Four Secrets to Writing Great Songs

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Songwriting Demystified, by Christopher Kent

Here’s a riddle: what do songwriting and spelling have in common?

Well, okay, they both involve words. But they also share another characteristic, which is well illustrated by the following story about two gentlemen ­ Richard Bandler and John Grinder ­ who pioneered a new branch of psychology called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP, for short).

Bandler and Grinder were approached by a teacher with a group of students who were lousy spellers. Because Bandler and Grinder had a reputation for being able to uncover and explain thinking processes, the teacher asked their help finding a way to teach these “poor spellers” to spell.

Bandler and Grinder accepted the challenge. And the first thing they said was, “Let’s find out how people spell!” What Bandler and Grinder realized is that spelling is a classic example of a subject that everyone teaches without actually telling you how to do it. In other words, spelling is usually taught by giving students the content ­ i.e., showing the end result you’re supposed to end up with ­ not process, which is what to do in your head so that you end up with the right result.. After all, if you ask someone, “What do you do in your head when you spell a word?” you’ll probably just get a blank look ­ most people (including most teachers) have no idea what happens in their head when they spell a word. So it’s common practice for teachers to just give students a list of words and tell them to “memorize them.” The trouble is, this method of teaching spelling doesn’t really work — many people remain lousy spellers all their lives.

Bandler and Grinder knew that the secret to teaching spelling was to really figure out how good spellers do it. So they found a bunch of excellent spellers, and by using some clever psychology, they found that there is indeed a process that good spellers use (at least all the good spellers they’ve ever run across.) When you ask good spellers to spell a word, they will visualize a picture of the word, then have a feeling about what they see that tells them whether it’s correct or not, and then they tell you what they’re seeing in their mind. (For instance, try picturing the word “telephone” in your mind. Now change the “ph” to an “f.” Most people can feel that the word “telefone” isn’t right. This is exactly how good spellers know they’ve got the right picture of the word in their mind; they check to see if it “feels” right.) So this is the internal process that good spellers use: seeing a picture of the word, checking for the feeling that says the picture is correct, and then reporting what they see.

No one ever told the kids who were poor spellers anything about the process of spelling. Sure enough, it turned out that the poor spellers were using all kinds of inner processes that were different from the one good spellers use. Most commonly, they were trying to spell by hearing the word in their minds, instead of seeing it. The English language does not base its spelling around the way a word sounds, of course, so if you try to spell this way, words like telephone end up with an “f” instead of a “ph” and no “e” on the end. And kids who spell using this process end up being lousy spellers. But once the kids were taught the process of spelling, their spelling improved dramatically, overnight.

So what do songwriting and spelling have in common? They both involve internal processes that are seldom explained by teachers. Most teachers teach what to do, but don’t tell you how to do it!

This is not to say that teachers are necessarily to blame. It’s a common problem, especially when teaching something creative, because so many people who are good at something don’t know how they do it, so they can’t explain their own processes to you. When they try to teach you, the best they can do is show you what they’ve done and then tell you to try and recreate it.

If you want to teach someone to write an essay, for instance, the easy thing to do is to say, “Here’s a terrific essay ­ go home and write one like it!” Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell you anything about how to do it. The student who has learned or stumbled onto the correct internal process on his own will do fine, but someone who knows nothing about it will most likely do a poor job. Likewise, a great athlete may only be able to teach you by showing you what he or she does, and then asking you to duplicate it. The best swimmer or skier or home run hitter may not have analyzed what goes on inside their mind and body, much less put it into words. But in every instance there are internal processes taking place, and a teacher who understands the processes (mental and/or physical) will have far greater success teaching you how to do it.

The moral should be clear: if you want to learn how to DO something, the real key lies in learning the processes behind it as well as the content. And that is one of the main purposes of this book: to show you all the processes that take place when an experienced songwriter creates a song, and make it possible for you to use the same processes, just as those students finally learned to spell.

Here’s another riddle for you: Why is learning to write great songs like learning to fly an airplane?

Both goals involve learning lots of skills and procedures. But knowing what to do at which time isn’t enough to make someone a good pilot. If you want to learn to fly an airplane, you don’t start by memorizing which levers to pull and which buttons to push. You start by learning the physics of flight: what makes it possible for an airplane to fly? You also need to understand how weather works, how and why people (airplane pilots, for instance) react to stressful situations, and so on. The mechanics of actually flying the plane are important too, but without having a solid foundation of understanding about those bigger issues, you’ll make a dangerous pilot! If you understand the reasons things work the way they do, you’ll understand the reasons for your actions, and when something goes wrong, you’ll be able to figure out what to do about it.

The same is true of songwriting. Knowing a lot of rules about what makes a song work, or makes a song acceptable to the music business, is important. But it’s even more important to understand why those “rules” work. And that’s the second thing that this book will do for you: It will explain the reasons behind the rules, so you won’t be blindly following instructions ­ or instinct ­ when you write a song. You’ll know exactly why songs work the way they do, and why they do or don’t have the effect you want.

Learning to Write Great Songs

This is a book about writing songs, but not just any kind of songs. This is a book that will help you write the kind of songs that give you that almost magical power: the power to have a real impact on other people. A good song makes you a force in other people’s lives. It gives you the power to make people happy, to make people dance-maybe even the power to change people’s lives for the better. (All of this while allowing you to express yourself. Such a deal!) If you haven’t experienced this, rest assured that you can, no matter what your background or skill level happens to be.

But wait, you may be saying-I just want to write a hit! Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s a goal shared by just about every songwriter. But having a hit starts with writing songs that knock other people out. Make that your first goal; after you accomplish that, you can turn your focus to having hits.

So how do we begin? As you’ve probably noticed, this book is divided into several large sections, starting with this section, Reaching Your Audience. While some teachers would simply jump in and start talking about how to write hooks or the importance of putting pictures in your lyrics, we’re going to start by setting up the ground rules that explain the reason for all those other things.

This section, Reaching Your Audience, is all about the big issues: Are creative processes really “magical?” What are we really trying to accomplish when we write a song? Do songwriters have some special ability the rest of us don’t? Why do people get pleasure from listening to a song? What does the listener want from your song? What do you want from the listener? And how can you use all this information to make your songs terrific?

We can begin to find the answers to these questions by asking a very straightforward ­ but important ­ question: just how hard or easy is it to write a song?

Songwriting: Blessed Tidbits from the Ether, or
Outlet for the Mentally Deficient?

Whatever your reason for wanting to be a songwriter, you’ve probably wondered whether you have what it takes to write great songs. Do you have enough talent? Are you smart enough, or dumb enough (depending on your perspective), or hip enough? Are there special skills or some kind of innate talent that you have to have, or is this really as easy as falling off a log?

I’ve spoken to many people about songwriting over the years, and I find that (not counting the people who are already serious songwriters) most people believe one of the following two things:

A) Songwriting is a magical skill that some people are born with. There’s no way you can learn to do it ­ you either have the knack for creating great melodies and coming up with great ideas and words, or you don’t.


B) Songwriting is so easy, anybody could do it. Just listen to the junk on the radio!

Obviously, both opinions can’t be right! In fact, both of them are wrong. They’re both based on assumptions about songwriting ­ and about the music business — that aren’t really true.

Take the idea that songwriting is “magical.” Many people think anything creative has to come from an “unknown” source; if the inspiration didn’t come from “beyond,” it isn’t any good. And, of course, if you work on it consciously too much, it loses its magic.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This idea gets perpetuated because an awful lot of people who are good at something ­ songwriting, basketball, mathematics, spelling, whatever ­ can’t explain the processes they are using when they do it. This leads other people to think that there isn’t any way to know how to do it, and that maybe there’s even something wrong with trying to find out!

But creative skills do follow understandable steps ­ even the most seemingly magical parts, like inspiration. Songs are NOT mysterious creatures that spring full blown from God or your chromosomes. Songwriting uses skills that can be explained ­ and can be learned ­ by anyone with the time and desire to learn them. If you have the desire, you just need to find a teacher who really knows how the talented person does what he or she does, someone who can explain it clearly to you. Once you understand the process, it’s just a matter of practicing until you get good at it.

Of course, if you’re convinced that songwriting is “magical,” you may find this hard to believe. But most students of songwriting who start out feeling this way end up changing their minds, and I think you will, too. Besides ­ if you really believed that songwriting isn’t a learnable skill, you wouldn’t be reading this!

What about the other idea, that it’s easy to write a song as good as the ones on the radio? People who feel this way have usually decided that most of the songs on the radio are terrible. They hear songs with incomprehensible lyrics and little or no melody and they conclude songwriting for a living must be ridiculously easy.

Obviously there is a wide range of quality on the radio, but this can be very misleading, for three reasons:

A) Deciding that a song is “good” or “bad” is a very subjective decision. Someone who hates the lyrics or melody (or absence of a melody) in a song may be missing other worthwhile things about the song that made it a hit.

B) The more you learn about songwriting, the more you’ll appreciate the number of different skills that are involved in creating a song, whether it’s great or not-so-great. Even the songs you like the least are usually the result of a lot of experience, hard work and creativity. In other words, even creating a mediocre song isn’t as easy as you might think.

C) Many mediocre songs do become hit records. This is true in part because a record is much more than a song ­ it has a full-blown arrangement and production that may be quite interesting and catchy. In short, the people buying the record may be buying the recording, not the song. Even if the record isn’t that fabulous it still could become a hit because of the reputation of the artist, a gimmick, a lot of publicity, or just good old fashioned politics. (The music business is a business, after all.) But judging yourself against those not-so-great songs is unrealistic. Even if some people do have hits with mediocre songs, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get anywhere in the music business writing songs like that. And in the meantime, writing mediocre songs won’t win you much applause from friends and family, either!

Of course, if you look at it from one perspective, songwriting is easy. Almost anyone can think up a melody and throw in some words. The hard part is writing songs that make other people sit up and take notice, songs that make people laugh or cry, songs that people walk around humming. The question you should be asking is, can you write songs as good as the best songs you hear on the radio? If you’re not making that your goal, your chances of succeeding as a songwriter are slim.

The Four Secrets to Writing Great Songs

So what does it take to be a successful songwriter, to write songs that good? The answer can be summed up as the following four rules:

1) Write songs for the right reason.

Writing great songs involves learning many things about music, creativity, words, and yourself ­ and the learning never stops, no matter how good you get. If you’re writing songs for the wrong reasons, you’ll never get enough satisfaction out of the process of songwriting to keep going. And if you don’t keep doing it over time, you won’t keep getting better ­ and getting closer to your goals.

2) Learn the creative processes that produce great melodies, lyrics, etc.

As we discussed earlier, this is a basic part of learning any creative skill. And this book will help you by explaining all the most important internal processes, so you don’t have to pick them up by trial and error.

3) Learn the so-called “rules of good songwriting” — and even more important, know why they usually work.

This is the “what your end result should be like, and why” part of the learning process.

4) Treat songwriting as an interactive game you’re playing with the listener.

This is a very important idea, and we’ll discuss it in great detail. Essentially, it means being aware that you’re not writing songs in a closet; you’re trying to make something happen inside the listener’s mind. The person who hears your song will have some reaction, and it’s your job to treat that response as useful information.

The first thing on the list — your motive — is a choice you make about what you’re going to focus on. The second and third items — learning the processes and “rules” of songwriting — simply calls for working with a teacher who understands them and can explain them to you. (That’s what this book is for.) Then it’s up to you to practice using the information. The fourth item is a very specific, overall way of looking at songwriting that ensures you’ll end up getting the reaction you want from your audience-and ensures that you’ll keep getting better at it. All of these things are learnable-including the creative processes that often seem so mysterious.

© 1996 by Christopher Kent. All Rights Reserved.