4 Practical Dos & Don’ts for Different Songwriting Approaches

By Cliff Goldmacher

“Which do you write first, the music or the words?” This is the classic question that all songwriters get asked.  In my experience, there’s no easy—or correct—answer to this one.  Sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s the lyrics and, often, it’s some mystical, organic combination of the two.  More importantly, there is no one way to write a song. Some of the best (and worst) songs ever written were created using the same techniques.  To that end, I’m going to cover four different ways to approach writing a song, and some of the “dos” and “don’ts” you’ll want to keep in mind as you go through each one.

1. Writing based on a title idea/lyrical hook

Coming up with a really catchy title or lyrical hook is an art in and of itself.  If you’ve got one, congratulations.  Now that you’ve got it, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Do – remember to make sure that everything in your lyric points to and supports your lyrical hook. Having a catchy hook only works if you build a foundation around it so that when the hook arrives, there’s a sense of drama and release.

Don’t – forget to give the song real emotional content.  It’s possible to be so focused on the hook and setting it up that you forget to be sincere.  While the average listener might not be able to tell you why, the song won’t move them in the way that a song with genuine emotional content would.

2. Writing based on a general idea/lyrical concept

Sometimes you’ve been through an experience or have an idea for a song that feels important enough to write about.  That’s as good a place as any to start.

Do – capture the feeling and emotion of your concept.  You obviously felt strongly enough to want to write about this idea, so immerse yourself in it and really tell the story.

Don’t – be too vague.  Because you haven’t started with an actual lyrical hook, you’ll need to remember to bring your overall concept to a very sharp point by summarizing it with a phrase or hook line. This hook is something you’ll hopefully come to as you’re developing your lyric around your idea.  A story without a summarizing point or hook risks being too unfocused to keep your listeners’ attention.

3. Writing from a melodic idea

If you’re a melodic writer, then you’ve got a different set of challenges.  Beautiful, catchy melodies are a rare commodity and should be treated with the appropriate respect.

Do – honor your melody and build your song around it.  Remember, people will learn your melody loooooong before they learn your lyric, so having a good one is not to be taken lightly.

Don’t – let the melody box you into awkward words or watered-down phrases.  While a beautiful melody is one part of a song, it’s not the only part.  Cramming in words or compromising on your lyrical integrity isn’t an acceptable approach when writing from a melody. Remember, it’s the give and take of a catchy melody, and a natural, conversational lyric that make for a great song.

4. Writing from a chord progression/groove

When you pick up your guitar or sit down at the piano, often it’s a chord progression or groove that comes first.  Great!

Do – dig in and develop the groove and feel.  This can really set the mood of a song and inspire all kinds of interesting melodic and lyrical ideas.  Also, a good groove is the very first thing listeners will notice when they hear your song.

Don’t –  rely on a chord progression or groove at the expense of your melody and lyric.  This is no time to get lazy. A chord progression and groove in and of itself is only—in most genres—an arrangement idea which doesn’t really constitute a song.  Without a strong melody and lyric, it’s entirely possible to have a great sounding track and, unfortunately, a mediocre song.


As I stated at the top of this piece, there isn’t one “right” way to write a song. I’d highly recommend trying every possible songwriting approach you can.  Often, as songwriters, we find ourselves in a rut where we go back to the same approach over and over.  While this may be comforting and even result in increased productivity, in the long run, it might not provide you with the most inspired or unique songs you’re capable of writing.  Why not leave your comfort zone and try a couple of different ways of writing? You never know what you’ll get.

Good luck!

Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. Go to:
http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com/video-podcast-series for the latest schedule.

Cliff’s company, http://www.NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.

You can download a FREE sample of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” by going to http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com/ebook.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/EducatedSongwriter
Twitter: edusongwriter

  • Judson

    Great songwriting tips. Thanks for sharing! This is exactly the sort of thing we all need to focus on no matter what our level or experience. Please take a moment check out my latest originals just posted on my blog at : http://judson2history.wordpress.com/ I’d love some constructive feedback. … Judson

  • Barretta

    What advice do you have for an artist to continue to Create with a Lacking Ability to Replay, Reproduce their OWN Renderings in a timely manner ? Lack of Memory, and Cognitive function, or at least dwindling because of Rare sickness : – (

  • Handy.

  • Kevin

    Great blog, thanks!

    I have just launched http://www.yoursongcontest.com , a completely free Songwriting Contest and was wondering if you would be interested in including an entry to make your readers aware? Rather than uploading music, contestants simply provide link to their song.

    Thanks in advance,


  • billy allen

    Do write clearly, briefly, and artistically. The more you can evoke mental images in the listeners’ heads, the more memorable your lyrics will be. Stay focused on the topic.Don’ts, don’t write a poem and expect it to become a song. Writing song lyrics is not the same as penning a poem. The reason it doesn’t work is because the rhythm of a poem may not apply to the melody or music.DON’T confuse your listener by mixing pronouns. DON’T force fit a rhyme. Rhyming is an art and should be conversational. Known as prosody, the lyrics have to fit the melody.


  • billy allen

    This is a great article. Songwriting is something from a higher world, which we humans have been given the power to invoke. Artists are alchemists, with our hands in the holy.


  • I agree with Kevin, Your blog contains enormous useful information for the songwriters for writing a heart touching song. I would say if you have an experience of something, words are coming out you can start immediately with perfect music. Also, people who are looking to have a great start for their career and recognition can enter into VocalMatch Contest where songwriters can enter for free. Visit : http://www.vocalmatch.com/contest/ to know more/

  • el grey music

    How bout.. let it happen all at once? And no preparation, no post production.. just flow… And… must importantly, record it… 🙂 … feel free to check out my 18 min soundscape.. It’s not exactly a song.. but then you create something different, something truly yours.. Hope you enjoy this cinematic trip, it’s called My names A, your names Zed (el-F#)… my mantra.. my cosmos.. how I mediate.. how I levitate.. how I become a song…

    Hope the music takes somewhere… x

  • It’s greate stuff for singer-song-writers..but it’s most important first to writing any song you need to know how to write lyrics, how to write harmony, how to write chords.