Songwriting Part 6 - Co-Writing

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

"…in any collaboration, (when) you start trying to write and that little voice in your head starts telling you immediately that all the ideas the other people in the room are suggesting are shit, intentionally try exactly what they're suggesting. Either you will be pleasantly surprised to find that someone else actually does have a good idea too occasionally, or you will be so convinced that you were right about that idea not working that they'll probably go in your direction when you tell them a different idea."
- from A Muse's Muse Interview with songwriter Alan Roy Scott, founder of Music Bridges & co-founder of UNISONG

In the last article, I mentioned a few things co-writers are good for. Namely, helping you to edit your songs, and to be your audience and support structure.

Until recently, I was not personally a fan of co-writing. After a few frustrating attempts, I had decided it just wasn't worth it.

But amazingly enough (to me, anyway), I have been lucky to find two co-writers who actually inspire (rather than hinder) my creativity. With thanks to them, I present the following, which I hope will de-mystify the collaborative process and turn you into co-writing converts!


Why co-writers are good to have around:
  1. Someone to be your guinea pig for your finished songs
  2. Motivation to get things done
  3. To supply the word that’s on the tip of your tongue…but you just can’t remember…
  4. To help you come up with a rhyme for "anarchy"
  5. To laugh with when you’re stuck
  6. Moral support
  7. To point out things that have slipped by you…repeated words, awkward phrases, rough chord progressions, etc. etc.
  8. You’ll still get writer’s block, but not usually both at the same time
  9. You’ll probably "hear" things differently, and can evolve from your usual I-IV-V progressions (or vice versa)
  10. Introduction to fresh new styles and ways of thinking
  11. Instant feedback
  12. A second set of hands to handle the business end

Everyone knows what it's like to write on his or her own. You write a lyric that you think is totally awesome, and there's no one around to tell you any different. You write a melody that sounds vaguely familiar, but you don't know if it's something you heard on the radio or something that you yourself wrote earlier. You have total veto over what you're writing (the only censor being your own personal taste). And I would bet that that's why few songwriters try collaboration. There's an attitude of "it may be rough, but it's ALL mine".

A successful co-writing relationship is built on diplomacy and respect. When you're done, the feeling can be "this is great, and I contributed to it."

Many songwriters don't want to try co-writing because they write both lyrics and melody simultaneously, and feel the flow from one source should not be messed with. Co-writing is a flexible deal, however. You can utilize a co-writer simply to do the final editing with you, you can bring them only the lyrics or only a bar of melody, or anything in between. You're the one who determines what you want from the relationship.

People are hesitant to co-write because they are afraid they will be forced to accept changes they don’t like, or worse yet, get laughed at. It can be a humbling experience to find out your great song isn’t really so great after all. However, there’s always the option of simply taking your song back. You don’t have to accept any suggestions that you’re really not comfortable with, and if you find you’re not connecting with a co-writer all you have to do is walk away. Politely.


Your co-writer should ideally be someone whose strengths are complementary. It's pointless, and frustrating, for two good lyricists to try to write a great melody; likewise, it is equally pointless for two melody writers to sit waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from each other's lips. No one benefits.

You want someone who looks at things differently than you do - who is able to understand what you’re trying to say, but can help you present it in a way that EVERYONE will understand. If you’re not good at coming up with bridges, then find a co-writer who is.

It's critically important that you find a partner who you connect with. It is NOT important that you both write exactly the same style of music, that you play the same instruments, that you are both single or both married with four kids, or even that you admire the same songwriters. What IS important is that you each find something inspiring - something you can respect - about the other's writing: whether it’s a cool lyric, a beautiful way with chord structure, a raw honesty.

And in a way, diversity between writers is a good thing! If two female guitarists who write angst-filled lyrics using suspended minor chords get together, they're probably going to write angst-filled minor toned songs. Now imagine an angst-filled female vocalist collaborating with a male keyboard player with jazz leanings and a dry witty lyrical sense. Whole 'nuther ballgame, isn't it?

The fact that you both come from different backgrounds is actually a bonus. You might think your lyric is sending an "I am woman, hear me roar" message, while your co-writer tells you that he's getting "whiny chick song" from it. A small adjustment could make your song more approachable from both sides.

Depending on what skill levels you're at on your respective instruments, you will probably have knowledge to exchange. The classical guitarist meets the country guitarist. Exposure to new chords, a different approach to building the chorus, new picking patterns, different meters…there's a lot you can show each other. What's standard to writer A can be completely fresh and inspiring to writer B.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, you actually have to approach someone…


This may seem like a daunting prospect, but co-writers can be found in odd and startling places, if you know where to look. Besides obvious sources such as the SaskMusic directory or website, you should make a point of attending jam sessions, songwriting seminars or demo critiques, and any place musicians (or musician wanna-bes) congregate.

The other not-as-obvious avenue to check is writers' circles such as the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild and locally published writer magazines such as Grain. A lot of songwriters write poetry (which can be considered lyrics without music), and there are also quite a few poets, with no musical background whatsoever, who may be interested in having someone turn their words into songs.

In the best possible world, your co-writer(s) would live just a short drive away so you can meet as the muse strikes. But even if your only communication is sending lyrics via email, you will benefit by being able to reach out to someone whose opinion you know you can trust.


When you've scouted a prospect for co-writing - i.e. you just heard their performance, their CD, or talked to them in a chat room - be smart. If the person is already in a co-writing relationship, they may or may not want to (or have time to) work with anyone other than their current partner. If they've never tried co-writing before, they may have to be convinced to give it a shot. However, unless you know them, you shouldn't just walk up and say, "How'd you like to co-write sometime?" as if you're asking for a date. It’s reasonable to assume that they will want to hear some of your material before making a decision to meet with you.

Ideally, you have a demo of your best song or two on cassette that you can pass on to them. It doesn't have to be a huge production, but they need to hear the main ingredients - lyrics and melody. Give them a lyric sheet as well. If possible, give them two songs that show your range (i.e. a ballad and a rocker), so you're covered no matter what kind of mood they're in when they listen to it. This way, you give the person a chance to listen to your material in private, and gracefully decline if they wish - without making it into a face to face "Wow, that's a great song, but I suddenly realized I don't have enough time to spare to work with you."

Don't be offended if those you approach turn you down. Finding a compatible partner isn't easy and it may take a long search before you do.

Once you've found a potential co-writer, agree to a probation period. If things just aren't clicking, they just aren't clicking! Meet for an initial session. Bring some material that you feel could use a little polishing, again in a few different feels. If your waltz isn't inspiring ideas, try working on the two-step. See how that goes. If you're both feeling particularly un-creative that evening, give it a second meeting before you throw in the towel.

You might write only one song together, or you may find the partnership to be so fulfilling and fruitful that you work together for many years, ala Elton John and Bernie Taupin.


When you're talking about the incredibly personal, soul-revealing and delicate process of songwriting, it can be tough to accept someone else's criticisms of your baby, or to suggest changes of someone else's material in a way that won’t offend.

Being able to communicate your ideas is essential to the co-writing process (and this applies to band situations as well!) Sometimes this can take hours of beating your head against the wall, but like any good relationship, it’s worth the work.

If you really don’t understand what your partner’s trying to say with a piece of music, make a point of asking. You need to understand exactly what the moral is before you can guide the song down the correct path, whether you’re trying to complete a lyric or find a complimentary melody. Figuring this out up front will save a lot of time and frustration. For example, "Is this song about a girl who’s mad at the guy who left her? Is she glad that he left, because he was a jerk anyway? Is she sad because she wants him back? Is it tongue in cheek, or is it a serious ballad?" Asking questions like this will make your co-writer think hard about what they really want from the song (especially if it isn’t really clear to them). Bash it out to the point where your partner is forced to find the right adjectives to describe the mood of the song!

Be proactive. If you’re bringing a song to a co-writing session for a particular reason - like you want to totally rework the third verse - then say that! If in the process you also come up with a better chorus, great!

Take a lesson from a teacher’s notebook and mention the positive before you start drilling. "That’s a great verse, but I think the transition to the chorus would be smoother if we cut the fourth line." Or how about "Your second verse is so strong now that I think we need to rework the third verse until it’s just as good."

When you’re making suggestions, remember that your partner has the right to refuse them. Gasp! State your point, demonstrate the change you’d like to see, give your reasons for it…then back off. If necessary, let them live with the idea for a few days and then take another look.

How do you accept criticisms gracefully? First, remind yourself that the reason comments are offered is to improve YOUR song. Unless you co-writer is intentionally trying to sabotage your co-written material (highly unlikely!), they actually believe what they’re telling you. Try and see what their point of view is, and keep asking what they mean until you get it.

Next, keep in mind that some people have very little tact. Your co-writer may not have developed good skills in this area yet, so don’t take everything he says to be quite as judgmental as it sounds. There’s no such thing as a perfect songwriter, so learn to accept that there may be room for improvement in your songwriting technique. Say thank you for their suggestions, even if you end up not taking them.

Some find that the focus gets scrambled when two writers collaborate on lyrics. You want to say this, he wants to say that. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to keep sight of whose song it was originally - if it's your concept, keep a clear picture of what you're trying to say. Explain your viewpoint to your co-writer so that they can help you present the message you intend, instead of a different one altogether. (P.S. If you cannot adequately explain the point of the song to your partner, maybe you should let them take the lead, because you've got a lack of focus.)

It's a general rule that he who came up with the original concept of the song - be it the lyrics or be it the melodic theme - gets the most power over its development. The melody will have to fit the proposed lyrics, or the lyrics will have to fit the proposed melody. This gives you a solid point of reference - in other words, a root thought - to keep in mind as the song evolves, or if it gets off track.

I’d like to give an example of how effective a co-writing partnership can be.

I had attempted to set a poem of mine to music. After several tries the song persistently sucked. I was ready to scrap the whole thing, although I still liked the lyrics, when I brought it to my co-writers and sheepishly sang it for them.

Within minutes, one of my partners had come up with a much more interesting chord structure and rhythm, which in turn suggested changes to the original vocal line and lyrics. Inspired by the new twist, I went home and wrote a third verse and a bridge.

We were pretty happy with the new arrangement, but found out during live performance that it was WAY too long...both for us and the audience!

Back to the drawing board. By now I’d gotten comfortable with hacking my songs to pieces when they really NEEDED hacking, so one verse was removed and we edited the instrumental breaks between each segment. The final version (at least for the time being) is two minutes shorter and quicker in tempo, which means you reach the hook faster in the first place, and return to it sooner.

Just one example where a song, which I thought was destined for the circular file, got a new life.

Should you bring finished songs to your partner?

You're got a song that you feel is very strong. There's not much (if anything) that you'd be willing to change. You're afraid that if you play it for your partner, they'll find something wrong with it. This, in fact, is one reason why people are afraid to submit their songs to demo critiques. They don't intend to take the adjudicator's advice anyway. (It's like avoiding the doctor when you suspect something is wrong. You'd rather be blissfully in the dark.)

If you’re dead set on leaving a song as is, make it clear that you're not looking for advice from your co-writer. On the other hand, they might suggest a change for it that you will absolutely love, and make the song EVEN better. So keep an open mind.

A side-effect of co-writing may be that you learn to be more objective about your writing, and more willing to take it back to the drawing board when need be.

No matter how many co-writers are involved in a song, the same rules apply. The more people you have contributing, the more ideas (good AND bad) you’re going to get. At some point you may want to take the song outside the group for a critique - just to be sure it doesn’t sound fragmented.


The sticky question of "how much each writer contributed to a song" is bound to come up at some point. It's recommended that share is determined early in the process.

In the case of an established team, there may be an up-front arrangement of 50-50 credit for every song written together, regardless of "who wrote what" for any particular song.

In a royalty situation (i.e. SOCAN), the lyricist gets 50% and the composer gets 50%. Chord progression writing is not taken into consideration. For example, if your partner sings a lyric she has written, and you lay the chords underneath it, you "technically" have not written anything. If, however, your progression suggests a change in melody that she adopts, then you should receive reasonable credit.

Things get complicated when you’re assisting your partner in the editing of a song. You may have suggested a change of word here and there, a slight melody adjustment in the bridge, or a revamp of the structure. In any case the relative importance of your edits must be kept in mind. Suggesting a new phrase that becomes the hook and title of the song deserves more credit than editing one non-essential word in the verse.

Also keep in mind that, without the original concept presented by your partner, the song wouldn't even exist.

Resist the temptation to say, "oh, I don't need any credit." If someone is offering you a percentage for your contribution, they are recognizing that it was valuable. (In other words, if the song becomes a number one hit and earns major royalties, will you be bitter?)

Assigning credit for songs that you think will never be released may seem petty, but it's far easier to do it immediately after the song is written, and prevent any misunderstandings should the song hit paydirt down the road. That song you wrote ten years ago may be picked up one day, and you'd be glad that you settled the financial nuts and bolts well in advance.


When sending lyrics to someone who's going to write the music, mark your lyric sheets clearly. This is a verse, this is the chorus, this is the bridge. (The structure is not always immediately clear to a composer who's looking at printed words, especially if you're collaborating across the miles.)

This also applies when submitting songs for a demo critique. It'll tell the critiquer what the main idea of the song is supposed to be, and give him the basis to guide you in the right direction if, for example, the part you’ve indicated as "the chorus" doesn't actually feel like a chorus.

Sometimes when lyricists are not musicians themselves, they feel unable to criticize the music that is presented to them. But while you may not understand technically what is going on in the melody, you should be able to express such things as

where you want the climax of the song to be (e.g. the third line of the chorus)
the feel you want for the bridge (e.g. change to a light melodic bridge in the middle of a driving rock song)
if there are any special details for phrasing - which word should be emphasized, especially if incorrect accents would change the meaning of the lyric.


"The one thing that appeals to me the most about songwriting is the fact that I will never learn all there is to learn about my craft."
- Shelley Jacobson

I suspect this isn’t the end of the story. In the meantime, if you have a co-writing experience you'd like to share with our readers, please send it in!

Any resemblance to actual situations is totally intentional. Copyright Lorena Kelly 1999.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published October 1999.

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