Reading Between the Lines: Songwriting Tips


Behind every great song there’s usually a greater story behind how its composition came about. Even if you’re not one to suffer from writer’s block, there are certainly a number of techniques and songwriting tips that can help put you onto something special. And who better to learn from than the greats, eh?

The Beatles – Yesterday

Everyone knows this famous acoustic ballad in which Paul McCartney wistfully mourns the breakdown of a recently ended relationship. However, few are knowledgable of its origin.

The story goes that the tune came to Paul mid-dream one night. Instead of having a lie-in the next morning he immediately ran to the piano to play the melody. Lessons to be learned here, don’t be lazy! In the brilliant world we live in of modern technology, if ideas come to you whilst in a comatose state, get out of bed and record a voice memo.

Additionally, over the course of the song’s development, substitute-lyrics were provided as to provide some form of syllabic inspiration:

‘Scrambled eggs

Oh baby how I love your legs

Not as much as I love scrambled eggs’

Now perhaps this makes what is likely one of the Beatles’ most heartfelt songs slightly less moving. (Though who doesn’t love a little eggsparation!). But, this definitely sounds like an ideal stalling method when writing a song until everything comes together. What’s important to take from this is that there shouldn’t be any timed pressure to finish a musical project. If you are able to compose a song in a day, then great! But there is no shame in taking the time you need to construct your own musical masterpiece.

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

Even if you’re one of those that sport a Nirvana smiley t-shirt but have no idea who they are, you still will have heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at some point in your life. Whilst the song is a massive hit, you might be surprised to know that when Kurt Cobain originally presented the main riff and chorus to his bandmates, they weren’t thoroughly impressed. Cobain was persistent however, and made the band play the riff repeatedly for nearly two hours. It was then agreed that there definitely was a spark there, and the song just needed a slower tempo. This is a perfect example of sticking to your guts if you know you’ve got something special. Failing that, just play it over and over again until your bandmates agree with you!

Also interesting to note is the origin of the song title, which was graffitied on Cobain’s wall by his friend and singer Kathleen Hanna. Whilst she was remarking about the stark similarities between his own aromatic scent and the girls’ deodorant, he took the phrase and put his own revolutionary spin on it. If you ever need inspiration, just take a trip to the toilet stalls of your local pub for some high-caliber poetic material. Seriously though, be observant of your surroundings, and let them do the talking (or singing for that matter) for you.

Taylor Swift – Every song ever

And finally, Taylor Swift. The subject of much controversy in modern pop culture, and heralded by some as one of the best song-writers of our generation. Of course you then have musical geniuses like Quincy Jones, the producer of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (the most successful album of all time), who’s recently called her out for being less than impressive. Love her or hate her however, you can’t deny that she must be getting big bucks for a reason. Having analysed her songwriting I believe I can find some inspiration in her work.

Firstly, perhaps what she is most renowned for, be shady! It’s definitely a lot easier to write about certain emotions when you’re feeling them yourself. Swift has a habit of throwing shade at literally all of her exes or enemies in her songs. Harry Styles, Katy Perry, Calvin Harris, Kanye West, the list goes on. You too can take elements of your own daily struggles and express them through lyric and tune.

Swift also uses a huge amount of repetition in her songwriting. Interestingly enough this is something Jones attacked her for. This can be found in both the melodic and lyrical composition of a number of her songs e.g. the entirety of her recent single ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’ Whilst this can be the subject of criticism, Jones emphasising the importance of the whole song rather than just the hook, one wonders as to whether this is what entices the minds of so many to listen to her music. Of course its good to be adventurous, but maybe sometimes sticking to basics is what will get you far.

Now You’ve Got Some Songwriting Tips

Ultimately what we can take from these case studies is that the key to a good song is to not be too authoritarian in its composition. Although we’ve explored some songwriting tips from great musicians, don’t be afraid to let your music come to you naturally. Let your own experiences and surroundings influence and enhance your work. No matter how robotic the modern music industry may seem, the key to good-song writing remains to be each song’s personal flare.