Snakeoil peddlers, with very little authority on the subject, have taken advantage of the common fantasies many people have of becoming a rockstar, as is evident in the plethora of books on how to write hit songs. As a result, quality instruction, advice, and guidance for aspiring songwriters is not easy to find. To compound this problem, even the worlds most renowned songwriters are apprehensive about boiling the process down to an easy to use instruction manual.
As Leonard Cohen put it in Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often. It’s much like the life of a nun — you’re married to a mystery.” Zollo goes on to explain that songwriting is much more than a mere craft, it’s a conscious attempt to connect with the unconscious — or subconscious if you prefer. There’s no right way of doing it. As Paul Simon said, “You can’t teach someone songwriting, but you can teach them a lot ABOUT songwriting.” And Bob Dylan said, “There’s no rhyme or rule to it. Which is what makes it so attractive, as you well know, or you wouldn’t be doing it yourself.” (Zollo, 2003)
Despite the elusive nature of songwriting, I do believe that one can improve as a songwriter, or at least keep it interesting by exploring multiple approaches. In response to the difficulty I had in finding quality information to help me hone my songwriting skills, I have compiled a webliography of excellent, and free, online educational resources for the aspiring, and even professional, songwriter. My focus was in gathering information ABOUT the songwriting process from highly authoritative sources, with a special preference to collect the words of the artists themselves.
BerkleeShares: Free Music and Songwriting Lessons from the Berklee School of Music
An amazing OpenCourseware resource from one of the premiere music schools in the country. Quality lessons are offered in a mix of video and PDF formats to promote enrollment in one of their online certificate programs.
Three pages of quotes, tips, and tricks on how to write songs by successful songwriters such as Bjork, Ray Davies (of The Kinks), Paul Westerberg, and more.
Words and chords: Semantic Shifts in the Beatles’ Chords
by Ger Tillekens
Soundscapes, Volume 3, June 2000
Scholarly commentary and pattern analysis on the harmonic structure in The Beatles’ songs. This article is in depth, and requires some familiarity with The Beatles’ music and some background in music theory. Soundscapes, in general, provides a scholarly analysis of patterns in popular music and is a great general resource for songwriters.
BBC: Sold on Song
BBC’s Radio2 series, Sold on Song, published several guides for songwriters and musicians, and a specific on on writing songs by UK hit songwriter, Steven Hillier. Sold on Song also publishes interviews and intelligent commentary on hit songs from A Day in the Life to You Really Got Me.
How To Write a Song
by Robin Frederick
Robin Frederick has written over 500 songs for TV, Records, Theater, and Audio Products. Robin is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and currently heads the A&R Team at Taxi, the world’s leading independent A&R company. She gives a step by step guide to her approach to songwriting, and offers many novel techniques.
Measure For Measure
A New York Times blog on the process of Songwriting with contributions by Suzanne Vega, Roseanne Cash, Andrew Bird, Peter Holsapple, and more. Peter Holsapple actually documents the creation of a new song as he writes it.
Andrea Stolpe: Career Songwriter Blog
Part of the Berklee Music Blog Network, faculty member, Andrea Stolpe blogs about the songwriting process. While her intent is to promote Berklee’s online course offerings, she drops lots of good nuggets of advice on song structure. Ms. Stolpe is a multi-platinum recorded songwriter, performing artist, and educator. She has worked as a staff writer for EMI, Almo-Irving, and Universal Music Publishing, with songs recorded by Faith Hill, Josh Gracin, Daniel Lee Martin and many others.
Western Michigan University School of Music: Music Theory Help Site
Songwriters need at least an elementary understanding of Music Theory and Composition. This “Theory Help Site” has been compiled by Professors David Code, Daniel Jacobson and Julie Evans of the Western Michigan University School of Music. It is provided as both an introductory and a review reference for essential concepts of the undergraduate music theory core at Western Michigan.
A Practical Guide to Musical Composition
by Alan Belkin
A very thorough online book on musical composition, focused mostly on classical arranging, but very useful to the modern songwriter. Alan Belkin taught at all four of Montreal’s universities, and since 1982 have been a full-time faculty member at the Université de Montréal, where he is now a full professor. He teaches mainly composition, writing skills, and also coach various chamber groups. Be sure to check out the “Musical Ideas” link on this page as well.
MIT:OpenCourseware — Music and Theater Arts
MIT offers free online Music courses, including Composition, Structure, Harmony and Counterpoint, etc. Online courses are created by faculty as supplements to the standard curriculum. The music faculty includes internationally known composers and performers, and students may choose from a wide variety of offerings in performance, theory/analysis/composition, and music history/literature.
Performing Songwriter Performing Songwriter started out as “a humble and heartfelt attempt at creating a place for songwriters to come together in a safe community where they’re understood and supported and heard by those who love music.“ This well-respected songwriting magazine provides a number of free articles, interviews, and even stories behind hit songs in its online format.
Zollo, P. (2003). Songwriters on songwriting. New York: Da Capo Press.
Prepared by Shaun Ellis at email@example.com on 6/25/2009.