7 Traits of Highly Effective Songwriters

7 Traits of Highly Effective Songwriters

It’s one thing to be able to write a great song. However, it’s an entirely separate thing to be able to write great songs consistently and be a great songwriter. In this blog post, we’ll countdown what we think are the 7 traits of highly effective songwriters.

This blog post aims to summarise our video “7 Habits of Highly Effective Songwriters’’. Click here to watch the video for more details, explanations and examples.

Habit #7: Listening to Lots of Music

Effective songwriters recognize the importance of diverse musical influences. They don’t just listen to a lot of music – they consume a wide array of genres and styles. 

Just like how a varied diet leads to better cooking and growth, listening to different types and eras of music fosters creativity. Bruce Springsteen has talked a lot about how he’s in output mode while he’s recording material, but consumes as much music, books and movies as possible in between the records.

Further examples of artists who drew inspiration from surprising sources, are Dave Grohl and David Bowie. The Foo Fighter’s frontman and Nirvana drummer has said that the album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” by hip-hop group Public Enemy is one of his top 10 favourite albums of all time. On the other hand, David Bowie was a huge fan of minimalist composer Steve Reich, particularly his album “Music for 18 Musicians”.

Habit #6: Thinking Like an Anthropologist

A piece of advice that I was given back in 2008 when I was lucky enough to spend a week with John Mayer, was to listen to the top 10 on every day of the week. However, instead of listening cynically, he listens to them with curiosity instead. The 3 questions that he keeps in mind as he’s listening to these songs are as follows:

  • Why do millions of people love these songs?: It’s easy to dismiss a song’s popularity by saying that it got famous by having millions of dollars pumped into it. But the reality is that songs only get popular when there are a lot of people who actually like that song. As songwriters, it’s our job to question why and learn from it.
  • How can I use that thing in my own songs and songwriting?: This doesn’t mean that we should imitate what we’ve learnt from these songs. It means that we should think about the mechanics behind something and try to implement that in our own songs, using our own aesthetics and style. The key is emulation, not imitation.
  • What would I have done differently, if I was the songwriter/ producer of that song?: Asking this question involves realising that we all have the ability to contribute to songs in our own way and style. We as songwriters should be able to listen to a song and articulate exactly why we do or don’t enjoy it – whether it’s the rhythm, melody, lyrics or anything else. Once we articulate that, the next step is to try and recreate it in our own songs, with our personal style.

Habit #5: Stepping Away

The creative process isn’t solely about sitting at a desk or playing an instrument – pounding away at that line or phrase you can’t solve. Walking, driving, and engaging in non-musical activities can also inspire breakthroughs.

For example, Sting has mentioned in an interview on Sodajerker about how walking helps him when he gets stuck with a problem. Tom Waits has also talked about how he likes to go for long drives as part of his creative process, as it puts his mind in a completely different state. Even songwriters from long ago have practiced stepping away as part of the creative process.

Famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been quoted saying “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer – say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep – it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

If you’d like to discover more ways to be creative, download this free PDF eBook entitled “14-Day Songwriting Challenge”:

Habit #4: Getting Feedback

Highly effective songwriters understand that feedback is crucial for improvement. Sharing work with a trusted network of friends, collaborators, and mentors can provide valuable insights and guide song selection.

As an example, John Legend in a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable discussion talks about sharing his collection of songs that included the song “All of Me”. At the point in time he shared it, he had no idea that “All of Me” was going to be the song he’d release as a single. However, all of the people he shared it with came back and unanimously said that this was the song, which is how he chose which song to develop further.

Dua Lipa has also previously talked about how Levitating was constructed via a sort of round-table feedback session with some of her long-time collaborators. Meanwhile, Sting often starts a song solo, before bringing it to the band. His rule is that if the band can’t make the song work within 30 minutes, then the song gets thrown out. In both of these examples, we can see that sometimes the lines between collaboration, co-writing and feedback blurring. 

All-in-all, the important part is that we try to find people that we’re comfortable enough to share our songs with and obtain feedback from.

Habit #3: Collecting Everything

Capturing ideas as they occur is an essential practice for effective songwriters. Using a variety of mediums like notebooks, voice memos, or smartphone apps ensures no inspiration is lost.

Bela Fleck – a Grammy award-winning banjo virtuoso – talks about how he used to call his house phone and leave voicemails whenever ideas popped into his head because cellphones didn’t exist then. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift captures every idea as it’s happening in her phone and uses it as a library of ideas to come back to for inspiration. 

Even Britney Spear’s world-famous song “Hit Me Baby One More Time” came about as a result of producer Max Martin suddenly having an idea at 1am that he woke up and mumbled into his phone. The key here is to understand that ideas could happen at any time, and to ensure that you’re prepared to record them in some manner.

Habit #2: Revising Your Songs

Great songs are rarely born fully formed. Country singer R.C. Bannon is famously quoted as having said “Great songs aren’t written, they’re re-written”. From this, we can see that songs don’t just come as a flash of inspiration that is then poured onto the page. Songs come from songwriters having developed systems and processes that involve discipline and perseverance.

A popular example is the story of how Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ hit song, “Yesterday”. Although the media often portrays him as having just dreamt up the idea like a miracle, what they don’t often explain is that the lyrics came initially as “Scrambled eggs oh my darling how I love your legs”. It then took him a year to refine the lyrics into the version that we know today.

Highly effective songwriters revise and refine their work diligently. They’re not content with initial versions; instead, they see the value in reworking lyrics, melodies, and arrangements to uncover the song’s true potential.

Habit #1: Writing Daily

Effective songwriters understand that consistent effort, even in short bursts, yields remarkable results over time. This means acknowledging that not every day will produce a masterpiece, but that the cumulative effect of daily practice will lead to growth and proficiency. 

Leonard Cohen famously said “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Nick Cave has also touched on this subject, talking about how he writes every day in his office, regardless of if he has the mood to do it or not.

In short, highly effective songwriters don’t let perfectionism get in the way of progress.

Conclusion: 7 Traits of Highly Effective Songwriters

As an overall, being an effective songwriter isn’t just about blindly writing songs. It’s about how you write those songs, the practice habits you develop and the processes you develop to help you write consistently. To that end, we should try our best to adopt these 7 habits so that we can become more effective songwriters.

If you would like more details, explanations and examples, then be sure to check out the video now

Learn professional songwriting methods and discover strategies for collaborating with artists around the world:


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