Songwriting Tips – Songs as stepping stones


Image by Ianr

This post on songwriting tips is from Ben Cooper. Ben is a professional songwriter living in Nashville, TN. Read more at The Songbird Project.

“Keep writing.” This is how I sign off every time I post something on my blog, The Songbird Project.

Why do I do this?

Well, because I know from experience that perpetual writing is the key to developing in the craft of songwriting. Every song is a stepping-stone on the path to the next.

When creating, we learn by doing, and we improve by repeating the process.

Write 200 more songs

A publisher once told me a story about a writer who showed potential but whose songs weren’t quite the right caliber to get cut. Instead of advising this young writer to go listen to a certain song or to specifically hone in on his rhyming or melodies, the publisher simply said, “Go write 200 more songs and then come back to me and we’ll talk.”

As crazy as it sounds, I think this publisher’s advice holds water. Over the past few years (during which I’ve written those 200 songs myself), I can see immense growth in my own craft that can only be attributed to the practice of writing one song after another.

When it comes to growth in the craft of songwriting, it’s important to first focus on the writer rather than picking apart the specific songs. Think of each song from a songwriter as a piece of fruit from a tree: If the output could be improved, it’s better to look to the tree and its roots rather than to the fruit itself.

I used to think every broken song could be fixed, as if it were a car that just needed a tune-up. But sometimes it’s best to just call the song “totaled,” walk away and begin the next.

Instead of over-analyzing each and every song I write, I’ve learned to figure out what I could do better in the process. Sometimes a song deserves to be re-written, but honestly, sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s OK.

I had a good friend in college who was intent on perfecting his songs. Rather than allowing a song to be “finished” and moving on, he believed it was worth dedicating copious amounts of his creative energy to each individual song. As a result, he spent years focused entirely on the same eight tunes.

He has since admitted to me that he wished he’d just moved on and trusted that better songs would come.

For my parents, the hardest aspect of what I do is the reality that the public will never hear most of the songs I write. It’s true that this can be a difficult piece of my job because each song any writer creates has a value worth pointing to and is in some way unique.

In the same way we all have unmatched fingerprints, we each carry a unique perspective on what it means to create. If we are true to that individual creativity, those fingerprints will play melodies and write lyrics that reflect our diversity.

And while individuality is key, it’s also imperative to understand the value of community when it comes to this craft. Take the ancient proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

We need one another as songwriters, as artists, as creators, and we all have something to offer—the ability to see the world as no one else has ever seen it before or will ever see it again.

What does it look like when a song communicates your perspective? Creating an original song that answers this question means setting out into uncharted territory.

Write what you believe in


Image by AndyRob

A large part of this process is figuring out what does and doesn’t work through trial and error. In my journey, I’ve found that I often come upon forks in the road at which I will either:

a) Write what I believe in, or,
b) Write what I think someone else expects me to write.

I’ve found that writing based on what I believe results in original art, whereas writing what I think someone else expects me to write results in replicated art.

Taking on the challenge of writing 200 songs grants freedom to take these chances without regret. This mindset also leaves ample room for mistakes to be made, which in turn spurs on growth.

Don’t ever be afraid of trial and error.

We often learn more from our supposed errors than we ever do from our successes. What may seem like a failure or a missed opportunity in the moment may be exactly what was necessary to reach the next success.

Sometimes you just have to finish one song so you can get to the next. And over time, I think you’ll be surprised to see just how far you’ve come, just as I have been in my own journey.

When it comes to this craft, there is no conventional path to becoming a professional (I know plenty of signed writers who never went to college, and plenty of unsigned writers who have a degree).

In songwriting, every writer earns his or her diploma through experience.

Keep writing,




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Toby - March 5, 2011 Reply

Didn’t Warhol tell Lou Reed to write a song a day? Interesting article, thanks. Toby

    Ian - March 5, 2011 Reply

    I do remember something like that – and don’t be afraid to junk them and move on!

Tim Young - March 5, 2011 Reply

Bob Dylan said, “there ain’t no success like failure and failure ain’t no success at all.”
Writing is a process. It begins but never ends. It’s all about learning, like life.
John Hiatt said, “it’s a slow turning, but you come about.”
Very good article.

jpeck - March 16, 2011 Reply

this was a great article. i have fallen into the trap of writing the perfect album for a couple years. a year ago i finally came to the same realization that not producing songs was hurting me more than releasing imperfect songs. only wish i had read an article like this 3 years ago.

John Bisceglia - March 18, 2011 Reply

And to remember Frank Zappa’s “Conceptual Continuity”, there is certainly nothing wrong with reusing old ideas that are worthwhile and borrowing and stealing from yourself. I think the key is to KEEP EVERYTHING. Sometimes little tidbits from 20 years ago are suddenly perfect for a current project; the bass line from an attempt at a rock groove 30 years ago becomes the basis for a TV jingle, what was a piano solo 20 years ago is suddenly a perfect theme for an orchestrated film score.

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