How master songwriters approach their songs

Being songwriters ourselves, we at Custom Serenade are interested in what some of the masters have to say! Enjoy this collection of tips and musings from some of pop music’s finest, and consider getting a custom song from us! It will make any happy occasion even happier!

Tom Petty and Elvis Costello

Tips and Musings from top songwriters


Songwriting ability is a gift. After a while, you come to realize, “I’ve really been blessed. I can write these things and it makes me happy, and it makes millions of people happy.” It’s an obligation, it’s bigger than you. It’s the only true magic I know. It’s not pulling a rabbit out of a hat; it’s real. It’s your soul floating out to theirs.
Tom Petty


For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.
Tom Waits

You work on your songs, but your songs also work on you. So you absorb and you excrete and in some way you retain, and slowly you start to become some place that songs are passing through.

Tom Waits

I can’t write drunk, and I rarely write entirely sober. I think just a little bit of tipsiness is a great asset for turning off that super ego that tells you to Google every title you can think of, because someone might have thought of it before. Of course someone has thought of it before, who cares?

Stephen Merritt (Magnetic Fields)

Most love songs are complaints, I think. Or about unrequited love, coming at it from some oblique angle. Only the ones that say “I love you” over and over are the cheesy, corny ones that people complain about.

Stephen Merritt

”When I write a song, it starts with a feeling. I can hear something in my head or feel it in my heart. It may be that I just picked up the guitar and mindlessly started playing. That’s the way a lot of songs begin. When you do that, you are not thinking. Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you just start playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Now is not the time for interrogation or analysis. Now is the time to get to know the song, not change it before you even know it. It is like a wild animal, a living thing. Be careful not to scare it away. That’s my method, or one of my methods at least.”

Neil Young

Neil Young and Patti Smith

“Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”

Patti Smith

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes. I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of [in a high, fairy-like voice] you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you. Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting. The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do”

Carole King

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

Carole King

When I’m working on a song it takes weeks and weeks to finish and the orchestra stuff takes even longer than that. It’s like working on a construction of an airplane.

Frank Zappa

“I’ll just be out and I’ll get some zinger in my head and I’ll just write it down in an endless note-thing in my phone. A lot of those lines were just things that I came up with in the past year, like ‘Darling I’m a nightmare dressed as a daydream.’”

Taylor Swift

“It’s very important for the listener to have somewhere to go with their imagination. You know if you’re telling people what to think, I mean I think it’s one of the fallacies of protest music, if it’s too dogmatic, it’s not a debate, it’s not stimulating and the same is true of a love song or any spiritual song. If it’s too dogmatic then there’s no place for the listener’s imagination to exist within the music”

Elvis Costello

“Knock on every door, and write seven days a week. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but let that be your priority. Write, write and write some more.
—Lamont Dozier

“Your work ethic has got to be to the bone. Writing songs should be your first love, and give it all the time it needs until you feel like you’ve accomplished or gotten the song that you think is worthy of letting the world hear.”
—Lamont Dozier

I can’t say that I’m always writing in my head but I do spend a lot of time in my head writing or coming up with ideas. And what I do usually is write the music and melody and then, you know, maybe the basic idea. But when I feel that I don’t have a song or just say, God, please give me another song. And I just am quiet and it happens.
Stevie Wonder

I’m not a fast writer. Never have been. I may get the whole synthesis of something, or most of it, an initial impact. But you’re not going to get something every day. But it’s important that you visit your worksite every day, even if it’s just to improvise, touch the piano, play some chords. Be in touch with your music. I equate it with being a tennis player on the circuit. You don’t take three weeks off and expect to get by the first round at Wimbledon, you know?

Burt Bacharach

“Since I was 10 I was writing shit songs. Maybe they’re still shit, I dunno, but they were really shit. It was the first EP when I stopped trying to write something that I thought people would like. I was locked in my room, not doing shows and not caring what people would think if they heard them.”

Courtney Barnett

“I don’t have structured writing habits. I’ve written hundreds of songs and have enough material for three albums so I don’t see writing as a problem. I play my guitar every day and always have fragments of ideas floating around my head, but I never force a song into being. My songs aren’t autobiographical, but they usually combine a variety of things I’ve seen, heard or read about. Occasionally it will be something that happened to me, but I’ll combine that with other things.”

Tracy Chapman

You can’t write a song out of thin air you have to feel and know what you are writing about.
Irving Berlin

“If I write a song there has to be a catalyst. It can’t just be like ‘I had a nice day.’ It has to be like ‘I had the best day ever’ or the worst day ever. You can’t write a song from a bland experience, but you can write a song from two extremes.’”

Ed Sheeran

“If you’re in a really good mood, you can write the best song, and if you’re in a really bad mood, you can write the best song, but if you’re just vanilla, you can’t.”
Ed Sheeran

The Sleater-Kinney songwriting process is really unique. The kind of sparks that we get in our practice space are really special to this band. We feel pretty comfortable just letting it all fly in the basement, which is conducive to getting a lot of cool ideas. Even when we were writing “Price Tag,” I was screaming the word price tag. A lot of those ideas come for me as a songwriter when we’re working together…I just start singing or yelling things when we’re making all that noise together.

Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney)

Bob Dylan and David Bowie

Maybe I’ll write out five or six chords, then discipline myself to write something only with those five or six chords involved. So that particular dogma will dictate how the song is going to come out, not me and my sense of emotional self. Of course, I’ll cheat as well. If I’ve got the basis of something really quite good coming out of those five or six chords, then I’ll allow myself to restructure it a bit, if I think, well, that could be so much better if it went to F-sharp [laughs], or something like that. But to define the rules, then take it as far as you can go with that little rule, then break it, I find is really a way of breaking writer’s blocks as well.
David Bowie

“I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn’t have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degrees. You just don’t wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs, especially if you’re a singer who has plenty of them and you’re learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something—something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen. You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing. Sometimes you could hear a song and your mind jumps ahead. You see similar patterns in the ways that you were thinking about things. I never looked at songs as either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ only different kinds of good ones.”

Bob Dylan

There has to be a certain amount of darkness in my songs for the happiness to matter. Just ’cause I’m not singing about sex and sports doesn’t mean I’m sad.
Elliot Smith

I work with my guitar and a legal pad and use about 50 pages to develop a song. I get going fairly early in the morning, because my mind is sharp, and start by dating the pad and putting down personal comments, such as how I am feeling that day, so that it becomes a diary of sorts. Slowly, a song will begin to emerge although sometimes it will stagger along, day after day, making no progress at all. The first page might have all sorts of lines that will never be used, but as I turn the pages, a little thought might come forward and suggest potential for development.

Paul Simon

“I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”

Leonard Cohen

“If you want to be good at anything, you have to work hard at it. It doesn’t just fall from the sky. I work every day at trying to improve my writing, and I really enjoy it. Nothing fascinates me more than putting words together, and seeing how a collection of words can produce quite a profound effect.”

P.J Harvey

“My best songs come from two different ways, either when I have a really good gut feeling about something, it’s written in the shower or on a plane.”

Pharrell Williams

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