All musicians, regardless of age and experience, start their careers at zero. No matter how hard the media tries to paint those successful stories as rosy and effortless, all true artists know it takes hard work and determination to arrive at their goal and most constantly struggle with creating the music they love.
This is not to discourage or scare you. Rather, we’d like to take this opportunity to look at what famous musicians have to say about their songwriting process. We hope they inspire and motivate you to grow your songwriting skills.
1. “It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone…”
“It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone… But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.”
One of music’s most influential and fascinating artists, Bob Dylan is a prolific and renowned songwriter. If you’re deeply interested in a certain artist or genre, make sure you study and expose yourself not just to it, but to everything which has inspired it.
2. “I wish I were one of those people…”
“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”
Even one of the greatest poet-musicians knew that everyone works at a different pace. It’s not a competition. Be patient and take as much time as you need.
3. “…You don’t really go to songwriting school…”
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”
Improving your songwriting skills has a lot to do with paying attention to each of the parts that make up a whole. The more you listen, the better you’ll be at deconstructing a musical piece and understanding it at a deeper level.
4. “I start with the music…”
“I have a structured songwriting process. I start with the music and try to come up with musical ideas, then the melody, then the hook, and the lyrics come last.”
There’s no fixed way to write songs. Some artists like John Legend start with the music first, while others begin with the lyrics. Try different processes and you’ll be able to find what works best for you.
5. “…My songs speak for themselves.”
“I don’t force it. If you don’t have an idea and you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go mow the lawn… My songs speak for themselves.”
There’s rarely anything good born out of being unnatural and forceful, especially if it deals with creativity. If you feel stuck, take a break. Go for a walk, feed your dog, wash the dishes – music will come out naturally that way.
6. “I don’t just wait for inspiration…”
“For me, songwriting is something I have to do ritually. I don’t just wait for inspiration; I try to write a little bit every day.”
This tip might seem a little conflicting with #5. However, even John Lennon’s son recognises the value of practising – an essential element in becoming good at whatever you do. Remember to set aside time every day to work on your songwriting skills.
7. “…I try to come up with something that moves me.”
“I don’t think about commercial concerns when I first come up with something. When I sit down at the piano, I try to come up with something that moves me.”
It’s refreshing and reassuring to hear that the creator of 14 US Billboard #1 hits doesn’t start by thinking commercially! The goal of songwriting should be about expressing your feelings and thoughts. Create something that resonates with you first before it has anything to do with money and fame.
8. “…Start with something that’s true…”
“It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”
The greatest songs often start with ordinary, real, things. Don’t aim for complexity or superficiality. Start with a simple truth and use your creativity to make it sing.
Gaining insight from musicians you admire can be a helpful and motivating way to guide yourself through your own creative process. Soak in the words and be inspired.