“How Can I Learn To Write Songs?” Answer: I Don’t Know

Songwriting instruction will improve your songwriting abilities, but won’t turn you into a songwriter.


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music staff paper and pencilIt’s strange that lately I’ve been receiving a large number of emails from people asking me about how to “get into songwriting”. That part isn’t strange; lots of people write me looking for songwriting advice. But there seems to be more emails than normal that go something like, “I’ve never written a song before, and I’d like to try. How do I do that?”

Here’s the only honest answer that I (or anyone for that matter) can give: I don’t know.

I don’t know how to create musical ideas in your mind. And no one does. If you tell me that you write songs, but they don’t sound very good… now that’s something I can help with.

I fully believe in the natural ability of humans to create artistic ideas spontaneously. Science tells us that that is part and parcel of being a member of the human race. Some people have a talent for expertly organizing those ideas into works of art (music, poetry, literature, visual art, drama, dance, etc.), and others don’t.

If you are someone who has never worked to cultivate your ability to create artistic ideas, you will find it harder and harder to start doing it as you get older, and research tells us that. The more you use the artistic side of your brain, the better you get at creating artistic ideas.

But for anyone who wants to be a songwriter, that part — the ability to create musical ideas — needs to be happening first. I can’t make you creative, and no one can.

So perhaps, for the people who are writing me and saying, “I’ve never written a song before, and I’d like to try. How do I do that?”, maybe what they’re really saying is “I get what songwriting is, and I’m already trying, but I just don’t like what I come up with.”

And if that is truly what they’re saying, then yes, I can help. Because there are basic principles that encompass music composition of many different genres. If you’re unaware of those principles, you’re going to find that a lot of what you’re writing just doesn’t seem to work.

But the good news is that most people’s music can be improved with just a few small adjustments — adjustments that bring their music more into alignment with what those basic principles are.

Sometimes music will flow out of you naturally, and a fully-formed song can happen within a day, or even in an hour or less. But that’s not normal, and you shouldn’t expect it. You should expect that good ideas will happen quickly and spontaneously, followed by a period of time (days, weeks, or months) of working and reworking those ideas, getting those ideas to conform to songwriting principles while trying to create something unique and fresh.

It is possible to take bad music and make it good, and studying songwriting principles will help. That’s my way of saying that studying songwriting is a very good idea, because it can help you shape and reshape the creations of your mind.

But to help you become creative? There’s only one way to do that, and it comes from within: START CREATING!


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Here’s one Idea ; WORK

    I recently heard a quote that was attributed to a famed and prolific screen writer who passed away at the end of last year ( unfortunately his name escapes me at the moment ) .To paraphrase , he basically said that when a deadline had been established he would lock himself in his study on a hard and fixed schedule and work dilligently at the expense of everything else in his life , often alienating his family and friends and often became such a cantankerous bastard during this process of applying nose to grind stone that folks who had known him long term had learned to simply stay away from him whilst he was in this phase of his work !!

    Inspiration is one thing , and the notion that the songwriter simply casually jots things down on a napkin at whatever eatery they happen to be at the time ( I Guess song smiths are a hungry bunch !) Usually the inspirations , when caught in time lead to a whole lot of work,work,work . This is an idea that seems to have escaped our nuevo rich tech kid captains of silly con valley industry who , since the Napster era have been steadily pulling the rug out from underneath the Intellectual Property covenant that had allowed for the song writing , non – performing creative class to exist . They still do , but they all chase the 30 second TV spot or movies soundtrack work , so the theme has already been cast for them ; A paycheck is still a paycheck .

    If you get the chance , read Jimmy Webb’s book about songwriting ( he wrote Witchita lineman for Glen Campbell …. dating myself again …) One thing that is striking is how dedicated and beyond obsessed the man was/is about the whole exercise . He lived and breathed to create .. ( Live to write and write to live) The thing is that back then he could support himself and his family with his creativeness. One has to wonder if this is a viable model given the brokenness of the current environment ( But hey , you could at least get the satisfaction of allot of hits when you throw it up on you tube , gratis !!!!

    Thanks for the great site Gary ,


  2. A very interesting post. I started writing songs when I was 25, which is older than most songwriters, I suppose. But I had been writing fiction for years before that, and found that some of the basic principles that apply when you write a short story, often apply equally when you’re writing a song, particularly when it comes to structure, tension vs release and general dynamics. I can defintely say that coming from a creative writing background helped a lot when I was learning the basics about songwriting. Four years later I’m probably a better songwriter than fiction writer, and in my mind there is no doubt that having written so many short stories in the past definitely taught me a few things about writing songs as well.

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