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Songwriting 101: Take One

I was recently approached about teaching songwriting. Though I teach often and really enjoy it, I’ve never taught songwriting. The thought appeals to me, but the truth is, I wouldn’t know where to begin! I’ve never de-mystified the writing process.

I’ve always written out of inspiration. The idea of a song hits me and consumes my brain until fleshed out. (Pray you are never near me when a song hits because everything gets put on hold…I am so single minded as to become almost irritable!) I am lucky enough to be so inspired fairly regularly, and have been for most of my life. Upon reflection, all I could currently teach from experience is, “wait for inspiration to strike and then write it down.” Obviously, nothing that anyone else would find useful.

The truth is, I’m a lazy songwriter. Lazy and fortunate that my subconscious appears to process things and present them to my brain in the form of nearly finished songs. I’ve decided it’s time to turn over a new leaf. Part of my New Years resolution, the completion or failure of which you will all be privy, is to hold myself to a new standard as regards music production. Pre-scheduled, frequent releases and the like. Modeled after successful independent musician-entrepreneurs. That being the case, it won’t be enough to simply wait for inspiration to come to me. I plan to go to inspiration. A process by which I hope to de-mystify the songwriting process for myself and others. Let’s get started!

I recently accepted my first commissions to co-write music for other artists. The format; someone else provides the music, I create the melody/lyrics. First step, listen to the music provided and create a music map – I need to know what the form of the song is. Second step, listen on repeat until the music gives me something. So far, having written four songs in this way, one song has given me an emotion, another song has given me a scenario, and two of the songs have given me a catchy, but otherwise meaningless, hook. All things I can work with.

The hook songs evolved first from choosing words that simply fit the melody that presented itself. The words stuck primarily because of the sound of them, and secondarily because of generic associations they conjured. The words don’t necessarily make sense, or even relate to one another. They sound musical in succession and are compelling on their own. They repeat often in typical pop song fashion, and don’t take much thought to appreciate. “Heathens” by twenty one pilots is an example of this type of lyricism.

View lyric video here:

The story song, by nature, required much more utilitarian lyricism. This time the first verse flowed easily, and set me up to imagine the plot and gave me a rhyme scheme to follow. From then on I simply thought about the storyline as I imagined it in my mind’s eye until choice words conformed to the established scheme. Basically, I played the scene in my head over and over again until the words came out just right. Still a bit mysterious, I know, but perhaps replicable. “Love Story” by Taylor Swift is an example of this type of lyricism.

View lyric video here:


The feeling song was a bit more complicated. The chord progression evoked several, layered emotions that had to be identified and put into words, which were less cut and dry than those in the story song. The words in the feeling song were much more…impressionistic. Chosen in equal part for their associative qualities and sound as their relation to each other. Like an artsy cross between the story song and the hook song. “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac is an example of this type of lyricism.

View lyric video here:

Each type of lyric has it’s appeal. The hook lyric – immediately accessible to most anyone. The story lyric – immediately accessible to anyone who finds the plot relatable. The feeling lyric – grows on you. There is both an inherent intention to the song and room for interpretation. It takes a couple listens to reconcile, but is likely to be the most meaningful song for those who give it the time it needs to gestate.

So that’s three different ways to approach writing lyrics inspired by pre-existing music. If you find any of this useful to your conceptualization of songwriting, lmk so I can add it to my “curriculum.” If any of this was unclear because of the terms I chose or whatever, that would be good for me to know, too. Thanks for reading, and best to you in your own songwriting endeavors!

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