Expert Songwriters On How To Write A Song

Whenever someone uses the word “should” when talking about songwriting, ignore them. There are no “shoulds” or “should nots.”

Songwriting has one rule: there are no rules.

Instead, there are tips, suggestions, and learning from other songwriters whom you respect.

So here are seven songwriting tips from some of the most respected songwriters. All of these people have written numerous hit songs.

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What Songwriters Can Learn From Annoying Pop Music

Is pop music getting more annoying?

Your answer to this question may be a resounding, non-hesitating, “Yes!” And I’m with you. Pop music nowadays can be really repetitive, uninteresting, and just irritating.

But even though it feels like pop music is more annoying than it used to be, is that actually true? And can the rest of us learn something from pop music?

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Billy Joel Said He Hates “We Didn’t Start The Fire”

Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a classic song, but he said he actually hates it.

Joel told the University of Oxford in 1994 that he wrote this song in a stream of consciousness after a conversation with a friend of Sean Lennon’s (son of The Beatles’ John Lennon).

Sean Lennon’s friend had just turned 21-years-old and was complaining about how difficult it was to be 21. Joel said he could relate to that.

“Yeah,” Joel said to the friend. “I remember when I turned 21 and it was an awful time,” bringing up the Vietnam War, the drug epidemic, and the Civil Rights Movement.

“Yeah, yeah,” said the friend. “But it was different for you because you were a kid in the 50s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50s.”

But Joel was surprised by this because so much happened in the 50s.

So he started writing down all the things that happened from 1949 up until 1989 when the song came out.

The first verse is packed with so much, and it’s only one of nine:

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

But Joel is not happy with this song, telling the audience at Oxford University he “didn’t think it was that good to begin with” saying it was “almost like a dentist drill.”

He said he wrote the lyrics first, which he did only for this song. And the melody he came up with doesn’t meet his own standard.

“It’s terrible musically,” he told Billboard. “It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.”

He was actually sued for allegedly stealing the melody, which he is dumbfounded by.

“Some guy actually thought I had to steal that from him,” Joel said in disbelief.

RELATED: Did Aloe Blacc Rip Off Elton John?

As a songwriter, you won’t like every one of your songs.

In fact, most of them will probably be throwaways. Just be ready for it so you don’t give up when that happens.

I first wrote a version of this article for Crazy4Rock

3 Tips For Nailing A Cover Song In Concert

My band and I covered Mister Rogers’ “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” and it sounded really bad.

And I’ve learned some valuable lessons from watching the Facebook video.

We looked ridiculous — four grown men huddled around a mic playing out-of-tune toy instruments (except for Ben, the guy playing melodica…he actually sounded good).

People usually get a kick out of seeing us play this song.

But we sounded really bad this time. Well, I sounded really bad — I was singing off key and doing all-over-the-place vocal “runs.”

Yeah, not our brightest moment as a band (and somehow the only video from that night that ended up online).

RELATED: As A Musician, Stage Presence Is Crucial

So to avoid being like me and my band that one time, take note of these three things you’ll need to make sure your cover songs sound good. (Note: these tips are not for cover bands).

Keep it classic

If you pick an obscure song, no one will even know it’s a cover. Play a song people can sing along with.

Songs that pretty much every band covers:

These are all safe bets. But if you want to get creative, cover a pop song in your own style. It’s fun for you and for the audience.

Don’t overdo it

Surprise is an underrated aspect of a concert.

If you do covers too often, each cover will have less of an impact. Also, people might start thinking of you as a cover band, not the original artist that you are.

I feel like 2-3 cover songs per 2-hour concert is safe. More than that, in my opinion, would be too much.

You’ve got to nail it

A band that nails cover songs every time is Walk off the Earth (example above). You might even get people to like your version better than the original.

But if you butcher a song that everyone loves, everyone will hate you.

The best way to approach this is to cover a song in your own style. That way, it’s not directly comparable (or contrast-able) to the original.

And practice the heck out of your covers. Know the song by heart, don’t bring music stands with the lyrics. It just looks bad and unprofessional. (Although some people use an iPad attached to their mic stands, which is more subtle and doesn’t really bother me personally).

But most of all, just have fun up there…

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