In a not too distant future, a guy walks into a publisher’s office with a bunch of recordings of his songs. He wants to know if anyone is interested in buying them. The publisher plays maybe 30 seconds of each song and then folds his arms and says, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you five dollars for each of these songs.” The songwriter sits there confused and asks, “But don’t I get a royalty deal or something? I mean how could you only offer me five dollars for each song?” The publisher says, “Because just about anyone can write a song these days.”
More people than ever are generally under the assumption that anybody can write a song. It’s become more salient through the Internet how many people are writing songs. The two dominant Publishing Rights Organizations, BMI and ASCAP (who collect performance royalties for songwriters when their music is played live, in a public recording, or on the radio), have members numbering 900,000 and 715,000 respectively as of May 2022. At the time, their combined catalogs contained a staggering 25.5 million songs. Of course, only a fraction of this total are songs that have become popular.
There are countless more songwriters who see no reason to join ASCAP or BMI but who have hired the services of a music distributor such as CD Baby to get their music onto streaming platforms like Spotify. Some simply put their music out there on Youtube or Tik Tok with little concern for performance royalties or publishing rights. If you explore the Internet in places like Reddit, you’ll see some of these amateur songwriters actually have quite a bit of talent. It’s enough to make you wonder: Can just about anybody write a song?
The question is fundamentally different compared to asking can anyone become a musician. Learning to play an instrument is at first a very mechanical process, a stage where if it’s too uncomfortable somebody will just drop it. However, if you progress you begin to learn more about music and how harmony and melody work. While to a great extent you rely on imitation, you begin developing an ear for music. You can use certain cognitive skills that facilitate the process (e.g., learning through books), or you might have an instructor. When you’ve put enough effort into it you become more proficient. You can play songs, but you won’t necessarily be able to write your own songs. You may know basics about song structure, but you can’t exactly put together chord progressions. It’s at this point many people experiment with original musical ideas, and that’s the start of becoming a songwriter.
So, the first part of the answer to the question, can anyone write a song? –is yes. It takes an effort, but even someone without much musical proficiency can likely learn to write a song. It might only be a very simple song compared to someone who has developed more musical proficiency and can likely write the kind of song many indie artists are releasing. The second part of the question is how sophisticated will your songwriting become? That depends on your goals and development as an artist.
There are simple songs. “Happy Birthday” is short and simple but still a song. The Guinness Book of World Records claims it’s the most recognizable song in the English language, and this is likely because of how frequently people have heard it. It has a practical use and it’s associated with tradition. Kids learn to love it (though I admit singing at birthdays was a little embarrassing for me). The song shows up in countless videos.
Compare this song to one that might be close but not quite as popular, “Birthday” by The Beatles. The song contains one of the first “riffs” I learned on the guitar, which I still recall was when I was in the 6th grade. It is vastly more sophisticated as a song. The familiar phrase the song opens with that has a dominant 7 structure repeats over first the I, then rises to the IV, then back to the I, and then goes to the V and resolves to the I –which incidentally is similar to but not the same chord progression in “Happy Birthday.” Then a new melody is introduced sung in-between the phrases. The song has several distinct parts and changes that are variations of the opening musical theme, one which only contains percussion, which was a great way to build tension in the song and then resolve it. The creative elements in the song demonstrate exceptionally honed songwriting skills. This is clearly not a song just about anybody could write.
However, a musician can likely create a song that sounds like “Birthday” after hearing it. it’s easier to create songs that sound like other songs than it is to create songs that sound more original. In fact, there’s a phenomenon in which some songwriters who hear a song that’s gained popularity write a song that sounds like it. Whether this is intentionally or unconsciously done, it appears to work because familiar sounding songs don’t conflict with what people expect from a song.
Contemporary cultural values can also bias a person’s impression of what to expect from a song. The Beatles were a dominant musical force in the UK, Europe, and the US when they released the song “Birthday” on The White Album in 1968 and still had a huge following. If a new band released a song like this today, do you really think it would become so popular? But even though the psychedelic era of the 60s has driven off in painted hippie vans for a permanent holiday, it doesn’t make the song less brilliant as a song. It means less people may want to hear it today.
Given its popularity I also wonder: Can someone who is not a musician create a rap song? Rap is unique in that instead of sung with specific notes and melody lyrics are more often spoken words with a rhythmic pattern, usually over a drum beat and/or a simple chord or arpeggiated harmony in the background. Rap artists sometimes come up with the rhythm pattern and the lyrics in an a cappella manner and may also perform it in this way, which they may refer to as a song even though some might argue it’s closer to a poem. So, when there is no melody, creating a rap song has unique qualifiers unlike songs that have a true melody, and a person who understands the rhythms associated with the genre and has a knack for creating lyrics can write a rap song.
If you ask someone who may be lacking musical expertise to put lyrics to a melody, the person might not be able to go beyond repeating the same note, which I’m not suggesting is inferior. Technically, it’s the simplest melody you can have in a song.
But God forbid I start writing about what is a “good” song. I’m only addressing the notion that just about anybody can write a song. I think it’s certainly becoming easier to become a songwriter, maybe even easier to become a good songwriter. These days many of the tools that were out of reach for most musicians in the past are readily available, including those that facilitate getting down your song ideas and that allow you to make great multi-track recordings of your songs. Technology has changed the way people write songs, and it’s changed the form of new songs that have become popular.
What about computers? Will AI technology soon allow anybody to write a song with the help of a computer? I’m sure with programming you can make a computer generate a song, but compared to songs created by those who have honed their craft as songwriters computer generated songs would likely be only the product of imitation derived from programming. But wait, didn’t I just write above that’s how musicians begin to become songwriters? -through imitation and basic understanding of music, song structure, etc.? I know there are people who insist computers can learn. Some can even write their own programs. But let me know when computers can respond to the human element we call “inspiration,” the thing that compels people to write a song and others to fall in love with it.