Write a Good Song: Ten Lessons from Top Songwriters

We’ve been talking about how indie musicians can make an impact without playing live, and a huge part of that is making great music. You can’t get very far without knowing how to write a good song. Here are ten lessons from Rolling Stone’s top ten songwriters.

1. “You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.” — Bob Dylan

Write about what you know. Be honest with your audience. Don’t fake anything.

All these statements are great advice, but it’s not enough to simply be autobiographical. If you want to know how to write a good song, the secret is in living a life worth writing about. Make some memories.

Or, take some time to look at the mundane around you in a new way. See differently.

Say something about the strange.

2. “The truth is the problem’s always been the same, really. When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love.” — Paul McCartney

Are you, though? Or are you just trying to write something that you’ll love? Or are you just trying to write something the people will love?

In the first case, you’re best playing alone in your room. In the second case, you can justifiably be called a “sellout,” someone whose mind is on fame and fortune, not on making great music.

Keep in mind, too, that Sir Paul McCartney has written about 800 songs.

You want to know how to write a good song? Write a lot of them.

3. “I’m interested in something that means something for everyone, not just for a few kids listening to wallpaper.”

Writing a good song means saying something that might be bigger than you, bigger than the song, bigger than music, itself.

Music communicates. Let it communicate something worth getting across to people. “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors might be a kick in the pants just for fun, but Lennon’s “Imagine” asks us all to think about what peace on Earth might actually look like.

How’s that for a standard of excellence?

4. “Music should be made to make people forget their problems, if only for a short while.” — Chuck Berry

The quote speaks for itself.

Let’s look at something else Chuck said, though, while we have him in the room:

“Charlie Christian … was the greatest guitar player that ever was. But he never looked up from the guitar. I put a little dance to it. They appreciate seein’ something along with hearin’ something.”

Once you figure out how to write a good song, it’ll be time to learn how to perform your good song.

If you’re going to be onstage, you’d better put on a show.

5. “My theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea and tells a story in the time allotted for a record. It has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.” — Smokey Robinson

Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “the greatest living poet.” Rolling Stone calls him, “the most influential and innovative R&B tunesmith of all time.”

That he’s talking about meaningful music — just like John Lennon does — should seem important to anyone studying how to write a good song.

6. “People … like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership. They can feed off a partnership, and that keeps people entertained. Besides, if you have a successful partnership, it’s self-sustaining.” — Mick Jagger on working with Keith Richards

In other words, writing a good song can often mean doing it with other people.

All kinds of writing are lonely. There’s no reason to make songs alone, though. The perspective of another person can be extremely helpful, especially if you like the music they make on their own.

If you can find somebody who helps you carve a song out of thin air you both like, then write another with that person. And another. And another.

If you learn to hate each other, but keep writing anyway, you’re probably making great music.

7. “Once I start to create a song, even if commerce is the motivation, I’m still going to try to write the best song and move people in a way that touches them. People know when you do that. They know that there’s an emotional connection, even if it’s commercial.”

Carol King has been called the most important female music artist of all time.

It’s remarkable hearing her talk so candidly about writing good songs having money as her chief motivation.

Dig it, though — even if she’s just trying to make a buck, she makes a point of touching and moving the listener.

If you’re not affecting your audience, your audience is going to go someplace more interesting.

(Also important to note: she wrote most of her early hits with her husband. After they split up, they kept working together because the music was good. See #6.)

8. “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.” — Paul Simon

If you want to know how to write a good song, you need to know what you can’t do.

Nobody can do everything.

If you can’t hit a note, you need to know what note that is before you put people through the pain of hearing you miss it.

You don’t have to be Jimi on guitar or Mercury on mic.

Just do your music the very best you can, every time, even when you’re alone, and you’ll be surprised how great you can sound.

9. “I went, ‘Oh my God, a lot of people are listening to me. Well then they better find out who they’re worshiping. Let’s see if they can take it. Let’s get real.’ So I wrote Blue, which horrified a lot of people, you know.” — Joni Mitchell

Don’t be afraid to scare people.

In fact, scare people.

Just try it.

It’s harder than you think.

10. “Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful. “I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude — you know, ‘Only by the grace of God am I here’— and write from there. Most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit.” — Stevie Wonder

And what do you know? This is a whole lot like No. 1, what Bob Dylan said.

Find your inspiration, know what it is that fills you up emotionally and wants to come out in sound.

Try to imagine what that sounds like.

Don’t try to write a good song. Try to hear a good song that hasn’t been written yet. Once you can hear it, listen to it. Love it.

Then do your best to help other people hear it, too, by writing it down, playing it on an instrument, and maybe recording it.

If you’re writing songs before you hear them, you’re working backwards.


That’s all for this week! Make sure also to see last week’s piece on how to choose a great song title. You’re going to need one soon.