Songwriting Techniques and Tools: What Do Each of These Songwriters Have In Common?
ABOVE: Some of the songwriters who consistently wrote classics: John Lennon, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Dollie Parton, Freddie Mercury, Dorothy Fields, Paul McCartney, A. P. Carter, Bob Marley, Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Willie Nelson, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams Sr., Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Felice Bryant, Ellie Greenwich, Curtis Mayfield, Merle Haggard, Carole King, Irving Berlin, Loretta Lynn, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Mercer, Paul Simon, Marilyn Bergman, Neil Young
1. Each of them wrote a catalog of songs that have become classics — songs that earned them (and dozens of others) well-deserved acclaim, along with very substantial royalties.
2. Each of them
habitually used a similar set of incredibly effective songwriting techniques. Contemporary songwriters are largely unaware of these techniques. Two Books, SongMatrix and Words with Power, will document these stylistic habits for the benefit of any interested songwriter.
The following is a brief excerpt from the forthcoming book (2022), SongMatrix: How Songwriting REALLY Works!, by Wayne Chase, author of the acclaimed popular music handbook, How Music REALLY Works!
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[Book Excerpt -- SongMatrix: How Songwriting REALLY Works!]
That Song About the Midway
Songwriting and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
That Song About the Midway
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
I'm midway down the midway, slowing down, down, down, down.
--Joni Mitchell ("That Song About the Midway")
A first-rate work of art shows you, in a localized habitat, something you didn't expect. It triggers in you, as its audience (or member of its audience), an emotional rush. When it does that, the art piece fulfils its promise and the artist's purpose.
Emotions evolved by natural selection, over many thousands of generations, as adaptations that enhance and promote physical survival and/or reproductive success. Without emotions, Homo sapiens would soon perish.
Beginning long before recorded history and continuing today, human societies everywhere on earth have independently dreamt up an eclectic palette of art forms. They powerfully enrich the emotional lives of each of us and the communities we live in. These art forms include, among others: dance, painting, sculpture, narrative writing, theatrical performance, songwriting, and musical performance.
People worldwide tend to hold dear any work of art that elicits a potent emotional response, such as an exciting or romantic movie, an engrossing novel, a magnificent painting, a mesmerizing song.
When you engage with a successful work of art, you discover, in a protected or controlled context, how the experience presented in the art piece makes you feel (for better or worse), without going through that scenario in real life. The work of art functions as a kind of emotional flight simulator. Or perhaps a midway ride such as a roller coaster.
A fine performance of a well-written song can draw out a spectrum of emotions, such as excitement, surprise, exhilaration, sadness, anxiety, relief, perhaps even serenity. The performance lasts but a few spellbinding minutes, but you may well find it irresistible enough that you loop back around, past the barkers and the colored balloons, and hop aboard that midway ride one more time, to experience that feeling again. And then again. And again.
(A run-of-the-mill song, by contrast, moves you to mere boredom or irritation and a promise to yourself to avoid repeating that ride.)
If a work of art evokes painful or troubling emotions, such as terror (e. g., a horror movie), your mind concocts ways and means of avoiding or escaping the danger depicted or described, should you find yourself in a situation of that sort in the real world. On the other hand, if the art piece sparks emotions that you find pleasurable or that resonate with your life's experience (such as sadness or longing), then you seek more of that art.
To get your fix of a particular artist's creations, you only need to clamber aboard that artist's midway ride. You can do it as often as you want.
If that artist is, or was, a great songwriter, such as Marvin Gaye or Lennon-McCartney or Tom Waits, you can get on board by streaming or downloading their tracks, watching their videos, attending their concerts.
Performing, Producing, Songwriting: Three Musical Art Forms, Three Different Skill Sets
In popular music, three musical art forms with markedly different skill sets intersect, something like this:
Musicians tend to accrue, over time, some degree of proficiency in all three. However, almost no one achieves true excellence in one of them. We’ll see why shortly.
First, a quick look at the main skill requirements of each.
A song written on a page or displayed on a screen lies utterly inert -- effectively dead -- until a performer breathes life into it. Performers enjoy the freedom to interpret, in any way they like, any of the song’s "four components" (i. e., the four typically notated on a lead sheet: melody, chords, rhythmic elements, and lyrics). A solo performer or band may, for example, decide to reshape the lyrics, modify the chord progression, speed up or slow down the tempo, or tweak the melody. Compare, for example, Bob Dylan's rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” with Jimi Hendrix's. Or The Beatles' rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends” with Joe Cocker's.
Musical performance skills broadly include (solo or in a group):
- Playing one or more instruments
- Playing an instrument while singing/harmonizing
- Acting while playing or singing
- Teaching any of the above
With a lot of training, practice, experience, and ambition, a musician can mature into a seasoned practitioner of one or several of the above, and earn a reasonable living.
A producer may be called upon to:
Arrange or orchestrate instrumental and vocal music for a performer or band;
Use software and hardware to shape, process, mix, and otherwise engineer sound;
Direct the performances of instrumentalists and singers (and sometimes dancers and actors);
Direct the synchronization of lighting and special effects;
Teach any of the above.
Schools and courses in sound engineering and music production provide structured learning, but a musician can also self-educate by picking up experience in studio recording and live sound mixing, and delving into online resources, books and videos.
Most gigging musicians acquire at least a modicum of production and sound engineering skills, and many reach a high level of expertise.
However, even with a lot of training, experience, and ambition, earning a full-time living strictly as a producer is not easy. So most musicians who attain reasonable or even outstanding producing skills apply their learning and experience mainly to their own act’s recording work, live sound, and video production.
Far and away, the weak link of the three is songwriting.
Historically, the music industry has always traded in the currency of the song. The better the song, the greater its value as well as the value to the industry of the songwriter's expertise.
What's a "better" song?
Suppose you write a song called "Churning Water Beneath a Bridge." You record it, promote it vigorously online, perform it around town, perhaps regionally, and pitch the song and your act to record labels.
Despite your hard work and best efforts, nothing much happens. Other performing artists hear your "Churning" song but don't cover it. Online, nobody's talking about it. Streams and downloads quickly stall out in low numbers. Labels pass on signing you.
You recall a piece of sage advice your aged grandma handed down to you. (She learned it at a local speakeasy for pandemic survivors and dispirited entertainers.) One evening, rocking on the porch, moths orbiting the pale yellow bulb above, she wagged a gnarled wisdom-finger in your direction and said, "Grasshopper, if you continue to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, you are flirting with insanity."
With those words echoing in your head, you resolve as a songwriter to stay sane. To do something different. Therefore, since "Churning" didn't get you anywhere, you compose a new song with music and lyrics expressly unlike "Churning." You call your new song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
As with "Churning," you record "Bridge," promote it like crazy online, perform it around town and regionally, and pitch the new song and your act to the industry.
This time, your career explodes. Social media goes nuts. Streams and downloads soar into the hundreds of thousands. Soon, millions. Major labels get into a bidding war to sign you. Star performers scramble to cover "Bridge."
Clearly, both the industry and the public perceive "Bridge" to be a better song than "Churning." Not by a little, but by light years.
So, what's the difference between "Churning" and "Bridge"?
It's the same as the difference between any ordinary song and any of Paul Simon's many classics. Or, for that matter, any ordinary song and any of the masterpieces of Lennon-McCartney, the Gershwins, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, Hank Williams Sr., Carole King, Richard Rodgers, Willie Nelson, Irving Berlin, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Joni Mitchell...
That is what this book is about: the difference (or, more accurately, the many differences) between everyday songs and brilliant songs. It's about the nitty-gritty details of songwriting technique that separate the lyrics and music of timeless classics such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (which you would like to have written, if only to buy yourself an island in the Caribbean) from the lyrics and music of the countless thousands of songs written day-to-day in bedrooms, basements, and garage studios, in touring vans and buses, at songwriting retreats and courses, and in hotel rooms and offices that host industry songwriting camps.
The multifarious nitty-gritty "difference" details in technique that separate average songs from potential classics will come at you in due course throughout this book. But for the moment, suffice it to say that, today, few songwriters know much, if anything, about the techniques you will learn in these pages. And that's why practically no one today is capable of consistently writing songs that are remotely close to "classic" in excellence.
The content of this book is based on empirical evidence: the results of numerous tests comparing the "technical characteristics" of great classic songs with control groups of contemporary songs.
What's a "Great Classic Song"?
It's a song that passes these three tests:
It crosses genres. It's a song so universal-sounding that, even though the first release was recorded in a particular genre such as pop, rock, country, or r & b, the song nevertheless attracts cover versions by major artists in multiple genres;
It attracts lots of covers (not just remixes, but authentic covers). It's a song so singular that, over time, it gets covered by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of recording artists -- so many that people lose the memory of who first recorded the song, and in many cases, who even wrote it. (How many musicians know the names of the songwriters -- composers and lyricists -- who wrote "Over the Rainbow," "Summertime," "Cry Me a River," "Girl from Ipanema," or "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"? Test yourself!);
It stands the test of time. It's a song so irresistible that generations born long after the song was written still learn, love, perform, and record it. In short, it stands the all-important test of time that turns a song popular in its day into a standard.
Through no fault of their own, today's songwriters do not possess the knowledge and skills to write songs that have the potential to become great classics. The techniques required to write such songs have been lost over the past few decades. More on this shortly.
In the present study, each of the songs included in the "classic" group were four-component songs. That is, they all had vocal melody, a chord progression, a rhythmic setting, and lyrics. For purposes of comparative testing, each song in the control group of contemporary songs also had to have all four components. The necessity of comparing apples to apples made several broad categories of popular song ineligible for inclusion in the control group:
- Songs with lyrics in languages other than English were ineligible because all of the classic songs included in the study had English lyrics;
- Rap songs, having most or all of the lyrics chanted, not sung, were ineligible because all of the classic songs in the study had sung lyrics from beginning to end;
- Songs without identifiable chord progressions were ineligible because all of the classic songs had identifiable chord progressions;
- Songs with unmeasured music were ineligible because all of the classic songs had a definite rhythmic setting;
- Purely instrumental songs were ineligible because all of the classic songs had sung lyrics.
Careless Love: The Inevitable Dissipation of Authentic Classic Songwriting Skills
Before the digital revolution in music producing and recording, a songwriter would typically start the process of creating a song by rummaging through tattered notebooks of self-penned lyrics, noodling around on a guitar or piano, jotting down lyric lines and chord progressions, and making up melodies. Such low-tech songwriting practice still goes on, of course -- it may be the main method songwriters use even now. It works.
Over the decades since the onset of the digital revolution, songwriting methods have broadened to embrace electronic technology (samplers, synthesizers, digital audio workstations, etc.) to create beats -- rhythmic elements, often with chord progressions -- and sometimes machine-generated melody lines. The use of actual musical instruments is an option, not a necessity.
Whatever method used, most new original songs never reach the ears of anyone beyond the writer's or writer-performer's small circle of family, friends, acolytes, and social media followers.
Fifty years from now, absent the onset of another golden age of songwriting, it's likely that only a tiny handful of today's millions of songwriters will have written a sufficient number of classics to be considered among the giants of the art.
What brought on the dissipation of classic songwriting skills?
In the 20th century, there were two golden ages of songwriting. The first began after World War I with the rise of jazz, musical theatre, and musical film. Professional songwriters who specialized in either composing music or writing lyrics (seldom both) created an outstanding body of now-classic songs, known as the Great American Songbook. This jazz- and musical-based songwriting era peaked in the late 1930s, lingered on through the Big Band era until after World War II, and faded in the1960s.
The second golden age began with the emergence, from African American blues and gospel, of R & B, soul, and rock music in the 1950s, along with a revival of folk music and Nashville-based country. Songwriter-performers dominated popular music, including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, The Bee Gees, and numerous others.
It was difficult for a performer or band to get signed to a major label because of the high cost of recording and developing an artist. As well, the labels recognized that it was easier to break a performer who wrote great material than a non-writer for whom songs always had to be sourced. Since the 1960s, the industry has expected performers who aspire to break out nationally or internationally to write, or at least try to write, their own songs.
A self-writing performer or band had to pass muster. The labels employed savvy gatekeepers, the best of whom could generally spot performers who also had promising songwriting skills. As an aspiring songwriter-performer, if you could impress the likes of John Hammond Sr, Sam Phillips, Ahmet Ertegun, Leonard Chess, Berry Gordy, or Clive Davis, you might have yourself a career.
The second golden age of songwriting encompassed multiple genres, peaked in the late 1960s and slowly tapered off through the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Starting in the 1980s, as digital technology drove down the cost of recording, many musicians with adequate instrumental and vocal proficiency but only average songwriting skills realized it was possible to bypass the gatekeepers at the record labels. They could independently produce, record, release, and sell their original songs on their own.
By the 1990s, the world was inundated with independent recordings of original songs of dubious merit by unsigned bands and songwriters. The rise of accessible online music distribution websites, followed by YouTube in 2005, further lowered the bar.
Today, literally anyone who has a few hundred dollars to spare can make studio-quality recordings and music videos at home, and distribute them on a plethora of platforms. Many realize, correctly, that their songs are every bit the equal of the songs that populate the Billboard charts.
What today's aspiring songwriters don't realize, however, is that those charted hit songs that generate hundreds of millions (or billions) of streams are merely average songs. Successful as they are commercially, the writers of those hit songs do not have the knowledge or skills to write songs with classic potential. Their songwriting skills are at the same level as unknown bedroom and basement songwriters.
Billboard-charted songs generate huge revenue because they are the vehicles of massively popular and charismatic performers backed by major labels. Chart success does not track songwriting virtuosity. It tracks marketing muscle and resulting performer popularity.
Those who preside over the industry still need to, in the memorable phrase of Joni Mitchell, stoke the star-maker machinery behind the popular song. The operative word today is "popular", not "song". At the major label level, the focus is not on the song, but on the performer --- how to make the performer as popular as possible. Performer popularity translates directly into massive revenue generated by recordings, videos, and live performances of the performer's songs, regardless of song merit.
Today's music industry cultivates aspects of popular music that have nothing to do with songwriting excellence, such as:
Performers' lifestyle and charismatic appeal to demographic segments and identity groups such as age, race, ethnicity, and gender;
Expressive dancing and related physical skills;
Elaborate costuming and staging of live performances;
Music videos with high production values.
All of the above attract large crowds of paying fans, eager and willing to revel in the glory of songs manufactured by the production teams that major labels employ to turn out customized, same-sounding material for performers with track records of hits. Thanks to the power of social media, the bandwagon effect influences hit-song staying power more than ever.
From a business standpoint, today’s focus on performance and production -- not songwriting -- works robustly well on many levels. Highly proficient vocalists and instrumentalists make a living playing contemporary hits and original music in clubs and theatres, while major stars sell out arenas and stadiums. At the most commercially successful levels of pop, country, and rock, there are production teams who transform new mediocre songs into emotionally-charged multi-media show-stoppers.
From small clubs to stadiums, polished showmanship and dramatic production earn a living for legions of musicians worldwide (and their production crews), even though the songs they perform are almost always of only average quality (unless they specialize in performing classics).
Songwriting and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Most contemporary successful professional songwriters no doubt know that they owe their good fortune to performer popularity. But some mistakenly ascribe their commercial success to their mastery of the art: “My songs make a great deal of money. Therefore, they must be awesome songs.”
A cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect probably accounts for this faulty thinking. People who lack in-depth knowledge and expertise in their own field are incapable, precisely because of that knowledge deficit, of realizing how deficient their skills actually are, and therefore overestimate their abilities.
Commercially successful songwriters who cite metrics such as high streaming numbers, download numbers, and top chart standings, prefer to ascribe their success to the greatness of their songs, rather than to the star performers and producers of their songs, industry connections, blind luck, playlist manipulation by label-invested streaming services, and brand sponsorship of recording artists.
The following metrics, which have nothing to do with songwriting superiority, support the Dunning-Kruger delusions of such songwriters:
A significant number of songs they have written, or much more likely, co-written, have done well on Billboard and related charts;
Songs they have co-written have had millions of streams on YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming platforms;
In some cases, songs they have co-written have had millions of paid downloads;
Performers who have recorded songs they have co-written have been nominated for, or won, various industry awards, including Grammys;
The songwriter has been nominated for, or won, industry awards for songwriting (industry songwriting awards tend to reward sales, performance, and production);
The songwriter has made a significant amount of money in songwriting royalties.
Performing and Producing: Serious Competition
In a popular music landscape in which performance dominates, why would any musician bother to make an effort to improve songwriting skills? The fans don’t seem to care -- they’re in it for the performance. Any old song will do.
As a musician, if you're happy to earn a living in your local market playing your chosen instrument or singing (and possibly teaching), you will probably do just fine. But if you aspire to break out nationally or internationally as a performer and/or producer, you will face insane competition.
The reason is that there are lots of opportunities for any musician to acquire high-level training in performance and production. Well-trained teachers and music schools abound. And if you're on a budget, you can take advantage of a plethora of good, affordable tools in print, audio and video for self-directed learning.
It's no wonder, then, that armies of ambitious musicians, including those without sufficient means to pay for top-tier schools or instructors, manage to educate themselves to remarkable skill levels. So, as an ambitious musician yourself, you need to come to terms with the fact that you are competing against vast numbers of others whose performing and producing skills match or exceed yours. And many of them also have much better industry connections.
Songwriting: No Serious Competition
Top flight performers in popular music do very well commercially. So would masterful songwriters (those with Lennon-McCartney skill levels) if they existed. But they don’t.
(A reminder: this applies to four-component songwriting, not rap. Some time ago, rap/hip-hop overtook rock to become the world's most popular genre. As everyone in music knows, lots of brilliant rap writers and performers have become superstars since the 1980s. The aspects of the present study that relate to lyrics may be of interest to writers who work in rap/hip-hop, but for purposes of presenting comparative data, the evidence presented here applies to the other major genres -- pop, rock, country, R & B/soul, alternative -- for which the four-component song is the norm.)
High-level songwriting skills have largely disappeared over the past few decades. That means, of the three important art forms in popular music -- performing, producing, and songwriting -- only songwriting has no serious competition at an advanced level.
And that means, any musician or producer who acquires first-rate classic songwriting skills, and who has a modicum of ambition, is in a unique position to gain national or international recognition and become just as successful commercially as the top stars of the performing and producing art forms.
If someone were to come along today with sensational songwriting skills, that person would vault to the front ranks of the industry. (The movie “Yesterday” got it right.) People worldwide have always loved great art of any kind, including great songwriting, and will pay to experience it.
Today, in the industrial music world of major labels, groups of three to a dozen (or more) musicians and producers congregate to turn out generic songs for label stars. These star performers then routinely take such songs to the top ten on Billboard and sweep the major Grammys and other national and international music awards. Label-backed stars at that level have the performing talent and access to industry connections, skilled producers, production resources, and streaming playlist manipulation to stay on top of the commercial music world indefinitely, despite repertoire mediocrity.
That doesn’t mean the industry has no interest in genuinely great songs and songwriters. Major labels and their star performers would snap up exceptional new songs from any songwriter capable of writing them, if any could be found.
To summarize, performing, producing, and songwriting are distinct musical art forms, each requiring a different knowledge base and set of abilities. In the fields of performing and producing, plentiful opportunities exist to acquire high-level skills. Consequently, competition is ferocious. However, in the domain of songwriting, advanced educational resources do not exist, so the field is wide open, the opportunities enormous.
[End of Book Excerpt -- SongMatrix: How Songwriting REALLY Works!]
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