Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 1

August 24, 2011{ 40 Comments }

17 mann lg 300x200 Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 1The following is excerpted from The Musician’s Guide to Recording, a free PDF that is full of great practical tips, advice, and wisdom on the recording process. Click HERE to download the complete guide for free.

If you think you can teach someone to write a hit song, why not show them how to conjure elephants from Hershey bars while you’re at it? Hit songs are voodoo spells dressed up as songcraft. The real kick is that virtually anyone can invoke the basic incantation— all you need is a melody, some lyrics, and a few chords. But what turns those simple elements into a work that inspires massive consumer frenzy is beyond human comprehension. So why worry about it? As the wise old hunter used to warn in ’30s African safari films, “You could waste your life searching for the elephant’s graveyard.”

So rather than get lost in unsolved mysteries, let’s focus on the tangible structure of pop songwriting. Songwriting is, after all, a craft, and the basic components of that discipline can be readily examined.

To help you improve your songwriting chops, we’ve enlisted the aid of several well-known songwriters, most of whom have been lucky enough to strike that mystical connection with the public. Feel free to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their ideas to use as foundations for your own songs.

JOHNNY RZEZNIK

“The one thing somebody told me which helped me a lot was, ‘The A material definitely lies beneath the B material.’ You have to let yourself go, and accumulate a lot of crap, and then sift through it to get to the good stuff. You can’t rush it. A lot of times I’ll pick up the guitar and play, and if a song’s not coming, I do something else— clean the house, listen to some music—and come back to writing later. There is a time for your internal judge to come in and make the call, but you have to free yourself from that in the beginning stages of the creative process. I’ve often stifled myself because I was trying to bash the music into shape instead of letting it lead. When I shut off the judge in my head, music usually comes quite easily.”

BJORK

“Songwriting is like a thunderstorm building up inside me. If I don’t write songs, I get all bottled up. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. For me, music has to have a little speck of intrigue or the unknown. Also, I’m an old school romantic in the sense that even if you write songs about dark stuff, the root of the song should be about going through the tunnel and coming out on the other side with a happy ending. I’m not into songs that are just about self-pity or self-indulgence. I usually look at songs as little trips that show you going on your way to some other place.”

DAVID CROSBY

“Very often, ideas come to me when I’m falling asleep—when the busy mind gets out of the way, and the intuitive, imaginative mind gets a shot at the steering wheel. My friend, science fiction writer William Gibson, told me, ‘It’s an established phenomenon. The elves take over the workshop. That’s why all writers keep a pen and paper by their bed.’”

JAMES HETFIELD

“I’ve got so many notes and little things that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I’ll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes, there’s more than just a line, and sometimes there’s nothing. There’s a song title, and you just go. That’s the beauty of it. Even if I do have an idea of where I want to be, I might end up somewhere else— which is even cooler. But you can’t get to that spot unless you travel the other road. You might be all frustrated, and then one line will just open up so many doors.”

RAY DAVIES

“I’m very scathing about art school, but it really taught me to look and to translate. I would go out to a location, do some sketches, take the project back to college, and then turn it into something. I was good at that. To gather material for songs, I would watch the way people interacted—although, generally, the people I wrote about didn’t interact much in the world. You have to find a way to get your head working, and really look at something that’s seemingly nothing to look at. You must discover some element to take out and use in your work. People don’t look enough. So much is handed to us by television, newspapers, and other media that we don’t really look at anything anymore.

“I tell writers to do whatever it takes to keep your brain sharp. I’ll find something in the newspaper and say, ‘What would I do if I had to write that as a song?’ I did a British TV series in the early ’70s where I was given an assignment on Thursday, wrote the song on a Friday, and it was in the show on Saturday. That kept me sharp. Every writer is different—everyone has their own handicaps, assets, and needs.”

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SHAWN COLVIN

“I’m the type who has to get up every five or ten minutes and get a drink of water, or pretend I’m interested in something else. But often that’s when I solve a problem. There’s a strange little important moment when you say, ‘I’ll write that down. That might be something.’”

CHRIS CORNELL

“It’s easier to be ‘vocally creative’ over odd-time riffs. In a weird time signature, there’s really only one thing you can sing, and it jumps right out at you. Straight-four riffs have been around for so long that you can end up writing the same song 500 times.”

WILLIE DIXON

“I get a thing in my mind—the words that I would like to say, and the expression that I would like to have them said in to get the best results. I would like the song to be part of life, because I’ve always felt like blues was the facts of life being expressed to people that didn’t understand the other fellow’s condition. This gives me the chance to say the things that I felt people would want other people to know. This is the way I mostly wrote my songs.”

JOHN HAITT

“About 50 percent of my lyrics are autobiographical, and about 50 percent is making up stuff, adding to, or out-and-out lying [laughs]— which I like to do quite a bit. It’s the artist’s duty!”

AIMEE MANN

“Most lyricists don’t want to write meaningful stuff. They want to write stuff that sounds meaningful, which is a different thing altogether. They rely too much on the standard rock clichés. Good writers turn the clichés around, so at least you know they’ve thought about it, rather than saying, ‘Well, I’ve heard this 800,000 times, so it must be good!’ I try to avoid certain images that I feel have been done to death, such as:

• Weather and the elements. Rain, storms, clouds, snow. If one more person prays for rain, I’ll scream.

• Geography. Mountains, rivers, valleys, streams, oceans. Usually someone is crossing or climbing one or more of these to get to his or her love.

• Any reference to angels or hearts.

• Traveling or rambling from town to town. Either in a train or car with your baby, or alone, searching for, or running away from your baby.

• Use of the word ‘baby.’

• Gambling. Rolling of the dice in any way, shape, or form. Ace of spades, queen of hearts, etc.

• Weapons. Usually guns or knives.

Many of these clichés were originally written by great writers, but now they’re misused over and over again. I’m guilty of some of them myself. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I would like to think that I can at least proof- read.”

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 2

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 3

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  • http://BLAGGARDS.com Paddy

    Great stuff…right when I needed it

  • soznak

    never be afraid of a cliche

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Just be sure to show that cliche who's the boss!

  • Sun Bell

    When songs come to me I write them. I don't care about the genre or if there are notes I'm making up (never played before). I find if I do that it keeps me flowing, I tend to be very prolific in songwriting. I pay attention to being inspired no matter what inspires me and go with it. I don't out it off for another time. So, sometimes I'm writing in very strange places because of inspiration. I try to keep some kind of paper and writing implement near me at all times but I've used some strange things to write on including my body if I didn't have paper.
    Let the music play and the light shine!

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Sounds like writer's block ain't a problem for you. Keep the light shining!

      • Ross

        The writers interviewed–particularly Aimee Mann–were talking about intentionally writing HIT songs, not just sitting down and writing a song. Of course you could just sit down and write any old song, get to know someone at Apple, let them put it on their TV commercial and the next thing you know, you've got a HIT song.

        • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

          A "commercial" success! haha.

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  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    She must be guarding her tricks!

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    absolutely!

  • http://semperfi.be Bastom

    the link to The Musician’s Guide to Recording is not working.. after filling everything in, you just get an advertising catalogue: "audiocatalog". Where can i find this The Musician’s Guide to Recording? I would love to read trough it !

  • http://twitter.com/SteveCaston Steve Caston

    haha.. love Aimee Mann… even though I don't love every one of her songs… when she does a good one… it's awesome… and I agree… forget the cliches… unless of course you're writing a song about an actual cross-country trip with your baby and your car gets stuck in a valley and you have to use your knife and gun to protect yourself and gamble with the natives for some shelter from the coming storm… but I digress…

  • M J Richards

    I didn't agree with her list anyway. One of my favorite albums of late is Mountain Meadows by Elliot Brood. Sometimes songs contribute to a musical conversation that goes on for decades.

  • Mary Rebel

    I think a song you write should please you ie. you should want to play it and hear it over and over again.

  • James Walsh

    Music is the most profound thing there is to connect us all on this Earth. There is great variety so there's room for fun and every emotion under the sun. Love the Music and it will Love you back…..
    James and Keri Walsh

  • Anonymous

    Very well done, reminds me of some of the interviews with great writers from the book 'Songwriters on songwriting' by Paul Zollo, which I highly recommend for those who liked this, so many great insights from over 60 classic writers. There's just so much useless crap out there on songwriting, kind of like fad diets that promise you miracles, when the bottom line is there are no shortcuts. It's a tremendous amount of trial and error and for every diamond there are a thousand rocks. But then there's the occasional semi precious stone that shows up that can be very rewarding too. And ultimately the writers who do well have a love affair with the process itself, as maddening as it can be sometimes. For me, I never get over the fact that it's one the closest things to magic that we human beings get to experience, and for that, it's worth everything.

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Every once in a while I think I have songwriting "figured out," and then I'll put on a Richard Thompson album and feel like a complete beginner. That's a nice humbling feeling where everything is fresh again and full of mystery.

      • Anonymous

        That's also what I love about Zollo's book, how many of the best of the best say the same thing, which is part of why they are so good. You never figure it out, and you start from the beginning every time, and even though you obviously become more of a craftsman over time, as Lennon said, more or less- I'm a very good craftsman, but that's not what interests me, it's about stumbling upon the 'music of the spheres' that transcends all craft. It is indeed a mystery which is what makes it's so fascinating and inexhaustible and impossible to ever reduce to a formula.

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Also, I love that Zollo book. I put it in my "Top 5 Favorite Music Books" video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9ausE1f8Sw

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    It's relaxing for me too, unless I get stuck on something (a line, a melody, etc.). Then that thing gets buzzing in my brain until the problem is solved, which is sometimes NOT relaxing. But up until that point,… relaxing.

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    Yes. Although “true” in art is a bit subjective. I’ve never rambled, gambled, or hopped a train, but I know what it is like to wake up one morning and take a risk because of some restless feeling.

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    Yes. Although "true" in art is a bit subjective. I've never rambled, gambled, or hopped a train, but I know what it is like to wake up one morning and take a risk because of some restless feeling.

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    Speaking of the Muse, here is a fascinating little speech on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/elizabeth_gilbe

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    Speaking of the Muse, here is a fascinating little speech on the subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/elizabeth_gilbe

  • Wendell Jones

    I would love for you to post about 150 more of these quotations. They are as much help as anything I have found, yet. The creativity and the wit is inspirational.

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Hey Wendell, you probably already saw the links, but just wanted to make sure… did you check out parts 2 and 3? If so, I also recommend Paul Zollo's book "Songwriters on Songwriting." Really great, insightful, extended interviews with hit songwriters about their process.

  • Guacamoley

    Hit songs are strewn with cliche! Just keep writing, if you're ever lucky enough to have a hit,it will probably be your goofiest,least insightful,simple,uncrafted, repetitive riff that just grabs peoples attention for 3 minutes. Your well-crafted songs will be your deep cuts.Even if you have a great song the odds of getting it heard are quite against you because the music business is a closed loop.

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Where would pop music be with the repetition of "baby," "yeah," and "oooo?"

  • Agapedave

    Words and language (i.e. sun, moon, etc.) are tools. Telling people to not use them is like saying, "Don't use paper to write your songs down, because that's been done 1000 times before", "Don't write about love, everyone has already covered that topic", etc.) Who cares! If it's a good song, it will make you forget that you have heard those same words and images before. How about, "Baby snacks, I'm tired of spilling the white ivory cubes on black, I've traversed the turquoise tundra in my sea lion to get you back"? Okay, maybe not, but you get the point.

  • J Young3000

    Songwiters, must be more create with sounds, when creating new hit tunes in all styles of music, when arrange and compose music

  • http://roytalley.com Roy Talley

    Dear People,
    This is fascinating, and a great part of cd baby's service. My songs, are a different breed of cat.
    I focus on the GUITAR, with the competitive ability, of the seer, and visionary image, as in " GUITAR GOD ", if you can see the pyramid, if you see that???? then I will be happy. Ok, I also, have worked upon the inner-self, and even if the world hasn't caught on. These will be, that is my song, are my gift's. With love, peace, and the best guitar playing, acquired thru, practice. Roy Talley Sept 01, 2011
    aut of 20 songs, I'll select 1, to record, maybe ? I write about 300 songs, that I record per year….
    I release only the best, which are not alway that good. The girls like me to sing, and I'm forced to try to please, them with hot guitar, become back-ground…..

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stäni-Steinbock/1765640240 Stäni Steinbock

      Well, in fact, I don't find writing a 'hit song' very interesting other than for economical reasons, which may or may not be the most interesting reasons to write music. I'd rather write instrumental music (and I do!) since I find it more interesting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stäni-Steinbock/1765640240 Stäni Steinbock

    I've read Aimee Mann's views before. It immediately made me want to try to write a song which would include ALL those elements she mentions (that you shouldn't use)!

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      Ha. That could be a great song.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stäni-Steinbock/1765640240 Stäni Steinbock

    Or turn them around like Robert Hunter did so many times, for instance "The sky was yellow and the sun was blue/the wind in the willows played Tea For Two" etc.
    I like those: You recognise the cliché, but there's something new to it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stäni-Steinbock/1765640240 Stäni Steinbock

    At some workshops I did with 8th-graders last spring I gave them lists of 8 words that were in no way connected to each other, instructed them to choose two or three of them and write some lyrics around them. Ths resulted in some very strange lyrics, many of which I liked very much.

    Whether any of them would be hit songs is questionable, but it gave them a starting point. Woody Guthrie once suggested picking headlines from newspapers (but NOT reading the articles!) and witing songs with that as a starting point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stäni-Steinbock/1765640240 Stäni Steinbock

    "Piney wood hills" by Buffy Sainte-Marie is a song about love for a landscape & it's always been one of my absolute favourites (maybe because I used to spend my childhood summers an a piney wood hill, or rather ridge?).

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