Everyone knows that if you want to improve, you need to know what the masters know. And that applies to every area of endeavour. If you want to be a better painter, baseball player, plumber, politician, teacher, musician… you need to study the masters.
We have what might be called an embarrassment of riches in the field of songwriting. Many thousands of songwriters have had a hand in writing the songs that have hit the top of the charts in the past 6 decades or so. So surely it shouldn’t be hard to find songwriting heroes that can inspire and instruct us.
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But just because a song has hit the top of the charts doesn’t mean that the writers of that song automatically become the best models for how to write good music. And simply looking for hits means you’re missing out on a lot of superb music, music that doesn’t make it to the charts, but is known for its excellence nonetheless.
And some might even say that a song hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100 these days simply means that its production value is high, but doesn’t say a lot about the quality of the songwriting itself. In a lot of cases, I’d find it hard to disagree.
But we’re still left with the question: how do you identify the best songs for songwriters to study? Here’s a short list of ideas that will help you find the kind of music that will inspire you, and will serve as models for your own writing.
- Listen to, or read, professional musician interviews. It’s not hard to read an interview by a proven master these days; they’re all over the internet. And in most of those interviews, you’ll find that they often mention the artists that have excited and inspired them to write what they do. You may not even care a lot about their music — you may not be a fan – but you’ll benefit from the names they mention. And don’t just stick to professional songwriters. Read and watch interviews with producers, managers, A&R personnel, and others in the business. There’s lots to learn. Any search engine will find them for you.
- Check out Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Many of the songs on that list are decades old, but it means they’ve stood the test of time. Time has a way of filtering out garbage, and with a list like this one, you’re left with songs that have made a powerful impact on fans and songwriters.
- Talk to your peers. No one can know all the music out there that’s worth listening to. Being a member of a songwriting community (online or otherwise) is a great way to find out what other songwriters are listening to, and that will gradually help build your own list of writers that will shape your music for the better.
- Check out social media. I often find great new music and songwriters simply by checking out Twitter. Of course, you have to weed your way through the strongly opinionated views of others to find gems that you’ve never come across before, but it’s a great tool for discovering who the rising stars are listening to.
One other piece of advice I have is this: Approach this like a student of songwriting, not as a fan. We all love music and groups that don’t necessarily measure up to being the best of class; our “guilty pleasures”, so to speak.
I don’t think you’ll have difficulty in identifying music that can act as a model for songwriters. You’ll know them when you see them: the quality of the lyric, in particular, is a strong indicator of excellence.
The best way to let good music instruct you is to keep a journal. Try to learn the lessons of good songwriting by listening, and then writing down in your own words what lessons you have learned from that song.
The important lesson here is this: Avoid living in a musical vacuum. Every day, you should be listening to other songwriters’ music, and allowing yourself to be inspired and instructed by their music. The best songwriters are always the ones that allow themselves to be guided by the masters.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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Can’t go wrong studying Ray Davies of The Kinks but not sure studying a genius will help. Many are called; few are chosen. On the other hand, Robert Harris, is the amazing series on “Sunday Edition” called “Twenty Songs that Changed the World” shows how great songwriters like John Lennon are great pilferers of other songwriters’ ideas such as in Harris’s analysis of “Please, Please Me” in this series.
Thanks for your very good comment. I think it’s always good to study those that the musical world has thought of as geniuses, even if they’ve been shown to be “pilferers”, as you say, of other ideas from other songwriters. I think it’s always been true: all good songwriters/composers are pilferers. I had a composition professor at McGill who would often tell us that no composer has ever written anything truly original; Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Strauss… all good composers are taking ideas they’ve heard before and added to them or modified them to create their own music.
I hope the non-Canadian readers of my blog can listen to the CBC link you’ve provided in your comment, because it’s a fantastic series.