The Methods of the Great Songwriters

By Liam Rockwell

Have you ever wondered about how some of your favorite songs are written? Whether you’re learning about poetry and literature, or you’re aspiring to get better at songwriting yourself, it’s important to learn about the great songwriters and what their processes are. 

So who are the greatest songwriters and why are they so great? What constitutes great songwriting? Well, there are many different ways you can define it and there are many different factors. Some people say it all depends on the melody, others say the lyrics should stand on their own, some say lyrics should be complex and layered with meaning, others say lyrics should be simple and speak on simple themes; there are so many different perspectives. So in order to learn about songwriting, you must try and take on as many of these perspectives as you can.

  • Paul Simon

Paul Simon was the songwriter and half of Simon & Garfunkel, the folk duo behind “The Sound of Silence”, “The Boxer”, and “Mrs. Robinson”. After the duo split up, he has continued to be a successful musician, with songs like “You Can Call Me Al”, “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”, and “Train In The Distance”. He has been a successful musician for over 60 years and is considered one of the great lyricists. He went into detail about his songwriting process in Making Music, a book by producer George Martin: 

“I get going fairly early in the morning because my mind is sharp, and start by dating the pad and putting down personal comments, such as how I am feeling that day, so that it becomes a diary of sorts. Slowly, a song will begin to emerge although sometimes it will stagger along, day after day, making no progress at all. The first page might have all sorts of lines that will never be used, but as I turn the pages, a little thought might come forward and suggest potential for development.”

He says with this process it takes him up to 50 pages to write a song. In the same book, he says this: 

“If a theme appears in the first verse, I will make a note of it. I don’t notate or write on music paper, but I am always thinking about the structure of the song. For example, I might take a phrase that was in the opening, or the title, and use a part of it later on, or invert it, or use it in the bridge. It might also be used in an unexpected way, because the listener is usually so familiar with song structures that most of the time he or she knows, consciously or subconsciously, that a certain verse will be repeated. This works both for and against the songwriter; there is pleasure in receiving what you expect but the weakness is that it can be boring.”

  • Kendrick Lamar

Considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, Literary scholars have studied Kendrick Lamar for his complex and symbolic lyricism. His album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is ranked as the most acclaimed album of the 2010’s on AcclaimedMusic.net, and his song “Alright” from the same album is ranked as the most acclaimed song of that decade. His album “Damn.” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the first piece of music neither in the jazz or classical genres to win that award. He spoke to Vanity Fair writer Lisa Robinson about his songwriting process:

 “I spend 80 percent of my time thinking about how I’m going to execute, and that might be a whole year of constantly jotting down ideas, figuring out how I’m going to convey these words to a person to connect to it. What is this word that means this, how did it get here and why did it go there and how can I bring it back there? Then, the lyrics are easy.”

In a conversation with music producer Rick Rubin for GQ, he also said about his songwriting process: 

“[…] Now I’m in a space where if I’m not inspired, I can’t really do the music. I can’t feel it. I put in enough hours to be able to pen a hundred-bar verse on the spot at any given moment. But for me to actually feel an idea, it has to come from me. And a lot of times, I have to block out different needs and wants just for my own selfish reasons. But at the end of the day, it comes out where, whether you like it or not, you know it comes from a real place. It’s gonna feel unapologetic, uncompromising, and it’s gonna feel [like] me.

“[…] I have to take notes because a lot of my inspiration comes from meeting people or going outside the country, or my old neighborhood.”

Kendrick talks a lot about note-taking. It’s his way of preserving his thoughts so that he can always refer to them and they can come back to him with the same energy as how he thought of them, years later. How many ideas have you had for lyrics, titles, concepts, imagery, etc. that you have forgotten since you didn’t write them down? 

  • Joni Mitchell

Named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest songwriters ever, Joni Mitchell is the singer and writer of the universally praised studio album “Blue”, as well as songs like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Cactus Tree”, “Fore the Roses”, and countless others. She stood out from the rock & roll crowd during a time where most acclaimed musicians were archetypically male, and influenced an incredible amount of artists from the next generation after her. Many of the songs you hear on the radio today are heavily inspired by Joni Mitchell. In a 1996 interview for Acoustic Guitar, she talked about her songwriting process: 

“I didn’t really begin to write songs until I crossed the border into the States in 1965. I had always written poetry, mostly because I had to on assignment. But I hated poetry in school: it always seemed shallow and contrived and insincere to me. All of the great poets seemed to be playing around with sonics and linguistics, but they were so afraid to express themselves without surrounding it in poetic legalese. Whenever they got sensitive, I don’t know, I just didn’t buy it. […] I believe to this day that If you are writing that which you know firsthand, it’ll have greater vitality than if you’re writing from other people’s writings or secondhand information.”

She talked about seeing jazz pianist Charles Mingus (of Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty), not long before he died.

“Mingus at the end, when I went to work with him, couldn’t listen to anything except a couple of Charlie Parker records. He kept saying, ‘That ain’t s***. He’s falsifying his emotions. Pretentious motherf***er.’ [Mingus] could hear it; I could hear it. He couldn’t stand to listen to most of his records because he could perceive in the note the egocenteredness of a player. It’s not pleasant to have that perception.”

And the same goes for songwriting too. Nobody likes it when the thoughts of the writer are obvious in the song, when a work of art seems pretentious, like they’re trying to impress rather than being authentic and true to themselves and their emotions.

  • George Harrison

The lead guitarist for the Beatles, and yet ironically the most overlooked out of all of them, George Harrison is the songwriter of some of the band’s most popular songs, such as “Here Comes the Sun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Something”, and “Taxman”.  After the Beatles broke up, he released the almost two-hour album All Things Must Pass, which was widely acclaimed and included many incredible songs such as “Wah-Wah”, “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”, “I Dig Love”, and “I’d Have You Anytime”. 

Just like the other members of the Beatles, he famously couldn’t read music. On the Dick Cavett show in 1971, Harrison was asked if he wished he studied composition. He replied:

“Usually you can remember it in your head. If you don’t, I mean, I write the words down and remember the tune in my head. […] Well, maybe it would help somewhere. I probably wouldn’t have to pay a copyist. […] Because it’s not really… sort of music, you know. It’s like, I mean there’s a difference between people who write music and classical things and big arrangements to the sort of thing I do. It’s just really, very simple.”

Harrison also talks about the inspiration for specific songs in his 1980 memoir I, Me, Mine:

“Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple [the Beatles’ record label] and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun’.”

That’s the end of this list, but the real list doesn’t stop there! There are so many incredible songwriters out there, and these are just four in no particular order. What you should do is create a list of your favorite songwriters, poets, writers, etc. and you should study their methods and what makes them so great. What literary methods do they use? How do they draw from their personal experiences? How do they accomplish a particular aspect of songwriting that you want to utilize yourself? This doesn’t just apply for songwriting either. If you study the fundamentals, you can do anything.

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