One of the more daunting things I’ve come to realize in my years of writing songs is that when it comes to getting cuts, you’re not only competing against all the songs being written currently but also against every song that’s ever been written. Fortunately, to balance that out, we also have the opportunity to learn great songwriting from any master who’s ever written a song. To that end, I’ve put together five tips that I’ve learned from some of pop music’s finest writers from any era. Enjoy!

1. You can be clever but don’t forget to have heart – Cole Porter

 Cole Porter is often remembered as a “clever” songwriter and, indeed, his lyrics are both witty and sophisticated. But the reason his songs are remembered almost a century after they were written has to do with more than just cleverness. Cole Porter’s songs have real heart as well as great internal rhyme structure and clever turns of phrase. Clever is good but clever paired with sincerity and genuine human emotion is great.

2. Keep your lyrics short and sweet – Smokey Robinson

Whenever I’m speaking to a young songwriter who has a two page lyric and is struggling to pare it down, I reference the Motown hit “My Girl” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White.  The ENTIRE song is a few two-line verses, a two-line pre-chorus and a two-line chorus. Lyrically, there’s almost nothing to it and yet it was a huge hit for the Temptations. I understand the need to tell your listener as much as you can but when it comes to songwriting, less is almost always more.

3. Nonsense words work – Van Morrison

Never underestimate the power of a good “nah, nah” or “sha, la, la” when it comes to making your songs catchy and memorable. Thinking back to my early career as a bar performer (a period I refer to as playing “Brown Eyed Girl” for drunk people), I remember clearly how much the audience loved to sing along to that chorus full of nonsense words. I’m not saying that all of your songs need to use this device but from time to time the best words to use aren’t words at all.

4. Great melodies are the first step to grabbing your listeners – Paul McCartney

As a songwriter whose primary contribution is lyrical, I struggled for a long time understanding the value of melody. But, with the exception of our mothers and paid song consultants, almost no one listens to the lyrics of a song the first few times they hear it. Instead, it’s the melody that grabs your listeners’ attention first. A catchy melody makes all the difference in the world and Paul McCartney was a true master at creating memorable and enduring melodies. If you’re like I am and pride yourself more on your lyric writing, make sure you pair yourself with a great melody writer if you really want your songs – and interestingly your lyrics – to shine. A strong melody will give you a chance to get your listeners to pay attention to your lyric eventually but without a great melody, it’s an uphill battle to get your lyrics across.

5. Lyrics can work as a rhythm instrument – Peter Gabriel

Most of us think of lyric writing as a way to communicate your song’s message. While this is certainly true, taking advantage of good phrasing, consonants and alliteration can turn your lyrics into a rhythmic element in your songs as well. Peter Gabriel’s lyric writing goes a long way towards adding rhythmic complexity to his already groove-based songs. All this to say, remember to give some thought to how your lyrics sound and feel as well as to what they’re saying.

Conclusion

Whether the above-mentioned songwriters are your cup of tea or not, the lessons remain the same. When it comes to learning your craft, make sure to take the time to analyze your favorite songwriters’ work. Often, the things that move you in your favorite songs will be the same things that will move your listeners in the songs that you write.

Good Luck!

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5 responses to “Five Things I’ve Learned About Songwriting from the Masters”

  1. So much reading to do and to think about when I write a song. And I thought it was just the lyrics.

  2. Dale O. Tjaden says:

    Don’t know your age Francis, but I used to think the same way about the importance of lyrics vs melody, rhythm, and all the other equally important things mentioned in this well written blog. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I will turn 80 next year and have matured to the point of giving others due credit for their contribution to what I have created. The thing that makes this article very informing, is that it is short on words but long on usable, complementary, information from excellent, proven, experts in the field of music. You’ll be OK…..just get older!

  3. Don Olsen says:

    Dale, love your comment! I am approaching 71, what you say contains both wisdom and humor, valuable assets as we move on down the road. Thanks!

  4. if you’re just churning out POP drivel, then
    clever” will suffice….(and, Tin Pan Alley also figured
    out how to fake having “heart”)…
    but, music can do more than sell records,
    it can also change the world….
    but, that requires gravitas…
    which you can’t fake….
    (just like you can’t fake the funk)…
    you can either move a whole room (and the planet),
    or you can’t…
    “short and sweet” is wonderful, as long as it isn’t
    sacchrine (like “My Girl”)….
    “nonsense words” work great (if you run outta things to say)
    “great melodies” usually require that the writer is also
    a great singer (like McCartney)….otherwise it’s tough to do…
    and, everything should be rhythmic….the lyrics, the drive and flow of the melody, and every instrument in the arrangement….
    great post, Cliff….keep ’em comin’….

  5. Matt says:

    Love posts like this – keep up the great work, Cliff!

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