You Can’t Teach Songwriting: Fact or Fiction? A Pro Songwriter’s Perspective…

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A Songwriting Degree…

Several years ago, I attended my son’s freshman orientation at Belmont University. He was headed into the Music Business program. During the parent’s session, one mother raised her hand and asked (In all seriousness) “So, if my daughter gets a songwriting degree from Belmont, she is pretty much guaranteed a slot on Music Row, right?” The Dean of the School of Music stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then, he said “No, getting a degree in songwriting doesn’t mean you are a great songwriter any more than a degree in art says that you are a great artist.” The woman then commented under her breath, “$120,000 is a lot to pay with no guarantees”. I just sat quietly and watched it all unfold. I’m afraid she may have been disappointed with the outcome of her daughter’s degree no matter what she wound up majoring in. A piece of paper doesn’t “guarantee” you anything.

There are a lot of misconceptions in regard to teaching songwriting…

What I took from the whole experience was that there are a lot of misconceptions in regard to teaching songwriting and whether or not it is even possible to teach someone how to write. Clay and I get the occasional e-mail saying “You know that songwriting can’t be taught! Why do you offer classes and take people’s money when you can’t teach songwriting? People either have it or they don’t!” The answer to that question is this – both Clay and I learned songwriting from some master craftsmen. MANY of the songs that I see posted on Songtown are better than the songs I was writing when I started. WAY better. I improved because someone who had “been there and done that” took the time to teach me where I was going wrong and how to make my songs better.

Songwriting Mentors…

I had a mentor that taught me everything (ok, most everything) he knew. I listened and learned. And, I’ve now had 6 #1 songs and over 100 songs recorded. Songwriting is not some magic thing that only the few who have been sprinkled with “hit dust” can do. Can someone with NO musical ability write hit songs? Probably not. Can someone with some musical ability learn how to write better and better keep working until they eventually get some songs recorded? Yes they can. I did it. Clay did it. Songtown members are starting to do it. If I played you my early songs you would be astounded at how bad they were.

Emily Hodges, Carly & Martina Spiro, and Erin Kinsey from Songtown are all writing better songs at age 14 than I was writing in my 20’s. I was teachable and I worked hard. I have only average musical ability. So, when they tell me that songwriting can’t be taught, I just laugh and share my story. You can’t argue with the facts.

Write on! ~MD

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Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter and co-founder of SongTown.com

20 thoughts on “You Can’t Teach Songwriting: Fact or Fiction? A Pro Songwriter’s Perspective…

  1. I think what folks don’t understand is that you can learn skills that will help you with some writing. You can learn ideas of how to work with words and thoughts, and how those things can be put together in a way that will start to get your point across.

    In the end, that is not songwriting by itself, but it does give you most of the tools.

    At the end of the day there might be this thing that we all look at and call the “artist” part of it, which can use those tools and turn ideas and inspiration into a great song. Reality is that some will just be using the skills that taught/given, to just create some decent songs, but we all can use the skills, whether we are the artist who has it or the person who just wants to write songs as best they can.

    In other words, yes, you can teach songwriting, and to those who already have that special something, the learning if the craft can help them to become the full picture of songwriter they really need to become. For those who may not have that special thing, they can still write something decent and take enjoyment from it, expressing themselves through this wonderful art.

    Make sense?

    1. Yes it does, just like a guitar player can learn scales and licks, but to play inspired takes getting in touch with a deeper place. Sometimes that can be developed as well. But, many love learning and playing guitar for enjoyment and never worry that they are not the next Jimi Hendrix. Learning and finding enjoyment in art is a worthy pursuit.

      CM

  2. That is so awesome Clay! I remember when I was an art instructor at a private college, I would get so pissed at the school for enrolling students with the thought that they were going to be taught how to be an artist and get jobs. I was fired for expressing this thought.

  3. I feel I am talented, but I would not be writing, playing or singing this well without the studies!!

  4. I understand the parent’s frustration with the high cost of college tuition, somehow that’s gotta change so we don’t put this generation into debt. But rather than asking the Dean of the school, the parent could ask the daughter, “Hey would you consider going to a college that fits our budget, study Business or marketing and also become a member of SongTown to learn the songwriting craft from mentors and other artists like you?” Every problem also presents opportunities.

  5. You can learn to craft songs but some people are born creative and others are not. Music is like fashion. Just because you can sew don’t make you Versace.

    1. You are correct that people are born with varying degrees of creativity. I have to wonder, though, if we are all born creative but some have that nurtured and others have it squashed. I have seen some people who identified as “not creative” create some masterpieces. And I have seen some “creative geniuses” create crap at times. It’s a fascinating topic!

  6. If you bought every Songtown course and became a paid member I think your annual cost would be under $6,000 a year.

    And you’d be learning in tiny classes from people who’ve written hits and are getting cuts in today’s market.

    That’s a pretty great deal.

    The $20 a month membership is the biggest bargain of all.

    And I’m still a crap musician but I have cuts where I wrote most of the music so it seems that can’t be too much of a barrier.

    I can’t imagine I would have cuts if I hadn’t been a songtown member so long and learned from the masters teaching here.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Andrew! We try our best to provide the most comprehensive real world classrooms available.

  7. You either can make melodies and lyrics , or you can’t. But writing music is much more than that. It has to have a cord progression, chorus, rhythm, and, if you plan to market it, a time frame. This can be taught. My Son has a BS in music. He helps me with this. I am still working on transcribing for a band of multiple instruments of different chords. That is a challenge for me. But I am always learning more, new techniques used more often like drop D tuning, soloing using an open string, ECT.

  8. 120 grand – hmmm I have always wondered how an institution like Belmont (or whoever ) comes into the world of teaching songwriting – does the Dean suddenly wake up one day and say “hey there’s money in this and you there poetry teacher come up with a curriculum by next Friday – or else… we’ll get the English Prof to do it!” lol So I’ve often wondered what would be the perfect songwriting curriculum? When I hear about publishers “developing” a writer, I wonder – oh is there some secret knowledge I’m missing?? dang – maybe they’ve found the lost chord, or the pick of destiny?? Kidding Anyways, you guys at Songtown have revealed a ton of great awesome stuff, but come to think of it when art gets too institutionalized you get a lot of “educated” folks parroting what they just learned 2 weeks ago as gospel – so maybe it’s for the best there isn’t a perfect songwriting curriculum after all…Live and learn and write! cheers D.

  9. Thanks for the great article, Marty! I’ve seen this topic on other websites and forums and usually see the same typical responses with a lot of people saying “You’re either born with it or you’re not!” By the way they word their posts, it always seems like they consider themselves born with it, although I never recognize them as a famous songwriter and don’t see them talking about any cuts or great songs they have written. Anyway, I’m glad to see the responses here by fellow SongTown members.

    I’m not so sure anymore you even have to be “born with” any creativity at all, as I think we all are to some degree or another when it comes to songwriting. Also, we’re taught to read and think and we live through a lot of the same life experiences as everyone else, and we all listen to music throughout our lives. I think it’s way more how much we want to work at it and how we go about doing that. I do believe some people are more talented/find it easier to write than others, but you can improve on things. Also, even more importantly, it means there will be a wide variety of songs out there!

    I’ve tried to be good at guitar for a very long time (and can’t seem to do it – although some of this is restricted by my physical restrictions), but I’ve noticed something. For example, I don’t expect every guitar player/rock group to play like Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai. I love songs by the Ramones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I think they sound great! I can actually play all of their songs on the guitar, too. Does that mean they’re not as good songs or as good of a guitar sound as the others? I don’t think so. I love AC/DC. I think even people who love their songs will still say lyrically they are pretty lame. But I think a lot of them are very well written lyrically. They’re not trying to be Don McClean or John Prine. It fits their style. It’s like writing a great action movie vs a drama vs a romantic comedy.

    Anyway, that’s all from me.

    Thanks!

    1. Lon, The world has a long history of legendary artists from painting, sculpturing, classical dance to jazz guitarist, who all had protege’s that they taught the art and craft to. I don’t see songwriting as any different 🙂 IMHO ~CLay

  10. Prior to moving to Nashville 10 years ago I was taught songwriting by being a full-time musician and listening to great songs. That in itself is still a way of being taught. However, after being in Nashville just the first 2 years my songwriting went to a completely new zip code (both literally and figuratively). I studied with great hit writers like Jason Blume, Steve Seskin, Ralph Murphy and many others and was “taught” many new things. So I agree song writing, like any other skill can be taught but not just because someone pays a fee.

  11. I’m a big proponent of education and certainly understand that parent’s concern about the high cost of sending kids to Belmont. I should know, I sent mine there too. I’m an accomplished musician, married to a music educator and my kids are very talented as well, didn’t fall far from the tree. The education my kids got at Belmont could have been purchased at another college costing half as much. However the music business is about relationships. Sure my kids could have studied right here in their home state and been fine…but what they would have missed is….those relationships at Belmont in a music center that produces jobs, business partners everyday.
    . Those relationships will last a lifetime and perhaps get them that special job doing what they love. These are the intangible qualities of an education designed purposfully to that end. Life is a gamble, there are no guarrantees. You must act on faith and let God sort out the rest…just sayin’.

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