Songwriter U: Songwriting Tips from Famous Songwriters

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30-Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

Songwriting is a profession that doesn’t have an exact playbook and varies greatly among those who do it.  Sometimes the advice famous musicians give is incredible, other times it honestly doesn’t help us write songs, after all, it is not easy to teach and describe. For the best songwriting tips and techniques, we should not only listen to famous songwriters but learn how they create a song. 

Listen and Copy Other Songs

Billie Eilish has mentioned a lot of her inspiration comes from growing up with a diverse lineup of music, this is common with many musicians. If you want to engage in an activity you need to watch and practice first, and you will do better if you keep an open mind. Variation is the key, don’t just listen to what you like, expand your genres. Look through the dollar bin at a record store, play old cassettes, and look beyond streaming and radio for new ideas.

When you find these “new” inspirational songs, study and copy them by taking a closer look at how the song is built. This is a great way to let music theory into your life, as you dissect songs you like, it will force you to be a little more musically analytical. 

Play More Than One Instrument

Prince, Trent Reznor, Björk, Dolly Parton, and hundreds of other great songwriters of all genres will swear by this tip. If an artist is in a rut a new instrument can sometimes create a new song almost instantly. In some big cities, they are creating instrument libraries, which is quite incredible for anyone who lives close enough to that. Any instrument at all helps overall music understanding, theory, arranging, and just for creative purposes. There are plenty of digital services that would allow a pianist to take some online guitar lessons. Even songwriters with no fame are often seen to have multiple instruments or digital software.

Write About Basic Human Emotions 

If you read the titles and lyrics of most famous pop, jazz, dance, and R&B you will find the songs are often about very simple emotions. Love, hate, happiness, sadness, and other basic feelings are easy go-to’s for some songwriters. For other musicians, this is seen as the easy way out, which goes to show how effective it is. Van Morrison claimed he let his heart do his thinking and like many others, it clearly worked. Music is communal so the songs that appeal to base emotions will always be the most popular.

Write What You Experience

Adele used heartbreak, Eminem included his life drama, Taylor Swift has breakups, and even John Lennon mentioned that writing a song was like getting rid of a demon. Whatever crazy ups or downs you are going through, let them out in song. Of course, you don’t have to know what an experience feels like to write about it, but it helps especially when the emotion is raw. Many famous songwriters write incredible breakup songs, which makes sense due to the high divorce and split rate. If you write through your drama you will become an expert at it.

Be Yourself 

Bob Dylan said, “All I can be is me,” which is similar to quotes by Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and many other artists. This is the kind of vague advice that seems like it doesn’t help in writing a song for a beginner, but it is true. If you can’t come up with a song, keep listening to music and studying theories like chords and scales. Keep engaging in music and doing what you like and eventually that creativity will be hit. Once you find that ability to truly express yourself, songwriting becomes easier.

Be In The Right Mental State

Burt Bacharach mentioned how he didn’t like to push through trying to write a song if the feeling wasn’t there. While it’s best to treat music like a regular job, at the end of the day creative endeavors are not always easy to get motivated to do. Whether it is with a cup of coffee like Billy Joel or stronger components like the members of Cream or Pink Floyd getting in the right state of mind helps. If you wisely prefer to avoid the chemical route, meditation, and exercise also help create the impetus to get the song going.

Just Sit Down and Write or Produce the Song 

Roger McGuinn also treated songwriting as a job, “Sit down and work at it!” Back in the day, we had songwriting groups and locations like Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building and those artists sometimes wrote multiple songs a day. It isn’t too hard to have a song demo quickly and even a recording to follow if you have talented writers and session artists. Sometimes we get too hung up on the feelings and vibes, one way to change this is with freelancing or songwriting gigs. If you are being paid to write a song, it is easier to get it finished.

Use Nonsense Lyrics 

Elvis, Paul McCartney, and Phil Collins are all known to have employed the method of nonsense words while initially writing lyrics. In some cases, musicians even go with the final nonsense and it is a hit! If you have a musical melody or great chord progression it is helpful to use any kind of nonsense syllables or silliness that fits, until you can get a better lyric in place. Just be sure to record the idea or demo as sometimes the nonsense doesn’t translate well in the notes.

Use Other Songs As Inspiration

John Lennon and Procol Harum used classical pieces, while modern dance and HipHop are built off old samples. Sometimes artists just take other songs. In the beginning, we mentioned listening to other music and copying it to learn the process of songwriting. Usually, you then write an original song, but sometimes songwriters just take something old and rework it or mix it in. Obviously, with copyrighted music, this is harder which is why many people go with classical music. Just be aware the use of other work will likely lead to copyright issues as many HipHop songwriters have discovered.

Collaborate With Others

This is obviously seen in many great songwriting partnerships, perhaps best seen with The Beatles, their solo work is not held in as high regard. Sometimes the right songwriting partner can be a catalyst for new ideas and music, but considering that songwriters can be volatile, this process can also have its downside. If you don’t want the drama, stick to professional projects with defined terms and that will usually spare you from issues. However since creativity is an emotional thing, there’s always a chance for problems in music.

The best tips and techniques that famous songwriters have is their body of work. Take the artist you like the most and study all their songs, you will soon notice patterns that you can mimic in your writing. Focus on your emotional state of mind and play a lot of music and soon you will learn how to mine your skill and brain for songwriting gold. Like everything in life, it just takes a lot of practice and then you will succeed.

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