How to write songs (or create just about anything)

John Lennon and Paul McCartneyThere’s an important difference between most classically trained musicians and self-taught musicians that gives us an interesting clue into our creativity. It’s to do with the difference between prescriptive practice and trial and error…

Few self-taught musicians play classical music, they tend to play more popular styles. The reason for that is that classical playing is difficult and requires dedication and discipline that, in most cases, needs tuition to get right. Pop music on the other hand has few rules and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they are.

Most songwriters and music composers are of the self-taught pop music kind. In fact, being a self taught pop musician almost always leads to composition, whereas much fewer classical players write their own music. (Just about every fledgling rock guitarist has written a batch of songs within 6 months of learning to play. The average member of any orchestra, no matter how accomplished, may never put pen to paper).

The reason is that the two types of playing, or rather the journey that arrives at the types of playing, use different kinds of learning and result in different types of creative expression.

With the classical musician, the task is to master the instrument in the proper way, to learn the language of music to be able to read it and perform it with accuracy and then hopefully, with personality.

With a pop musician, the task is to knock out your favourite tunes to entertain yourself and others as quickly as possible.

With the classical musician, the task of learning heads towards perfection through practice. Mistakes are corrected and eventually eradicated.

With the pop musician, mistakes arrive quickly due to ignorance or lack of technical ability on how the favourite song should be played. But instead of correcting, some of these errors are kept in to give a deliberately imperfect performance of the song. Getting ‘the gist’ of it gives a much quicker result.

With the classical musician, the task of playing does not naturally lead to original composition whereas with the pop musician, original composition is the natural destination. When the pop musician strikes the wrong chord, or sings the wrong note or lyric and that mistake sounds ‘interesting’ they have, due to that mistake, become a songwriter.

The thing that first impressed Paul McCartney when he first met John Lennon when John was playing with his band The Quarrymen at the school fete on 6th July 1957, was that John clearly didn’t know all the words to the rock and roll songs they were performing and because of that he made new ones up that sounded roughly right. He was already a proto-songwriter.

The driving force for many pop musicians isn’t that different from classical musicians: they both start off wanting to perform a particular piece with perfection.

With Paul McCartney, he wanted to sound like his heroes such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. His early inadequacies meant that he could get close, but not all the way. Those performances that were close, but slightly different then easily became modified into new songs in their own right. They sounded similar to the inspiration but had a different personality. This inability of Lennon and McCartney to write songs exactly like their heroes is what gave us that amazing Beatle sound and those brilliant new songs.

As the sixties progressed and McCartney became such an amazingly proficient musician, he could replicate his favourite songs exactly and easily so had to draw upon new sources and methods to create new songs. You can hear the transition in 1965/66 with the songs like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. The reason he could move on to write in a different way was because of the way he had learnt to play, by trial and error. The resulting connections in his neural pathways gave rise to a whole new direction for his composition.

With a pop musician, most new compositions arise from the happy coincidence of unusual chord progressions, melody or rhythm combinations. This is because the way they learnt to engage with music was in a way that allowed errors, and, allowed those errors to be incorporated and developed.

In business we need to think more like the pop musician rather than the classical musician. Our aim is not to aim for a prefect rendition as an end in itself, but to aim for perfection as a method that throws up interesting diversions that could very well lead to a fantastic innovation.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

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7 comments on “How to write songs (or create just about anything)

  1. Ayd – Another brilliant piece where you help break down the barriers to creativity. This kind of discussion is going to help people unleash their creativity.

    Watch out for CAKE! – The Secrets for Success, a book I’m writing ( and if I keep people knowing about it it’ll get out sooner!!) which takes a look at aspects of life and business through the love, design, creation making and baking of …… CAKE! This was partly inspired by your crdeative appearance at a Peter Thomson Creativity workshop in March this year.

    keep on trucking!



  2. Ayd, you are absolutely spot on. Observation 1) I wanted to read your discourse till the end = result… 2) I opened my laptop to find a guitar teacher and stumbled across this = confirmation to book my first lesson…3) permission not to be perfect = you are so speaking my language! When I present I often talk about how we no longer ‘have a go’ just for fun… my theory is we can have experts in our homes 24/7 so people are put off trying. To always strive for perfection leads to serious psychosomatic disorders (in everything including business). So excuse me whilst I call that guitar teacher….. just for fun


  3. excellent article and spot on. Technicians vs. Creatives. Managers vs. entrepreneurs. Players vs. winners. Breaking or ignoring the rules is what maxs the performance/story etc – sticking within the “law” simply makes sure you don’t get into trouble – it’s not a winning strategy.


  4. Hmmm, there are plenty of pop writers who are proficient musicians (Diane Warren for one). As a songwriter myself I don’t think it’s as black and white as you put it here, nor do I feel you understand songwriting fully. McCartney although not being able to read or white music to this day, was brought up on classical music which led to his melodical expertise. Let’s not forget that McCartney was/is a pop musician which kind of contradicts your arguement here.


    • Sorry Galvin, I don’t see the point you’re trying to make here. So I believe my argument stands. But you needn’t worry about my understanding of songwriting, I’ve written 500 songs since I was 15, I must have learnt something. But of course I’ve painted it all in black and white – to use it as a metaphor. In a short article as this the aim is to create contrast in an example. Thanks for the contribution.


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