21 Songwriting Guidelines
Updated: Apr 14
I like songwriting. I like songs. These days, it’s the thing that interests me most. It’s beaten out photography, and writing novels, and scriptwriting, and video production, and bicycle maintenance and houseplants and genealogy, and a whole lot of other things that have taken up my time thus far.
Songs. Just that. And the guitar playing that goes with it, of course, which my ex-wife once told me was the only thing in the world about which I was totally obsessive. Good observation.
I can’t remember when I first wrote one that seemed complete. I can remember writing a lot that weren’t, from way back, but it’s only in the last fifteen years or so that I’ve managed to occasionally put something together that I’m proud to go out and play.
So I came to it late. And I’m not an expert. And I’m going to keep learning about this mysterious process till I fall off the perch. But I have picked up a couple of tips along the way.
Guidelines, not rules. I’ve listed them below, for anyone who’s interested enough to stumble into this corner of the internet. I’m listening out for more, but right now this is about all I know, about anything, really…
1/ Paint a picture. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the listener should see the song.
2/ Detail. That overflowing ashtray on the table is how you lead the listener into the kitchen you’re writing about.
3/ Tell a story. It can be surreal, but it should take the listener somewhere they’ve not explored before.
4/ Rhymes don’t have to be at the end of the line.
5/ Your last romantic break-up might be the most important experience you’ve ever had. Your audience probably doesn’t feel the same way. They’ve heard it already.
6/ You can make your song as miserable as you like. But if you don’t include something positive you’re going to bring your audience down. They won’t thank you.
7/ There’s nothing wrong with philosophy. In a philosophy book.
8/ Edit. Murder your darlings.
9/ Learn Nashville notation. Understand that Em (the three chord) to C (the one chord) is the same as Bm to G, but in a different key. You’ll learn how and why chords fit together, and transpose faster.
10/ Learn scales. Not so you play faster, but so you see how the chords stitch together.
11/ There are a million songs that use the I-V-vi-IV or I-vi-IV-V progressions. It’s OK for you to use them too. Just train your ear to recognise when you've mimicked the melody of Stand By Me. It can’t be improved on.
12/ Melodies that follow the root of the chord are usually dull. Not always. But pretty often.
13/ A blues doesn’t have to have twelve bars. Hell, it doesn’t even have to have chord changes.
14/ Write a bridge. That’s the bit of the song that’s different to everything else. Bridges take you somewhere. You may decide later that you don’t need to go there, but give it a try.
15/ If you manage to write a bridge that leads you to a key change, award yourself a big pat on the back. Then check if you can actually sing it.
16/ Steal. Not whole songs, but changes, lines, and passing chords. Make them your own.
17/ The Lennon and McCartney rule: if you can’t remember it the next day, throw it away.
18/ Some songs are written in half an hour. Some hang around in your notebook (you do have a notebook, don’t you?) for years. Either way is good.
19/ A hook is a good thing. You want your song to be an ear worm. No matter how much you hate the Benny Hill Theme.
20/ If you can’t sing it accompanied by a single acoustic guitar or piano, it’s not a song.
21/ When you’re busy with something else and a chorus or a hook comes to you unbidden, that’s what Bukka White called a Sky Song. Cherish it.