Songwriting: The Most Subtle Art On The Planet

by Clay Mills
Sep 21, 2022

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard aspiring songwriters lament that their songs are just as good or better than the songs that major artists are recording. They can’t understand why their songs aren’t getting the attention they deserve or being recording on records. They haven’t yet grasped that songwriting is a subtle art and can lead them to question whether the system is rigged against them.

But, as someone who’s spent many years trying to get my songs heard, and then, finally crossing over to years of major success with my music, I can tell you there are major differences in my songs from then to now. Huge differences. But, the trouble is, those differences are so subtle that they often go unnoticed.

Great songwriting is a subtle art…

Think about it. If you were a guitar player, and you watched a video of a guitar great—just pick any of them: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie VanHalen, the list is long—and, on this video you see a master technician physically running up and down the neck of the guitar doing obvious things that you don’t know how or physically can’t do, you then say to yourself, “Wow, I’ve got my work cut out for me.” So, you watch the video over and over, you practice the same licks thousands of times until you give up, or you master them like your hero. There’s an obvious goal.

You see the difference in what your current abilities are, and how Jimi Hendrix plays guitar. But, in songwriting, it’s completely different.

Songs are about stripping away flash and cutting to the core of the emotion. Often, the songs that appear the simplest are the ones that rip our hearts out. Or, the ones that seem silliest turn us onto a joyful groove that makes us dance. An aspiring songwriter might say to themselves, “These are so simple, I have waaaay better songs!”

I can’t listen to a certain song by Hall Of Fame songwriter Jimmy Webb without it bringing tears to my eyes. But, it’s one of the simplest lyrics you’ll ever find. Here’s one of the verses…

“But the ending always comes at last

Endings always come too fast

They come too fast, but they pass too slow

I love you, and that’s all I know”

So simple that it seems anyone could write it, right?

No fancy words or rhymes. The melody is equally as uncomplicated. Yet, in the many times I have heard it, it has NEVER failed to move me emotionally. So why is this? It’s because songwriting is extremely subtle. It’s brilliantly subtle, yet mindblowingly complex at the same time.

The things that move people are often things not easily perceptible, but, they are real just the same.

A thousand little techniques work together in harmony to create a symphony of emotion. These are the thousands of little things that lead the unknowing to say, “You can’t teach songwriting” or “Songwriters are either born with it or not.”

I had to recognize the thousands of things that are important in songwriting before I was ready to stop saying, “My songs were already good enough.”

That’s when I started figuring out how to become a better writer. How to communicate real emotion. And to have the success I had dreamed of as a writer. These are the thousand and one things I try to pass along in my classes and videos. I love the subtle art of songwriting and want to help keep it alive for generations to come.

Write on! ~CM

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.


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