Shelf help: 20 of the best books for songwriters
To celebrate World Book Day, we share our favourite songwriting reads that we regularly turn to for insight and inspiration
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 frequently rely on for motivation and guidance. In honour of World Book Day, we’ve decided to share the 20 books we just couldn’t live without…
The Lyrics by Paul McCartney
For years, the likes of Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald (see above) have been doing a more than respectable job of chronicling the stories and creative process behind the songs of The Beatles, but nothing compares with hearing it from the Macca’s mouth. In two sumptuous volumes spanning McCartney’s career with The Beatles, Wings and his solo output, this is the kind of book that you’ll return to again and again, each new read reaping further reward. Whether a casual Beatles fan or a devotee of deeper cuts like Magneto And Titanium Man, you can’t help but be inspired by one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century.
Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb
One of the classic songwriting tomes, Jimmy Webb is a songwriter worth listening to – if you don’t believe us then his presence in both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame should do the trick. Throughout this book, Webb breaks down his process, offering practical advice on everything from overcoming writer’s block to the use of chords and how to write strong lyrics. Webb’s mantra is summed up very early on in chapter one, “Most amateurs do not regard the writing of songs as serious hard work… In reality, however, songwriting is Hell on Earth. If it isn’t then you’re doing it wrong.”
Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage by Tori Amos
Tori Amos has always been an artist’s artist, someone who follows the Muse wherever it takes her. Like a slightly more poetic version of McCartney’s book, Resistance (something of a belated follow up to 2005’s Piece By Piece) weaves lyrics and stories about how many of her songs were created with biographical fragments and passages trying to make sense of the world around us. By understanding the inputs, both sought and absorbed, the reader gains a full understanding of Amos’ output. More than that, it’s a clarion call for the brave and bold truth-tellers, a manifesto on how to stand up for what you believe and how songs can be a strong part of that armoury.
How To Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy
When a book is dedicated to “all of the songs to come” you can safely assume we’ll be on the same page. The legendary Wilco songwriter/frontman turns poetic tutor here as he tries to find a way to teach people how to write songs – realising that the best way to write songs plural is to write a single song (and then another and then another…). By dissecting both why and how into inspiring anecdotes and practical exercises, the ethereal becomes eminently doable. Such is their impact, many of the points made by Tweedy can easily be extrapolated and applied to other creative endeavours.
It Takes Blood & Guts by Skin
From her early days growing up in Brixton to the beginning of her music career in small London pubs before eventually fronting Skunk Anansie, one of the best British bands to emerge in the 90s, Skin’s is the story of a gay, black, working-class girl with a vision who fought poverty and prejudice to write songs. As Skin herself says in the book’s intro, it’s a story about, “the fits and starts, wrong turns and giant mistakes, along with the hilarious and magical moments that it took to get to the top of the tree.” It’s a rousing tale of how talent, when backed with true grit, will always find a way.
How to Build a Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams by Emily White
The workings of the music industry may change at an exponential rate these days, but there’s still plenty of worth to be found in this publication from 2020. Presented in order, from song creation to release, this book is full of practical advice for songwriters looking to build a long-term career. Its main strength is in showing the many new platforms available to musicians and advising how to make sure you’re not missing out on revenue that may be owed to you. With its step-by-step approach and methodical approach, this is the kind of guidebook all songwriters need in the modern day. White has also turned the book into a podcast, with each episode providing valuable advice on the music industry in 2022.
Songteller: My Life in Lyrics by Dolly Parton
If you want to be the best, it’s a good idea to learn from the best and this insight into the world of Dolly Parton should be a key part of any songwriting syllabus. Containing personal stories and deliberations on 150 of her songs, including Jolene, 9 To 5 and I Will Always Love You, it’s part history lesson on the country phenomenon and part songwriting dissection by an artist who has sold over 100 million records worldwide. It doesn’t end there, this book also includes never-before-seen photographs and classic memorabilia from Parton’s life of many colours.
The Word Rhythm Dictionary: A Resource for Writers and Rappers, Poets and Lyricists: A Resource for Writers, Rappers, Poets, and Lyricists by Timothy Polashek
The rhyming dictionary has long been a great ally to the songwriter, but what about a rhythm dictionary? Getting the rhythm of your lyrics right can be just as important as choosing the right words and Timothy Polashek’s book can help you do just that. A practical tool that allows you to look up a word and find collections of other words that have the same rhythm, it also correlates additional properties such as phonetic similarity, number of syllables and syllable stress patterns. Whether you’re looking for traditional rhymes, near/slant rhymes or metrical matches, this book will help you to take your lyric writing to the next level.
The Daily Song Journal/Song Journey by Mark Cawley
Though we might like to think that fully formed masterpieces just land in our laps, deep down we all know that it’s only with dedication, hard work and practice that we form the habits needed to write great songs. Thankfully, friend of the magazine and successful songwriter Mark Cawley has come up with a year’s worth of bite-sized inspiration, motivation and prompts to help form those habits and coax the best out of your writing. Best read in tandem with his earlier book, Song Journey, there’s also plenty of space on the pages of this diary for you to set out lyrics, chords and other ideas.
Saved By A Song by Mary Gauthier
This memoir by the Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier is another book that mixes personal tales and life philosophies with a deep dive into the songwriting process. Chronicling Gauthier’s early love of music, decade-long struggle with addiction and eventual redemption through songwriting, it’s an honest and heart-warming account of a life turned around. Like the best songs, it’s a brutally honest and private tale that has universal relevance. Not only that, it’s the kind of meditation on songwriting that makes you want to pick up a guitar and give it a go for yourself.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Subtitled ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self’ this international bestseller 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 that 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 fingertips, and this book has consistently managed to distil 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.
OFF THE CHARTS: WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY ALMOST FABULOUS LIFE IN MUSIC BY KAT GOLDMAN
HOW TO WRITE A SONG (EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER WRITTEN ONE BEFORE AND YOU THINK YOU SUCK) BY ED BELL
COUNTRY MUSIC’S GREATEST LINES: LYRICS, STORIES AND SKETCHES FROM AMERICAN CLASSICS BY BOBBY BRADDOCK
STRANGER THAN KINDNESS BY NICK CAVE
ONE LAST SONG: CONVERSATIONS ON LIFE, DEATH, AND MUSIC BY MIKE AYERS
MY TAKE BY GARY BARLOW
CHRONICLES: VOLUME ONE BY BOB DYLAN
SONG FORMS FOR SONGWRITERS BY JAMES LINDERMAN
HOW I WROTE… BY SONGWRITING
BROKEN MUSIC BY STING