The art and craft of songwriting

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of songwriting…. It’s a very peculiar craft. And there are plenty of great musicians that can’t do it, can’t write songs. And then there are some great musicians — like Elton John and Jerry Garcia — who can only do half of it, they can write the music but they can’t write the lyrics. Or vice versa. Then there are guys like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney who can do EVERYTHING. They can not only write the lyrics and and the music, they can also write all the parts for all the other instruments, too.

The actor Dustin Hoffman once challenged Paul McCartney. McCartney had said that he could sit down at just about any time and write a song off the top of his head on just about any subject. Dustin said: “Prove it.” So Paul said “OK. Give me a line and I’ll go write a song about it.” Dustin came up with Picasso’s last words: “Drink to me. Drink to my health. You know I can’t drink any more.” So Paul said: “OK.” Grabbed his guitar and went into a room. And 15 minutes later he came out with a song about that line (you can find the song on the “Band On The Run” album).

Songwriting is a peculiar thing. Because you have to take words and music and craft them into a form — verse, chorus, bridge, or some other variation. You also have to come up with an original theme that distinguishes it from the zillions of other songs that have already been written. And every aspect of the song — the words and the music — has to be aligned around that theme. Not only that, if the song is going to truly move people and endure, the songwriter has to capture some kind of primal emotion within the song. That’s the truly tricky and magical part of the process. And it can’t be taught in a Songwriting-101 class.

The greatest songwriters will tell you that ultimately it’s a mystery where the great songs come from. Sometimes they sit down and the entire song just comes to them fully formed in like 2 minutes. Other times they have to spend years crafting and refining the song until they finally capture it. There’s no formula, that’s for sure.

Bob Dylan once said: “Songwriting is like putting out an antenna. And you hope you catch a song that just happened to be floating by in the airwaves of the universe. It’s like going fishing.”

Paul Simon said: “When I first wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters” it just came to me just like that. And as I was playing it I was so overwhelmed with emotion I burst into tears. If I could get that feeling from a drug I’d spend every penny I got buying it.”


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