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How To Write a Song, as Explained by Famous Songwriters

Humans have been making music and writing songs for millennia. From sacred and secular melodies passed down orally through generations of music-makers to the pop singles making waves on the radio today, music has always been a way for us to express our emotions and tell the stories we feel should be told.

Outside the artistic realm, songs have served other crucial purposes throughout history. They’ve been catalysts for revolution, beacons of light during conflict, and even navigational guides for enslaved people in the pre-emancipation United States.

As with most other art forms, the process of creating a song is fairly elusive. While certain schools of thought dictate that songwriters should stick to specific forms, functions, and subject matter, those rules are often broken in the name of artistic expression. In truth, there are no definitive guidelines one must follow to write a song, and no two artists will approach a new composition in the exact same way.

The opacity surrounding this musical alchemy makes each songwriter’s individual approach all the more interesting, inspiring, and educational. We’re especially fascinated by the creative processes of those rare few artists who are able to craft one smash hit after another with apparent ease.

We’ve collected quotes from several such hitmakers, including Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Lady Gaga, and Stevie Nicks, that offer invaluable insights into how they approach the mysterious and rewarding process of songwriting.

You don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too … Many times, it’s very humble and very mundane, the origin of these songs.
Tom Waits

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I’d either sit down with a guitar or at the piano and just look for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, some words, a thought just to get started with … I just fiddle around with that and try and follow the trail … And sometimes it leads me down a blind alley so I have to retrace my steps and start again.
Paul McCartney

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Writing’s just as natural to me as getting up and cooking breakfast. I ain’t never far away from a pencil and paper or a tape recorder. I write every day, even when I’m on a plane, in the tub, or on the bus. It burns in me … My head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.
Dolly Parton

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I listen to some of the things I’ve written and think, “Damn.” I wonder where my head was at when I wrote that. Most of my writing was a clash between fantasy and reality, and I felt you had to use fantasy to illuminate some aspects of reality. Even the Bible does that. You have to give people something to dream on.
Jimi Hendrix

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I’m allergic to artifice that’s not intentional. If the artifice is intentional, I like it. If the artifice is actually just pure artifice, I strongly dislike it. I am viciously authentic and raw. And I don’t mean that in a way where I mean to signal my virtue. It’s actually just that I find myself allergic to a lack of truth.
Lady Gaga

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If the song is there, it usually doesn’t take me very long to write it … Usually the first lyrics I come up with are always the best, and I make sure they are down on paper … No matter how inconvenient it might be, even if I’m in bed, I get up and get a pen and paper and write it down so I don’t lose it.
Johnny Cash

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On some nights, if you listen to the rattles of your own head, it’s more linguistically colorful or eccentric than other nights … One night, you’ll trip over your tongue and the words won’t come with the same facility, and another night it’s just with you. Why? Is it your biorhythms? Is it divine intervention?
Joni Mitchell

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Sometimes ideas are coming so fast that I have to stop doing one song to get another. But I don’t forget the first one. If it works, it will always be there. It’s like the truth: It will find you and lift you up. And if it ain’t right, it will dissolve like sand on the beach.
Prince

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Whenever I get an idea for a song, even before jotting down the notes, I can hear it in the orchestra, I can smell it in the scenery, I can see the kind of actor who will sing it, and I am aware of an audience listening to it.
Richard Rodgers

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At the end of your day, when you finally have time to yourself, look at what you want to do. With me, I would always pick up my guitar and I would sing my favorite songs by other people. Then, when I had done that for a while, I would make up my own songs. That’s how it started.
Gillian Welch

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You try to create something that’s going to work on a number of levels: It’s useful, it’s functional, it’s beautiful, it makes a point, it has its own reality … You do have to stand back and look at what you’re painting. You can’t just enter into the depths of this thing and have bits of paint flying all over the place.
Mark Knopfler

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I go from writing in my journal to typing out some ideas on the typewriter. I make it into a full-on stanza poem. It’s really fun for me because I just put on music that I like that’s got a good beat and makes me feel good and then I type along to the beat … Then I’ll take that paper to the piano and just start writing.
Stevie Nicks

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I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better …  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist. Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was. So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks, and you just draw the foundation.
John Prine

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It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down … You have to be able to get the thoughts out of your head.
Bob Dylan

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Featured image credit: Paul Natkin/ Archive Photos via Getty Images

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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