Can you really teach someone to write better songs?

I so often get asked whether it’s really possible to teach someone how to write a song. There still seems to be a mysterious veil of magic and witchcraft about it, that is very fuelled by interviews with songwriters talking about channeling the muse.

It turns out that songwriting is really like anything else. You can name the parts and elements, see how people have used them in the past, and use that vocabulary to understand how songwriters are currently using and innovating on those elements, as well as possibilities for other innovations. The same is true in visual art, design, creative writing…and there appears to be no cultural attachment to the idea of the muse—or pure inspiration—as the singular route for successful creation in those domains. And yet, somehow (sigh), it persists in the realm of songwriting.

I thought I’d offer a glimpse into the inside of the songwriting classroom. This is an exercise I posted for my Songwriting Workshop group at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Open Academy recently. We had a lengthy discussion about the importance of reflecting a lyric’s natural syllabic stress pattern in the melody. Melody—like language—has strong and weak beats, and if we don’t match the pattern between lyric and melody, whacky (and generally yuck) things start to happen. At best, you get Katy Perry’s unCONdiTIONallY. At worst, you start to erode the intelligibility, and therefore emotional resonance of your song. Lyrics become wallpaper. And in my experience, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the life of the songwriter: if you believe lyrics are mere wallpaper, you will write lyrics that end up as wallpaper. But as soon as you believe that people might listen to and care about lyrics, you suddenly start writing lyrics that people listen to and care about. Part of this is making sure they can be understood, and that they are conveyed with the full force of expression and emotion, which in English, is conveyed by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

So this Songwriting Assignment first sets out to take a lyric, and set it melody, taking care to set the lyric to a melody that retains that natural pattern.

Secondly, the task here then hones in on 3 melodic tools for creating contrast between sections, ensuring that when you move to the Chorus, it will be felt emotionally.

Without further ado…

You can grab a lyric to work with by heading over to the YouTube channel here—it’s posted in the description under the video. And yes, please subscribe to the channel!

Lyric Writing Masterclass March 16 2020

Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?

Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.45.43 amIn my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.

Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)

Sign up here.

More info here.

Driving Around the Road Cones: Two Easy Strategies for Moving Beyond the First Verse

Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay – hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse – you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.

Thanks to ASCAP for once again publishing this article I wrote on two easy strategies for moving beyond the first verse. You can read the article in its entirety at the ASCAP We Create Music Blog.

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Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat




Former Berklee Songwriting faculty Keppie Coutts presents the Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat on Sunday, October 8!


Fall Retreat will involve a series of creative exercises and time-proven writing techniques in the morning, equipping you with processes to bring your unique perspective and voice to the page. The afternoon will consist of song listening and feedback, giving you insight into the tools, techniques and strategies used by professional songwriters to generate ideas, develop, revise, edit, and fine-tune their songs. Fall Retreat will be a small and focused group, building strong connections, community, empowering participants to develop their creative processes and write the best songs possible!


In order to keep the retreat focused, the group is limited to 10 people, on a first come first served basis. REGISTER TODAY to secure your spot, by visiting or by emailing



$80 Early Bird Discount (signed up by September 15)
$100 (after September 15)
$90 (Member Affiliations – West Coast Songwriters, Berklee Alum, previous attendees)


SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

A while ago I started an article about SPECIFICITY in lyric writing (see post: Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas). The main conclusion of that article was to pick a central idea for your section, and make sure all the images and language are working towards supporting that main idea.

Another aspect of ‘getting specific’ with lyrics is the specificity of the images that you present. That’s what I’d like to have a look at right now!

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images


  • Your images are too broad, vague, or generic.
  • The images do not fully use your totally unique perspective of the world.


  • Use Sense Writing to describe the scenario.
  • Sift through your Sense Writing for unique images or word combos.
  • Use a Worksheet to find interesting word and rhyme pairings.

Let’s use another dummy lyric to work with:


[Verse 1]

The party was loud when

You walked into the room

I caught a glimpse of you

And thought ‘you’ll be mine soon’

Okay, so the lyric presents a decent opening idea, presenting the scenario, but in a very ho-hum kind of a way. It could use some spicing up. This is where I (and many many many songwriters) use Sense Writing to delve into our senses and uncover unique and compelling ways and words to describe a common or universal experience (see Post: Juicy Details for a description of Sense Writing).

DO IT NOW: Spend 5 minutes sense writing on ‘party’.

Here is my writing…

Party… Slumped on the distended belly of a couch in the corner, bored. The satisfying pop of opening wine bottles followed by the gulp gulp gulp of filling glasses, the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table. Cigarette smoke mingled with the high pitched female laughter bubbling sneaking through the opening in the sliding doors. I am sitting sipping on a beer that somehow becoming more watery, more bitter and lemony as I reach the bottom. Accidentally moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before, possibly letting out a stifled laugh, the people in my field of vision, who swim in and out of being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch, to being secret agent spies with hidden personal worlds of mystery and ambiguity, and sneaking layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness. And then you enter the room, and it feels like the decibels descend and there is a warm hum in my eardrum, and it seems like you are taller than everybody else, that there is a spotlight somewhere above you melting light into your immediate orbit. I am looking at you trying to use eyeballs as magnets, sure that if you look at me that particles will connect and you will feel the energy like a string of fate, like a tightrope strung up between us…

Now I am going to ‘mine’ my sense writing for words, images, and phrases that I like.

belly of a couch in the corner (bored in a rhyme)

the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table

moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before

being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch

layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness

the decibels descend

warm hum in my eardrum

spotlight somewhere above you melting light

eyeballs as magnets

tightrope strung up between us

Let’s see if I can use what I have here to write a new verse:

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations


At this point, I am looking for my final line of this verse. I am going to create a Worksheet for two rhyme options: scene, and conversation.

What is a Worksheet? A worksheet is basically a list of possible rhymes for key words in your lyric. It is not ALL the available rhymes, but rather rhymes that are evocative, or related to the idea or image you are playing with. Here we go:

Scene: screen, sheen, clean, Al Green, pristine, routine, Codeine, beguine, marine, machine, slot machine, obscene, magazine, tambourine, trampoline, nicotine, quarantine, seem, scheme, redeem…

Conversation: narration, creation, fixation, vibration, dilation, inflation, location, relocation, rotation (heavy-rotation), relation, flirtation, affectation, speculation, decoration, mediation, celebration, revelation, patron, saying, staying, playing, shaken, taken, takin’…

Now I am going to use some of these to see if I can come up with a satisfying line.

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Removed from the hum of the celebration


I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Falling into my usual routine


I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Stuck in the rounds of mental quarantine

I could write another 20 of these, but I kind of like the last one, and more than that, any of these three is a drastic improvement on the original. It is much more evocative of the environment, and the narrator’s state of mind and mood, and sets it up nicely to develop the story from there.

Getting Fruitful Feedback – (Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this weekend!)

One the most important things in the journey of a songwriter is being part of a community who can give you helpful feedback. Your friends, parents and audience will always be more than willing to tell you how much they love your songs (aka how much they just love you), and sometimes how much they don’t. Alas, while this feedback can be a joyous validation or an ego-rattling slap, it rarely helps your songs actually improve. There is hope! Other songwriters with the experience and vocabulary of songwriting are often the best community to tell you a) what works and why, and b) what could use development and why. The WHY part is so important, and requires more than just “I wasn’t feeling it there”.

I encourage you to seek out opportunities to be with other songwriters, whether it’s local organizations, regional camps or workshops, or annual conferences. Berklee College of Music has a wonderful online school (

In the spirit of this community, I am hosting the first Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this coming Sunday, in east Los Angeles. If you are in the area and would like to come along, follow this link:

Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas

Whether you are reading songwriting books, watching videos, going to workshops, in school, or paying close attention to excellent songwriters, you will eventually hear the same message again and again: MAKE YOUR LYRICS SPECIFIC.

This can be frustrating and confusing. At some point, you will write a song that you think is specific, only to be given feedback that it is ‘not detailed enough’. You might then right a song that is loaded with details, and told that it ‘isn’t universal enough’.

What’s going on? Part of what is going on is that there are DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPECIFICITY. The next few Insight Posts will take them one at a time. Today, let’s look at…



  • Your song is about many different ideas, or;
  • You are attempting to write ‘THE’ song about ‘regret’ (for example), that includes every sentiment or idea you have ever had about regret (or love, or travel, or growing old….).


  • Make a decision about the CENTRAL IDEA of your song. Decide what your song is about.
  • If your song is about ‘love’, which aspect of love is it about? Don’t make it about the full gambit or trajectory of winning to losing love. Pick one moment or aspect, and hone in all your ideas to bring that one CENTRAL IDEA into the spotlight.

Let’s use some pretend lyrics to put this into action.



Love is a drug that’ll hook you in

Love is a thief that will rob you blind

Love is book in a foreign language

With a meaning that’s hard to find

Here we have an interesting series of images and ideas, that are all somewhat ‘specific’. All the ideas are centered around the elusive nature of love, SO WHAT’S WRONG HERE? There are 3 (or even 4) separate ideas that are each competing for attention, without fully committing to one of them. Is it the addiction that you are focusing on? Is it the self-deception? Or is it the mystery? These are three separate songs! Once you decide which ONE you are writing about, you can focus into the details around the one specific aspect you are writing about.


Love is a thief that sneaks into your house

Steals your heart and robs you blind

Leaves you wondering what you even had in the start

Love is a thief in the night

NOW the idea is more specific because it is focused on ONE central idea.

TO DO: Take a look at a song you have written that you feel could use some revising. Have a look at your chorus (if it has one), and analyze how many different ideas are present in the chorus alone. See if you can revise it to focus on one, and make any other necessary revisions to your other sections.