In 1676, Isaac Newton delivered the famous quote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." In this bit of wisdom, Newton tapped into a timeless truth that historical progression comes from taking what has been learned from the greats before you and building from there. Check out these bits of wisdom from 10 songwriting giants.
1. Bob Dylan
“It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.”
2. David Bowie
“You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four- or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
3. Charles Mingus
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
4. Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)
“Do I start with the lyrics? No. Quite honestly, it’s the opposite. I generally get the melody first – I kinda fiddle around on the guitar and work out a melody. The lyrics are there to flesh out the tone of the music. I’ve tried before to do things the other way around, but it never seems to work. Obviously, I spend a lot of time on my lyrics, I take them very seriously, but they’re kinda secondary. Well, equal, maybe. I think sometimes that if you write a poem, it should remain as just a poem, just words.”
5. John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“I got this cheap little empty plastic notebook at my local drugstore, and bought a little slab of filler paper and the very first title I wrote in it was 'Proud Mary.' I had no idea what that title meant. I work hard at that, but the fact that there are a lot of good songs means there are also a lot of really bad songs I’ve written that you never hear.”
6. Alicia Keys
“For me, writing comes directly from a specific source. Like something that just happened to me, a conversation, a strong emotion, a line in a book, a word…. Usually I seize that exact moment to write down what I felt, even if it makes no sense or it doesn’t rhyme…. Or I will call my [voicemail] and leave myself a message if I have no pen, or only a melody.
"Later, when I have time alone, I like to sit quietly, most times at my piano…and I revisit what I felt. I allow myself to say everything that my heart feels about it with no judgment, [until] I get all I need out… and I feel the spirit in the song. Then I begin to arrange it, or share it, or get feedback. The most important thing for me when I write is that I properly express that emotion that struck me so deeply.”
7. Tom Waits
“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.”
8. John Legend
“I have a structured songwriting process. I start with the music and try to come up with musical ideas, then the melody, then the hook, and the lyrics come last. Some people start with the lyrics first because they know what they want to talk about and they just write a whole bunch of lyrical ideas, but for me, the music tells me what to talk about.”
9. Jimi Hendrix
“Imagination is the key to my lyrics. The rest is painted with a little science fiction.”
“Attention to detail makes the difference between a good song and a great song. And I meticulously try to put the right sound in the right place, even sounds that you would only notice if I left them out. Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds. You just have to try to be with that first color, like a baby yearns to come to its parents. That’s why creating music is really like giving birth. Music is like the universe: The sounds are like the planets, the air and the light fitting together."
Max Monahan is a bassist and a writer living in Los Angeles. He spends his time working for an audio licensing website and shredding sweet bass riffs.