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Q&A: How do I make a living out of songwriting if I can't play an instrument?
By Mary Dawson - 10/06/2001 - 05:11 PM EDT

Dear Mary,

I don't know if you can help me in any way, but I am looking for some advice about songwriting. I have written about 30 songs (they are sort of country/folk, but even this I don't know for sure) over the past few years because I enjoy it so much. However, I know nothing about the music industry and am wondering what to do next. I am a voluntary counsellor (which means I don't get paid) but would dearly love to make a living out of songwriting if that was in any way possible. Without money, or the ability to play an instrument, is this an unrealistic dream? Any advice you can give me would be welcome. Sincerely, -- DeeDee

Hi DeeDee:

Thanks so much for your email. Your question is a very common one among aspiring songwriters who dream of "making a living" doing the thing they love most -- writing songs.

The short answer to your question is very positive. It is completely possible for a person of limited musical ability to become successful -- and even very rich as a songwriter. In fact, Irving Berlin, who is considered by most people to be THE songwriter of the 20th Century, could neither read nor write music. In fact, he could only play the black keys on the piano! And yet...he was the composer of such amazing and still popular songs as White Christmas and God Bless America.

The skill of writing hit songs is NOT the same skill as being proficient on a musical instrument. In fact, there are many fine musicians who do not write at all. The skill of the songwriter is one of COMMUNICATION -- knowing how to put into words and music an emotion that millions of other people can identify with and own as "their song." Hit songs are usually very simple musically (they have melodies that ordinary non-musical people can whistle or sing), and they have very "visual" lyrics that engage the listener's imagination.

If you can sing your songs into a box recorder -- so that both words and melody are represented -- you can then send that rough work tape to a producer/arranger who can create a fully produced recording of your song. The essentials for the songwriter are WORDS and MUSIC. These two elements are the "non-negotiables" of a great song.

Having said this, however, I want to hasten to add that learning to craft hit songs that really "communicate" is an art form that needs extensive study and practice. I would suggest that you start by reading some great books that will help you to understand such basics as song form and hooks. Some of my favorites are:

The Craft and Business of Songwriting -- by John Braheny (Writers Digest)
The Craft of Lyric Writing -- by Sheila Davis (Writers Digest)
Six Steps to Songwriting Success -- by Jason Blume (Billboard Books)

Another great suggestion is to join your local songwriters association. Most mid to large size cities have them and they are an incredible source of information and inspiration for the aspiring songwriter.

By all means, keep writing and pursue your dream. That's the only way any songwriter ever reaches the top!

Sincerely, -- Mary Dawson

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