Intention – the Bolder Dimension of Songwriting

Wayne Cohen, veteran multi-platinum selling ASCAP hit songwriter, producer and educator, owner of publishing/production company Stand Up Songs.

Wayne teaches individual and group songwriting tutoring sessions at his NYC Stand Up Studio and via Skype.

One of my song tutoring students recently sang me a song she was working on called ‘Listen You’, which I thought was a cool idea about missing that special someone. She had strong lyrics for her chorus, but the chorus chords she had were in a minor key just like the verse had been. The minor chords worked great in the verse, but the melody fell flat at the chorus. I call this kind of chorus melody problem flat lining, as in, the melody didn’t lift enough for a chorus. I suggested that she go to the relative major key for the chorus, and that the melody needed to be ‘happier’ to pay off the manic lyric idea she had set up. This eventually made for a killer chorus for that song.

This started me thinking, if the question is, ‘how do you write a breakthrough song?’ 

This experience with my student reinforced my conviction that having an intention when writing is the answer. In other words, if you can imagine the result you want before you get there, you have a much better chance of achieving that result.

I think lack of intention is one of the things that is crippling the music industry. I see creators in many fields (not just songwriters) influenced by the culture of immediacy that we are living in. I believe some songwriters are influenced away from writing a breakthrough song, expressing a riveting clear universal emotion with catchy melodies, and instead are focused on making trendy tracks that sell immediately. I think the craft of songwriting is suffering as a result, and this shortsightedness is contributing to a lack of certain songs’ longevity on the charts.

But keeping this idea of intention can be a tricky business when writing a song, because sometimes you don’t want to question that magical part of writing from pure inspiration. Great songs can seem to fall out of the sky and flow through the writer.

However there are so many facets of songwriting that can be improved by conscious thought. There are many examples of this, not the least of which is McCartney’s now clichéd story about ‘Yesterday’ starting out as a song he dreamed called ‘Scrambled Eggs’. After further consideration, the title and subsequent lyric story of ‘Yesterday’ had just the right feeling for the melody he dreamed. The title and lyric fit like hand in glove. But he worked at it ‘til he had something great. And that was all because of his intention to write a great song. Luckily he didn’t settle for ‘Scrambled Eggs’.

So, you ask, how can we take an OK song and make it better, with the right intention?

As a starting point, here is a quick intention checklist to run your songs by.

Intention Check List:

  1. How do you want the song to feel?
  2. Does every aspect of the song feel the way you want it to feel?
  3. Does the lyric develop within a section, and from section to section, to express an urgent coherent story, the way you want it to?
  4. Does the melody have the right flow, i.e., does it climax and subside where it needs to? (from the verse into the chorus, etc..)
  5. Is there rhyme scheme consistency and development in the right places?
  6. Have you mapped your melodic rhythm by using slash marks to count the number of syllables (for ex., map the V1 melody so that V2 will have the same melodic rhythm)?

Feel free to drop me a line and let me know how you did with the checklist…I’m curious!

You can contact Wayne here.

Thoughts, questions or comments? Share them here!

  • Jeff Shattuck

    Good points, but for me, I follow a simple exercise. Once I have the germ of a song idea I type out at the top of my in-progress lyric sheet “This song is about ____________” and I fill in the blank with a single, clear thought. As I continue to work on the song, this sentence is my North Star and without it I become lost.

  • Adam D.

    I would add to this that if intention is the objective, one should determine how to proceed with mixing and mastering as well, as these have become integral pieces of the overall artistic statement on the greatest albums. At least, if you have great ideas and crappy recordings what’s the use. Do it professional. I mean, I know guys who agree with me that some recordings of friends I shared sound crappy. The difference between me and him is, he thinks the band sucks if the recording is bad. I doubt he is the only one. He is a true music professional, by the way.
    What I strive for is a cohesive artistic statement. In some ways, what this author has said is on par with proofing an essay before having it published. Sometimes you write things that do not communicate what you intended to say. So, you have to be sure the words you were thinking are the ones that made it to the page. Music is the same way. You can’t compromise what you hear. For example, I have heard P. Glass say of his notations, “That’s as close as I could get to what I was hearing.” However, most are NOT writing a classical (minimalist) composition. So be dead on.
    What I would like to add is to make a boldly original artistic statement. The instant gratification point is sooo true. Very few artists write a song that plays and can be executed with the same pleasure principle of, say, Norah Jones or Dave Matthews. That music isn’t JUST about a “sound.” It has a big pay off, and I have talked to people who have worked with Norah who say how amazing she is to listen to in the studio. He voice just makes you want to run away with her, if she asked. So write a song that lays its foundation in stalwart musicianship–something that isn’t just a catchy, “hear today gone tomorrow,” disposable pop hit.
    That’s what I do. And I wish more people would get back to that type of song writing, even Getz/Gilberto “The Girl From Ipanema” type of songwriting (doesn’t have to be all bad ass virtuosity), because THAT is what is lacking in the music of today: lovable songs with the artistic integrity to stand the test of time. And the farther away we get from writing those type of songs, the less trained ALL of our audiences are to hear it when they listen. And that hurts MUSICIANS.

  • Marksiet

    Listen either you have it or you don’t. Forget about contrived or formula since by definition it is not coming from you but through something else. When I write everything is there all at once flowing with emotion. It is an organic process. What happens with one doesn’t matter with the other. Find your own voice and be true to it.

  • Chris Kepes

    this is an interesting idea really; it is important to know what a new song is about, maybe one simple idea or emotion, and keep it headed in that direction…Also: I am really interested in hearing other’s comment about the way they approach “dry” periods; times when there seems to be almost no inspiration….usually my good stuff comes suddenly. 80% of the song is there within an hour; but it doesen’t happen often….. I don’t have much success just sitting down with the determination to write something. Can anyone comment?

  • Paul Henry Smith

    You’ve got to love your song, not just hope that “buyers” will. And there is no one way, one process that works. As Marksiet says, “you have it or you don’t.” But sometimes people who have it seem to forget that they somehow had to get it. You may “have” being able to ride a bike, but there was a time when you couldn’t do it and you learned.
    Beethoven had it, but he spent a lot of time jiggering things around, crossing things out, adding things … changing things after the first performance … even after the publication. He was not afraid to keep tinkering to make his music match his intention.
    Contrast him with Mozart who by most accounts could simply sit down and write a flawless symphony in a few days, and then move on.
    Most of us should try to be like Beethoven, IMHO. Don’t be locked in … be willing to erase, re-write, add and re-think. Maybe one of the best ways to be able to do that is to get outside and take a walk, singing your song out load. Beethoven did that, too. Sometimes for two hours a day. So, there are many techniques, but they all succeed only if they get you to see/hear clearly and you honestly use the information they give you to make your work the best it can be.

  • HUDI

    There are, in the world, basically two types of songwriters. Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart heard the music he wrote completely finished in his head and only had “the mundane task of writing it down.” Beethoven, on the other hand, was known for writing and re-writing a piece as many as 50 times before he “got it right”. It doesn’t matter which you are as long as the end result is good. Both these composers have been beloved through the centuries. Both are very different, coming from two entirely different modes of writing. Their music will stand the test of time…because it IS good. Song writers nowadays should be open to either or both of these…sometimes inspiration strikes in its entirety…sometimes you have to work through an idea to see its fruition…both will achieve the desired result.

  • Terry Wheeler

    I’m from the older generation and didn’t start writing songs until after fifty-five years of age.I can’t stay within restrictive guidelines and I have to go with the flow.I may be all wrong,but I go with my gut and heart.
    I write not for something to do,but because I love to do it.I draw on my experiences and the experience of others.I love my songs to tell a story.I do have my music professionally produced,which I feel is a must do as I lack experience in that area.


    Greetings from Jamaica: I think either of the approaches alluded to can work & do work but a balance between the two has its merits too.

  • Joe

    as stupid as it may sound, it often helps to imagine that the song you’re writing is already being played on TV; you see th evideo, you hear the music – would you feel akward hearing certain moments?

  • Noel Chidwick

    I enjoyed your article on Intention in Songwriting, and it chimes with what I try to do when writing a song.
    I like to write a song that goes somewhere, that tries to tell a story, no matter how simple.
    Your checklist will help to remind me of that.

  • Bobby Key

    It’s a good article but it doesn’t cover the main theme of today …
    1. know how to read/write music the ear doesn’t always pick up the suspended or 9th 7th or 6th chords ..etc., it helps when composing the music..
    2. most songs are sold under the imagery of sex now a days more than ever.
    3. a million sales doesn’t make you a pro
    but I know it has to feel good though..
    4. a good song will give you images in your mind as one person here has already indicated
    5. If the songwriter has to be trained then he shouldn’t be a songwriter ..Songwriting is a talent , but by today’s standard you can tell everything is forced …but you can also tell which are the best songs regardless of your favorite genre..
    6. If you want to be a good writer listen to Lennon or McCartney or Hank Williams Sr
    or others, most songs are better when lived..
    7. All in all I think there are a lot of good ideas here that should be followed on this post..
    8. John Lennon once said he thought the 70’s were boring , but he didn’t get to listen to the 80’s 90’s or now ..My personal opinion ..we are in the same Lull we were until the Beatles came along …
    It’s a lame time ( too many sound the same ex, rap ) and we are short on good songs ….but you got to remember the music industry is basically controlled by ages 12 to 25 …maybe we older cats should buy more records ..Good Day !

  • Bobby Key

    Good points everyone ..especially Adam D.

  • earl

    thanks this is great

  • Mike Ian

    I concur! I just recently finished up a cd and had to “check off” these and more to try and complete the thought of each tune. I agree. A lot of music these days seems to be the “quick fix”. No shelf life.

  • Lee Adam Wilshier

    I was walking my dog tonight and while traipsing the quiet night streets was doing what I think of as “forward planning” on my next album project, basically thinking it through: how will it sound, what’s the content, what am I trying to say, how will the varied tracks link together to form one cohesive experience for the listener etc… I do this before I begin on anything, I believe that without a map, I get lost and end-up with a wonky end-result. Then I come home and immediately see the email link to this article on songwriting intent and planning. Don’t you love it when things synchronise in your life like that? I’d like to add a bit to the other comments here; I personally think that a track/song has to ideally fulfil a few practical criteria and that unless you plan it out at least a little, it will most likely fall short of what you want. It’s like decorating a room, you stand in the empty room and visualise where the furniture will go and what colours the walls could look good BEFORE you start, you don’t just throw a whole bunch of chairs randomly into the middle and hope it will look good and you also don’t just close your eyes and point and choose a colour from a chart without looking. So likewise, you don’t want to just throw a song together any old way without thinking through what you’re trying to do with it or what the end result will be. You can do, but you won’t be sure of what you’ll end-up with, and like throwing chairs randomly into the room, it might look good, but better chances are it might not. Why waste a perfectly good song idea not to mention the effort and time involved? A song or track to me should have a couple of things; content – what am I trying to say?… style – how do I want it to sound?… relevance – who is it meant for or where do I think it fits into the greater picture of things in the world generally? (who’s the audience?) At the end of the day though, a song is doing one thing and one thing only… it’s touching someone else with a feeling, a story, a situation, something. You as the writer or performer are expressing something which through the song itself, reaches out and affects another human being intimately and immediately and likely does it in a clear/concise way which they haven’t experienced yet. So in your ‘forward planning’, I would say ask yourself “what am I trying to say?” visualise it touching another person and make it specific enough they relate but general enough that someone can relate to it even if they haven’t lived it exactly as you’re describing, be creative with the sound of the track and experiment with sound and structure, but also try to work within a normal conventional way, it needs to be listenable and certain well-worn musical rules will always apply as mentioned in the great article at the top of this thread, and lastly, ask yourself as honestly as you can manage, why are you writing it? Hopefully it’s the listener and what they get out of it, and not much else. Is it purely to make money or prop-up your performer’s ego? Hopefully not. It’s hopefully being written, performed, recorded and released to convey a message and tell a story, touch people and reach the person’s ears who needs to hear it. Think the larger picture before you begin and it may help you immensely.

  •!/pages/Johnny-Van-Veld/210096730249?ref=ts Johnny Van Veld

    When I Write with others I tend to look for the Checklist method, so that before we start we’re on the same page. However, Some songs I’ve written have taken me less than five minutes to compose & Author. While others have taken up to & including twenty years. sometimes you don’t want to let go of an Idea, & most of the time it’s worth hanging on to.
    When I write by myself, I guess the song seems to be more of a treasured, held to the chest personal experience, & I don’t want to let it out of my sight, so to speak.
    But just like anything else, if you can have fun within a disciplined situation, you conquer both worlds. Even if you’re not a professional, the song must mean something to you in order to be a success. keep writing, and keep trying, and ultimately, you will find what works best for you. Not all songs are created equal… nor ar the songwriters… :-)

  • Tom Stevens

    I got started writing music in a very small and humble way–jingle lyrics for a car dealer and then the words for a commercial to go with it. 1) Writing to “fit” anything, whether a :30 or :60 spot, is a terrific discipline to begin with, as you quickly learn that you can and MUST be able to “tailor” your work, and 2)It still has to be catchy and effectively convey a certain feeling in that brief span of time. The dealer lyrics were: Buy like new for a whole lot less–Caaar City-y-y-y-y! I know, sounds absolutely puerile, but we did some original rock/blues licks and hired a good front man and it came out like gangbusters.
    Now, I know that’s a fragment of a “song” but a good fragment can still be off a diamond…just got to fill in the rest of the gem.

  • RebelAGJ

    This is a good article and the author made a great point. Many singles are hurting music overall, but that has been an issue for over a decade now. Unfortunately the issue continues to arise and get worse, though becomes more widely acceptable in the process. As years pass, new ears discover music and if what they first experienced as “music” was lackluster then their expectations start from there.
    Better advice I can give to all songwriters is simply make your songs believable. If you want longevity and success in the music business, make your songs believable.

  • schubertiad

    I find certain metaphors helpful in working through the songwriting process. Although I don’t believe in the literal existence of a Muse, the experience of receiving a song feels like it is coming from an external source. So from time-to-time I feel like I am about to receive something from “the Muse,” as if I am starting to tap into a mystical source of creativity. I’m looking into a cloud, waiting to see what emerges.
    I don’t demand, I don’t impose my will, I don’t censor myself. I receive what I can and don’t resist. It may be a chorus, a verse, a refrain of some kind, a couplet, or on rare occasions, the bulk of a song. What I receive is an imperfect transmission, though.
    I spend the following hours and days “getting to know the song.” I let the song (or the parts that I have) play in my head over and over. As I continue to do that, words and phrases will pop into my head, fitting the melodic structure. I’ll write those down and continue the process, listening in my head. I’ll hear variations on the melody to be used in later verses or in the second half of verses. Same with choruses. I’ll hear whether the song is telling me to go to a bridge after a certain point, and what chords those are.
    Some of this is happening while I’m actually playing through the song, but plenty of it is happening in my head as I do other things throughout the day.
    I can’t overemphasize the importance of listening to your song in your head. What doesn’t work–whether lyrically, melodically, harmonically, or structurally–will be obvious and drop away. Your inner ear will lead you to better solutions. It doesn’t necessarily require intense concentration, either. In fact, that can block the process. It’s better just to be open as the song continues to reveal itself.
    Gradually, the song comes into focus. I’ll know who the characters are, what they want, why they feel a certain way. I’ll come to see what the song is really about. Any remaining lines that don’t work with the song’s “identity” will be replaced.
    It is almost as if the song already existed in complete form, and the characters were real, and my job was to clear away the clouds bit-by-bit and see what was already there. It’s just a metaphor, but it works for me.
    It can take years to develop those instincts, but I think it makes for better songs.
    The aim is to be as true to the song as possible. I don’t give much thought to impressing anyone when I write. I just want it to have emotional truth and honesty, artfully crafted. I want it to feel right and whole in my own mind.
    A big problem I see with the disposable songs of today is that they don’t feel honest. They feel like product. Their intent is to make you buy right now, not to communicate truth. Too much gloss, not enough heart.

  • George Sladek


  • grumpy ray

    A fascinating blog, raw inspiration is rarely all that is needed, it’s a great start to be sure but I doubt that more than a handful of the world’s classic catalogue has completely bypassed the critical faculty to become an enduring part of our lives. After all, the songwriter wants to feel that they are more than just a conduit. This one does, at least.

  • Yore

    Since I always start with a musical idea, I like to imagine the song as a piece of sculpture and as a sculptor said, it’s in the piece of rock already, all I’ve gotta do is chip away the pieces that don’t form part of it. As for today’s music, one big problem, for me, is the number of people who’ve become successful, without any songwriting ability. Tin Pan Alley produced some fantastic stuff but too much division of labour sucks the soul out of the music.

  • DedBuny

    I agree as many have above that great songs need to tell a story. Not just any story, but something that many people can connect with and visualize within their own lives. Be honest with yourself and think of the best songs to you personally, not what is forced on you commercially. Most of the main stream media stuff of today it shoved in everyone’s face and I wonder it wasn’t pushed so hard, would anyone listen. Not to offend others, but I disagree with all the accolades given to the Beatles. I bunch of guys who got stoned a lot and tried to write lyrically cryptic nonsense songs is not very impressive. I think they are a good example of the over-popularized through massive media exposure bands. Don’t misunderstand me, they were a great contributor in bringing in rock and roll, but not all their songs were so great as many try and say. “yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dogs eye”, “yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away”, catchy – interesting – some a bit weird, but great, nah… what’s the difference between those lyrics and “I won’t bleed and suffer your mistakes, just another un-silent night”, from an unknown band many don’t know today? I know many won’t agree with my point of view, so at best we can at least agree to disagree.

  • lucy kalantari

    well said, wayne. the power of intent goes a very long way. this can apply of course to every facet of one’s life.
    i believe that my most satisfying musical collection was written with that strong intent and image in my head. the rest, of course, was history.
    thanks for the post!

  • Rory Robertson

    If it doesn’t move you it doesn’t matter.R.W of Pink Floyd.Enough said.

  • Stephen carmichael

    this makes so much sense. I think this is what is lacking from my music! Wayne I think I could learn so much from you. have you posted more blogs about songwriting?

  • Wayne Fiala / JodyWayne

    This is some really good stuff!

  • James L.V. Wiser

    Love the comments above. I always try to explain to casual listeners the importance of not just liking anything that’s out there. One must know the good from the bad. The industry continues to push slop in order keep their own jobs paying-off like in days of old. But feed your mind as you would feed your body or it may not serve you well. But, you all know that. It’s the ones who never search for depth or care for music beyond its’ ability to make one shake a tail-feather that lose in the end. Good luck to all who care ! I care, and I love that those of you here care too !

  • James L.V. Wiser

    Notice how it drifts back to quality of the song, not just the techniques to make a great song? Why does it matter ? Ultimately, whether a song is 100% perfect or not, it has to be exciting musically and if you’re really swift, smart lyrically too ! Why bother otherwise ? Just to make money and die. Don’t we want to do better for the world around us ? I care and I know those of you above care too ! Good luck to all of you. &

  • James L.V. Wiser

    It keeps coming back to quality, not just technique. For even if a song is not 100% perfect, it must excite musically or better yet, musically AND! lyrically. One must want music to be smart on all levels or there’s just no point beyond the money-making. I care deeply and it looks like you do too.
    Good luck to all of you in whatever you have to face out there. & myspace/

  • Martin Bladon

    When I write it begins with a line or just an idea. Slowly the song develops with much thought and “playing” in my head. I flesh it out, develop it, change it, sing it for days or weeks till I record it, then I listen to it a few times till I am happy with the way I have crafted the song. Your check list is a wonderful way to complete the conscious part of the creative process.

  • benji

    i honestly think the best songs out there are written either by accident (such as “Yesterday”) or in a frenzy of delerium. that’s just me though. the man makes some good points.

  • Paul Ewing

    I always try and start with a good idea, or a title, and then the right KEY.
    Trying to pick a universal theme is harder of course – but simplicity for me is very important.
    Studying the great songs of course, will help us to keep on track.

  • James L.V. Wiser

    (Ooops ! My girlfriend reminded me that the blurb has to be checked before being posted and here I am thinking “Where did they go?” – the posts that is. So, sorry about writing 3 similar posts. Erase the first two for sure then or all, either way.)

  • James L.V. Wiser

    Uh oh ! They all posted at the top, like they should, of course. Now I’m a super-idiot !!! Never messed-up this bad before ! Sorry everybody.

  • Wayne

    My very next mission, I got shot down, it’s been thirteen days now, and I haven’t been found. I think about her, and I ask God every day, not to let me die alone, lost in this vast open sea. As I felt my life slipping away, Suddenly she was there holding on to me. She put her arms around me, pressed her warm full lips, hard against mine, and I found myself lost, in an ocean of loves sweet time. In the twinkling of an eye, time passes by…..
    I am seeing some great conversation here. There are a million ways to come up with the idea to write, there are a million ways to write, and millions of things to write about. You don’t have to be a Great Writer to write a Great Song! You don’t have to be famous to get your great song published.
    But it helps – a whole lot!!!!!!!!!
    I read that there is a shortage of good songs. I disagree. I believe “you” the general songwriting public have written the good songs, and are now writing the great songs. The problem is; no one sees your songs! At least not the right persons. There in lies the problem.
    The way I see it, if you use the check list Wayne Cohen has been kind enough to share with you, it will help you write even greater songs. Perhaps breakout songs.
    How do you get your songs heard by the right people? Beats me? I’m the new guy here. Ask TuneCore, they know more about that stuff than I do.
    Oh yes! My lyric. What was my intention? Hope you don’t mind, this was a little expierment.
    Question: Did this lyric grab you and hold your attention? Did you like it? Love it? Or stick your finger down your throat? Are you curious as to the events that led up to this lyric? Are you curious what happened after this lyric? Have you wondered who he is, she is? Or if there is any truth to this or not? Would you like to hear the whole story, or could you care less? These are questions I ask myself about every word, every lyric, every music-note I write. And now I am paying attention to “Intention” and along with my own check list I will now use Wayne’s check list for all my work. Even my short stories or poems.
    Ok, just in case you are wondering?
    The songs title is “She’s Only Thirteen” and is based on true events from the Vietnam era.
    Good luck everyone, and remember there is hope after songwriting………… I hope!
    I like much of what DedBuny said in his/her Mar 26 post.

  • bioticste

    I agree with Lucy Kalantari that the Beatles were not as great as their publicist(s). They were new for the time and the media grabbed them because of it, now most of their tracks sound dated and I hear equal or more interesting tracks at local gigs and acoustic nights. Wayne’s advice is sound but personally I like to write more abstract lyrics (about serious subjects but in an abstract style). The intension is still there though I just like to avoid cliched lyrics.

  • B. A. Jackson

    I tend to like metaphors. I’m like the 50’s and 60’s writer who couldn’t say “sex”, but would say “the one’s who like to go down slow”. I prefer a song to not be blatant.
    For example, Bon Scott of AC/DC wrote “The Jack”, where he told of a fairly loose woman giving someone a venereal disease, but told it in terms of playing cards.
    After his death, Brian Johnson re-wrote the song for a live performance, blatantly singing it “The Clap” and had corresponding lyrics that left no doubt that the girl was trash and the guy had VD. This totally ruined the song for me. I like my lyrics to have many faces, so it might mean different things to different people.

  • Floyd Russell Jr.

    I just read your article and it was very informative, thanks. I’m an artist/songwriter from Kalamazoo, MI with over 250 songs in my possesion. Could someone PLEASE tell me how to break into the music industry.

  •!/pages/The-Prodigy-Productions/334942154940 Nnimz

    Im a Christian music artist specializing in hip hop and I so agree with the culture of immediacy crippling songwriting. Ive been moved by the Lord to start my own production company called the Prodigy Productions. I loved the checklist! Even though most of my lyrics are divinely inspired, this will help during a writing block. check me out on Facebook. Good luck to all and God bless.