Four Secrets to Writing Great Songs

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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.