Shelf help: 10 of the best books for songwriters

1 March, 2018 in Features, Gear

songwriting books

Shelf help: whether technical or anecdotal we have piles of books that we regularly turn to for motivation and guidance

In celebration of World Book Day, we share our favourite songwriting reads and also include several titles that you’ve suggested

The best professors, biographers and artists have the ability to enhance a reader’s own songwriting with their expertise and insight. Whether technical or anecdotal we have piles of books that we regularly turn to for motivation and guidance. In honour of World Book Day we’ve decided to share the 10 books we just couldn’t live without…


The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Subtitled ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self’ this international best seller has been in print since 1994 and provides a practical 12-week guide to unlocking your latent creativity and reconnecting with your muse. Cameron’s advice is rooted in bitter experience, but is delivered with care and optimism – she believes that anyone can unleash their own creative artist. Songwriters should find The Artist’s Way approach both simple and sustainable; her stream of consciousness ‘morning pages’, for example, are practically legendary. As New York singer-songwriter Todd Alsup told us, “When I’m in a writing groove, I try to get up early and do the Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way morning pages thing every day.”

The Craft Of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis

On the first line of the introduction, Davis says, “I’ve heard it said that lyric writing cannot be taught. I have discovered otherwise,” and she certainly gives it a damn good go with this book. Starting with the basic principles and running through the various song forms, before digging into the technique and tools of wordplay, each of the 24 chapters are forensic in their detail but manage to remain easily readable. The first edition dates back to 1985, and was revised in 1995, so don’t expect any modern references, but arguably the classic lyricists of the 20th century can teach us everything we need to know! Davis has also written The Songwriters Idea Book and Successful Lyric Writing, which are both superb.

Things The Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

It’s no secret that tragedy is often at the heart of great songwriting. Few writers have had quite as much to cope with as EELS frontman Mark Oliver Everett – including the heart-breaking deaths of his father, mother, sister and air-stewardess cousin (whose plane was hijacked on 9/11). If you’re already familiar with his band’s music then this book should deepen your appreciation, but even if you’re not the humility and humour with which Everett tells his story, and approaches his songwriting, is to be admired.

The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson

Unsurprisingly, the likes of Oxford, Chambers and Merriam-Webster all offer some sort of rhyming dictionary, but regardless of the publisher this continues to be an indispensable reference companion for poets, lyricists and songwriters alike. The Penguin title we’ve got here certainly does the job, with over 40,000 words laid out in the style of a thesaurus. Of course, there are plenty of websites that can do the same thing, but there’s something more organic about thumbing through the pages of a paperback, that makes it feel less like cheating!

Gypsy Dreamers In The Alley by Chris Gantry

If you look beyond its unconventional structure, essentially a series of Facebook posts which have been compiled into a lengthier missive, you’ll be met with a book that is all the kindling you need to fuel your own songwriting fire. Written in Gantry’s gonzo/ stream of consciousness style, he blends his musings on the art of songwriting (you don’t write songs, they write you) with tales of his time in Nashville in the 60s. It’s impossible not to be taken by his obvious devotion to the muse.

How To Succeed In The Music Business by Alex Batterbee

The industry has gone through some huge changes since this guide was first published in 1978, but for many singers, songwriters and musicians the business side of music is just as mysterious and unfathomable as it has ever been. Yes, you can find a lot of the answers with a search on the internet, but sometimes it’s just easier to have the essential information literally at your finger-tips, and this book has consistently managed to distill the FAQs into a concise digest. It’s quickly going out of date, and the 2008 edition includes info on electronic media and technology in music, but a lot of the publishing, copyright and management side of the music business hasn’t changed an awful lot.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

You might well know how a dream of scrambled eggs went on to become Yesterday, but this authoritative tome also goes into detail about every other song recorded by The Fab Four. Though it’s worth noting that Paul McCartney has disputed the accuracy of some of the content, it remains one of the most authoritative books written about The Beatles’ music. If you’re going to learn from anyone, it may as well be from the best band of all time.

Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

This book has been a staple for songwriters since its release in 1995, and for good reason. Pattison breaks down the technical elements of songwriting so that you’re not held back by your own limitations when a song ‘arrives’. Subjects covered include how imagery can increase a song’s emotional impact and the worth of inventive metaphors over the clichéd ones. By bringing together expertise, examples and exercises, this author has created one of the best practical aids out there.

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

As well as documenting his long-standing battle with depression, this autobiography also provides plenty of insight into the songwriting process of one of the USA’s most beloved artists. On the writing of the song Born To Run itself, Springsteen says, ‘Get yourself a great riff and you’re on your way,’ before describing the steps he went through to take the track from its clichéd origin ‘out on the streets of a runaway American dream.’ To hear how these songs came together, in the words of The Boss himself, is a vital experience for any writer.

Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo

By simply presenting a collection of in-depth interviews with a wide range of songwriters, all talking about their art and craft, this book was undoubtedly the inspiration for Songwriting Magazine. Zollo benefited from interviewing some of the American greats including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, Neil Young and Randy Newman, and it’s a pleasure to either read from cover to cover, or simply dip in and out. Having been expanded for the fourth time in 2003, the latest edition is a weighty tome that now includes conversations with the likes of Alanis Morrisette, Lenny Kravitz and Lou Reed.


Honourable mentions…

My Take by Gary Barlow
The Art Of Songwriting by Ed Bell
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
Song Forms For Songwriters by James Linderman
How I Wrote… by Songwriting
Broken Music by Sting


Your suggestions…




We’d love to hear about the books that have inspired your own songwriting. Let us know via the comments section below, our social media channels or email: editor@songwritingmagazine.co.uk