally write a letter to someone, saying what you would if could without any repercussions. Be honest, be raw.

7. Be Real (Marty Dodson)

You may have never heard of Marty Dodson — and that’s because he’s one of those behind-the-scenes Songwriters. He’s written for or with Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Plain White T’s9.

Dodson now works at SongTown10, and he talks about “writing real.” This is an exercise similar to Swift’s advice: in one or two sentences, write down what you’d say to a person you know. Don’t try to be poetic. Just say what you’re feeling or thinking and don’t filter yourself.

The point of this is to help you focus in on the point of your song by cutting through all the fancy language that Songwriters often try to use.

Tangible Takeaway: spend 10 minutes writing real. Then see if any songwriting ideas come out.

8. Don’t Write to Please Other People (David Bowie)

The late great David Bowie definitely did not make music or perform to other people’s standards. He wasn’t out to please people, he was just making art and doing his thing.

And that’s exactly the advice he gave his fellow musicians back in 1997.

“Never play to the gallery,” he said11. “Never work for other people in what you do. Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society… I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.”

Tangible Takeaway: write down what your values are as a musician. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to get out of making music?

9. The Verses Are the Blues, the Chorus Is the Gospel (Bruce Springsteen)

You know Bruce. Everyone knows Bruce, even if you don’t actively listen to his music and know all the deep cuts.

And just like his music, his songwriting advice is simple yet extremely helpful.

“The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel,” he said12.

Tangible Takeaway: the next time you write a song, try to make the verses really sound bluesy and make the chorus big like you’d hear in gospel music. Do this with both the music and the sentiment of the lyrics.

10. Record All of Your Ideas (Ryan Tedder)

Ryan Tedder has written way more songs than you realize: Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” Beyonce’s “Halo,” and Adele’s “Rumor Has It.” Plus, he has had huge success with his band OneRepublic.

At this point, I’m all ears.

When he wrote with Sia, they recorded 45 separate approaches to a single song in 45 minutes.

“This is modern songwriting,” he said13. “You have 20 completely different melodic approaches to the same eight bars of music… And literally you can go through and chop together two bars from Take 3 and two bars from Take 11, and you’ve got your verse.”

Tangible Takeaway: set a timer and record as many approaches to one song idea as you can. When the timer goes off, see if you can piece together a complete song from those ideas.

11. Always Keep Learning (Paul McCartney)

You’d think Sir Paul McCartney would consider himself an expert Songwriter — the rest of us do. But he doesn’t see it that way. He says he doesn’t actually know how to do this whole songwriting thing.

“You never get it down,” he told NPR14. “I don’t know how to do this. You’d think I do, but it’s not one of these things you ever really know how to do.”

What I glean from this is to keep learning. Think like Sir Paul — you don’t know what you’re doing, so every day, you’re learning how to write songs. This will keep you humble, which will allow you to accept feedback and improve as a Songwriter.

Tangible Takeaway: ask a trusted Songwriter you know to give you feedback — honest, objective feedback — on one of your songs. See what you can learn from what they say.

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References

  1. 1Nora Tirrell. "Songwriting Advice from 10 Grammy-Nominated Songwriters". Take Note. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  2. 2Nora Tirrell. "Songwriting Advice from 10 Grammy-Nominated Songwriters". Take Note. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  3. 3Paul Zollo. "Paul Simon On Songwriting: I Know What I Know". American Songwriter. published: 1 September 2011. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  4. 4Nora Tirrell. "Songwriting Advice from 10 Grammy-Nominated Songwriters". Take Note. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  5. 5Nora Tirrell. "Songwriting Advice from 10 Grammy-Nominated Songwriters". Take Note. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  6. 6Zainub. "Taylor Swift Earns 7th Songwriter/Artist of the Year Award.". NashvilleGab. published: 12 October 2015. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  7. 7Multiple. "Taylor Swift: Hal David Starlight Award". Songwriters Hall Of Fame. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  8. 8Nancy Dunham. "Taylor Swift Teaches Songwriting 101". The Boot. published: 22 July 2010. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  9. 9Multiple. "Marty Dodson". Wikipedia. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  10. 10. "Lesson #2: The Writing Real Exercise". SongTown. published: . retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  11. 11. "David Bowie Offers Advice for Aspiring Artists: ‘Go a Little Out of Your Depth,’ ‘Never Fulfill Other People’s Expectations'". Open Culture. published: 10 January 2017. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  12. 12Jon Pareles. "Meet the new Boss". The Guardian. published: 21 July 2002. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  13. 13Mark Savage. "Ryan Tedder: Songwriter shares his rules of pop". BBC. published: 3 April 2014. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
  14. 14Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen. "All Songs +1: A Conversation With Paul McCartney". NPR. published: 10 June 2016. retrieved on: 27 August 2019
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