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How to Write a Song

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There are hundreds of articles on how to write a song. However, most of them approach songwriting as though there was a formula. According to them, all you need to write a song is follow the right song structure, create a ‘hook’, meaningful lyrics, chord progressions and voila!

We all know this is bullshit.

Instead, I for tips on how to wrote a song I set out to research interviews with mega-successful songwriters giving their songwriting advice. From this I was able to pick out key themes & takeaways. One of which was, there is NO formula.

In this article I include the quotes plus links to many of the videos.

TL:DR/ – Key Takeaways

  • There is no formula – each artist has a different way of songwriting
  • Collaboration is cited as vital by many songwriters
  • Work in the right space or location
  • Lots of great songs start as titles
  • Few songwriters talk about music theory. It’s about feeling and instinct. 
  • Nearly all artists admit their first songs were poor. Songwriting is a craft that is learnt and improves.
  • Putting time aside for proper songwriting sessions is important. Don’t write under pressure or to deadlines.
  • Writing songs for other people is a good way to learn the art
  • Many great songs get written quickly. Artists rarely spend multiple sessions on songs.
  • A common refrain is ‘Don’t play by the rules’. 
  • Managers and producers play an important, indirect role
  • Feedback from trusted people is important
  • Artists constantly mention “fun”. 

Songwriting Tips

Song Titles

Many classic songs start as a title, then the song is built around it. 

Songwriting Lyrics

Keith Richards puts it best – a song is a marriage of melody and lyrics. Neither is more important or has priority. A successful song is a combination of the two working together. Even within songwriting partnerships there is no set ‘rule’ for which comes first. Ignore any advice that says write either one first. Do whatever works for you.

There is No Songwriting Formula

There is no formula when it comes to writing hit songs, i.e. verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge. Major and minor keys can be mixed. Song lyrics can either tell a ‘story’ or be highly personal. Or, they can be about nothing at all or completely made up, e.g. Liz Fraser.

However, there is general agreement that commercial songs need to get to the chorus quicker and quicker. Dave Grohl has a solution – simply write songs that are all chorus!

Collaboration

It is striking how many songwriters work collaboratively. Even a ‘solo’ artist often has a songwriting partner or producer they work with when writing. Finding the right person is obviously key, but when found, the partnerships can last decades, e.g. Mick n Keef, Elton & Bernie, Gibb brothers.

Ideas to help include signing up for a songwriting course or a Songwriter’s camp.

Writing Sessions

Although some songs can arrive fully-formed out of the blue, the majority of songs are written during dedicated sessions. Songwriters need to be focused on the task. Many songwriters cite optimal session times of around 3 hours. Songwriting ideas can come from anywhere at anytime, but being focused during a session is very effective.

Surroundings

Although the majority of writing takes place in a studio the important songwriting advice is simply collaborators spending time together, uninterrupted and focused on writing. Whether this is in a hotel room while on tour or at a house doesn’t seem to be a factor – it’s more about being together for a set amount of time.

A Song Either Happens or it Doesn’t

It’s remarkable how often great songs get written quickly. During a session a song either happens, or it doesn’t. Successful writers rarely end a session with half a dozen half-written songs. Classic songs often get written in one session. And if nothing comes from the session, move on to the next.

Writing songs for other people

When you write a song for yourself, most artists feel it must say something about themselves. However, writing songs for other people means you focus on the song, rather than your ego. Many successful songwriters, including artists who perform themselves, say writing songs for others is a great way to learn how to write a song.

Don’t Play By the Rules

Many artists include this advice in their tips for songwriting. Of course, when they say ‘rules’ they still mean within the genre – so if you’re a rock artist you’re unlikely to write a freeform jazz piece (unless you’re Spinal Tap). But they mean, don’t follow set song structures. Mix major and minor keys. Change tempo. Change time signature. In other words, if it feels right then do it.

Don’t get hung up on music theory

It’s remarkable, given the many “How to write a song’ articles that describe, in detail, music theory and song structures, how few artists refer to music theory when discussing song writing! As Keith Richards says, “I don’t know why it’s called songwriting since I don’t write anything down”

Have fun

Time and again, songwriters say how much fun they have. But it’s important to point out, if you’re not having fun then you’re unlikely to write a great song. If it feels like a chore or you don’t get on with your songwriting partners, then don’t expect good songs. Btw, this doesn’t mean you need to be feeling happy. You can be sad or angry about something, but still enjoy writing about how sad or angry you feel.

Managers

A recurring theme is how important a manager or producer is to the song writing process. They will often be referenced as an influence due to a comment they made or an idea they had. They may not be included on the writing credits but having a creative team around the songwriters can have a strong influence over the songs.

Feedback is important

Many new artists think that to be considered ‘authentic’, they must write from the heart and be themselves. Yet a recurring theme throughout my research is the importance of feedback. Songwriters will listen to the views of ‘trusted’ others and use it to shape their songs. Listening to people you trust and changing your song in response does not make your song less authentic. 

Songwriting Tips – Summary

There are four themes that stand out:

  1. Don’t get caught up in songwriting theory. While music theory can help if you want to be a composer, songs are more often crafted with feeling than formulas. In fact, if anything, songwriters repeatedly say there is NO formula.
  2. Collaboration, with the right person, can add exponentially to a writer’s creativity. The key is finding the right person. Unfortunately, there is a large element of luck to this.
  3. When you have a song that feels ‘right’, finish it to the best of your ability, then move on. Don’t work on lots of different ideas at once.
  4. Although a song is ‘yours’, many artists say how important feedback is. They’re willing to listen. Whether they change anything, they don’t say 🙂 But, be open to opinions from people you trust. 

The difficulty with this advice is, I assume, few artists record and release songs they don’t feel are right. Begging the question, how do you know if your feeling is going to translate into a song that resonates with an audience?

In other words, what distinguishes a great songwriter’s ‘feeling’ from another, less successful writer who also ‘feels’ their song is right? 

I write more about this subject in my article, How to create Buzz?

Songwriter Quotes

I just go to the studio and there’s 24 lyrics waiting for me and I look through them and see which one I want to start with, and then I try to write a song. I never, ever know what the lyrics are gonna be up front

Elton John

I love coming up with titles and I work around those titles or first lines, because if you have a title, you can really build a strong chorus behind it.

Bernie Taupin

I write on a guitar because it gives me a rhythmic sense. It’s got nothing to do with how it ultimately turns out with Elton, but I do use a guitar. I play chords and just sort of sing the lines over to myself, so that I feel when he reads them, he can read them in a rhythmic cadence. So what I’ll do is have a pad and a pen and a computer and I will just sing to myself on the guitar. I’ll come up with something, write it longhand and after I’ve written maybe a verse or something, I put it onto the word processor because I wanna make sure I can remember it, because I’m scrawling on a pad.

Bernie Taupin

As I discovered in the 60s, you can spend months in a rehearsal room painstakingly perfecting your craft and you won’t learn as much about live performance as you do in half an hour trying to win over an unfamiliar audience. You have to have that visual contact with other human beings.

Elton John

I had a slight talent for wording, and Keith always had a lot of talent for melody from the beginning. Everything (in the beginning), including the riffs, came from Keith. But we worked hard at it. We developed it. You need application. Our first songs were terrible.

Mick Jagger

I started writing on piano, which is easy: just put your fingers down. I think the first song I wrote melodically was Yesterday’s Papers. Then Jigsaw Puzzle. As a singer I would impose my melodies over the chord structures. 

Mick Jagger

Usually Keith gives me a start with the lyrics for his tunes. It’s rare he gives me a melody with no indication – though if I come up with something better we’ll change it. But usually he gives me an attitude or a phrase, like beast of burden, to pick up on. Obviously there are some lyrics I write all by myself. But sometimes Keith helps me just by saying which is the best verse. I might write five verses and we only need three. Keith will say, Oh, that’s a great line, let’s combine it with this.

Mick Jagger

But I always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it: I didn’t know you thought like that. The interesting thing is what you say to someone else, even to Mick, who knows me real well. And he takes it away. You get his take.

Keith Richards

First I find a riff and a chord sequence. And if that’s any good, then I start to play it with some other guys and pump it up. If that’s great, then I check the attitude and the atmosphere of the track. What the hell is this putting out? There’s no point in writing songs on a sheet of paper, going verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and regarding this as a song. No, it ain’t. A song is music, and I’d rather start with the music and then get into the attitude of the track and put something on top of it. What are you going to put on top of it, because you could have spent months trying? I can’t divorce lyrics from the music. Songwriting is a marrying of the both. To me, the easiest way is to get the track.

Keith Richards

When you’re writing songs, there are no fucking rules. In fact, you’re looking to break them. You’re looking to sort of find the next missing chord. You’re looking to find the next best way to express things. Writing songs is not about the lyrics one side and music on another. It’s about the two coming together. And you can be a great poet and you might write some lovely music, but the art and the beauty of writing songs is to pull those two together, where they seem to love each other, and that’s writing songs.

Keith Richards

That’s how most of my songs come together. I can’t walk in the studio with a song typed out on a piece of paper and say, THIS is it, THIS is how it goes, play it. If that’s what I wanted, I might as well hire session men. I just go in there with a germ of an idea, the smaller the germ the better, and GIVE it to them, FEED it to them, and see what happens. Then it comes out as a Rolling Stones record instead of me telling everybody what I want them to play. The band can work it any way they want. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I know I can go in there the next night with another germ. I know I’ll grab them some way, infect them somehow. If it’s good, then Mick and I can finish it off.

Keith Richards

Writing… I don’t know why you call it writing. I don’t put a thing on paper. It’s either up here (points to his head) or, if I get the chance, I put it on tape. And – I make records. That’s what I do. Writing a song and performing is just a part of the whole process of making a record. It’s that basic sound that comes out of those speakers. And it has to sound good in mono too for the radio, you know. And that’s what I do. I make sounds, you know, and I’m good at it now. 

Keith Richards

You play an instrument and pick it up. I’ll go through the Buddy Holly songbook – because I love Buddy’s songs. I start playing ’em for half an hour. Let’s try Eddie Cochran or the Everly Brothers or a little Chuck. There’s no one system to this. It’s what’s right for you. But me, I always like to sit down and play the guitar a couple of hours a day, and something will come. If something interests me, then I think, Hey, there it is, and then I hang on to the end and follow the motherfucker. To me the important thing is recognising something when it comes by.

Keith Richards

I like ballads. Also, you learn about songwriting from slow songs. You get a better rock & roll song by writing it slow to start with, and seeing where it can go. Sometimes it’s obvious that it can’t go fast, whereas Sympathy for the Devil started out as a Bob Dylan song and ended up as a samba.

Keith Richards

Written music has always intrigued me, and I once taught myself to do it, and realized that this is no path for me to travel. I immediately forgot it, and I deliberately – for better or for worse – decided I ain’t gonna be able to work within these parameters.

Keith Richards

Rarely do I write a song totally by myself. Even if I do write it by myself, I always like to have someone around playing along with me going, ‘yeah, yeah.’ I’m a band man. I can’t sit there alone in a room and say, ‘It’s songwriting time — ding, ding, ding!’ I work best when the sun goes down. I’ve eaten, had a few drinks, and I’ve got some good buddies around. I love whacking out songs with friends and family. Somehow they never sound as good as they do that first night on the living room couch.

Keith Richards

In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs it has to really move me. That’s how I know that I’ve written a good song for myself – it’s when I start crying. It’s when I break out in tears in the vocal booth or in the studio, and I’ll need a moment to myself.

Adele

There are about three or four major opinions that I respect. [Producer] 40 [Noah Shebib] knows what I’m capable of, and he’s not afraid to say, “You can do that better.” I never take criticism personally from anyone – I love feedback. But when you get a bunch of people in the studio that just can’t wait to tell you how good you are, that’s a scary thing. Then you just start doing bullshit and they’re convincing you that it’s good.

Drake

I remember when an artist used to take, like, four years to make an album. Usher would disappear for three years. It took Justin Timberlake a really long time to craft Justified. And now we’ve encouraged this generation of instant gratification; it’s crazy. It’s important for our generation to know that it’s okay if an album takes a year or two to make.

Drake

When I go to big studios in L.A., I feel like, “I gotta make a hit!” In Toronto, we built this little spot for ourselves. You walk in and there are bottles of wine, Persian rugs, candles, exposed bricks. It’s quaint, man. 

Drake

In an R&B song there are four sentences per verse, but in a rap song there are four sentences per bar. There are so many more words that I experimented with how to frame them, and that developed into something new. Instead of simply going for the ‘bang pow wow’ factor, we explored all kinds of things in the arrangements and in the music, and were in a situation where it was fun to be breaking rules and crossing boundaries. 

Drake

I made the beat one day, we turned it into a song the next, I mixed it the third day, and 48 hours later we released it on a blog on the Internet, and then the record went global and sold 500,000 copies! And we never even meant for it to be an official single!

Drake

In hip-hop, you must write your own raps. If someone else were to write them for you, you’d have no credibility whatsoever, and you’d be out of the window immediately. But when it comes to the music, there’s not really the same pride in writing it yourself. People don’t care who wrote it, or where it comes from or what the sample is, they just want the hottest beat. 

Drake

Drake and I do take pride in writing songs together, just the two of us. We’ll start in an old-school way, with me on the piano or at my Wurlitzer, finding a chord progression, and he’ll start singing some melodies.

Noah ’40’ Shebib (Drake’s producer)

Boi-1da sent us the beat as a stereo MP3, and Drake loved it, so I popped it into Pro Tools and Drake started going to town over it. He probably spent a couple of nights writing. I added quite a lot of stuff to it, like lead lines and extra basses and pads, some 808 rides, that sort of drive the record. 

Noah ’40’ Shebib

When I wrote with John, he would sit down with a guitar. I would sit down. We’d ping-pong ’til we had a song. 

Paul McCartney

We had a method in our early days of The Beatles and with Wings that I used all the way through for writing songs. I would sit down with a guitar or at a piano and make it up and complete it. Then that’s it, you’ve done your song, and then you’re ready to roll and go in the studio.

Paul McCartney

We had fun. Our concern was those songs were liked and recognised.

Robin Gibb

We’re composers first, recording artists second, performers third. The studio is like a painter’s studio with a clean canvas. What will we walk out of here with?

Robin Gibb

You can do a 3 hour session of writing and get no-where. And just as you’re about to pack up, you play something and suddenly you play something that makes your hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And you know you have something. It’s the spark. Sometimes it takes 3 hours to get the brain to open up.

The worst thing is to try too hard. You need to be relaxed. And passionate! It’s a labour of love and about human relationships.

Robin Gibb

I rap about things that come from the heart. Rap has a certain edge. You have to speak with conviction. 

Kanye West

John and I wrote over 300 songs together. We’d work for about 3 hours and nearly always come up with a song. He was my foil. I wrote “Getting better all the time” and he came up with “It couldn’t get much worse”. He did that to my songs and I did it to his. It made our songs better.

Paul McCartney

I woke up with the melody to ‘Yesterday’ in my head but no words. I was near a piano so I wrote down some chords. Then a couple of months later I put some words to it.

Paul McCartney

John and I would take the songs into the studio. The others didn’t know what we’d written, so we’d play it through. Then, about 20 minutes later, they’d say, ‘we’ve got this’, and we’d record it. It was a very fast process.

Paul McCartney

We would have got bored doing the same songs to a formula. We changed things and had fun.

Paul McCartney

Why are certain songs written on a piano and others on a guitar? Just because there was a piano in the room when I wrote them. You just use whatever’s to hand.

Paul McCartney

I write notes. I tend to like stories and try to tell a story in my songs. They take about a day. 

Dua Lipa

Firstly, I think we give the public melodies. And secondly, we don’t attempt to preach at people. There are so many groups which try to change the world. I think we are simply a pop group which writes all its own songs. We write songs about people and situations; we tell stories in our songs, but we don’t give sermons

Barry Gibb

I do less singing, of course. I only come in on high harmonies. I’m more of the musician, playing the piano, bass, mellotron or organ on records, which saves money on hiring musicians, for one thing. It’s the same when it comes to writing. I write the music, because I cannot really write lyrics. But I can write chords like Robin’s never heard of. So I provide the music for them to write the lyrics to. It’s the same as on stage – when we write we complement each other

Maurice Gibb

Titles can inspire a song. ‘My Lover’s Prayer‘ and ‘I Surrender‘ were titles first. We’ve always done that. 

Robin Gibb

My strengths have always been ideas and construction and lyric form. I’d say Maurice is very creative in the area of keyboards and comes up with the magic chord when you’re looking for one, or general ambiance of a song, atmosphere. If I describe to Maurice the atmosphere that I want, he will give it to me, keyboard-wise. So there’s a lot of bouncing around. Robin is very good lyrically. Robin’s a very good judge. In other words, I’m the person who will throw an awful lot of stuff and Robin will be like an antenna and he will say, ‘I like that but I don’t like this and I really love this.’ He becomes the sounding board.

Barry Gibb

We never completely do a song just to please ourselves. Often, we bring everybody we can into the studio, even the receptionist, so that we can get their opinions. I estimate we put about thirty percent of what we consider to be our art into our records and about seventy percent of it is us writing for the public. You’ve got to include both, and that’s how we do it. And we don’t dwell too much on deep stories, because today people want to hear songs about love. Each song in the Top Twenty is about love. Every album in the Top Ten is based on love.

Barry Gibb

What songwriting has always been to me is basically like a flash. I have a flash of an idea or a flash of a chorus, or a flash of a song before it’s actually constructed. That hasn’t changed, it’s continued right through my life. I’ll get up in the middle of the night and put something on a dictaphone and go back to sleep.

Barry Gibb

Most of the songs we’ve written that have been successful have been written quickly

Maurice Gibb

I think that a great pop song should be felt when you hear it. You can hear songs that are technically great, songs that tick all the boxes. But for a song to be felt, you need something else. It’s incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel: ”I need to hear that song again”. That’s fundamental. Something you want again. And again.

Max Martin

Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse. Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have!

Max Martin

If you listen to the first, second and third chorus of a song, they don’t sound the same. It’s the same melody and all that but what really happens is that the energy changes. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.

Max Martin

I grew up on Elton John and the Beatles and I had no idea what they were saying, it was just gibberish. If we come to a place in a writing session where one word might be better sense but the other option sounds cool, I will always pick the one that sounds appealing to me. If you say something meaningful with the right sort of phonetics, then you’re golden

Max Martin

I think art is art, however it’s made. In the whole history of pop, from Elvis to Motown to Whitney Houston, great artists have had songs written for them by teams.

Max Martin

I start at the same time every day, 10 o’clock, five days a week. It’s the same for the two guys I work with [at Rokstone], Chris and Dan, and it’s been that way for 20 years-plus. We know what our start time is, we usually know what our end time is, and we have weekends off so we can get back to family and a life outside of music.

Steve Mac

Even if we don’t have a specific project underway, we go in at 10am and start working, and something often comes up as a result. Having that schedule helps ensure we keep moving forward, every day.

Steve Mac

Many times, I see a producer/writer go in [with an artist] and they’ll spend three hours working on drums, when they should be spending that time working on the song. If I have a co-writer or an artist come into the studio here, I will spend the whole day with them working on a chord progression, a melody and a lyric. It’s not a good use of time for them to be bored while I search for the right bass drum.

Steve Mac

Someone said to me once, ‘Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder, a little bit worse.’ It’s funny because there’s some truth to it! So things like that, the structure of the song and the production, can all be left for later; the best use of time when you’re in with an artist or co-writer is to get that basic verse and chorus [melody] down, across maybe two or three really good song ideas.

Steve Mac

This ties on to the last rule: if a song’s never going to be great, it’s never going to be a hit. You mustn’t be afraid to scrap something you’ve worked hard on.

Steve Mac

For some songs, it doesn’t matter how many times you re-do them, how much you dress things up with production, they’re just not good enough. I’m lucky to have the experience of three decades doing this; that helps a lot with my judgement.

Steve Mac

I find it very difficult to work on something I don’t believe in. That gets hard sometimes, especially if a co-writer [does believe in it].

Steve Mac

As a general rule, I stop working on something for around two weeks after we’ve created a demo, so that I can listen back to it and go, ‘Is this genuinely any good? Does it still move me? Are the lyrics and melody still great?

Steve Mac

I understand we’re in a world now where people often feel the need to write, record and get ‘content’ out at a high frequency to please their fans – and there’s a place for that. But for me, if something’s not right, it’s always best to turn round to an artist and say, ‘I think we can do better.’

Steve Mac

If you’re in a really good mood, you can write the best song, and if you’re in a really bad mood, you can write the best song, but if you’re just vanilla, you can’t.

Ed Sheeran

If I write a song there has to be a catalyst. It can’t just be like ‘I had a nice day.’ It has to be like ‘I had the best day ever’ or the worst day ever. You can’t write a song from a bland experience, but you can write a song from two extremes.’

Ed Sheeran

I’ll just see words that are interesting to me, and put them in my iPhone or something. Some words are strong – you see them first and then you hear what they mean. Or I’ll hear other songs about a subject and I’ll think ‘I could write about that but in my own way’.

James Hetfield

A couple of times I’ve sat and just wrote poetry – where things rhyme – and then try and put it into song. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

James Hetfield

When I get a good guitar sound or when I feel good I put on the guitar and something comes up. If I tell myself ‘ok, now I have to write’, it doesn’t flow. A lot of times when I’m sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar and all of a sudden something will happen and it’s ‘uh oh, I have to go and record something’.

Dave Grohl

You have to try to find a melody and lyric that will braid together and create four minutes of memory that you’ll have for the rest of your life. To me, the challenge is always trying to craft a song that is simple in a way that people will connect to it emotionally. Even just a melody … that’s a funny thing. A lyric is one thing, but there’s something that a melody can do … just the sound of a minor scale, or a major scale rising in a chorus. The notes will twist your heart.

Dave Grohl

The ideal song structure – Chorus – Chorus – Pre Chorus – Chorus – Verse (Kinda) – Chorus – Pre Chorus – Chorus – Chorus – Chorus – Finale – Chorus.

Dave Grohl

Deep album cuts don’t keep the mansion running

Dave Grohl

References

Video Interviews where artists talk about songwriting:

  • Drake (early in his career) talks about what his mentor, Lil Wayne, taught him about songwriting.
  • Jay-Z talks about how he writes songs in his head, based on his life and experiences.
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