Songwriting in a open field
A post by Chris Whiting (Songwriter/Producer at 
and PHD in commercial songwriting at Newcastle university)

Songwriting: How we create songs?

Previously, I have described the nature of the creative process as social act demonstrated through a systems model (What Does It Mean To Be Creative?) and in this article I am going to dig a little deeper into the creative act of songwriting itself. How does the songwriter make her decisions? What knowledge is at play? Who is influencing her decisions? And how?

This article is concerned with commercial songwriting, which I define rather broadly as songwriting that seeks to communicate and connect with an unknown other.… and so the songwriter gathers her notepad, pencil and guitar, and settles into her safe space where she does all her writing.

But why has she felt provoked into writing this song? The ‘pure’ artists among you may cry out that she could be in love or turmoil, and must express her emotions through the majesty of song. The jobbing 9-5 songwriters will probably say she’s received a brief that says an artist or music supervisor requires songs for a big payout.

The commercial mind

The commercially minded artist (as a mediated position between the two previous) might say that she’s just heard an amazing song from an admired artist and now she’s feeling inspired to write a new song of her own to share with her fans.

Each of these polarising positions has its own agenda: the pure artist is seeking to express and, possibly, come to terms with their own feelings; the jobbing songwriter intends to write a song that will have a strong connection with the listener; and the commercial artist is attempting to express an emotion that is shared between herself and her listeners. Each of these positions are seeking to make an emotional connection but with varying degrees of strength between the songwriter and the listener.

Caveat: none of the positions are better than the others. Each of them has value but their value is contingent on being true to the songwriters intentions. i.e. if the songwriter’s intention is to make money and they only write songs for themselves, these will be of less value; or if the songwriter wishes to make artist expressions of herself but is writing music for radio jingles, she will feel less value in her work.

Do we have a connection?

The significant difference in these positions is the degree of connection to the listener. When we wish to connect with a listener we have to take into account their expectations, as a very broad example, when we are about to hear a song we expect lyrics, melody, harmony.

If we pursue this expectation even deeper and we are about to hear a singer-songwriter ballad, we expect acoustic instruments, narrative verses and heart-on-our-sleeve- choruses, or, if we are about a dance track we expect thumping sampled kicks, 808’s, arpeggiated synths, etc. Genres and styles come with their own expectations so that a listener can say ‘I recognise this as a … style track’.

This is what is referred to as ‘structure’, pre-determined characteristics which we use as the building blocks of our art. These are essential in the commercial practice as they signpost who this track is for, its intended market.

Where is your creativity?

However, alongside structure is ‘agency’, which is our scope to change or alter the given structure; in other words, our creativity. Our pure artist can allow herself absolute agency and could, for example, smash her guitar against the wall and scream Welsh swear words, but most will impose a degree of structure on themselves and write something that conforms to a broad definition of song.

Whereas our radio jingle writer would not be permitted to apply 12-tone serialism in her work. As previously discussed (in What Does It Mean To Be Creative?), we are always seeking to be creative by making something that is ‘new, surprising, and valuable’ (Margret Boden, The Creative Mind, 2003), and so we must flex some of our agency within our work. It can be a simple throwing together notes and words in a combination that has not yet been used before; it can be combining two previously separate genres of music e.g. Baroque/Hip-hop; or making an entirely new sound (seldom achieved as most ‘new’ genres are derived from previous genres).

The potential audience

And so it is that knowing the potential audience for the song is crucial to making decisions on how to balance structure and agency. The songwriter has to know the audience and what they expect, and what they will tolerate. For example, a Radiohead fan will tolerate a lot more creative freedom in a song (agency) than a child watching a Disney musical (Disney have some very specific and clever structures of their own).

This knowledge of the listener is what I call The Imagined Audience, and you have to be able to imagine how they will react to your songwriting decisions. As the pure artist writes only to express themselves they will know the audience extremely well as it is themselves.

The jobbing songwriter can be quite distant from her audience and will rely on her knowledge of currently successful songs that she is competing with and possible market research (if she’s lucky enough to have access to this). And the commercial artist will have cultivated her own audience whom she will, hopefully, have a strong relationship with so as to know how they will react to her work.

My take away points from this article are: know what your intentions are and working towards these; and make sure your song makes a strong emotional connection to your intended audience.


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