Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Been talking to some mates about songwriting lately, and reading some blogs about it. Several musicians I know have recently done courses on the subject, facilitated by people who are presumably qualified to instruct others in the art of songwriting. It got me wondering whether you can actually teach somebody how to write a song.

The way these songwriting courses seem to work is that there are various workshops where an 'expert' in songwriting imparts words of wisdom on how it's done to an audience of (presumably) aspiring songwriters. Then everybody pairs off and writes songs together, and there's a bit of a love-in where everybody's efforts get discussed en masse at the end of the day.

Thinking back to how I learnt how to write songs, I suppose that in a roundabout way, somebody did show me how to do it: Lennon or McCartney, but (sadly) not in person. From listening to their songs, I worked out how to structure my own, write a Beatle-esque melody, harmonise and so on. As a precocious songwriting teenager, I copied the poor band shamelessly (some would say that I still do -- and that I'm still precocious). I listened to them non-stop and tried to soak up as many of their ideas as I could; and in their day, the Beatles did exactly the same, with Elvis and Chuck Berry. This 'soaking up' forms the building blocks of every songwriter's music (there's no such thing as an original idea after all).

This makes me think that a) songwriting is, initially at least, all about copying stuff and b) other musicians influence songwriting immensely. Which leads to this: how good a songwriter you are will depend in no small way on your ability to copy things (think of it as similar to being a good draughtsman) and on the quality of the musicians you are copying.

In other words, if you're into James Blunt, you're fucked.

Of course, the thing about these songwriting workshops is that it's highly unlikely that the great songwriters are going to turn up at them to do a spot of teaching (you're probably going to get somebody who had a bit of a hit in the 80s or knew a man down the pub who did). And if you were lucky enough to have a great artist show up, would they really be able to teach you anything?

If McCartney decided to give a masterclass in songwriting, I'd love to attend it: he is universally acclaimed as one of the best writers the world has known, and he is a massive inspiration to me. However, I still doubt there is anything he could verbally articulate that that could teach me how to write a song. In fact, and being slightly cruel here, he hasn't written a good one himself in quite a while -- so if he can't teach himself how to do it again, how on earth would he instruct me? I'd say he'd be more interested in suing me for occasional attempts at plagiarism.

The other thing about songwriting which makes me think that it is difficult to teach is the personal dimension. The great songs are all inspired by personal traumas or joys. I could not imagine anybody at a songwriting course being able to supply either of those on tap (well, unless a certain Mr Blunt I referred to earlier was doing the teaching -- there would be plenty of trauma in that instance). The great songwriters do not overtly teach; we listen to their music and absorb their ideas over time.

Maybe I'm being a bit too harsh on the notion of songwriting classes. There are very basic elements which I suppose can be taught: structures (intro/verse/bridge/chorus -- you know it all now), and maybe some history around the topic. But not much more.

However, I'm quite Cartesian at heart, and in the spirit of trying to teach people how to write a song, I'm going to give it a bash. In a mathematical way. Here's an equation which I think will predict how well you will be able to write a song:

Ability to rip an artist off + quality of artist being ripped off + own personal experience/inspiration = Quality of song

Sadly the word 'quality' crops up too many times in my little equation. Quality is an impossibly subjective notion: one man's meat will inevitably be another man's poison. So even if somebody thinks they know how to teach somebody else how to write a fantastic song...somebody else will think that the song that ends up being written is, quite frankly, shit.

My conclusion: songwriting can be learnt, but it sure can't be taught.

Reader Comments (4)

I should imagine, like with most forms of art, its possible to learn some basic skills, but surely TALENT must come into it.

For me the joy of listening to a great song, reading a brilliant novel or looking at a wonderful piece of art comes, in part, from the fact that I marvel at the talent of those that make it.

Classrooms I an do, art I cannot. If song-writing could be learnt in a classroom I'd have written a top ten hit by now.

..and the quote of the day? "if you're into James Blunt, you're fucked." ha! class :D

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

I'd agree that you can teach someone how to construct a song, but not how to write a great song. If writing a great song was just a matter of learning it from a book then we'd all be doing it.

Finally I would say that McCartney continues to write good songs. "Jenny Wren" from 2005 to cite just one.

July 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Whitby

i agree that songwriting can't be taught. it comes from inside your mind and through your heart, reflecting your life experiences.

July 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterimokayleeds

I went to one of those workshops. What I learned was less about how to write a song but more about having the courage and self-belief that maybe I could write something that anyone could listen to. I'd recommend trying it. I haven't looked back, after 20-odd years playing other people's songs I'm finally playing my own.

July 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPeter in Dublin

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