The songwriting process can be a long, drawn-out affair. The muse, as Bob Dylan said: “cannot be willed, only welcomed”.
In this article, we’ll look at what some of the best songwriters say about writing a song, plus we’ll cover some ways to get inspired.
Here’s what we’ll cover…
- How to Write a Song (According to the Experts)
- Songwriting Tips
How to Write a Song (According to the Experts)
Neil Young “Trust Yourself and Be Ready”
Who better to start with than Neil Young. Let’s hear from the man himself:
Inspiring stuff isn’t it. By his own admission, he’s failed and been laughed at many times throughout his career. And you know what? He doesn’t care!
His advice, in a nutshell, is this:
Trust yourself and accept failure as part of the creative process. This will help you overcome your fears and realize that no-one else matters when you’re songwriting.
He says you must be ready for the moment when inspiration takes over- “Grab it and keep it!”
- Key Take Away: You could jot down your idea on a piece of paper, or you might want to record a basic version on your guitar or piano if it’s nearby. But you have to get that elusive moment down somewhere because it might never come back if you don’t.
Paul McCartney’s “Scrambled Eggs”- The Story of Yesterday
Some songwriters sing nonsense over a melody, to get an idea of how the lyrics and music could work together.
Paul McCartney composed the entire melody of “Yesterday” in a dream. He got up, ran to a piano and played the tune to avoid forgetting it.
The words that we are now so familiar with came later. McCartney started off with:
“Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs / Not as much as I love scrambled eggs!”
I remember mulling over the tune ‘Yesterday’, and suddenly getting these little one-word openings to the verse. I started to develop the idea … da-da da, yes-ter-day, sud-den-ly, fun-il-ly, mer-il-ly and Yes-ter-day, that’s good. All my troubles seemed so far away. It’s easy to rhyme those a’s: say, nay, today, away, play, stay, there’s a lot of rhymes and those fall in quite easily, so I gradually pieced it together from that journey. Sud-den-ly, and ‘b’ again, another easy rhyme: e, me, tree, flea, we, and I had the basis of it.”
- Key Take Away: Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. This isn’t brain surgery, it’s writing a song. Have fun, mess about, see what works, don’t take yourself too seriously!
Elton John “I can write a melody to anything”
The other way round can work too.
Elton John became famous by writing melodies to the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.
In this video, he shows us how to write a song from almost any lyrics. Whether Elton’s your cup of tea or not, you are guaranteed to find yourself smiling at his ingenuity.
- Key Take Away: You have to be a genius to write a good song, right? Wrong. Most successful songwriters laugh at this suggestion! “Anyone can write songs” claims Paul McCartney, while Elton John points to the hours he spends “fiddling around” with chords until he “stumbles on something by accident”. Modesty apart, the message to budding songwriters is clear: don’t be scared to have a go, but be prepared to put the hours in.
Slash “Play with other musicians and you’ll improve as a songwriter”
Musicians don’t always agree about where inspiration comes from.
Slash says that having recording apparatus handy is “essential”, but he finds very little comes to him whilst on his own in a room with his guitar.
Creativity only happens for him when he’s jamming with other musicians. You might be surprised at how much practice is behind those “spontaneous moments” he has on stage. His aim is “putting notes together that have some point”, a telltale sign that he’s a fan of scales, melody and putting a shift in when he picks up his guitar.
- Key Take Away: Let an idea mellow instead of “overdoing it” – leave one idea and go on to the next one, to avoid frustration. Any technical tips? “It helps to have the fretboard in your head!”
Bruce Springsteen: “If one plus one equals two, you’ve failed”
Bruce Springsteen says songwriting is about looking for that bit extra that makes what you create authentic. You need “to have something bothering you, to be desperate!”
Many songwriters can write a song in minutes, for others it can take months if not years to write something worth exhibiting. Dylan is a fan of quickly written songs. In an interview for Paul Zollo’s book on Songwriting (highly recommended), he says “The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.”
Write in the morning
Ok, so the story goes that the best songs are written at five o’clock in the morning, sleep deprived. Actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Getting a good night’s sleep works wonders. You are most creative 2 hours after you wake up, so start when you’ve gotten up, had breakfast and feeling energized.
Go for a long walk
To get your writing juices flowing it helps to get a natural high in the form of serotonin. Believe it or not, a long walk is enough to release this endorphin and get you waxing lyrical.
Make sure that you take with you a method of recording your idea though. It could be an old-school pen and notepad, or if you have a smartphone just use the note-taking app. If you’ve created a particular melody you like to record it on your audio recorder that most phones have these days.
Jam with mates
You know many of the best songs have been borne out of collaboration with someone else. Think Lennon-McCartney, Morrissey-Marr, Jagger-Richards. The list goes on. However good you think your writing skills are, you’d be surprised by how bouncing ideas with a musician friend will fuel the creative process. It’s no accident that so many bands jointly take the songwriting credits – it’s sometimes a lot easier.
Listen to great music
Listening to great music helps massively to inspire you to write your own material. We don’t want to blindly copy, no, there no merit in that, but studying music by ‘the greats’ (whoever that happens to be in your favorite genre) and analyzing what makes it great is a smart thing to do. Remember all music has its influences. Standing on the shoulders of giants.
The creative process is one of the most unfathomable things known to man. What is it? How to do you capture it? What brings it on? One thing is for sure – if you read what a lot of famous musicians say about writing music the one thing they all say is the ‘music comes through them’ (see Dylan’s comment at the top of this page).
How can you invoke it then? Well, I’m a big advocate of daydreaming. That’s right, daydreaming. Letting your mind wander where it will. You never know, you may just hit in an idea for a song, something deep in your subconscious.
The final point is possibly the most important: experiment. Not only try new time and places to write (like we mention above) but try different gear too. If you’re a singer, you could try a vocal harmonizer or pitch corrector to see what vibe that brings to your song. Devices like vocal loopers are a great too, letting you try out new rhythms, time signatures and melodies on your won without the need for a band, similarly, the best multitracker recorders let you build up songs and experiment all by yourself.
We hope you’ve found this useful. Good luck, and make a ruckus!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.