Songwriter U: The Secret Truth About Songwriting, Part I

“Songwriting’s easy! It’s not hard at all. Unless, of course, nothing’s coming. And then it’s hell.”
– Tom Lehrer

“Performing’s the easiest thing I do. Songwriting is the hardest.”
-Neil Diamond

“I’ve been playing guitar my whole life and I keep getting better. Songwriting just gets harder.”
-Stephen Stills

Attention SONGWRITERS:


Have you ever noticed that songwriting is hard?

Have you had times when you wanted to write a great song, and for some reason, were not able to come up with anything?

Have you been writing songs for years, and still haven’t had one hit?

Do you want to know the secret truth about songwriting?

If so, have you ever searched online for that secret?

If you have, I’m sorry. From recent experience, I’ve learned how frustrating it can be to search for truth on songwriting – or just about any subject now – here on the Internet.

If you do, you will find a lot of sources which promise to deliver this truth. A lot! Unfortunately – and this applies to other sites online – many of these sources are useless, bogus, or worse.

It’s life in the Misinformation Age. Seems like not too long ago when we first heard of the World Wide Web. That phrase with that nifty songwriterly alliteration suggested an ever-expanding compendium of wisdom and knowledge on every subject known to man.

It seemed pretty likely that after a few years with all this knowledge,  mankind would evolve as former divisions get supplanted by the true knowledge of compassion, and we’d be ultimately unified in a new age of  enlightenment.

Right?

Sadly, it didn’t quite work that way.

Instead of a tool of ultimate enlightenment, we got a mushrooming compendium of all known knowledge as also all unknown knowledge, pseudo-knowledge, non-knowledge, imitation-knowledge, misinformation, false assumptions, hatred, rage, delusion, pornography, paranoia and really bad advice. Rather than unify mankind with expansive intelligence, it’s made us more confused and uneasy as ever. Truth used to be something about which we had some kind of a consensus. Not so much anymore.

A extreme example of this was found in Google statistics which track the most Googled questions. Regarding the moon, the most asked question is, by far, “Is the moon real?”

Is the moon real? This is not a good sign. Humans have been arguing for eons. Yet the reality of the moon was one subject about which there wasn’t much debate. It wasn’t a serious subject, after all, to debate, like Climate Change, or if the earth is flat. (It isn’t. It’s sharp.)

So if we can’t find out whether or not the moon is real, or possibly a hologram or the result of some mass hypnosis, finding the truth about songwriting is bound to be challenging.

So: songwriters beware! Beware of any source which promises to make songwriting easy, or teach you how to write a hit, or how to write a hit quickly.

Why? Because songwriting isn’t easy. Writing a hit is not a science. There is no formula, or even any repeatable method. If there was, any one of those computer geniuses around this globe who can hack into the Pentagon any morning surely would have written a string of hits by now.

So any source which offers you advice on how to write a hit song in 30 is suspect. 30 minutes? What’s the rush? It can take 30 minutes sometimes just to get the coffee and start tuning the guitar.

But if a site offers actual ideas, with practical examples, it’s probably one written by a songwriter and/or musician, which makes all the difference. But there are those out there. To find them, though, requires a lot of wading through the big muddy of misinformation. Wear boots.

These misinformational sites prey on the natural yearning of aspiring songwriters to learn about this elusive process. Often they ask and answer fundamental questions, as if the exercise itself is useful. Although the questions are all pretty good, the answers, well, not so much.

For example:

QUESTION: “How do you finish a song that needs one more verse and you have no more?”

ANSWER: To finish a song, simply generate more ideas and then use those ideas to write the other parts of the song you need.”

Oh! Simply generate. That is helpful. Simply where do we get these song generators? Costco?

QUESTION: How do you come up with musical ideas?

ANSWER: You can use chord progressions to inspire more musical ideas.

Chord progressions? Cool!

What are those? Can I get those on Amazon?

Even definitions of the most basic elements of songwriting – such as melody – get distorted.

“There’s the melody, which are the notes you think of when you hum the chorus of a song. For example, hum the notes to these songs: ‘Hey Jude…’ `Somewhere Over the Rainbow…’ You were humming the melody.

This is not helpful. A melody is more than the chorus. It’s the whole tune. Also, as a few of us know, the first line of “Hey Jude” is not the chorus. It has no chorus.

Simple things they complicate, while over-simplifying what is complex.

The mission here is to add clarity, not more confusion. To provide good answers as well as ask questions. Questions about melody, for example, are not simple. As Dave Brubeck said, “The secret of a melody is a secret.” So any source which attempts to short-cut to the simple answer is suspect.

Such as:

QUESTION: How do I write a melody?

ANSWER: Once you have the first line of a melody, try repeating it for the second line. Then go somewhere else for the third line and come back to your original to wrap it up. You can hear this pattern in the verse melody of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.

Can you? This leaves out an important ingredient: the chords. By repeating a melodic line while shifting the chord beneath it creates a beautiful effect. Simply repeating the melody without the chords is not the same at all.

QUESTION: How could it take over a year to write a four minute song?

ANSWER: You don’t have a process… having no sense of process isn’t freedom. It’s anarchy…if you don’t get stuck, you make it all the way to the end of your song and realize it’s resoundingly not good. This is because you don’t have a process.”

Okay, that helps. A process. Like what – a creative process? A spiritual process? A process of self-destruction and reinvention? Just what have I got myself into here?

Whatever processes work for you, use them.”

Oh! But what if none of my processes work for me? They all seem to be working against me.

You get the idea.

If a site has good questions, but no real answers, look elsewhere. Questions are great, but answers, really, matter even more.


It’s not all bad. There are many good, credible sources of information out there. They are few and far between. But there are those, such as SecretsofSongwriting.com, which offers good, practical, thoughtful ideas and advice. This is almost always an indication that the writer is a musician or songwriter himself.

In this case, it’s right. I came to this site looking for other bad examples. And was heartened that there is good information being shared out there. Gary Ewer is a musician, songwriter and teacher in Canada. He knows what he is writing about. He’s thought about these issues, and shares ideas in a clean, easy way. His article 10 Tips for Writing Great Song Melodies is based on the real songwriter work, examining the ranges of melodies, the use of skips and leaps between notes, how to make the chorus melody distinct from the verse, and other such relevant ideas. Only someone who writes songs would consider these aspects, and be able to simply connect so many considerations.

It’s done also with the understanding, which is key, that there are always great songs which do the very opposite. That there are no rules, only ideas that have worked at one time. This is the heart of the matter. Songwriters learn every aspect of this art and craft, but remain ready at any moment to abandon any of it in order to get to a new song. And sometimes doing exactly the opposite of the way it’s normally done, or the way you’ve done it a hundred times, is the best way to go.

Anything that works, works. But there’s only one way to get there. That is where Part Two begins, which stars Billie Eilish and Finneas, and shares, at long last, the secret truth of songwriting.

Billie Eilish & Finneas, “Ocean Eyes,” live. Written by Finneas.

One Comment

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  1. Truth … there is no Songwriting 101. David Crosby once said “you gotta write what you know” probably about the best tip out there. He alludes to this in his lead in before he plays the song Triad on 4 Way Street … good stuff, some information pre-dates the internet believe it or not.

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