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How to be a songwriter - the art of song-writing explained

Updated on November 10, 2016

How to write a song and find inspiration

As a songwriter myself I have my own way of creating a new song but not all songwriters work the same way. In my case I begin by writing the lyrics first and then find a melody to go with the words.

Some songwriters do it the opposite way, by composing the music first and then adding the lyrics later on. In some cases songwriting teams of a lyricist and a composer get together. Elton John and Bernie Taupin are a great example of a successful team like this that has turned out many a hit song.

Bard of Ely playing live

Bard of Ely live on stage at El Risco in Tenerife
Bard of Ely live on stage at El Risco in Tenerife

Inspiration for songwriting

The inspiration for songwriting can come in many ways and from many sources. Some songwriters find that they become inspired by personal tragedies and traumatic experiences which they can then express in the lyrics of their songs.

Writing like this has a two-fold benefit because firstly it is a form of emotional therapy and secondly it connects with the listener who can empathise and identify with the feelings expressed by the songwriter's lyrics. In many ways this is what "singing the blues" is all about. People can relate to sad songs because they have been through similar problems. In the words of REM in their hit song" Everybody hurts."

Love songs and the search for love is another great inspiration for songwriters. Songs like this will always be popular because there are always people looking for love or enjoying being in love.

Then there are the social comment and protest songs. Some singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan came to fame with songs of this nature. Songwriting this way is done by reflecting on anything that is going wrong in the world and getting your thoughts down about it in a poetic fashion.

It is a good idea to jot down notes of ideas for songs and phrases and titles that you may think of. Lots of songwriters work this way, by keeping notes and rough drafts of songs. If ideas come to you at random times in life it is a good idea to keep a pen and notebook with you so you can jot them down.

Then of course, besides the sad songs and the serious protest songs there are happy songs and fun songs. Some songwriting is indulging in pure fantasy and story-telling is another part of a songwriter's skill and art. Imagination has as much a part in songwriting as the ability to remember and tell again of experiences you have had.

Controversial songs are great for making a name for yourself as a songwriter and generating publicity. This is what you need to do if you are looking to get signed or looking for gigs. Creating a "buzz" about your song will ensure its success.

My song You're a Liar, Nicky Wire is an example of this. Because it took a humorous poke at a member of the Manic Street Preachers the song, on a limited private release, was banned from a local record shop.

This was just the sort of publicity I needed to work with. I told Ben Knowles, the editor of the NME at the time, who had previously met me, that a copy of my new song was on its way to his office and that it had already been banned from a record store in Cardiff. The following week it had a rave review in the paper's singles pages. Following this publicity it got signed to Crai Records, the leading label in WAles, and was released fronting the Taffia EP in 2002.

Some songwriters mix these different forms. Some songwriters know what they want their finished song to be like and they may have an idea for the arrangement and production. Others just start off with a lyric and a tune, and a song that can be sung is the basis for how it can be later adapted or performed.

Many singer-songwriters who work alone have a favourite instrument on which they compose the music. There are songwriters, and I am one of these, who use the guitar to work out the musical side of a song.

In my case I sit down with my lyrics in front of me and just try singing the words with chord patterns until I feel happy with the new song. Sometimes it can be done very quickly and many professional songwriters write their songs quickly like this. Others may take days, weeks, months or even years working on getting a song just right.

Many songwriters use a piano or keyboards as their instrument to compose with. In many cases too, singer-songwriters end up performing their songs solo on guitar or keyboards. Neil Young is a shining example of a top songwriter who can do both.

Once you have a new song written a good way to find out what other people think of it is to play it live at a gig. Sometimes, if the song is really good, you will know right away from the audience's reaction whether you've got a potential hit on your hands.

Songwriters may chose to write songs to perform themselves or to write for other people to cover. Some top singer-songwriters, such as Neil Diamond, combine the two skills. Neil has had hits with his own songs and seen cover versions by acts such as The Monkees become great hits for them.

Some songwriters like to enter competitions for songwriting, such as the John Lennon songwriters contest or some other such name. There are often great prizes for the winners of such a songwriting contest, although competition is fierce and often the organisers of these competions charge a fee to those who want to enter.

Whatever approach you take to songwriting, there is always a lot of creative pride to be had in the finished song, whether it goes on to earn you a lot of money or simply if a lot of people enjoy it.

Getting your song released on a label is a great achievement and so is getting airplay on the radio or having your song used in a TV programme. There is a lot of joy in being a songwriter.

Elton John - Your song

© 2010 Steve Andrews


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    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for your comments and additional advice for songwriters! I agree with you about not needing more than three chords to put a song together and I often think what is shown in song books and sheet music is just showing off. I have actually seen singer/songwriters using just a few chords when what it says in a music book looks a lot more complex. I have two-chord songs - Jungle Love and Kingfisher - and they are some of my most popular.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      Larry Allen Brown 

      5 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      Nice post Bard. I'm sure a lot of people wonder about the process. It helps to be able to play an instrument, especially the piano or the guitar. In other words a chordal instrument that you can sing while playing. You can do that with a violin as well. If you can play at least three chords, you can write a song. Actually Dylan has written songs with just two chords. ( Woody Guthrie said, any song with more than 3 chords is just showing off). Songwriting as you know, is a craft, and you have to work at it to get it right. I've had people ask me to put their poetry to music, and it usually doesn't come off the way they'd hoped. There's generally a lot of editing needed.

      I have a very strong background in music theory and teach the guitar so I know my way around the instrument. I have a young student who's 13, and she's written a great song. There are no rhyming verses in it and it's a masterpiece. It' a good idea to listen very carefully to songs that grab you, and begin to take them apart to find what it is that appeals to you. In my case the lyrics and the music sort of come at the same time. I'm usually humming a melody and start throwing out phrases that fit the rhythm of what I'm humming, and that kick-starts the process. Paul McCartney originally started singing "ham and eggs" for the song Yesterday. Also, it helps to have balanced and unbalanced lines ( or stable and unstable lines) in other words an odd number of lines in the verse to create tension, followed by an even number in the chorus. Even numbers give definition. Odd numbers raise a question. The chorus is the answer to the question.

      Nice Hub.

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      If you can write poetry and play guitar then I would think you could write a song. Those are the basics of how I do this.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I can write poems and some other stuff, and play guitar. But could never put one decent lyric and tune together in over 35 years. I wonder if it is just a talent you have or you don't.

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      I am glad to hear it, Purcy!

    • profile image

      Purcy (Harmonica) Shaun Kemlo Flaherty 

      9 years ago

      I wish to express my thanks however in adequate as at times language fails me "Blah, blah" and all that stuff.

      Last week you furnished me with pleasure and fuelled profound belief that elements of our local kin so far unseen may expose their very soul via a theatre finished of blood and simple bone..

      Yours: Purcy

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, Ricky!

    • RICKY RASPER profile image


      9 years ago from ULSTER

      Hubs within hubs,wheels within wheels,like a roulette wheel spinning with limitless numbers to land on,the marble landed me here.I really like your style Steve.

      Regards Richard.E.Craig

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for posting and good luck with your own work, The Phoenix! You can find some of my songs here:

    • phoenix482010 profile image


      9 years ago from Cobourg Ontario Canada

      Great hub ,didn,t know you write songs also would like to see some of your work,I myself write country songs only , most are cover songs ...Have afew of my songs going to Nashville song company ,hopefully i will hear back from them.. All the best with your future endeavours....The Phoenix...

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thanks for posting! I'll have a look.

    • Manchild1974 profile image


      9 years ago

      Hello Bard...I think I played The Avalon stage that year too...I have some lyrics on my page..I'm wrestling with..maybe U might take a look...and maybe come up with somewhere good for them to go...

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, Benny! Good luck with your songwriting!

    • BennyTheWriter profile image


      9 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Excellent hub! Congrats on your success so far and best wishes for the future! As a songwriter and musician, aspiring to "make a name" for myself, this is very encouraging to me. It reminds me that it CAN be done.

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      9 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      I couldn't answer that with any certainty, EM! But I expect it happens!

    • E M Smith profile image

      E M Smith 

      10 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      It must be wonderful to create a song that lasts forever. Do people such as Dylan become blasé? I guess they do.

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      10 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for reading my hub and posting, KFlippin!

    • KFlippin profile image


      10 years ago from Amazon

      Liked this, very interesting, may even check out some of the books, and for sure your links. I've always been curious about the writing of songs.

    • Bard of Ely profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      10 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, zzron!

    • zzron profile image


      10 years ago from Houston, TX.

      Really great hub, awesome info, thanks brother.


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