How to Write a Song: Songwriting Method and Tips HTML version

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Part 1: Change How You Look At Songwriting
How to Become a “Great” Artist
“Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso
Reading this quote changed my view of songwriting forever. We all know that copying songs and selling
them as your own is illegal. We also know that copying a certain artist’s style leads to an unoriginal sound
that audiences hate. That’s not what Picasso is saying to do and neither am I.
What this quote means to me is that all great art forms have an underlying vocabulary of ideas, themes
and images that great artists have learned to shamelessly steal from. Rock songs are no different. You
may not believe it now, but after you start analyzing tunes in the way presented here, you will be stunned.
For instance, think of the hundreds of hit rock song titles that use the word “Fire” or “Black”. The Doors,
U2, the Stones, Pearl Jam, and many more ALL have songs with those words in the title. Do you?
If you don’t “steal” enough from the underlying vocabulary of rock words, themes and chord progressions,
large audiences will not identify your music as the type of music they like. But if you “steal” too much
from a particular artist, sound or song, then people will see you as bland or a sound-alike, and you may
even infringe on a copyright.
You MUST find the balance between these extremes if you want to create a hit song every time you sit
down to write. If you want any commercial success, sitting down with pen and paper to write a “truly
original” song from scratch is your formula for failure. Using only your own mind, most of your songs will
inevitably sound too different from the public’s familiarity with the genre to ever be hits.
When you look at a mega-hit rock writer, you’ll see how they borrow directly from their predecessors and
use common rock themes. For instance Spingsteen’s “Born in the USA” talks about war, home, and
America. He uses the words penitentiary, town and fire, which are straight out of many other rock tunes.
These themes and words have been used over and over for instance by Dylan (Masters of War,
Subterranean Homesick Blues), U2 (A Sort of Homecoming, Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and The Rolling
Stones (200 Light Years from Home, Gimmie Shelter).
But you may ask, what about Beck? He’s completely different and he still has hits, right? Wrong, for
instance he uses the super commonplace rock word “Black” in tons of his songs - Black Tambourine, Black
Hole, Blackfire Choked Our Death, Super Golden Black. Underneath all that sampling, Beck’s songs have
simple, standard chord progressions. Like Devil’s Haircut – D G C and Hotel City A E F#. By the way
“Devil” and “City” are also highly reused rock words.
So do you have a song about the war, or about longing for home, that has the words “Devil” or “Fire” in the
title? You should, and your target audience will eat it up!
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