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Songwriting 101
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How to Write a Great Song
by Chris Sannino (Former Front Steel Road Band  WB Records)

My friend Ken, at Allure Artist Management, asked me to write an article for the songwriter's resource section of his informative website entitled ďHow to write a hit songĒ.  Since I donít have any hits, and even though he feels many of my songs are hits, it struck me that it might be difficult for anyone to take it seriously, so I changed the title to what you see at the top of the page.  Every songwriter thinks they have a few great songs; Iím in that group, and I suppose I can get away with writing on the subject because some others think so too.  Real people, in and out of the music industry, but since this article isnít about me or my bio, Iím sparing you those details.  I think what is below is much more usefulÖ..

tís not all about your great songs.  Songwriting and hit songs require a lot of elements to come together.  Elements like connections, timing, and often luck; things that, unless you are established, you should seek people like Ken to guide you through.  Iím here for the writing part of it. This isnít going to be a step by step  workshop, but more a brief, simple - and I think essential -  guideline on how to approach it if you want to be happy doing it. So with no further preamble, here you go:

Learn the basics


Picasso could draw recognizable faces. He isnít known for it, but he did it very well because he studied the basics of form, composition, color etc.  He started at the beginning, and then he became Picasso.


Remember arts and crafts? Thatís songwriting, and you need the basics to help you with the craft part. Study the basics.  How?  Listen to whatís successful; figure out its structure; listen to how phrases Ė musical and lyrical Ė are structured   You can go on line and find any number of free songwriting guides which will quite correctly spell out the construction of successful songs.  Songs with big choruses, songs with tag lines, verse/chorus/bridge combinations, rhyme patterns, chord patterns, etc. Itís all good stuff to know Ė necessary stuff.  Donít worry, it doesnít mean youíre doomed to be formulaic, but you do need to understand structure.  And donít forget: those formulas became formulas because they work.

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Music.  Itís not a bad idea to learn a little about it.  That may sound like stating the obvious considering that we are talking about the music industry here, but letís face it, most of us pick up a guitar, learn a few chords and start calling ourselves musicians.   The more you know, the more youíll be able to transmit what youíre hearing in your head to music.  Accordingly, the more fluent you become at your instrument the better, and more versatile youíll be at getting out your message.  So practice.  Write little ditties; learn new ways of playing things. Really be what you say you areÖÖ.      


So learn all that, but not until you canít enjoy what youíre listening to anymore, then put it in the back of your head and donít think about it anymore. These are the things youíll fall back on when you need them.




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Donít Forget the Words


This could actually be in last section on the basics, but it deserves its own space because itís among the most basic things you need to know about songwriting.  The words are the song. Youíd be surprised how many ďsongwritersĒ donít understand this basic concept and just throw any old thing in that fits.  All of your beautiful melodies and clever chord patterns are fine, they are there to set the mood; they are there to grab the attention.  But most people donít understand what youíre doing.  In most cases, people remember what youíre talking about.  They hear the words. (Thatís why when a song doesnít have words, they call it an instrumental.)  Think of songwriting and the song as fine piece of jewelry.  The music is the setting, the words are the gem.  How well they intertwine and compliment one another is the measure of your writing.


Work on the words.


Know who you are


Distinguish between being an ďartistĒ, and being a songwriter.



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I know, youíre both, but for our purposes hereís the distinction: if youíre in it to do what you do and donít care who does or doesnít like your stuff, and youíre happy for the pure artistry of it, go to the last section, if you even got this far.


If youíre kind of on the fence and hung up about ďselling outĒ, either find out how to be happy being an artist, or get over it. (Remember that your favorite artists are your favorite artists because they sold something.  It really isnít a sin). 


If you want to be successful as a songwriter in the competitive world of the song business youíll need to recognize that it is just that Ė a business, and a tough one, and youíll need to be flexible. And you donít have to stop being an artist for this, in fact you canít. The difference between you and the ďartistĒ mentioned above that youíre simply taking the extra effort to make your art more accessible.   


Get tough Ė if you canít stand rejection, stop reading this and go to a trade school.



Be realistic


Itís not all about your great songs (sound familiar?).  They donít automatically become hits Ė and may never.  Thatís the reality of the business.  What makes a song great is subjective and debatable; and in the real world a song is only as good as itís perceived by the listener.  Everybodyís different. How people hear and what they need to hear is different Ė embrace this.


The decisions makers Ė the ones you need to help you - listen with their own taste just like everyone else, and they may just not get your great song.   Thereís very little you can do about that.  Donít think youíve failed because someone didnít like your song. Accept it, and in those times when it frustrates you, realize that the subjective nature of listening to songs will also work in your favor at some point.  Thereís always hope. 


Get tough Ė if you canít stand rejection, stop reading this and go to a trade school.




Get opinions - and listen to them.


Play your songs for people before you submit them anywhere.  If youíre a performer, try them out in front of an audience.  Thatís probably the best way Ė impartial people reacting honestly to what they are hearing. If youíre a studio person, get your CDís and mp3ís out to your friends Ė and donít listen to the ones that always tell you youíre great. They mean well but are not helping you. Find the ones who give you real feedback; find out if it moves them, and why. Do they want it on their play list?  And use the on-line places Ė is a good one - where you can become part of a community which listens to and comments on music. It will also help you, by the way, to comment on other peopleís songs Ė makes you think about it a little.


Beware of critiques that get too technical.  Your friends are not qualified for that, and you canít assume strangers are either.  Go for what moves people and leave the technical comments to the pros.


Hereís the big thing on getting opinions:  listen to them.  I know how it is to have worked hard and long on a song and know itís a winner only to get a mediocre Ė or worse Ė reaction, and then come to the conclusion that everybody is wrong. Theyíre not.  You may well have written a good one, but if it isnít getting to the people on the street, it isnít likely that itís going to impress and industry professional. Get over it and write something else.  If youíre happy with what you wrote, keep those masterpieces in your back pocket for that occasion which might come up which calls for exactly that song.  Remember Ė thereís always hope, but move on. 


A note on editing:  Once I get to a certain point with a song, I find this very hard to edit.  I canít remember the number of times some producer or publishing person has asked me to redo a verse, add a bridge, or just generally say that it needs something different somewhere. Sometimes Iíve rejected the idea, and other times Iíve managed to rework a few tunes for the better.  The point here is that, while you do need to get opinions and suggestions, ultimately youíre the boss.  Youíll think some songs are right Ė and when you do, donít let other people make you doubt yourself.  But also be open to reworking them Ė the exercise is good.  It makes you reach for more. Thatís good. Whatever you decide to do you have to be comfortable with what you write, not lazy, but comfortable. Be decisive, but be open because, like us, songs often have to evolve.


Now you can become PicassoÖ.




You know all those people who you think can get you somewhere and just tell you to be true to yourself; to do what you feel; if youíre honest it will come?  And you think theyíre patronizing you when you just want a little help?  Well they probably are, but theyíre also right.  Letís give them the benefit of the doubt and say that what they really mean is this:


Great writing is about reaching people, talking about things they can relate to.  As much as you think youíre unique, youíre probably not.  You feel the same things everyone else does, and the more clearly you can communicate those life sensations in a song, the more people will relate to what youíve written, and the more potential for success youíll have.  The listeners donít necessarily have to have had the same experiences, but if you say it right, theyíll get it.  The irony is that the more you really are like everyone else, just going about your life, the more theyíre likely to appreciate your songs.  The more you just write about what you know, the easier and more effective it becomes.  This is your art Ė this is where it can be about you.  You take what youíve learned about technique and structure, whip it up, you pour yourself into it.


Just live, and write about what you experience. Your goal is to become unique in your ability to communicate it.


So relax, donít try to think about what people want to hear. Think about what you want them to hear. It may be from real life; you may dream it all up, but you have to be comfortable with it.  You have to live with it.  And most importantly please protect your work.  Don't make the huge mistake of exploiting it when it's not protected.  If you are lucky enough to "Write A Great Song" Register your Copyright.  Or you could be very sorry later.  I truly hope I have provided some helpful songwriting tips for you and your songwriter's career.


about the author >>

Chris Sannino is a singer-songwriter with a ton of published works including a few with top publishing companies such as Warner/Chappell, and Famous Music (Paramount) to his credit.  In the early days Chris fronted the band ďSteel RoadĒ signed to the Warner Bros. label.  Today, he continues to dabble in songwriting and also heads the Entertainment Department at the Borgata Casinos in Atlantic City New Jersey after a 20 year run at Harrahís Casinos..  For more information on Chris and to review some of his more recent songs visit his website at


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