The question of whether songwriting can be taught is valid. My answer is: “yes … and no.” After all, songwriting is a mystical process and every writer has their own unique way of navigating the waters. Songwriting is a craft, though, with tried and true tools that can be passed on.
I think teaching songwriting is akin to a journeyman carpenter training an apprentice, or a former pro football player passing on his knowledge through coaching. There are formulas and truths that work. At what level they work is up to each student’s natural given talent, work ethic, luck, and life experiences.
Maybe the question is really, what are the different ways that songwriting can be taught? Let’s look at some different paths an aspiring songwriter might take:
1) Learning songs when you first start playing — The very first thing most people do when they start learning an instrument is to learn their favorite songs. When I bought my first guitar, I began learning chords so that I could sing along. I was already learning basic chord structure, rhythm, song forms, and melody. So, in the beginning, most of us are teaching ourselves songwriting by learning our favorite songs.
2) Playing in bands — The next step is to start a band. Of course, you’re not only learning performance skills, you’re learning more about songwriting. Many people point to the Beatles’ time playing covers in Hamburg as crucial to the development of their songwriting skills. They not only had to know a lot of songs, they also had to play them over and over again. This allows a songwriter to see common patterns that songs share.
3) Co-writing — This is where a young songwriter can really start to blossom. There’s no substitute for experience and there’s no substitute for co-writing with someone who has more experience than you. Co-writing is experiential learning at it’s best. In songwriting, the learning is in the doing, and having someone to guide you and show you different paths that work during the process is invaluable.
4) Books — Before the internet, we had to chase down books to acquire knowledge. I never will forget, early in my journey, reading and re-reading The Craft Of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis. It wasn’t the easiest read, but I wanted the information. I love the Martin Mull quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” because it is somewhat hard to translate the actual art of creativity into words. I suggest buying every book you can and get what you can from them.
5) Schools and Teachers — People often ask: Can songwriting be taught by teachers? My answer is: different teachers can teach different methods and offer different approaches. A student can learn something from any of us, but not everything from just one of us. A hit song is a moving target. Anyone who tells you they have it all figured out probably doesn’t. A seasoned teacher can teach foundational to advanced skills that are required to write songs. Let’s look at different types of teachers and learning opportunities.
A.) The Academic — Songwriting teachers at the university level usually have degrees in music or creative writing. Few have written hit songs, but they have a lot of time invested in studying what hit songs and songwriters do. They can be a great source for explaining what hit writers know instinctively. Some of my favorite songwriting books are written by academics. They have the communication skills and patience to put the techniques they’ve analyzed into words.
B.) The Pro/Hit Songwriter — Any time spent with someone who has actually done it is irreplaceable. A hit writer knows exactly how they craft a song and can share that information in an informal manner. It may not be as broad or as organized as an academic, but can offer a very “real world” perspective. A hit songwriter can also have special insight into how one goes about finding their voice. Pros can usually put together a great workshop spanning a few hours to a couple of days, but aren’t as experienced in building a semester’s curriculum.
C.) Private Instructors — I know some music stores offer songwriting lessons, usually from a guitar or piano instructor. I find private teachers to be a mixed bag. I would get recommendations, or take one lesson to see how it goes. I’m sure there are some fine songwriting teachers in the private lesson game. You should expect them to have planned-out lessons and materials, not just critique.
So, yes, songwriting skills and techniques can be taught with great success. Students should have several teachers and look for learning opportunities wherever they can. You can even learn from other fields like sculpture, advertising, etc. Songwriting is magical and creativity is something we can’t always explain, but don’t think you can’t be taught the tools of the trade to help nurture that magic. Take what you can from any source. Write constantly using all of the skills you have learned and master them. In time, you will not only become a better songwriter, you will find your own unique voice.
Odie Blackmon, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, is an Assistant Professor and Commercial Songwriting Coordinator at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also a Lecturer in Music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.