Songwriting Tips from Famous Songwriters

Sometimes all of us need a bit of inspiration. With a world full of distractions, there’s always a reason to delay writing a song.

In spite of the many obstacles, this post is here to give us some motivation to create with some songwriting tips from famous songwriters.

For all things songwriting, see our songwriting category page. This post owes much to some of my favourite books on songwriting, namely, Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting and Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song.

Tip 1: Why? Because.

At the end of your life, you will probably have regrets about how you used your time. But I doubt you’ll regret taking the time to create your own songs. 

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco says it beautifully:

If we are being realistic about what an end goal should be, creating something with no ambition other than to get something off our chest might be the purest thing anyone could aim for.

Jeff Tweedy

Tip 2: You are part of a tradition

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the talent of the greats and think that music creation is beyond us. ‘How did they do that? How did they create it all themselves?,’ you might say.  

But it’s important to remember, music is not created in a vacuum. That great song came out of a tradition of other songs.

We listen to each other, we emulate each other, we learn from each other. It’s a conversation between past and present.

If you listen to any genre closely, you will hear a bit of the past in the present. You will hear Bach in Beethoven. You will hear Rakim in Drake. You will hear Lead Belly in Led Zeppelin.

The composer Stravinsky puts it bluntly:

Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.

Igor Stravinsky

Let yourself be encouraged by the idea that you are part of a tradition.

The great Townes Van Zandt felt that songs were sitting out there for any of us to write – you just have to grab them.

When asked about writing Mr. Mudde and Mr. Gold, Townes said:

It felt like anybody could have written that song. And I know that I wrote it. But to take credit for it…It’s a hard feeling to get across… That song was there.

I’ve also had that feeling with other songs, certain Guy Clarke songs or Bob Dylan songs, I feel, ‘Man, why didn’t I write that? That song was out there and I didn’t get it.’ You get that feeling the first time you hear it: ‘Man, that song was in me, too.’

Townes Van Zandt

Tip 3: ‘It is always possible to create something original’

This is a quote from George Gershwin related to Tip 2. We are part of a tradition, yes, but we are each unique.  

The circumstances that created all that you are will not be repeated. There will never be another you. (to quote the jazz standard).

And for that reason, some artists do sound utterly original despite borrowing the best bits of what they loved from the past. 

Tip 4: Stop trying to ‘Sit down and write a song’

It’s a popular misconception that a songwriter’s work is all done sitting at a piano or with an instrument in one hand, pen and paper in the other.  

man frustrated at the piano

Many songwriters talk of “sitting down to write a song” as something that should be avoided. Consider the words of some of the greats below:

When you’re at the piano, your hands follow old familiar patterns. If you’re away from the piano, you’re freer. Your mind goes anywhere you want. I’ve written better melodies that way.

Jay Livingston

Stop trying!… You start to recognize that when you have an idea for a song and you start hearing a melody over and over again with words in your head, that’s when you should write the song.

If you don’t have an idea and you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go and mow the lawn.

Neil Young (check out the Neil Young archives!)

You want your mind to wander, and to pick up words and phrases and fool around with them and drop them.

As soon as your mind knows that’s it’s on and it’s supposed to produce some lines, it doesn’t or it produces things that are very predictable…

I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up.

Paul Simon

Tip 5: Remove ‘Masterpiece’ from your vocabulary

Many of us put pressure on ourselves to make something great.

With limited time available for songwriting, we feel that time must produce something extraordinary.  

Jeff Tweedy has some great practical advice on this: 

It’s going to be a tough assignment if you only want to make ‘good songs.’ It’s necessary to learn how to be OK with being bad at what you do – sound bad, write a bad song, suck at playing the guitar – or you’ll never get to ‘good.’

Jeff Tweedy

Tip 6: It is never complete

Unfortunately, doubt is a big part of songwriting. Take comfort in the fact that the even great songwriters doubt their own abilities.  Paul McCartney breaks it down this way:

There is no sort of point you just think, ‘Okay, now I can do it, I’ll just sit down and do it.’ … you always go into the studio thinking, ‘Oh, well I know this! I’ve got a lot of stuff down, you know, I write.’ And then you realize that you’re doing it all over again you’re starting from square one again.

Paul McCartney – NPR ‘A Conversation with Paul McCartney

Finally, Carol King has these words for all of us in the doubting phase:

Trust that it will be there.  If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back.  It always comes back.

Carole King

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