The Big Question Every Great Song Answers


As a songwriter, have you ever felt like “it’s all been said and done” — or written and sung, as the case may be? Do your songs sometimes start to feel like strings of clichés, or familiar-sounding lyric-melody-chord-beat combinations? There is a way out! First, ponder these questions:

  • When you fall in or out of love, does that rush of emotion hit YOU the same way it does whoever’s your favorite songwriter?

  • When you feel hurt, or inspired, or mad as hell, is your experience exactly like anyone else’s?

  • Do your best friend, your neighborhood, your point of view all seem unique and precious to you?

It might sound obvious, but we each look at the world through our own prism, our own filter — and that’s what makes life worth living, and songs worth writing. We each have our own set of musical influences, but instead of straightjackets, those can act as springboards that launch us into as-yet-unexplored territory. Paradoxically, The Universal is present in The Particulars of your personal, unique experience.

THE QUESTION IS, WHO THE &%$# ARE YOU?! So when you sit down to write a song, don’t edit out the aspects of the music and lyrics that express YOU. Dig into those particular angles, those quirks, those perspectives that reflect your truth and your identity. Relish the thought of being truly SEEN, which is admittedly scarier and more difficult than grabbing for the nearest cliché. If it doesn’t feel like you’re slowly spinning around naked when you play or perform your song, you ain’t doin’ it right! Great songs might share common underlying concepts, but it’s the way those ideas are colored, shaped and delivered that makes them worth a listen. It’s like cooking: we all share a common set of ingredients, but we each cook them up differently. (Unless maybe you’re working at McDonald’s.) If you want to test this theory, write 3 pages non-stop, non-judgementally, spontaneously, sparked by something you truly care about. Don’t even question whether what you’re writing would “make a good song.” Just express your passion without reserve, for 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t cross anything out, just dive into it. I call this a “blurt.” Silence your critical left-brain voice for a while, so you can really discover what you, and only you, have to say. Later on, go back and circle any words, phrases, ideas or images that strike you as particularly real or true. Maybe there’s the seed of a song in there. Maybe not, but keep spilling yourself onto the page — or if you prefer brainstorming on an instrument or voice, into your recording device. You’re guaranteed to discover that magical something that’s been aching, yearning to come out. That’s where the gold lies.