Great quotes from great songwriters on how to write a song - and why.

Here are some collected quotes from great songwriters.  They discuss how to write a song, why they became involved in songwriting, and what they want to give to the world through their works.

Of course, these quotes also address creativity - where do the ideas and inspiration “come from”?

Well - there are as many theories about that as there are artists.  But my personal observation is in the box:


CREATIVITY:  Does it “come from” someplace?

It seems there are roughly two schools of thought on how to write a song and creativity in general - the “outside” and “inside” school.  The “Great Spirit Above and Beyond” which the artist “taps into”, or the “deep mine of mystery within” from which the artist pulls [sometimes torturously] gems into the daylight.

Well, I’ve experienced both.  So, I don’t think there’s necessarily only one way to look at this.  I’ve felt and witnessed inspired ideas come from above, below, inside, outside and off to the left.

What I’m saying is, don’t let anyone - no matter how many sheepskins he may have on his wall - propound that "this is how to write a song" or alter your way of raw creation as you see fit.  [There is something to learn about organizing one’s ideas after-the-fact of their creation - but that’s a separate topic.]


So, do read on and be inspired by the words of these greats who laid some pretty awesome paths for us to follow.  Or blaze your own trail - or go both ways at the same time!

Happy Creating!!

... Here's an instance of how to write a song - "from the outside":

Michael Jackson: "I wake up from dreams and go, 'Wow, put this down on paper.' The whole thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face. ... I am always writing a potpourri of music. I want to give the world escapism through the wonder of great music and to reach the masses.” - Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle - Page 49

... And here's how to write a song "from the inside":

John Lennon:“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It's like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won't let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you're allowed sleep." - The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations - Page 614

Woody Guthrie:"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.

"I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

"And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.” - Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie - Page 91

Joni Mitchell:My style of songwriting is influenced by cinema. I'm a frustrated filmmaker. A fan once said to me, 'Girl, you make me see pictures in my head!' and I took that as a great compliment. That's exactly my intention.” - New York Magazine

"You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it's just complaining. I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance. ... I'm a painter first. I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy. - The Songwriter - page 299

... from the 'outside'? 'inside'?  hm....

Rodney Atkins:“You wind up creating from silence, like painting a picture on a blank canvas that could bring tears to somebody's eyes. As songwriters, our blank canvas is silence. Then we write a song from an idea that can change somebody's life. Songwriting is the closest thing to magic that we could ever experience. That's why I love songwriting.”  - The Boot

Tom Waits: “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.”

Alanis Morissette: “With songwriting I spend a lot of time living life, accruing all these experiences, journaling, and then by the time I get to the studio I'm teeming with the drive to write.”  - LA Times

Nick Cave: “The idea of songwriting is a transformative thing, and what I do with songwriting is take situations that are quite ordinary and transform them in some way. the songs I write, at their core, are quite ordinary human concerns, but the process of writing about them transforms them into something else.”  - SF Weekly

Arthur Sullivan [of Gilbert & Sullivan]: "One day work is hard, and another day it is easy; but if I had waited for inspiration I am afraid I should have done nothing. The miner does not sit at the top of the shaft waiting for the coal to come bubbling up to the surface. One must go deep down, and work out every vein carefully.” Sir Arthur Sullivan, his life and music - Page 108

Stephen Sondheim: "Oscar Hammerstein II taught me that a song should be like a little one-act play, with an exposition, a development and a conclusion; at the end of the song the character should have moved to a different position.”- Reading Stephen Sondheim: A Collection of Critical Essays - Page 43

... "inside?"

Burt Bacharach:“Music breeds its own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It's a work process.” - Songwriters on songwriting - Page 199

...  The following, I would definitely say is how to write a song 'from the outside':

Billy Gibbons: "My discussion with Keith Richards about the creative process led me to believe that there's an invisible presence of a stream of ever-flowing creativity that we overhear--all you have to do is pull up the antenna and dial it in. This presence allows you to maintain your sense of origin and move forward.” - What Made You Think of That?: Thinking Differently in - Page 171

[MORE info on how to write a song - coming soon!]


Master songwriter JASON BLUME on How To Write a Song:

The songwriter's best friend - THE THESAURUS!

How about a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary on steroids? - Masterwriter is even more than that:

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