Successful Songwriting is not a science by any means. It's an art, by every means. Everyone who practices it practices it very differently. It appears in different forms through myriad channels and inspirations.
This is why it really cannot be taught. You can teach someone to Rhumba or Cha Cha, but you cannot teach anyone to write a hit chorus. It takes skill and joy and luck to pull that off. The universities offering classes in hit songwriting might as well be teaching dancing about architecture, or sculpture and The Law. Sure you can tell people where to put the bridge and what the purpose of the breakdown is, but hit songwriting is a different sort of animal than almost any other creative art being practiced.
There's not "One Way" to write a hit. There are as many ways to write a hit as there are people trying to do it. In other words, countless. And since the only measure of success is whether or not the public likes the song (enough to watch it on YouTube, stream it on Spotify, steal it from some Swedish site, or God Forbid, buy a copy on iTunes), songwriters know instantly if their works resonates. Everyone knows right away if it's a hit or not because pleasing the public is the toughest thing money can't buy. For the simple reason that the public is never ever wrong. They only buy what they like.
One of the greatest differences between successful songwriters and the rest of us is that they have to be successfully creative on a regular and repeatable basis just to earn a living and have a shot at a career. Successful Songwriting requires a trip to the creative mountaintop every few days at least if not more often than that. Writers who don't work their a**** off rarely have long and wonderful careers. Songwriters have to be ready to create at a moments notice, because they never know when the need will arise, when the bell will ring, or when an opportunity will come knocking and they had better be on the other side of the door ready to let it in. Dennis Morgan, a Nashville legend, an expert in taking advantage of every creative opportunity that comes his way, estimates that he has written over four THOUSAND songs and had over one thousand of them recorded and released. The path to the place where his creativity thrives is like his personal diamond lane, as he has to get on it so often.
Lamont Dozier is the author of over 54 #1 singles, and with the Holland Brothers, was a significant part of the heart and soul of Motown Records, having written "Baby Love," Stop In The Name of Love" and countless other hits during his stints there. He has more songs performed in Motown the Musical than any other writer except Smokey Robinson.
As Lamont describes it, his best technique to engage his creativity is to "listen to the world." He is always at the ready for a great melody or hook to reveal itself, one that stirs his heart and causes him to sit up and take notice. Or for a few simple words to be stated that together represent a "phrase that pays." He tells the story of his grandfather sitting in front of his grandmothers' home beauty shop watching all the pretty ladies come in and out after getting their hair done. His grandpa would lean back and admire his wife's handiwork and give each of them a special hello. To one he would say, "Nice look there Sugar Britches." To another he would say, "Hello Honey Bunch." And his favorite, "Hey Sugar Pie." And so on. Well, not long after one visit, Lamont got with Eddie and Brian and wrote the song that featured some of his grandfather's many hellos. It starts out, "Sugar pie honeybunch you know that I love you...."
Lamont listens for these bits and pieces still, snatches and swathes, in restaurants, at the movies, and even in his own conversations, just in case he might say something that would inspire another wonderful song to show itself.
Lamont's technique is not unlike John Lennon spotting a road sign and writing a song loosely based on it. All he needed was the title. Penny Lane is actually a street, and Strawberry Fields was a cooperative farm near one of his houses.
Elton John has a different method to summon his creativity. He learned long ago that he was not the best lyricist in the world. Coincidence or not, this has a lot to do with him being introduced to Bernie Taupin when both of them were starting out. Sir Elton was smart enough to recognize Bernie's unmatchable and untouchable genius. Since that introduction, Elton has only written music to lift an existing lyric. He lets the lyric inspire his creativity, not the other way round.
He must trust completely in the work of the cowriter with whom he is creating. Whether it is Mr. Taupin, or Tim Rice (Lion King and Aida), Sir Elton keeps his golden bird in its beautiful cage and lets it fly when he sits at the piano with a new lyric in front of him. The album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was composed this way, with every song presented to him as a finished lyric that Elton wrote the music to, like a man spinning straw into gold. He and Bernie Taupin actually never sat down with one another to collaborate. Lyrics were finished and handed over complete, including such masterworks as "Candle In The Wind" and "Benny and the Jets" and my personal favorite, "Love Lies Bleeding In My Hand. "
Diane Warren, one of the most successful individual songwriters in the music business, has a different process than these other writers. She writes by herself. Only by herself. She doesn't collaborate and nor does she allow 'star tax' to be levied on any of her works. [Many successful artists insist on owning a piece of any song they record. Although Frank Sinatra NEVER EVER did it, this hasn't stopped Celine Dion and Beyonce and others from trying it on.] One key to Diane's success is that she and her muse have a standing appointment. Every morning at 8:30 she is sitting at her piano ready to work. And every morning at 8:30 that's what she does. Sometimes sleepy and sometimes bleary eyed, but there, ready and willing and able. She never relents or fails to make this daily appointment. Diane always shows up.
In addition to guidance you may find in the descriptions of these writers, here are some other ways to summon your own inner songwriter:
Find a Quiet Place. You have to be able to hear yourself think. If you can't find peace somewhere at home or in the library, find some noise cancelling headphones or bright orange earplugs at the drugstore. On the other hand, if your creativity needs noise (drum beats, soundtracks, rhythm sticks, 4 chord edm sequences) then the opposite applies and you need to Find a Loud Place.
Give Yourself Time to Think. You have to give yourself time to get started and roam around your intellect for a while and then some more time to get finished. You have to allow yourself the luxury to concentrate and consider all your ideas. In the same way parents fool themselves with concepts like "quality time," there is no such thing when it comes to creativity. Time is Time.
Allow for Inspiration. This is a RIGHT of creativity. You have to be inspired. It's not enough just to just throw a few hours at something, sitting in a quiet room somewhere, and hope that will be enough to get the old creative juices flowing. If you are not inspired by your project, maybe it's the wrong project or maybe you are approaching it from the wrong angle. Put it aside until it inspires you.
Take a Walk. Though this might sound disconnected, writers, both of this generation and many previous, used the rhythm and the clop-clop of their own feet hitting the cobblestones to energize their creative process. Mozart and Beethoven both credited their walks as one of the key elements upon which they relied.
Seek a Collaboration. Find people to work with who do not do what you do. If you come up with great one-liners, find an artist who can create the characters to speak them. If you are at ease imagining new fashions, but can't draw worth a lick, find the artist who can bring your visualizations to life. And so on.
Be Patient. Creativity often requires an excessive amount of noodling, whether on a sketchpad or at the piano. It is beyond rare to simply show up and start writing a hit song or screenplay or novella. There have to be stops and starts and new beginnings and long awaited endings. The key step is to never delete any ideas. Put a line through them if you are not using them, but never delete them entirely.
Review Review Review. One of the many reasons why successful songwriters succeed is because they pound their songs into submission, they sing it or play it over and over and over, filling in the cracks, perfecting the similes, identifying the harmonies and so forth. Whatever it is you are creating, go over it several times from top to bottom before declaring it a masterpiece.
Certainly very few of us will ever be successful songwriters. The last time I calculated it, over the last 100 years, less than 10,000 writers could really claim any success in their chosen field. That equals about .00001 percent of the population that has been on the planet during that time. Small odds of having any success writing songs. But the techniques they employ are unique and brilliant in their own way, and not so hard to learn and duplicate, as evidenced by the examples above.
Use their genius to supply your own genius with a simpler and more direct approach. When you need to create something magical, regardless of the field of endeavor or the scope of the project, whether art or architecture, couture or calligraphy, summon your inner songwriter and make it happen.
For more information on how songwriters and other working artists get it done visit: www.tomsturges.com and check out his new book Every Idea Is A Good Idea: Be Creative Any Time Anywhere (Tarcher/Penguin), available Sept 25th, 2014.