Songwriting Basics – One Step At A Time; by Michael Anderson

Songwriting Basics – One Step At A Time

By Michael Anderson

Songwriting as Structure: Most people I meet in my business have a dream. 

They want to write a hit song.  Sometimes they’ve pursued that dream with no compromise; with a full time career in the music business. Sometimes they’ve pursued it on the side; while they went to school, held other jobs, or even had another career.  But they hear songs on the radio and wonder, why is that a hit?  Why couldn’t my song be a hit?

 Well, maybe it could. It’s a long shot. But it happens. Somebody wrote every song you hear on the radio. And I’ll guarantee you, each and every one of them wrote a lot of bad songs before they wrote that hit. But each one of them had two other things going for them--the drive to keep making mistakes and learning, and eventually, an understanding of the elements of a well-crafted song. A hit song can be a matter of luck; but before you even get to roll the dice on that, you need to be able to write a good song.  I have been in the music business a long time. Because of my experience people ask me for advice.  The following email is an interesting example.    

Hi Michael,

Dean and I were thinking that as long as we were going to be in Nashville in April, we could check into having 2-3 of my best songs recorded down there. It would have a truer country sound than my originals.  Maybe with a better demo I might have a chance of getting published?   Isn't this the next logical step? I don't know. I work on my writing craft, to improve it, and as you know based on my demos, I'm not the greatest arranger on the keyboard, and my vocals are O.K., but not country sounding. I know what my strengths are as well as my weaknesses. That's what's going through my mind. I'm walking blind through this process.

You've been down this road before. I haven't. I really need your advice.  I really do appreciate your mentoring me. You have given me hope that maybe I am getting better as a writer.  Lisa.     


I understand your frustration in trying to crack the code for success in this business. I have also sensed your willingness to set aside your personal feelings toward your songs and really listen to constructive criticism in order to get better. That is why I take the time with you to help when I can.  In my opinion it all depends on the song itself. A clear vocal and guitar (or piano) demo of a great song is still a great song.   A full production of a song with structural flaws is still just a song with structural flaws. That’s a lesson I have learned over and over again in this business.  You can build a mansion or cottage on an unstable foundation and it will never be right. I have seen many people waste ridiculous amounts of time and money making great demos of songs that had structural problems the production couldn’t hide.

If you want to hear what your songs sound like with a full production, then the process you are considering in Nashville should give you that experience. It will be a learning experience, and that is usually a good thing.  But personally, I would make sure the songs are as structurally sound as possible before you take that major step.

Songwriting As Art

Songwriting is an art form, not a formula. Good songwriting is a delicate balance between talent and skill. I’m defining talent as a natural ability and as the essential ingredient in creating artistically satisfying results. But when it comes to translating talent into success in the music business, the key is determination. Stubbornness.

If you have no talent for songwriting, nothing will change that. If you have no determination, forget the music business.  I have seen people with very little talent go a long way in this business, and I’ve known very talented people who couldn’t survive the ride.  People are talented or gifted in different ways. Some have the knack for drawing or painting; some can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. Some people are great dancers; some aren’t. Some people are good at becoming another character and acting, or directing.  Everybody seems to have something.

If you have some natural ability for songwriting, you can focus and maximize your gift, and craft better songs on a more intuitive level.  Like all living art, songwriting is a form of action that is impossible to codify and force to conform to strict rules and conventions. That’s why it is art, not science.  For every basic elemental guideline of songwriting presented, many exceptions surely apply. You should listen to observations and suggestions, opinions and perspectives, defined through the lens of personal experience. Take or leave anything you like.  But songwriting, like any art form, is also an individual path. Reading about it, studying it, going to seminars, listening to others speak about it can all be encouraging, enlightening and even inspiring. But ultimately it is actually doing the work yourself—writing songs--that teaches you the most about the art form.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at
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