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 Colorado Sandstorm Music



Songwriting Tips

Gary Allen Scott Avett Bonnie Baker Dan Bern Kristian Bush
Chuck Cannon Bob Cantonwine Guy Clark Hank Cochran Roger Deitz
Ani DiFranco Fred Eaglesmith Ben Gibbard Elaine Glusac Rob Hatch
Don Helms Harlan Howard Michael Kosser Lyle Lovett Loretta Lynn
John McVey David Mead Miscellaneous Hardy Morris Danny Myric
John Oates Mitchell Parish Dolly Parton Nathaniel Philbrick John Prine
Sandy Reay Ann Reed Lou Reed Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers Peter Selgin
Steve Seskin Paul Simon Ed Skibbe Stephen Sondheim James Taylor
Abigail Thomas Richard Thompson Allen Toussaint Unknown M. Ward
  Marko Wilson   Paul Zollo  

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Gary Allen

"Harlan Howard used to say to me, 'You can write; you just ain't got nothing' to say. Get divorced and married a few times.' And I did, and then more things than that happened. Now I wish I didn't have as much to say. But since I do, I'll write down everything I can. ... You just get up in the morning and ask yourself if you have something to say."

"The result of [songs written by committee] is we won't get the Kris Kristoffersons, the deep thoughts of anybody. You'll get the surface thoughts we think are the most marketable."

"If I came to a stopping point where I thought, 'I can make this good, but somebody else's insight might make it magic,' I call people in."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Scott Avett

"It was Rick's [Rubin] idea to have the 'Brooklyn' verse repeat. It already was a story, but having that made it a folk song. Instead of this rambling march of verses, Rick understands that music needs hooks. You need that repeated chorus, that everyone can sing along to."

"If I hear a song and I choose not to put it down, that's me neglecting to accept that song. I think there's a very spiritual and godly-type ting that happens, and it happens to way more people than we know. It's just that very few of us choose to engage it."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Bonnie Baker

"I get stuck sometimes, and I have a hard time getting unstuck. It means time for something different. If I have been playing guitar for the last three weeks, then I try writing on the piano. If I've been writing in the key of E for the last four days, then it's time to bust out some chord books and learn something. Or, beauty of beauty, I try a new tuning! There's nothing that inspires me like a brand-new tuning. For some reason, I find notes in a new tuning that I wouldn't have heard in the 'same old, same old' tuning."

"I write some crappy songs. ... but every once in a while I get just the right words put together for the right moment, and it feels like magic. There is no explaining the magic. It floats in and then just like that, it floats out. There's no amount of money that will buy magic. I've watched myself try to coax it, but it is only when I relax and totally allow magic to envelop me that it has ever been kind."

"Solitude. It is way underrated in our world of writing. We stay busy. We act busy. We thrive on busy. The truth is there is a lot of beauty that lives in the solitude. Quiet is not the enemy. Quiet is necessary for brains to not self-destruct."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Dan Bern

"[Songwriting is] a mystery. I can't control it. When they come along, like unmistakably, a stampede of horses, I try to corral 'em and not let 'em get away. Sometimes it becomes obsessive to the point where you say, 'Okay! I'm gonna pass. I don't need to write this song. I'm doing something else right now.' you know? 'I'm gonna finish this thing here. I'm not gonna get waylaid by yet another song.' But mostly it's like they come in and I wrestle 'em down."

"Even when there's not a joke or a hook, the first line has to be good and snap 'em to attention. Songs ain't novels. You don't have 30 pages to slowly wrap somebody in. They're more like short stories or poems. If the first line hasn't grabbed them, you won't get to the second line. Once you've developed an audience, you may have some luxury and trust, so you don't have to knock 'em over the head with line one."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Kristian Bush

"...lyrics that 'show' more than 'tell.' I like to describe what the listener is seeing and let them make up the middle rather than telling them."

" biggest lesson ... was to try and create narrators that were believable... [so] the listener becomes really invested in the story or the song."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Chuck Cannon

"I write crappy songs all the time. I just don't finish them."

"Read a lot."

"Read all Hank Williams lyrics."

"The only way you develop a language is by using it a lot."

"When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'"

"Winnow away the stuff around the concept to get to the emotion."

"Learn to write simply."

"Hard rhymes help people remember your song."

"Hard rhymes are important. ... Hard rhymes are a tool, not a rule. ... I'm not going to sacrifice what I mean to say on the altar of hard rhymes."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Bob Cantonwine

"...nobody works harder than the songwriter. On some level, it's a 24/7 job. Sometimes the writer is simply being alone and quiet so the mind can wander. Other times she is entering thoughts into some kind of recorder whether it's her own voice mail or a pocket digital recorder for use later in the construction of the song. Or... maybe scribbling on any piece of paper that's available even a napkin so as not to lose the thought that was just gifted."

"Then there's the the music part...working on melody, harmonies, chord progressions and patterns, etc. To be sure, it's an understatement to say that the making up or writing of a song is a process!"

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Guy Clark

"People are supposed to like it, that's why you're doing it. It's supposed to be fun. It's not brain surgery, it's heart surgery."

"So much of what I do is personal experience. There's a bit of poetic license, but it's always something that happened to me—or somebody I know. It just makes a better song if there's some ring of truth to it." — Guy Clark

"I love detail...I like metaphors, I like describing stuff in weird ways and I like the way words sound. I mean, I like songs—it's not brain surgery. It's having fun and trying to express whatever it is on your mind. Sometimes you don't have anything on your mind, but the song comes out OK." — Guy Clark

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Hank Cochran

"When you are going to sleep, your mind relaxes and those lyrics or ideas come into your mind. You'd better write them down."

"I was intently listening to the lines in the movie, and the woman in the movie said something, 'How do I look?' The guy replies, 'You look like you could make the world go away.' I grabbed my date's hand and she asked,'Where are you going, the movie ain't over.' and I said, 'The hell in ain't' (sic) come on let's go'! (sic) .... So I drug her out and we got in the car and I started to write the song and got my guitar out as soon as we got to my apartment. I thought I had a good one. I told my publisher ... the next day.... He told me to play the song for him. He looked at me and said he thought it is the worst song that I had ever written. I told him, 'Everyone wants to make the world go away and get it off their shoulders.'
"I knew I was right and he was wrong. He told me I had proved him wrong before and I was determined to do it again. ... I got it cut in a week by a girl named Timi Yero [a minor pop hit] and then by Ray Price [a No. 1 song]."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Roger Deitz

", learn the basics, then search for what it is that will make your work - your work."

"There are rules that govern creativity. It's cosmic. Some you follow, others you break. And there is the potential for not only good writing, but for your writing to do some good. It's the choosing which defines who we are."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Ani DiFranco

"These days I keep a journal, so I'm constantly sketching down my thoughts, or lines that come to me...ideas for songs. And then when I have a moment to myself, I'll sit down with my guitar and open my journal, and start kind of massaging things together, and see if a song takes shape. Or sometimes, I'll just be hanging out with my guitar and come up with a chord progression or a lick, and that'll sort of sit around for a while waiting to marry itself to some words. So it's sort of haphazard and it's like...junk culture. I go around finding shiny objects and I glue them together." — Ani DiFranco

"I noticed with older songs that I perform that I'm coming from a different place with them mutates the vibe and even the meaning of the same words when you have a different spirit, if the person singing is different. I like that, to be able to sing an emotionally wrought song from a more centered place, or to sing an eager, youthful song from a more experienced place. It kind of colors the songs differently, and it keeps them fresh."

"These days, I find I'm applying a little more patience to my process. If I look back on my work, I can see those songs I bailed on could have been better, that had those great two verses and then I kind of coasted from there. These days, if a song is giving me trouble, I put it aside and pick it up later, and keep doing that, for a year if I have to, until it takes shape."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Fred Eaglesmith

"There's some magic in songwriting as it filters through your heart and your mind and your body. If you work on those things, what comes out of your fingers isn't just craft, but it's your heart and soul and everything. The only way to do that is to live a real life, to be conscious of all things—spiritual, nature, fellow human beings, compassionate things, all that. When you combine all that and it comes out your fingers, you're writing songs. I can always tell how hard a person's lived by the way they write songs."

"You need to work at the craft [of songwriting], but not only the craft. When I see people working both on themselves and the craft, and they combine those things...I just go, 'That's just fabulous.'"

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Ben Gibbard

"For me, a song doesn't really take flight until it has a lyric on it. ...Without a lyric that I'm happy with, it could be the greatest song ever melodically or arrangement-wise, but it doesn't have any resonance."

"I want to write songs with complete sentences. I almost have this obsession with short-changing words. I would never be so pretentious to say that my lyrics are poetry. ... Poems are poems. Song lyrics are for songs."

"During our first few records, I would just kind of wait until I felt like writing. I got some pretty good songs that way, but I firmly believe that being a writer or artist in any capacity, you have to flex that muscle. You have to kind of go to work every day and do what you do. ... It is a job...and it's a difficult job. ... You have to go through crippling self-doubt, and once in a while, that perfect song comes and it is like the best day of your life. And then the next day it starts all over again."

"...more times than not, it's a failed endeavor. You will fail more times than you succeed. But I think you need those failed endeavors.


                                                  Sandstorm Music

Elaine Glusac

"Country music clearly has a way with words, telling stories that play like mini movies in the back of your mind. Unlike much modern pop, the words come first."

"Songs ... are only simple on the outside, typically verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Add a hook, which can be musical ... or lyrical.... But songs live or die on their ability to hit some deeper chord. Then they work, they're a lot more than pick-ups and whiskey; they're about the meaning of life."

"Like poems, the best country songs are short and powerful. When you've got so few words to deliver the emotional punch, each word must be laden with meaning."

"... stories ... are everywhere. It's just a matter of listening for them."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Rob Hatch

"Be careful asking questions in a song. You can't answer them. It's confusing to the listener to switch characters."

"Don't change the timing to get the rhyme."

"Someone once told me, 'Don't build a bridge over a puddle.'"

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Harlan Howard

"A lot of songs you write are just for exercise - just pencil sharpeners."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Don Helms

"I don't think I ever saw Hank [Williams] with anybody, say, 'Let's go write a song.' One Sunday morning we left Nashville to go to Birmingham to do a matinee and a night, and he said, 'Hand me that tablet up there.' And he wrote down, 'Hey, good lookin', what you got cookin'' and before we got to Birmingham it was finished."

"My favorite song [Hank Williams] ever wrote was 'Cold Cold Heart.' If you think about it, the lyric to 'Cold Cold Heart,' see how many two syllable words are in that song. Very, very few. ... Verses and the choruses have very few two syllable words. 'I tried so hard my dear to show that you're my everything.' One three-syllable word."

"The melodies were melodies that anybody could sing or hum or whistle. And the words were just about that simple. I think the stories Hank [Williams] told in his song fit so many people. Nearly everybody in the audience acted as if Hank were singin' to them alone."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Michael Kosser

"Songwriters that work in particular genres get strong in some areas and neglect others. It’s kind of funny how we tend to regard 'our' genre as being the one that is 'legitimate.' We tend to ignore or disrespect other genres. And yet there are no pure song genres in our culture. We are an eclectic culture. Our music is filled with cross—fertilization. Rock music, for example, bears hefty influences from jazz, country, gospel, pop, classical, you name it. Meanwhile, pop, rock, gospel, modern and contemporary classical, etc., all bear influences from music that came before, as well as music that came later."

"In Nashville, there is a historic tendency to work the lyric to death while settling for music that works. In pop or rock, it can be the other way around."

"I think it's hard as hell to write a song that moves real people, but it's worth trying. If we can't do that, the least we can do is try to write a song that moves us, and let fate take care of the rest."

"Songwriting is a craft. Writing good songs on a a consistent basis doesn't happen spontaneously. In fact, most of our best songwriters learned to write good songs by writing a lot of not so good ones. Education matters in songwriting.... [It] lays the foundation on which to build experience."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Lyle Lovett

"I really just try to write something that makes sense for me, that seems true. For me, songs are sort of sacred ground, because it’s a place where you can actually tell the truth. You don’t have to be diplomatic. I think the point of a song is to just say something that’s true, or that expresses an idea that reflects something that’s true, whether it’s a truth about human nature or about the way people bullshit one another. A song doesn’t have to be serious to be true… but to me, that’s what a song is. And if I can get that right for me, then it’s worth writing.."

"Writing songs is like a mystery. The most difficult thing to do is have a good idea. If you have a decent idea, the songs are the easy part. Actually having something to say is the hard part. If you get an idea for a song, then it pulls you along. There are just some ideas that you get that are really hard to edit out; it’s hard to stop thinking about some bad ideas. So you just finish it and you end up putting it on a record."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Loretta Lynn

"I had more verses [to Coal Miner's Daughter]. Owen Bradley said, 'Loretta, there's already been one El Paso and we'll never have another one. Get in that room and start taking some of those verses off.' Yeah, I took six verses off."

"Write about the truth. If you write about the truth, somebody's living that. Not just somebody; there's a lot of people."

"Sometimes they work, and sometimes they just won't. Sometimes you get hung up on them. When that happens, you just throw it back, and maybe come back to it two or three weeks later."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

David Massengill

"I admire the ballad form most of all. Stories are irresistible. I've always had a passion for stories, the endings being of particular importance."

"It's important to have weird songs, but I find that a little weirdness goes a long way."

"...stories were primarily verbal to begin with. Before there were cave paintings, stories were told over generations. We tell each other thousands of stories in the course of everyday life."

"I use three main tools in writing: instinct, hard work and dumb luck. Dumb luck is missing a train and, while you wait for the next one, writing a key word, line or verse. When this happens often enough you begin to believe in Fate."

"I give myself the luxury of time in shaping a song. It's very common for me to work three months or more on a single song. Plotting takes time and effort, for there are many false turns. I fill up pages and pages with my mistakes, thereby eliminating them. Eventually a trail is broken through this mountain of mistakes. Sometimes it's as easy as putting eggs in a basket; other times it's like trying to pound a ton of sand into a diamond."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

John McVey

"Listeners, especially in the country genre, want to know what's going to happen next, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, but they also like to be surprised."

"Economy counts in a song when you only have a short period of time to get across the emotion you want to convey."

"From an inspiration point of view, a song is a moment."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

David Mead

"While writing, are you listening to your intuition and emotions about a song? Or just fitting lines into a lyrical and musical equation that yo've heard a hundred times before? Don't be afraid to mix it up a little." — David Mead

"Sometimes a great song is defined as much by what the lyric doesn’t say as what it does. One of the advantages of writing a song as opposed to writing literature, painting a portrait or building a house is the extraordinary context that the music provides for the lyric. Sometimes good melody and chord structure allows a lyricist to say very little, leaving the music to imply the rest of the story. Intriguing plot lines and amazing imagery are impressive, but feel horribly out of place if they crowd the emotional content of the music. The ability to provide just enough information in the lyric is what separates great lyricists from great writers." — David Mead

                                                  Sandstorm Music


"...everyone has his own particular talent, niche and interests. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't try new genres or styles or explore forms other than the ones you're most comfortable with. But you should be willing to recognize that when writers try to make themselves into something they aren't or, more important, don't want to be ... they aren't going to be doing their best work." — Kevin Alexander

"Say a thing well and it will be remembered—and so too will you." — David Baird

"Songwriters share something that a lot of people have. We have crazy thoughts. The only difference is we write 'em down." — Bill Barwick

"Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures." — Henry Ward Beecher

"The way Jacques Brel writes a story, getting into the character, bringing out all his faults and qualities in the same song.... Not that I could ever write in such an epic way, but it really is a different way to go about writing lyrics...and I find that quite inspiring." — Beirut a.k.a.Zach Condon

"A writer is a reader moved to emulation." —Saul Bellow

"I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images." — Ingmar Bergman

"Funny how song writers can squeeze a novel into a few verses. I suppose that's why poets are the ones who make us feel what we can't say." — Patrick Bone

"...I had a lot of time to myself, and I would listen to a lot of music, mostly music that I knew fairly well and had a relationship with. And I'd think, well, what is it that I've never been able to do that this person or people are able to do with this song? Why haven't I been able to do it, and what can they do that I wish I could do? And then I'd try to do that. I'd start each day getting into the songs, and I'd think about how I might get closer to this music that I love, but haven't been able to make before." — Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

"...starting is hard so I really need to give myself permission to do a bad job. I always give myself leave to write total nonsense for as long as I need to release the pressure, because it's really hard to start if you feel like that first sentence you write has to actually mean something." — Ann Brashares

"More and more creative people find they do their best work when they're feeling healthy and secure. We know writers who no longer need to be drunk or in agony in order to shed the numbness of their daily routine and tap into the full powers of their imagination." — Rob Brezsny

"While I was writing these songs [Lives in the Balance], I wanted to be careful not to harangue people. I wanted to talk about these things in a way that was from the heart, and not put people off, because people are uncomfortable with political songs and talk because it implies they have to do something, or should." — Jackson Browne

"Stay out of the way of a good song." — Glen Campbell

"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." — Truman Capote

"As I started writing about loss and grief, I was taking what felt unmanageable and using my songwriting, my sense of poetry and discipline, to try and make it manageable." — Roseanne Cash

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — attributed to Anton Chekhov

"Man, if anybody knew the path that we've been on, no one in their right mind would ever try to duplicate it. That's something Nashville always tries to do, though. If something is successful, they try to repeat it by telling other people, "Hey, do what that guy did." I just don't think it works that way. The first one who gets there, the one that cuts the path ... it's always the roughest path but I think it's got the most reward at the end." — Eric Church

"...find things for the guitar to do that complement what’s being sung or that help support it. Sometimes it’s playing the melody along with myself, at other times it’s playing more of a moving background part." — Bruce Cockburn

"When your song is called ‘XYZ’ or whatever, every line has got to make sense against your title." — Tommy Collins

"I’ve deliberately left certain things vague about the guitar, because I like the primitive aspect of the way I play and think about the guitar. I never think about what key I’m in. I just start to play and hope for the best." — Elvis Costello

"One night, Don Henley called, and I told him, 'I'm washing dishes and bike shorts.' He said, 'It's in the domestic exercises of life that one will find the biggest inspiration.' And he was right." — Sheryl Crow

"Every now and then I'll get seduced by the idea of money, and I'll take a stab at that...and I fall flat on my ass. I've never written a lasting song with that mindset. It doesn't work." — Rodney Crowell

"I gravitate towards some kind of concept or idea or situation that I want to write about. Very often I have to write, rewrite and come at it from an opposite angle...and I end up writing the opposite song that I thought I was going to write." — Rivers Cuomo

"There has to be part of your heart on that piece of paper sometimes." — Dean Dillon

"Obviously, whenever you're going through something, that's the best time to create, if you're going through something amazing, or horrible, or nothing at all, you should be creating. Unfortunately the songwriters of today generally torture themselves to make sure they're writing good songs and take it a little too seriously." — Kevin Drew

"I want to examine the writing process and not the finished product, because the most essential fact about revision is this: You must have something to revise. The first draft. ... Writing a first draft should be easy because, in a sense, you can't get it wrong. You are bringing something completely new and strange into the world, something that did not exist before. You have nothing to prove in the first draft, nothing to defend, everything to imagine. And the first draft is yours alone; no one else sees it. You are not writing for an audience. Not yet. You write the draft in order to read what you have written and to determine what you still have to say." — John Dufresne

"...songs are not about 'I feel sad.' They're about, 'Let me tell you the things that are on the walls and in the room I'm sitting in,' and between the lines of that is the fact that I'm sad. You know what I mean? It's the real locations, the real names. Even when you don't know the people, it's the names that give you a sense of place. That's what makes poetry or songwriting better than just talking. If a song describes something small you do for someone you love, that description says 'I love you' better than the actual words 'I love you'." — Adam Duritz

"I wanted to push the poetics as hard as I could push them, and not decide the songs were finished until I committed them to whatever the recording format was. I went through drafts right up until I recorded every single one of them...." — Steve Earle

"If [a song] holds back the storyline, stalls the plot, your audience will reject it." — Dorothy Fields

"I stopped going to parties and writing [songs] in my hotel room at night. It frees up a lot of time – it’s amazing! You wake up, you feel better, and you’ve got more time in the day [to write songs]!" — Brandon Flowers

"With a song, it only takes a couple of minutes to go back to the beginning and try it again to see if it works. The novel freaks me out because, what if you get into the eighth chapter and think, ‘Let’s go to the top and see if this works again? It’s going to take me three weeks.’ I’m in awe of that." — Ben Folds

"We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words." — John Fowles

"...Kristofferson used everyday language. When ya do that it sounds like a real person communicating a real emotion. Keeping a lyric conversational is important. We all know that ...but it's just sometimes hard to do, aint' it? It really works if it's done right." — Kendal Fransceshi

"All the fun's
in how you say a thing."
— Robert Frost

"That's the essence of song craft: making something everyone can understand yet it still sounds new." — Tristan Gaspadarek

"...the more you do it, the better you get at it. You realize that songwriting is not this fairy-dust gift of things coming out of the air. You've got to work your butt off. You've got to get in the habit of writing songs. You do the same thing a musician does. You learn that, 'That's a dead-end road. Don't go there. Don't play that. Don't sing that. Don't write that.'" — Vince Gill

"...when I was writing those songs ['The Year That Clayton Delaney Died' and 'Homecoming'], I would put myself back in that place. In my mind, I was just a little barefoot kid back in Kentucky. I went back and wrote what I saw while I was there. ... I just tried to tell what happened and tried not to tell why. I didn't want to write a bunch of big allegories. I thought it was presumptuous to tell people that somehow I had some insight into right and wrong." — Tom T. Hall

"Fearlessness, absolutely. Discipline. You also need open-minded creativeness that lets everything in. You never want to lose a word or a phrase, yet every one should count. Always the best language possible. And, finally, knowing when to leave it alone. Stop when it’s done." — Ben Harper

"Don't be afraid to write bad songs and then start over and re-evaluate. Songs are like plants, in that you grow them. Some grow really fast, and others need pruning and care...And, finally, a song needs to move you. If it doesn't move you, it will never move anybody else." — Corey Harris

"I think we all need some kind of rules to help us even when we want to break those rules." — Emmylou Harris

"The images are largely from my own experience or stories I've been told. I always try to concern myself with the details in the lyric first. The details will take care of the mood, the theme, and the broader sense of the song. It's not enough, for instance, to tell the audience that a girl has beautiful eyes. They want to hear that she wears horn-rimmed glasses and too much eyeliner." — Trapper Haskins

"Though Old Crow Medicine Show is now based in Nashville, they still write songs about the people they knew when they lived up in the mountains: the meth cookers, barbecue chefs, bike gangs, chain gangs, hungry babies, street whores, train tramps, truck drivers, ex-lovers and panhandlers. Old Crow tries to document these lives without romanticizing them. When [Ketch] Secor sings, 'Methamphetamine,' he may explain the reasons for taking up the trade...but he's also blunt about the damage done...." — Geoffrey Himes

"...songwriting can be cathartic, but then you just keep it private. If you're going to play out and have other people listen to you, then you need to make sure there's some point to what you're saying." — Patterson Hood

"Songwriters I've always been drawn to are people who deal with something of depth in the lyric writing. ...I've always been influenced by the folk song, the storytelling tradition in folk music. And so for years I wrote mostly story songs. I still do that, but as I've gone on, it's gotten a little more personal. I used to write mostly in the third person. I write a little more in the first person now." — Bruce Hornsby

"[Taylor] Swift seems to understand how a narrative song uses imagery to give us a glimpse into her state of mind, and to show how sharply she notices the world." — Edd Hurt

"Be serious. Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories are about what you lose." — John Irving

"Songwriting is ... all about intuition — this thing pops into your head for a reason and it's up to you to follow it. It's like there's a spirit, or intuitive network, that comes through all of us, but most people don't take the time to think about it or remember it. These little things pop into our heads — it's just a process of intuition. The initial thought comes in a baby state, and you work on that some more." — Jim James

"All those songs are totally timeless. They’ll always stand up because they came from a real place. They weren’t crafted songs. They were written from the heart.” — Shooter Jennings

"A lot of times I have the song inside of me and I have to fight to get it out. I'm a very visual person, so I can see the song but I can't hear it. But I think that if your music becomes a war for it to happen, in the end there's a certain kind of aggression in the music. And I think that's a lot more interesting." — Zola Jesus (Nika Rosa Danilova)

"I think I have to work to write a happy song. I write them carefully; they’re simple and they’re about when it’s fun to walk down the street. You know? Because that’s the best thing about when you’re happy. It’s just one little thing that makes you happy, and you’re making friends. The kind of thing I can do is capture this moment." — Rickie Lee Jones

"The waking mind is thinking inside the box; the dreaming mind is thinking outside the box." — David Kahn

"I started with the chorus of [Late Breaking News], kind of like a fun bouncy thing to play, and then one of the lines popped up: 'I got things to do today, people to see, things to say.' I wrote about a dozen verses for it, but no song needs to be that long unless you're Bob Dylan. So when we recorded it I started to tear it down to some of the lines I thought were the funniest." — Jorma Kaukonen

"The ending should be short and sweet. ... Trust your audience to understand your message and don't try and beat it into them. Stop yourself from prolonging the story because you're having such a good time." — Dan Kedding

"When I write, I never know the endings. ...when I write, I really want to find out what is going on...." — Etgar Keret

"I definitely still have ... angst but I also wrote some songs that say it's okay to love, now. I'm happy in my life, and it's a bit easier to write happy songs when you are actually happy." — Miranda Lambert

"At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about." — Elmore Leonard

"['If You Could Read My Mind'] was written during the collapse of [my] marriage.... It's a great song. No one has any gripes about it. I wondered what my wife and daughter might think. My daughter is the one who got me to correct 'The feelings that you lacked' to 'The feelings that we lacked' when we do it on stage. There could be feelings on both sides, and I should have done that in the first place, but the song was written in a bit of a hurry. I didn't get a chance to rewrite that one. You have to watch out for that stuff. You start writing those personal songs, and you get personal attachments. You've got to be careful, and I am. It's kind of restrictive in a way." — Gordon Lightfoot

"...people want simplicity, less vagueness, and less space to fill between the lines, so to speak. So I can't be quite as ethereal and mystical." — Gary Louris

“If someone plays a song, some people are going to remember the lyrics and others are going to remember the beat and melody. I seem to be one of the latter. For me, it’s almost like a film score. The movie is the story, but you feel the emotions before you know what’s going on because of the music.” — Dr. Luke

"Ideas are floating like fish. Desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. If you desire an idea, it pulls and it makes a kind of a bait. Ideas will come swimming up. And you don't know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then bingo! There it is! You know it instantly. And then more come in. If you go fishing for ideas, a lot of ideas will just pop in. And one of them will make you fall in love." — David Lynch

"I think lyrics are different from poetry, not just in the economy of words, but the feel and rhythm of the words. Poetry can be angular, sharp—edged, weighty, self—obsessed and, well, anything it damn well wants, whereas lyrics are necessarily confined to a smaller framework and, even with a story-song, must live in a smaller space. Sure, poetry has rhythm, but lyrics should fall out of one's mouth like polished rocks!" — Michael McGarrah

"Billy Joel once said he thought time spent staring at a blank page was wasted time...until one day he realized it was just time he needed to get to his next idea." — Jim Meddick

"Drama is more entertaining than resolution." —Stephin Merritt

"Twenty-seven people sang 'Wind Beneath My Wings' before I got around to it. A lot of people saw the movie that I sang it in, Beaches, and what they came away with was that song. They turned to their loved ones and said, 'You know, you are the wind beneath my wings!' The song expressed how they felt in a way a simple 'I love you' would not have." — Bette Midler

"The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good." — Thelonius Monk

"When you write a song it's sometimes in a desperate moment when you can't really articulate it. What I love about lyrics is what T.S. Eliot said: 'Good poetry is felt before it is heard.' I'm a believer in that. It's those moments when you sit yourself down, and talk to yourself in the mirror." — Marcus Mumford

"For this album, for the first time ever, I decided to write the bulk of the songs on the piano. I’m not a very good piano player, and so I thought it would be an interesting exercise, to write songs on an instrument that absolved me of any obligation to do something interesting with my hands. I wanted to focus on the bones of the songs – the melodies and chords." — Joanna Newsom

"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." — Pablo Picasso

"Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity." — Plato

"What I have in mind when I start to write could fit inside an acorn—an acorn, moreover, that rarely if ever grows into an oak. Write fiction and you relinquish reason. You start with an acorn and you end up with a mackerel." — Phillip Roth

"... shake yourself loose from the patterns that your fingers are used to following. That’s how you come up with something that might have a unique quality. Good things do come out of throwing yourself off the cliff." — John Sebastian

"I enjoy writing songs that could have been written before [my time]. When I feel like I'm tapping into a deep vein in the body of American music, it gives me strength as a writer, like I'm dipping my pen into a deep ink well. That's the folk music tradition. Like Pete Seeger said, 'Everyone's a link in the chain.' It's a strong chain, so rely on it. ... I believe it takes all those great songs in the past to make your song even a little bit good." — Ketch Secor

"Anyone involved with songwriting will testify to the fact that each song, no matter how pure or from the heart, has its own story, its own peculiar way of getting written." — Carl Sigman

"Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I'm writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It's a different aspect of communication. It's for the people." — Patti Smith

"I like to make up songs. And it’s my opinion that all these songs mean a lot to me, but that doesn’t mean I think everything needs to leave the house." — Todd Snider

"Lyrically, 'less words mean more' is a pretty good rule of thumb. Try to cut out the fat and get to the meat of what you're saying." — Chris Stapleton

"Sometimes an unexpected chord change can be the difference between a good song and a great song." — Gary Talley

"I could send myself right back to the day that I wrote “Angel Of The Morning,” how it felt. I had a buzz through me that morning that was so powerful. I knew I had done something that meant something, because of that feeling. It wasn’t a question of whether other people liked it … I loved it. To me, it had to be one of the most important love stories of all time." — Chip Taylor

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." — Mark Twain

"I spent a fair amount of time editing the lyrics and allowing the song to kind of evolve. … anytime there’s anything worthwhile, it certainly ‘feels’ like it happened on the spur of the moment, but it’s a composite of lots of spurs of the moment, hopefully. And over time, you catch up with those, and then you have a full set of lyrics you’ve thought of and you feel comfortable singing." — Jeff Tweedy

"If you're going to be a songwriter, you have to believe that every minuscule slight has importance. You have to believe that every little loss that you've had is meaningful and can, therefore, be broadcast out in the world and be exaggerated and amplified into a song." — John Vanderslice

"When the original materials start coming through, it can feel like automatic writing, almost, from the unconscious of from the muse – whatever you want to call that – and it's quite mysterious to me, and it's a powerful feeling when something comes up on the radar. Then you mix and match and change and whittle and throw things out, and those are very conscious decisions which are informed by your style as a songwriter." — Loudon Wainright

"It’s amazing how much cooler it gets when you change one note in a chord." — Sean Watkins

"Even if chords are simple, they should rub. They should have dissonances in them. I've always used a lot of alternate bass lines, suspensions, widely spaced voicings. Different textures to get very warm chords. Sometimes you're setting up strange chords by placing a chord in front of it that's going to set it off like a diamond in a gold band. It's not just finding interesting chords, it's how you sequence them, like stringing together pearls on a string. ... Interesting chords will compel interesting melodies. It's very hard to write a boring melody to an interesting chord sequence." — Jimmy Webb

"It's a pretty mysterious thing still, why you start the songs you start, and the specific flavor of them, the nature of them. I don't know about other writers, but, for me, it's still somewhat out of my control. It's not really a logical process." — Gillian Welch

"I learned from listening to James Taylor that you don’t want your melody to be the root of the chord. You want the melody to be an interesting note in the chord. And if you have a given melody note, there are different chords that go with it, so pick one where the melody is a fifth or a seventh or a third or a ninth, but not the tonic." — David Wilcox

"I'm always writing ideas down and then I stick 'em in my pocket and put 'em in that folder so I don't lose them. Like, somebody might say something, and I'll go, 'oh that's a good line,' and that goes in the folder, too. It's kind of an ongoing process for me." — Lucinda Williams

"Story, a complex extension of language use, is most powerful when it slips past emotional defenses into the primal heart of the reader. When character emotion drives a story, the story evokes reader emotion much like a child's emotion evokes a parent's emotion." — Eric J. Witchey

"For music to speak to me, it has to have two qualities: a strong, catchy melody and a wicked groove." — Kailin Yong

"When you're home or you're working, your mind just isn't allowed to just roll on like it does when you're watching the scenery go by. You're hurdling through space but you're not really moving. ...It's that dreaminess, that ability to just get dreamy while you're looking out the window and you see something...and it makes you think of something else, and all of a sudden the words are just flowing out of you." — Pegi Young

"A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians." — Frank Zappa

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Hardy Morris

"...I had been writing songs..., making up stories or using composite characters, but Brantley [Senn] started writing these songs that were completely honest, completely unfabricated. I started trying that, and sure enough, the songs that were more direct were so much better."

"It's not that we're sad all the time. ... Something has to hit me pretty hard for me to write about it, and usually when something affects me strongly enough, it's a negative encounter."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Danny Myrick

"Sheryl Crow said, 'The verse is for me. The chorus is for them.'"

"There's a saying in Nashville, 'Paint it; don't say it.'"

"If it's funny, you've got to take it the whole way."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

John Oates

"There's a lot of craft in songwriting. The divine inspiration is when the idea comes. It may be a riff. It may be a word. It may be a phrase. It may be a title. Sometimes, in the best of both worlds, that divine inspiration extends through the whole song. I've literally sat down and written a song from beginning to end, almost complete lyrics and everything without ever two minutes. The chorus of 'She's Gone' was like that."

"I think the best pop music writers are the ones that can communicate complex emotional things in very simplistic terms, and in a very direct way, that gets across in the restricted format of a pop song. You don't have 86 words. You've got four words, and in those four words, every word has to've got the added restrictions that they have to rhyme, too, for the most part, and you've got to be able to sing them. So you have words that have to be able to roll off the tongue and be sung, they have to somewhat rhyme or at least have a rhyme scheme, and they they have to say something—all in a very, very short period of time. To me, that's the mark of a good pop song."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Mitchell Parish

"You don’t sit down and write a standard. A standard evolves."

"If I had to labor over a lyric too long, if it became an arduous task where I sweated and toiled and struggled, I would drop it.. . . . The lyric would show its toil and sweat and that wouldn’t be good for the song. The sturm und drang would be evident."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Dolly Parton

"As a songwriter, you're allowed to write anything, and as a person, I am all colors in the rainbow. I've been through everything, you know, so I can write a positive song like 'Better Get to Livin'' because that's my attitude. But that doesn't mean I'm happy all the time. You can't be a deep and serious songwriter without feelings. You kinda have to live with your feelings out on your sleeve and get hurt more than most people. The fear I might get hurt means I might not be able to write another song."

"If I start writing a song, I'm writing it for a reason. People would say that I had to have two verses, and a chorus, and a bridge. I tried to learn that formula."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Nathaniel Philbrick

"Something like going to get the newspaper can increase your writing efficiency by taking you away from the material. When I'm doing other things, writing stuff will be swirling around in my head, and sometimes I'll see a new way into the material."

"People think I live here on Nantucket and just gaze at the ocean, getting my inspiration. Not so. I work in my basement and gaze out onto a single window that shows me a cement wall. This is a profession, and it's important to have professionalism about the writing."

"Above all, you need some strong emotional or personal connection to your material."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

John Prine

"I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks. Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you just draw the foundation."

"Some of the songs come so fully, it’s like they are pre-packaged. There have been a couple that came in the middle of the night. And I thought, jeez, I’ll never forget that. And went back to sleep, and it was gone. You’ll hear something years later that another songwriter that you respect writes, and you go, jeez, I think that was the remnants of that song that got sent to me."

"I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to paper. I prefer a typewriter even to a computer. I don’t like it. There’s no noise on the computer. I like a typewriter because I am such a slow typist. I edit as I am committing it to paper. I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before me and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts out."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Sandy Reay

"Read articles, blogs, books, columns, comics, e-zines, magazines, etc. that feature word play. Google puns, shaggy dog stories, double entendres, spoonerisms, oxymorons, malapropisms, mnemonics, Tom Swifties, redundancies, ambiguities and paraprosdokians. Play with words. It may add creative adjectives and images to your song. It may even give you the hook for your song."

"If you have an idea for a song, but it's not clear to you, try to narrow your scope. Be more specific. 'A tear' is more specific than 'water.' To give your songs more sensory and emotional impact, be as specific as possible. 'Pack my things' says less, and is less memorable, than 'Stuff my clothes in a dirty duffle bag.'"

"A good song should tell a story in as few words as possible.  Self-editing includes the elimination of unnecessary words, lines, verses.  If you don't know how to do that, check out 'Not Quite What I Was Planning' a collection of 6-word memoirs by Smith Magazine, and Ridley Scott's global film making competition, 'Tell It Your Way,' which limits films to 3 minutes and 6 lines of dialog." 

"Ideas are all around. Look at all the songs that have been written about simple things: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, She Loves You, Doe a Deer, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Along the Navajo Trail, Crazy, Walkin' at Midnight, Mean, California Girls, Red Sails in the Sunset, Deep River Blues....."  

"Songwriting is like anything else. The more you practice, the better you get." 

"When ideas come to you, write them down. Don't ignore them because they're not good enough. If you ignore them, you're telling your muse to stop sending them."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Ann Reed

"Songwriting is an art. It is also a craft. The inspiration still strikes, but after that 'timeless time,' when every word and idea seems to pour out faster than you can write them down, is when the craft becomes important. That is the time to listen critically. Is this saying exactly what I want it to say? Is this how I wanted to say it?
"This is also an excellent time to ask this question: Did I get lazy and go for a quick rhyme?"

"Writing a song isn't that hard. Writing a good song is difficult. Let's face it, we're faced with taking a complex feeling or event, making words rhyme and saying exactly what we want them to say in a short amount of time. ...the primary reason for keeping it short and to the point is to be certain that you're not boring your audience."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Lou Reed

"You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you're singing about. It's very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. ... You're a hard person to flame, standing over the pizza oven....
"We can do this all day. One of them will work. There'll be another one...on a good day.
"[I] used to [write them down]. Then I just stopped. They don't come back, either. ... I know if I don't write it down, [it's] gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me."

"Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go for broke. When someone does who's really good, it's astonishing. There's a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you get up and dance, stop what you're doing and go, 'What is that?' It just hits you. And it's a very potent thing you're playing around with."


                                                  Sandstorm Music

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

"It’s tempting to show off your chops and use the trickiest moves and voicings you know on the guitar. But what feeds the guitarist’s ego isn’t necessarily what listeners are seeking in a song; a simple melody, a good beat, and emotional clarity tend to connect much more directly and powerfully than clever or fancy accompaniment."

"A strong bass line bolsters the groove and leaves a lot of space for exploring melody, and if you start with bass and melody you have many options when filling in the chords later. These other chords may bring a different color or direction to your progression."

"Nothing is more inspiring in songwriting than a great groove, and as several groove-meister songwriters have told me, you’ve got to feel it with your body to deliver it on guitar. ... Think of your guitar as supporting the beat rather than the other way around."

"Change the tuning and then try playing a familiar chord fingering—and listen to whatever happens. You may stumble on an unexpectedly cool sound you would never have found intentionally."

" can lower the tuning of all the strings a half step or a whole step to put the guitar into a less familiar range while still being able to play normal fingerings."

"One simple way to find fresh sounds on the guitar is to play around with a capo. Take a familiar progression of open chords in the key of G, for instance; add a capo at the third fret, and you’re playing in the not-so-familiar key of Bb. The change of key and register may stir some ideas."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Peter Selgin

"How to avoid cliche at the root of conception? Practice sincerity. If we've come by ... material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. ... The way to make material your own is to look for it in yourself. ... It should be a story that only you can tell, as only you can tell it."

"Whether your characters journey daily to a distant moon or just down the street to the corner bar, what matters to the reader is the singular event that distinguishes one such voyage from all the others and makes for a story worth telling."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Steve Seskin

"Use melody, downbeat, and longer notes to emphasize important words."

"Use vocal range, chords, melodic rhythm, and use of the downbeat or off-beat to distinguish different parts of a song.  If one of those doesn't change, the others become more important."

"Do something twice then do something else."

"Let your hooky chorus notes be heard the first time in the chorus."

"Part of what you write in lyrics is what you don't write."

"If you use the same chorus in a song, it should get deeper each time you repeat it."

"You write a song because you have something to say that's worth saying."

"When we write a song or a poem, create a piece of art ... we don't really finish it.  The reader, the listener, the viewer finishes it."

"What I've written in a song almost always tells me what to write next."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Paul Simon

"I don’t really know why an idea comes to me. But all of a sudden, an idea comes, and from experience I can intuit what something means when an interesting line pops up. Or I can intuit what an interesting choice might be. And I can try a couple of different choices, and see which one feels right, and then continue the song to see where it goes."

Sometimes [songs] have elements that could be shared with poetry. But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words. And there’s much more use of cliché in songwriting than there is in poetry, because a song is going at a certain tempo and it’s going fast, and if you miss a line, you missed it. But when you’re reading poetry, you read it at a much slower pace. So the lines can be much more dense, and have words which are not usually in a speaking vocabulary, and which carry multiple meanings. Because you can slow it down so you can get it. But in a song, it’s clocking along, and if you missed it, it’s gone. And if you miss enough of it, well, the song is gone, and you sort of lose interest."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Ed Skibbe

"The amount of money one needs is terrifying." - Ludwig von Beethoven
And if you chose the songwriting path, you pretty much chose not to have any money. It is a hard, hard road, with more than a few terrifying moments along the way. But it's worth it. A great song is a treasure in its own right.

Keep writing. Be fearless. Do not give up. Do not be afraid to go wherever your muse takes you. Enjoy the ride. It is a gift given to very few.

"Songwriting is Hell on Earth. If it isn't, then you're doing it wrong." — Jimmy Webb
I do not know if I can totally endorse Maestro Webb's statement without qualification. I have found that, indeed, songwriting is "Hell on Earth," usually for some period of time right before it is pure delight. Ecstasy even. Most often, it is a pendulum of pain and pleasure. It is the power of your own passion that keeps it swinging. It tantalizes you with the tick of delightfully open possibilities and then tortures you with the tock of blank walls and blacked-out windows. Like the long-distance runner, the songwriter must find a way to get through the pain, to keep going somehow when every nerve and every instinct is screaming "this isn't right," "this isn't natural," "it hurts," "I can't." The "hell" that is songwriting is knowing that the greatest rewards lie on the other side of that self-inflicted suffering.

When you are "finished" with a good first-draft of your song, always do a tense check. Make sure that your song is consistently in present, past or future tense. If the tense changes, make sure that the change is appropriate and that the shift is not confusing or awkward. If the tense is not critical to the meaning of the song, keep in mind that present tense conveys more immediacy than past tense and can help to put the listener "in" your song.

If you want your songs to be as good as they can be, find someone who knows songs and songwriting, whose opinion you trust, and establish a relationship with them. Get them to listen to your songs and give you honest feedback. Perhaps it can be a reciprocal arrangement. With all due respect, the opinions of your mom, your sibling, your significant other, your dog and the ten people at the coffeehouse (or even 100 people at the club in LoDo) don't count. Your close ones love you and everything you do is special and precious to them. Joe Schmo in the coffeehouse is in such awe that someone can actually play an instrument, sing, put words and music together that you could set the phone book to G, C and D and probably impress him. The public sets the songwriting bar so low here that it is an all but ineffective measure. There is not a competitive songwriting business here, so we really need to look out for one another, seek out constructive criticism, and try to push the "state of the art" in our community higher. It's up to us.

There are no hard and fast rules. All rules have exceptions. All rules are made to be broken. Nothing succeeds like success. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Follow your own heart.

You've been neglecting your muse. You never call anymore. And when was the last time you spent a leisurely, candlelit evening--just the two of you, you and your Muse--holding hands and whispering softly to one another as the cares of the world disappear into the shadows . . . sipping wine, seducing one another with amorous allurements and sweet caresses? As a songwriter, you need to cultivate your relationship with your Muse. You can't just sit around waiting for "her" to get in the mood. Your Muse gives you one of the rarest gifts anyone can be given. Treat "her" right! Your Muse needs your undivided attention once in awhile. "She" needs to know you treasure "her." She needs you to focus on "her" needs sometimes. Your Muse is not some performing trained dog. "She" needs to be courted. "She" needs foreplay. After all, if "she" isn't getting satisfaction at home, "she" may not stick around. Let your Muse know you care. Make a special time and place for just the two of you. Trust me. You won't be sorry.

Don't overlook your song's point of view. Plan A should always be to write your song either in first ("I") or second ("you") person. This puts your song directly in the head of the listener and lets them identify with the people in the song. Third-person ("he" or "she") is much more abstract and requires the listener to imagine another person or even two other people, disconnected both from them and from your "voice."

Doodle. Write random lists of words or ideas or phrases that pop into your head. This keeps the creative brain pipes flowing, kind of like leaving the water running a trickle to keep plumbing form freezing. Later, the words, ideas or pictures might trigger an idea for a song. I find this to be particularly productive in sensory-rich environments, like a public place. Places that are good "people-watching" locations can be very stimulating creatively. You may not be able to write in this environment, but your brain will be going a mile a minute. Don't waste the energy.

One great way to beat the stress and fatigue of the holiday season is to ruthlessly make time for yourself and your songwriting. It's a great release and an outlet for the frustrations and ironies that are so intrinsic to this season. Don't believe me? I guarantee that one hour at the mall, watching the holiday shoppers, is guaranteed to give you at least half a dozen song ideas.

Also, don't overlook your talent when it comes to holiday gifts. Write a special holiday song, make a simple recording of it and give one-of-a-kind CDs to your friends and family as gifts. It will be appreciated.

Don't waste time on bad ideas. Be very stingy when it comes to how you spend your songwriting time. Beating on a bad idea will waste time and energy, up your frustration level and almost always produce a weak song. Unless it is an assignment, always try to find an idea you can't stand not to write.

This [Don't waste time on bad ideas] is particularly true when cowriting. We all have our own interpersonal styles, strengths and weaknesses, but there is no law that says you need to be conciliatory or the "nice guy" when cowriting. If your partner suggests an idea you don't absolutely love, say "no." Starting work on something you don't believe in is unfair to you, the cowriter and the song. You'll know when you hear one that excites you.

How To Write a Bad Song In Four Easy Steps

  1. NEVER edit. The first words and melodies that come from your brain are always the best, most concise and clearest of all possible ideas. Why would you ever want to change them? How could they ever be improved upon?
  2. Be sure to make your song about at least three or four different subjects. As long as you're singing, you might as well cut a wide swath. If your song, "My Navel is an Innie," is all about the hidden charms of your navel (just gaze upon its beauty), you should definitely also throw in a few lines about hiking alone in the woods, how much you miss your first lover and how to achieve world peace. That way, everyone will know what you think and you won't need to write so many songs.
  3. Be sure to leave out the part of the song that explains what is happening and why. Information like that is just really wasted time. What matters most to the listener is how you personally feel about whatever it was that may or may not have happened. We all know that listeners like music mainly because they love to guess what you're talking about.
  4. Make sure your song is at least nine minutes long and that the melody has only two notes in it. (Okay, so this is really "Five Easy Steps"). If anything is closer to pure bliss than a monotone melody, it's nine solid minutes of a monotone melody. Especially if the song is about seven or eight different subjects.

Find someone to share your songs with--someone whom you can trust to give you honest, constructive, knowledgeable feedback. Family, friends and the crowd down at the coffeehouse don't count. They tend to like everything and to not be honest.

Non sequitur: 1. an inference or conclusion that does not follow from the evidence or premise; 2. a statement that does not follow logically from the preceding information

If your song includes non sequiturs, it will be perceived as quirky at best and confusing at worst. There are instances where a word or idea that "comes out of the blue" can be an effective attention-getter in a song. Generally though, you should carefully review your lyric, keeping in mind that the listener doesn't know the back story to your song or the verse that explains what is going on but that you just deleted because it made the song too long. Is the lyric "self-contained"? That is, does it really provide all the information the listener (who probably does not have a lyric sheet in hand) needs to get your point?

It is a conventional truism in country writing that you need to hit your listener upside the head with what you're saying--make it absolutely unambiguous. I don't know that treating every country listener like a six-year-old is a good idea, but you definitely need to provide all the necessary information and not make your listener have to think too much about your story. They are listening to a song, not deciphering a coded message.

Keep it simple. We are writing popular (we hope!) songs, not great American novels. When songs get too complex, especially lyrically, the listener finds it harder to relate to your song and understand what you are saying.

This is profoundly true if you are trying to write "hit" songs, but it also applies even to you "true artists." Simpler songs have more impact and a longer life than complicated songs.

Patience is said to be a virtue. I don't delve into the theological realm, but I can tell you that for a songwriter, patience is an essential quality to cultivate. ... Trust the song. Let it happen at its pace, not yours.

Get your business ducks in a row. Understand the basics of copyright law. Take the time to figure out the basics of publishing. I've been getting more and more questions about the legal and business details of publishing lately. Attend a seminar on the subject.

Once you write a song and bring that unique mix of words and music into existence, it doesn't matter if you are the most amateur hobbyist or committed anti-capitalist or do it solely for your own pleasure. Once a song exists, it has a legal and commercial life of its own. Its potential financial benefits accrue to you and your heirs for 70 years after your death. One of America's great poets, Emily Dickinson, never published a word during her life. It was only later that her poems were discovered locked in her attic. It is not much effort to get your songwriting legal and financial ducks in a row, so why not do it right?

During a writing session, if you hit a lull, try playing and/or singing what you have completed in a totally different style, tempo or rhythm. Stuck mid-verse on that tender little folk-rock ballad? Instead of sitting there staring into space listening to the rust form on your guitar strings and trying to look appropriately pensive, just go a little nuts. Let her rip one time as a rockabilly bluegrass song complete with nasal high lonesome twang, or as a wacked-out latin tango giving it your best Ricardo Montalban, or as opera complete with the tragic hero(ine)'s song-ending death throes. Sometimes, this provides comic relief for you (and any cowriters) and can shake loose the creative logjam. Sometimes, it might even give you a new phrasing idea or lyrical direction.

Keep your lyrics conversational. One of the items on your "so-you-think-you're-finished" checklist should be "Would this person really say that if we were talking in real life?"

Harlan Howard said famously that a great song is three chords and the truth. Personally, I don't care if you use one chord or twenty chords, as long as it works, but you damned well better tell the truth. Stilted, unnatural, grandiose, convoluted or pretentious language rings false. It exposes the artifice of the song. This is the problem I have with Country music's penchant for overly "clever" hooks. Far too often, there is not enough song there, just some guy's idea of a clever twist on words and barely enough song to deliver it.

Keep things simple, direct, honest and clear. Stick to your message and resist the urge to play too many semantical tricks.

When you play a song, take a consistent audience response to heart, whether good or bad or lukewarm.

Many songwriters I have heard locally--and even many pro writers in LA or Nashville--tend to write most of their songs in the same rhythmic pocket. If you have a repertoire that is mostly a particular tempo or feel and one of these songs is getting a disappointing response, try changing it to a different tempo or rhythm. Who knows, that country ballad that no one seems to like much might really be a huge reggae hit!

Think like a painter. Develop your palette. Some songwriters fall into ruts, always crafting songs out of the same limited set of parts. Try to spice up your lyrics with words that convey emotion, or color or movement. Look for adjectives that don't necessarily fit the noun, but add to the meaning of your song. For example, instead of "blue neon," say "lonely neon." Also look for melodic choices that enhance the song's theme. Instead of staying safely in the eight notes of the standard scale, think about something different. For example, use a minor IV chord. If you are in the key of "C," perhaps you can find a spot where an F minor works. In particular, the A-flat "accidental" note in the F-minor chord gives you an opportunity to find a special, uniquely melancholy note for your melody.

NEVER take yourself or your song too seriously. You see, creativity lurks in a mysterious region of the brain known as the "Songwriter's Ganglion." This is a one-celled structure located immediately between the reptilian brain and the Three Stooges brain. So keep it simple, keep it fun and keep it at least a little bit stupid and you'll be fine.

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Stephen Sondheim

"You have to know when and where to use rhyme... Rhyme implies education. And one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was after a run-through of 'West Side [Story].' ... I thought the lyric [to 'I Feel Pretty'] was terrific. ...I wanted to show that I could do inner rhymes, too. That's why I had an uneducated Puerto Rican girl singing 'It's alarming how charming I feel.' You must know that she would not be unwelcome in Noel Coward's living room... So there it is, to this day embarrassing me every time it's sung, because it's full of mistakes like that..."

"A song is such a short form ... that the slightest flaw seems like a mountain. And so every song needs to be revised 'til it's close to perfection... But achieving perfection takes a lot of energy."

"Poetry exists in its conciseness, how much is packed into it; it's important to be able to read and reread it at your own speed. Lyrics exist in time, second to second to second. Therefore, lyrics always have to be underwritten. You cannot expect an audience to catch more than the ear is able to catch at the tempo and richness of the music."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

James Taylor

"...what I'm doing is assembling and minimally directing what is sort of unconsciously coming out. It's not something I can direct or control. I just end up being the first person to hear these songs. That's what it feels like...that I don't feel as though I write them. Then there's a phase when you button it up and finish it. But it all starts with a lightning strike."

"['Fire and Rain'] is sort of almost uncomfortably close. Almost confessional. The reason I could write a song like that at that point, and probably couldn't now, is that I didn't have any sense that anyone would hear it. ... I could just write or say anything I wanted. Now I'm very aware, and I have to deal with my ... anxiety about people examining or judging it. The idea that people will pass judgment on it is not a useful thought."

"I typically will work on a lyric in a three-ring binder. On the right side, I'll write the lyric, and on the left side, I put in alternate things...and things that might be alternates or improvements. I'll turn the page and do it again. I'll turn the page and do it again, or incorporate the improvements. Eventually, I end up with some material, and often it needs to be ordered."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Abigail Thomas

"A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish. Walking around muttering seems to hasten the process. Taking public transportation nowhere helps. Looking out the bus window lets the back of your mind move forward. Don't listen to anything but natural sounds. Do look at anything you have to turn on. This is about the pleasure of silence. This is not meditating; this is reacquainting yourself with yourself. Something interesting might enter your head if you let it alone."

"...half of writing is deciding what to leave out. Learning what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what's important. Sometimes it's what you're not saying that gives a piece its shape."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Richard Thompson

"I think you can refine what you do, and become more consistent. And you write better songs that have a better shape and a better feeling. You evolve into and out of things, and go through stages, but, ultimately, you do improve."

"Every song really tells a story. Some are more fleshed out than others. Some are more linear than others. But most pop songs, apart from pretty basic dance music, is telling some kind of a story—usually a love story, sometimes a political story. In modern songwriting there is a lot of cinematic technique, where you jump into the middle of action. You might be writing in first person through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s a little cinematic scene, and you do hard cuts. And some more is left to the imagination."

"I think it’s absolutely possible to write a song and go somewhere where no one’s been before, uncharted territory. In terms of content, I see limitations where there should be none. I know there are things I wouldn’t write about, but that shouldn’t be the case. You should be able to make a song out of anything, out of any situation."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Allen Toussaint

"Writing ... is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are."

"It seems like a song begins to play through you. You just latch on to it and hold on to it, and it'll take you someplace. That's the inspirational way. Many times, just a hook-line will come—the hook, or even sometimes just the first line of it. And you can tell that this is the first line of a song."

"I collect a lot of scraps as I go through my day, wherever I am. I find myself either pulling on the side of the road as I'm driving and taking down a note, because of something I saw on the corner...and maybe even how I felt about it, because it might inspire a plot. Something will seem that important, even though it looks small. And then when I get back home, or to wherever I'm held up for the time, I'll develop it and see if it develops into a song."

                                                  Sandstorm Music


"The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!"

" can't always be suitably creative when the clock is ticking."

"Few writers achieve literary magic with their first drafts. Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer, 'I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.' Award-winning poet Donald Hall has been known to take a single poem through 150 drafts before he considers it publishable. The 'magic' of writing often emerges during the editorial process."

"Analyze hit songs. Listen to The Black Keys. Read Elvis Costello's lyrics. Look at techniques used by The Beatles and Paul Simon."

"Read. Read about songwriting and music. Read 'This is Your Brain on Music,' Pat Pattison's 'Writing Better Lyrics,' '88 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them: Concrete Ways to Improve Your Songwriting and Make Your Songs More Marketable,' '101 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them: How to Craft and Sell Your Songs,' songwriting books by Sheila Davis and Jason Blume, 'FutureHit.DNA' by Jay Frank. and Bob Lefsetz' blog."

"Create changes: starts, stops, drama, minor chord to major chord (triumphant), small idea to a bigger change."

"Take it apart and put it back together again."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

M. Ward

"It might be a meaningless moment, but those sparks that ignite the song.... It's mystical maybe, those magic moments. And to make music for a living, to perform these songs over and over, you have to safeguard those sparks. If you can do that, they'll last a lot longer...."

"If I'm writing... even a piece of a song... I write it down. If it still resonates six months down the line, a year, even five, those are the ones you put in your bag and you take to the studio. You come to realize, the ones that don't make it, they were only meant to live for that moment in your notebook or on the 4-track—and plenty of songs never get any farther than the 4-track."

"I like using concrete imagery, but I don't feel that's what it's about. It's a combination of concrete and abstract to take the listener somewhere they know better than you.'s all some kind of an escape."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Marko Wilson

"So my advice is to relax and listen for melodies in the air even if it is a song being played across the way. If something finds you, you will know its right and go from there."

"I isolate myself and meditate on the feeling(s) and allow the song to reveal itself."

                                                  Sandstorm Music

Paul Zollo

"Any quick analysis of a Beatles tune or a Cole Porter tune will reveal often simple but unexpected chords, chords that chromatically shift between keys, or between major and minor."

"Songwriting becomes a conscious attempt to delve into the unconscious. Even those writers who scoff at the concept of a spiritual source for their songs admit that the phenomenon of having them simply arrive feels magical."

"... perhaps better than any songwriter of our era, [Joni Mitchell is] a genius at zooming in and out of songs, presenting the big picture by showing the tiny, telling details."

"Paul Simon once said that a songwriter's supreme challenge was being complex and simple at the same time—writing songs with lasting depth that are also simple enough to be memorable."

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