Four Secrets to Writing Great Songs

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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!