On Songwriting

guitar head

Someone recently told me that as a songwriter, if you aren’t willing to write a bad song then you’ll never write a good one. I guess it’s true that the only way to get good at something is by doing it. This is easier said than done, because we all know how hard it is to take a leap of faith and start doing something, especially if you aren’t very good at it right away.

Lately I’ve been attempting to write some songs and I’ve been constantly confronted with the same problems, mostly in the lyrics department. So I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a song good or even great (though right now I’m just aiming for good). I wonder what it is that gives a great song its greatness. What is that extraordinary ingredient? I think it all depends on the individual. Songwriting is an extremely individual process, and even if a song is the collaboration of a band, in all the best songs you can see the input and hear the voice of each writer.

Imagery is a big issue that I’ve noticed can either make or destroy a song. And I don’t mean just lyrically. Instrumental pieces also create imagery, so if you’re going to add lyrics you have to be careful that a song’s musical imagery and lyrical imagery match up. A few songs that have great musical imagery to me are Epitaph by King Crimson, The Fool by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Green Grass and High Tides by the Outlaws and Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes. Songs like these have interesting and complex lyrical and musical qualities. If you’re looking to make the pop charts, don’t write songs like this. They’re about as popular as Bach or Vivaldi with today’s audience.

To me one of the best fusions of lyrics and music is Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull. It’s a long piece of music (which I like, but people tend to avoid), and definitely a listening experience. The music and lyrics tie together so well that there is hardly a separation of the two, and the song tells you a story and takes you on a ride. There really isn’t anything else out there quite like it.

The Poet and the painter casting shadows on the water

As the sun plays on the infantry returning from the sea.

The doer and the thinker, no allowance for the other

As the failing light illuminates the mercenary’s creed.

The home fire burning, the kettle almost boiling

But the master of the house is far away.

The horses stamping, their warm breath clouding

In the sharp and frosty morning of the day.

And the poet lifts his pen while the soldier sheaths his sword.

– from Thick as a Brick, by Ian Anderson


Photo from Google Images

Originality is more important than popularity or even musical skill. There are too many songwriters who know all about music but don’t put that knowledge to good personal use. Bands like Pink Floyd are a perfect example of going wherever you want with music, and not trying to write the way you’re “supposed to” or trying to write what you think will be popular. A song like Echoes, for instance, is a masterpiece that couldn’t have been written if its writers had been preoccupied with people pleasing.

The more I learn about songwriting the more I discover that there’s no magical trick to it. Above being super talented or even super creative, a songwriter has to be honest. There are no personas in real songwriting, no identity, no mask. To be good you have to be what you really are, no matter what that is. That’s the hardest part but also the most rewarding. It’s exactly what most mainstream musicians today don’t do. I think the best thing to remember is to not aim for popularity. If that’s all you want, you’re not much of a musician.

“For a songwriter, 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.” – Tom Waits (brainyquote.com)

All original content copyright S.D. de la Rosa, 2012.


~ by Sara on December 4, 2012.

10 Responses to “On Songwriting”

  1. Great post, Sara. Yes, I think you have to write for yourself, those are the most touching, compelling songs – the ones that tell a story. Many of Jethro Tull’s songs do that for me. While it’s a challenging story, “Aqualung” is simply an amazing song. And many of the groups that you mention wrote the stories in their songs that made them so memorable. I like your observation: “The music and lyrics tie together so well that there is hardly a separation of the two, and the song tells you a story and takes you on a ride.” Those are my favorite songs, too.

    • Thanks Cathy. I agree, Aqualung is a great song that really makes you think. Jethro Tull songs usually do give you some food for thought. I think you’re right that the stories in these songs are what make them so memorable.

  2. Like most writing, it takes time and thought and practice. I’m sure the muse will hit and things will come together.

    • Thanks, I hope so, and you’re absolutely right. Songwriting is definitely something that requires a lot of practice. I never realized just how much until I started trying to do it. Listening to music helps a lot. Thanks for stopping by my blog! 🙂

  3. As a writer and more recently “budding” songwriter and someone who can sing for sure and knows the words to way too many songs haha I think writing a song that sings from your heart and is genuine is what’s going to make a great song. I don’t think there’s any one answer or formula and it’s a matter of letting the creative process play itself out naturally. And that creative process as you say isn’t about people pleasing. Like in your Floyd reference> I certainly can’t not agree that an Echoes is a masterpiece however it got the exposure to be thought of as such. It’s quite possible and even more likely probable that you’ve already written something equally as masterful which just hasn’t made it through to get heard and moved to a level where it’s able to get it ‘s fair shake. There’s a lot of talent and great stuff out there no doubt! 🙂 Thought provoking post here, thank you.

    • Thanks! I don’t think I’ve written anything quite that good yet but I hope I will someday soon. It certainly isn’t easy. I definitely agree that there isn’t any formula to writing a good song. If you do it by the book you’re missing the whole point.

      • Do you post your songs here on your blog? Or via Soundcloud? Just curious what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. A lot of poetry in my head is “musical” which led me to work with a guitar player friend of mine a little bit who wanted some lyrics It started out well enough but didn’t last so I recently started learning guitar and it’s pretty cool. I’ve recorded some of my poetry and some of it’s come out with me singing. It’s a bit embarrassing but who cares?! I don’t haha

      • No I haven’t recorded anything or put anything up on the internet yet but I plan to really soon. I literally just started writing, but I’ve been playing the guitar for years. Yeah singing is embarrassing, especially because I’m not that great at it, but I guess I’ll keep doing it anyway. Why not.:) Have you posted your songs anywhere?

  4. Brilliant.

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