Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown.com, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about writing.
Pro songwriters, like any craftsmen, often attribute building songwriting skills and staying current to success and longevity. Both qualities are largely based on the ability to continually add tools to their toolbox—not to mention sharpening the tools they already have. Songwriters having consistent success never stop learning and implementing new knowledge into their writing. I’ve sketched out three simple steps that I’ve used over my career to stay relevant and land major artist cuts in multiple decades. These will help you break out of old ruts and level-up your songwriting.
Practice Inspired Listening.
When practicing Inspired Listening, we’re tuning into what we like about a particular song, and then, analyzing which elements inspire us. We dissect, and then, file these elements away to recall them later when writing. The goal is to channel them into our own music. Inspired listening gives us the opportunity to grow.
Conversely, Reactive Listening means our listening response to a song is opinion-based and serves little purpose other than reinforce what we already think we know about music. It often involves making negative and dismissive assessments. Too many times, I’ve heard bitter or frustrated aspiring songwriters say, “I could write a better song than the songs I hear on the radio.” Or, “Every song on the radio sounds the same.” Or, “I hate today’s hip hop (or country or opera or classical or bluegrass…).” Reactive Listening closes off any chance of learning from listening moments.
I recommend searching for inspiration in every song you hear, and then, spending some time asking, “What about this song or this element appeals to me?” Deliberately seek out genres of music you would “never” listen to and, again, find something about each song in that genre that works or makes it hooky and compelling. I’m amazed each year in my SongTown Melody Masterclasses how profoundly this one habit changes my students’ trajectory. Listening well—intentionally—is like taking a machete to the tangled path on the songwriting journey. And, I still listen for tools I can add to my own toolbox.
Co-write to Add New Skills and Sharpen Familiar Ones.
Co-writing provides an ideal opportunity to grow and learn from fellow writers. Over the years, my co-writers have been outstanding at so many different aspects of writing. Some can turn and twist a lyrical phrase in a unique way, some create masterful melodic hooks, while others lay down a spontaneous riff and a song is born. It’s an understatement to say working with my co-writers over the years has been a real education.
Early on as a songwriter, I considered myself a melody writer first and penning lyrics a distant second. Pigeon-holing myself made the process more stressful when I was asked to write with an artist, producer, or another writer who needed me to conjure up the words in the room. It didn’t take long to realize I needed to level-up my lyric skills. What did I do? I sought out the best lyricist I knew as a co-writer: Tia Sillers. She wrote the classic, “I Hope You Dance.” Simply by sitting in the same writing room with her, I was able to observe as she fashioned images and emotion together into lines that rolled off the tongue. I soaked in as much as I could. During the songwriting process, I gleaned first-hand what is important and what is not important when writing a great lyric. After a dozen or so co-writes with Tia, I was able to confidently walk into a room with an artist like Darius Rucker and craft words to some of our biggest hits, like “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” Now that I think about it, I probably owe Tia a big bottle of tequila as a thank you!
Like any other pro, I’m still adding to my songwriter’s toolbox through new co-writes. Plus, it’s a fun hang to share music we dig with new co-writers. The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing is a helpful book if you’re new to co-writing, or you want to improve your co-writing skills.
Learn and Memorize Songs.
I think of composing as the act of remembering a melody that has never been written.
Clay Mills, Mastering Melody Writing
Your memory of songs is a direct link to composition. So, building your song memory bank is one of the best ways to strengthen your writing muscle. Name a world-class musician who hasn’t spent thousands of hours learning songs, riffs, and chords. Why should a songwriter act any differently? This practice is especially important for breaking out of a writing rut—and it’s simple. Put a song on the stereo and play along to it. Sing to it. Clap your hands to it. Do this until you feel the groove and melody deep in your bones. You want the song to become a part of your musical DNA, so you can dip into the song bank later when writing new ones.
Make these three pro songwriting habits permanent ones. It’s true. Sometimes climbing the songwriting mountain to your version success can feel like you were handed a chisel and told to “go carve Mount Rushmore.” However, I believe, by shifting your focus to daily learning, you can achieve your goals.