Songwriting: The Most Subtle Art On The Planet


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

28 thoughts on “Songwriting: The Most Subtle Art On The Planet

  1. Thank you for the great article and insight. Yes, it can be very tough to get a cut by a major artist but you need to spend your time trying to perfect your craft as well as all the other things you need to do (network, co-write, get feedback, etc.).

  2. Nicely done Clay, I grew up just a few miles away from Jimmy Webb’s California home. There are few finer examples of a master songwriter. My favorite phrase that Jimmy wrote…. “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time”. From his unmatched title “Wichita Lineman”. This is such a short, simple and subtle thought that some listeners fail to realize it’s deep and unmeasurable meaning; “eternity”.
    Notice the song credit below, that’s right i said credit and not credits….Jimmy wrote this song solo….so not only is it a classic song recorded by hundreds of artists, selling millioms of copies, it’s a bottom of the ninth; bases loaded, two outs grand slam home run….! It’s true that I ponder the music biz less everyday because if once my only inention was making money with songwriting, my intention is surely now writing music that matters.
    I write songs because songwriting chose me, not the other way around; it’s in my blood and I couldn’t stop doing it even if I tried. Can art and commerce live in the same house in 2018? I think for some writers they can, albeit a tightwire of domesticity. Have I written a phrase as simply profound as Jimmy Webb’s ?…not hardly…but for me that’s the dangling carrot that wakes me every morning with pen and paper in hand.
    I thank you Clay for your excellent article and commentary.


    Songwriters: Jimmy Webb
    Wichita Lineman lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

  3. I agree. But just writing great songs will not put food on your table. There is a business that makes it run & that’s what my org is all about. We have great songwriters & fantastic songs coming though that will never be in the mainstream because of other factors. A terrible song performed by a beautiful person will ALWAYS do better commercially if the right payola is put out & the right palms are greased. It’s that elusive combination of great songs properly presented & marketed to the right people the right way that makes it happen.
    And yes, the good-buddy dealing still applies even with great songs, though the stories sound so wonderfully legit. I’ve seen the best songs on an album passed on for a single release because the producer or artist didn’t have a hand in it. I’ve had offers to get album cuts if I gave an artist a co-write though they had nothing to do with the song. Back in the day, I saw all those nice cars with sequential license plates in radio station parking lots because, they “couldn’t accept payola” …
    During the Jesus movement of the 70’s, I gave away everything I wrote in the name of the ministry…only to have others record my songs & make a LOT of money because they were not quite as ministerial (or at least their management wasn’t) More than a few times I’ve found my songs in churches with “anonymous” as the author, or worse, someone else, because my publisher didn’t follow through.
    I’m thankful that I do have a legacy to leave behind, regardless of who takes credit, because the songs are their own entity. And because sadly, I also know thousands of great songs & writers won’t even be able to get as far as I have, and may never be heard above the noise

    1. Once again, as someone who puts food on the table with their songs, I can speak to this well. Every artist gets turned on by great songs. What you or I think is great may not be what a particular artist thinks is great. That’s the beauty of it. It takes all kinds of kinds. Jazz heads thought the Beatles sucked and were not real musicians. Country purest thought Willie Nelson & Waylon weren’t country at first. The older generation always hates the dumbing down of what they did before. As a writer, you can be cynical and say the business is rigged, etc or you can jump in and participate and learn what is good in today’s terms. That’s really the only choice you have if you want millions of people to sing your songs. If that’s not your goal, then why talk trash about the people who are doing what they love and writing the best music they can. Millions of people like it and enjoy it. ~CM

  4. I wish what you said is true.
    But the current charting Jimmy Webb tune was written in 1967, & only because Kanye stole it (see Jimmy’s website for more)
    Meanwhile Here’s last year’s chart topping hit:

    You don’t want no problem, want no problem with me, bih!
    You don’t want no problem, want no problem with me
    Just another day, had to pick up all the mail
    There go Chano ridin’ through the streets, they be like, “There he go!”

    If there was a real specific “thing” about quality making a hit, yeah, “There he Go!”
    So we’ll always be looking for that magic, but as far as charting for commercial revenue, it’s NOT about the music, IMHO.

    1. Jimi, speaking as someone who makes their living writing songs that millions of people sing and buy, I can say that it is absolutely about the song for songwriters. If you are the artist you can write anything you want sometimes. As a songwriter, you have to write your butt off for opportunity to knock on your door.

  5. So true. A great song can simply awaken the story already living within the listener. I believe it needs to be less about communication (as in the writers story or emotions) and more about creation, which is when the listener can complete a very minimal song internally, filling in emotional or conceptual voids. The best songs offer intangibles and voids that beg creative and emotional opportunities within the listener.

  6. Thanks, Clay.
    I normally just write from the heart and then play it for friends and family to see if they like it. Having something objective to use is very helpful. Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to get my music in the hands of artists.

  7. Excellent reminders! As a guy that grew up on what I call: “Focussed Ambiguity” types of songs (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc) it’s been a real challenge to write CLEAR, FOCUSED and SIMPLY heartfelt songs. Story songs are the most challenging! However, as I think more and more like a “real lyricist” it’s been fun to see how much faster and better my songs have gotten. I LOVE to hear from you Pros! I REALLY LISTEN, really!
    Thanks! Gordy Fritch

  8. Dear Clay:
    Thank you for your heart and spirit of help.
    It shines through your insightful words.
    I love Jimmy Webb as a writer.
    It’s almost giving up as much as it is taking on.
    Much love
    And respect,
    Tedi May

  9. Great Post I have noticed that simple is usually Better . Thankyou for the reinforcement I just finished writing a very simple song that seems to be getting positive feed back from my friends .

  10. Well said, Clay. Many of the lines that “get me every time” are so simple on the surface, but they tap into something universal. I wish I could write lines like Leonard Cohen’s “You don’t really care for music, do you?” Said in a conversation, that line would be almost trivial. But in the context of the song, it conveys a world of disappointment with a touch of accusation and heartbreak. Gets me every time.

    Thanks again for making me think. 🙂

  11. Thanks for these wise words Clay. So much truth in what you say. My songs have improved so much since I started to listen like the listener and making sure the emotion is always clear with a simple and pure lyric.
    A song of mine has just won a competition here in the U.K. and I think the reason for its success is its simple message and emotion. Thanks again for all your advice x

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