How to Write a Song: 10 Songwriting Quotes from Music Icons

InspirationMusic Theory
How to Write a Song: 10 Songwriting Quotes from Music Icons

How do you write a song that stands out from the rest?

This is a challenge that all songwriters work hard to figure out, and your favorite song probably didn’t happen easily.

Luckily, there’s a lot to learn from the people who’ve written some of the most popular songs ever made.

We’ve put together 10 quotes with songwriting tips from the pros, so if you’re hungry for songwriting ideas, read on!

1. Start with simple lyrics

There’s one basic but important question that always comes up when talking about songwriting—do you start with the music or the lyrics? 

The answer, of course, is that there’s no correct answer. Still, the best way to figure out your method is to pick a starting point and see if it feels right.

David Byrne of Talking Heads, for example, famously talked about writing random lyrical pieces and putting them together in interesting ways.

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“I usually start by writing down random phrases. Maybe I’ll start writing about a certain subject and there’s a phrase that strikes me, so I’ll spin off from that.” — David Byrne

The strength of this method is that it takes away the pressure of writing lyrics with complex or heavy themes. It also allows you to play around with language in a musical way.

On top of that, it encourages you to simply dive into the creative process without overthinking it. This is fantastic for avoiding writer’s block. 

Each random phrase you come up with can even work as a songwriting prompt that inspires the lyrics that come after it. You might even get a good song title.

Once the lyrics come together in a way that you like (especially if they have a solid rhythm or flow to them), you’ll have something to build on.

2. Follow the music

What if you’re working on something instrumental, or you’re more confident as a musician than as a lyricist?

If that’s the case, you’re not alone. There are countless accomplished songwriters who let the sound and feel of a track guide the entire process, including lyrics.

One of them is Pharrell Williams, whose list of awards and nominations has its own Wikipedia article. Enough said.

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“And from there, lyrically, the music just sort of sets the template for the words. The feeling directs all creativity. The beat comes first.” — Pharrell Williams

If musical sounds seem to spark themes and words in your head, this might be the most powerful way for you to write a song.

Chordsmelodies, textures, and rhythms might bring up certain images, emotions, and ideas. Sometimes you just can’t help but put them into words.

Some of the best songwriting can happen when you tap into that inspiration and ride the wave.

3. Build on what you have

Sometimes there’s no better songwriting inspiration than the stuff you have so far. 

Any creative process is about gaining momentum. Sometimes the best way to do that is by taking it one step at a time.

One artist who’s been quoted talking about this is none other than The Artist, Prince.

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“Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds.” — Prince

Try thinking of each song as a bunch of small pieces that add up to something bigger. This can help you avoid being intimidated or getting ahead of yourself. 

Instead of expecting your song to sound good or complete as quickly as possible, focus on getting those smaller steps right.

10 Bassline Styles Every Producer Should Know

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A melody can tell you what bassline it needs, a kick can tell you which snare will hit just right, and a word will call for just the right rhyme. 

This is true about every part of your song, and when you let each part guide you to the thing it needs, then you’re on the right track. 

Feel free to dive into our handy song structure chart to get ideas and, like Prince, think about song-building in visual terms.

how to write a song infographic

4. Don’t force the process

So, what if none of this is working?

The lyrics you’re writing are kind of cringe. The hook you’re messing with isn’t grabbing you. That precious momentum you need is out of reach.

Sometimes it’s better not to force your way into a good song. 

Otherwise, you could end up stuck in a state of frustration and low confidence, which is terrible for any songwriting process.

Producers get writer's block too! This video explores a handful of great ways to overcome it and keep your output strong.

Producers get writer's block too! This video explores a handful of great ways to overcome it and keep your output strong.

When it comes to this problem, rock and folk icon Neil Young has offered one of our favorite songwriting tips.

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“I don’t force it. If you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go mow the lawn.” — Neil Young

Some days, it can feel like a song is basically writing itself. Other days, it might feel like you don’t even know the first thing about making music at all. 

Both are part of the process!

Wearing yourself out doesn’t do you much good. Whenever this happens, take some time to do something that will give your creative brain a chance to recharge.

Play video games, go to the gym, watch reality TV. Whatever you need to do, do it.

Sometimes all it takes is wiping the slate clean and starting over later. For all you know, you could end up with a hit after that.

5. Write whenever you can

All of that said, it’s still important to stay consistent in your craft.

🧠 Hot tip

Try using LANDR’s mobile app as a voice memo storage tool for collaborations.

Even if you prefer to wait for inspiration to hit at the right moment, the next step is always to roll up your sleeves and turn it into something real.

Keep your creative mind as sharp as you can. This way, you’ll be prepared to jump on that momentum when it happens and make the most of it. 

According to Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Bryan Adams, this kind of consistency is what separates a committed songwriter from an occasional dabbler.

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“A songwriter writes songs all the time, whereas just writing a song can be done by anyone, anytime.” — Bryan Adams

If you use a smartphone, you basically have a musical workstation on you at all times. 

Even if you don’t have any music production apps installed (and we recommend you explore the awesome ones that are out there), a voice memo tool and a notepad app are all you need.

These are great ways to capture melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical ideas throughout the day.

Since a simple hook can be the key to an entire song, a single voice memo could be the starting point for the best track you’ve ever written.

Simply put, if you want to write a great song, you have to show up and do the work. Thankfully, it’s never been easier to do that.

6. Create what moves you

Here’s a question that might seem weird at first—why are you writing this song? 

Maybe you want to blow up, maybe you heard a song that inspired you, or maybe you have a weird idea and want to see if you can pull it off.

Whatever your reasons might be, the most important motivation to have is that the song actually resonates with you. 

As pop icon Adele has said, there’s a simple yet powerful test for whether or not you’re headed in the right direction.

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“In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs, it has to really move me.” — Adele

Let’s say you’re working on something that has all the right pieces in the right place, but just isn’t hitting on a deeper level.

You might even be doing some professional songwriting for another musician and want to prioritize their vision. This is great when you want to support yourself and gain experience.

But when it comes to the majority of your output, being in touch with what truly moves you is one of the most important parts of your craft.

If a song isn’t passing that test, try drawing from songs that give you the feeling you’re searching for. 

Figure out what it is about the harmonies, the lyrics, or the groove that makes you come back to it over and over again, and let that inform your process.

7. Put yourself out there

If you’re hoping to play it cool and be perfect all the time, you might be missing an opportunity to make some of your best work.

Madonna is one of many artists who have talked about vulnerability and rawness in the songwriting process.

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“Songwriting is a really intimate experience…You have to be not afraid to make a fool of yourself.” — Madonna

The most memorable lyrics are often drawn from the most intense emotions. Anger, regret, longing, excitement, gratitude, the list goes on…

The best way to turn these emotions into great songs is to maintain the kind of honesty and realness that lets them flow properly. 

Commit to keeping a daily journal where you write down free-flowing thoughts, feelings, poems, and lyrics.

The results you get might be flawed, or even a little cringe, and that’s okay!

Vulnerability is essential in just about every part of the creative process. It’s all about making something messy and refining the results.

As Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl also famously said, musicians should be able to suck at what they do before they expect to be great.

Learn to write songs

Everything you need to turn ideas to music.

8. Simplify your approach

There’s no doubt that some of the most impressive and inspiring music is complex, dense, and sophisticated.

At the same time, many of the most successful songs ever written are just a few elements working together to achieve subtle perfection.

Jay-Z's "Dirt off Your Shoulder" shows how a few simple elements can add up to something great.

Jay-Z's "Dirt off Your Shoulder" shows how a few simple elements can add up to something great.

Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is built on just two chords, Jay-Z’s “Dirt off Your Shoulder” is three instruments and a vocal, and Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” is a vocal solo.

But simplicity can be unexpectedly difficult to get right, as Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor has said.

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“There’s also simplicity in the songwriting. It’s much harder to be simple than it is to be complicated.” — Sinéad O’Connor

Don’t worry, you don’t have to make songwriting even more difficult for yourself if you’re not feeling it. 

But this challenge can be an excellent creative exercise and a practical way to improve your songwriting approach.

Say, for example, that you limit yourself to three instruments and your vocals. You’ll probably think more carefully about the elements you use, and each one will have to hold up.

If you come up with something simple yet catchy, and if you make the lyrics good enough to carry the weight of the song, you could get some great results.

9. Experiment boldly

It can also be a productive exercise to loosen up and go wild with your impulses.

Maybe you just feel like writing a song with unhinged lyrics that make no sense, or you want to build a song structure that’s as unpredictable as possible.

If you’re a production-oriented musician, try laying the sounds on thick and seeing what comes out of it. This arrangement technique is how FKA twigs approaches her work.

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“Then I put in everything I can think—everything, everything—until it’s just a massive wall…Then the next day I’ll go in and just chip away at it.” — FKA twigs

Considering how many sample libraries are out there today, and how many ways there are to layer and process sounds, there’s never been a better time to try out this approach.

If you don’t play an instrument, grab some premade loops and try your hand at writing a 16-bar phrase. Start by layering drums and add each new element from there.

If you play an instrument like guitar or piano, try recording loops of yourself improvising as freely as possible. Build lots of layers and see what kinds of harmonies or grooves emerge.

It all depends on what feels right for the way you experience music and what kind of songwriting process drives you.

10. Always explore new ideas

Once you’ve figured out a songwriting workflow that gives you great results, it might be tempting to stick to it as closely as possible for as long as you can.

This is a great way to get a good amount of output on a consistent basis. 

On the other hand, though, you might get to a point where it doesn’t inspire or challenge you as much as it used to.

This is why it’s so important to stay curious and keep experimenting as a songwriter. 

You don’t necessarily have to abandon your tried-and-true method, but you also don’t have to let it call the shots all the time.

Maybe you’ve found that you’re following rules when it can be more inspiring to bend or break them. Maybe you just want to keep things interesting.

Spanish producer, songwriter, and vocalist Rosalía is known for her distinctive, genre-bending approach to music. We think she sums it up pretty well.

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“I don’t see music in a way that’s like, ‘Oh, this is right, this is wrong, this is better, this is worse.’ Does it give you goosebumps?” — Rosalía

These are great words to live by for any songwriter.

It’s natural to think about whether or not your material is good or whether or not you’re doing it the right way.

But some of the best songwriting comes out of making unusual decisions, blending genres in interesting ways, or simply doing things “wrong.”

Make it a habit to try new things as a songwriter whenever you can. Be open to new ideas, even if they seem like they don’t fit perfectly with the musical rules you’ve followed so far.

No matter what approach you take to songwriting, don’t hold yourself back from creating something that no one else could create.

Devon Hansen

Devon Hansen is a producer, DJ, and writer with 20 years of experience in electronic music production. Having worked under various names and in a wide range of styles, Devon has performed several editions of MUTEK Montreal and has released music with labels in North America, the UK, and Japan. When not working on creative projects or playing tunes on Montreal’s n10.as radio, Devon can be found watching movies, cooking, and reading too much about gear.

@Devon Hansen

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