The Vital Importance Of Co-Writing


In today’s music market all successful songwriters co-write and a huge percentage of successful artists also co-write songs with other songwriters.

The advantages on the surface are pretty obvious…you write more songs, you write different songs than what you would by yourself and you have more fun because you’re not writing by yourself.

So why is it that co-writing with 2, 3 even 4 or more songwriters is the standard among professional artists and songwriters but so many amateurs have so much resistance to it?

Let’s Look At The Objections Many Amateurs Have To Co-Writing First

Objection 1: “People want to “steal” my good ideas or songs.”

The reality: Only GREAT songs get recorded by major artists and labels and if you’re an amateur who’s only written a handful of songs you have a whole lot of work to do before you start writing great songs (3-10 years of hard graft).

It should be your goal to write a song good enough for someone to steal!

Stealing of songs is incredibly rare anyway. If you’ve written a great song then publishers and labels are more interested in YOU because you’re a potential source of a whole stream of great songs.

The great song is the foot in the door. After that they want to build a relationship with you and see if you can write a whole lot more.

Finally ideas are a dime a dozen.

It’s not the idea that makes a great song…it’s the execution of that idea.

No one is sneaking around trying to steal your idea. They’re just not that valuable without a whole lot of work, skill and rewriting to turn them into great songs.

And the people who have those kinds of skills and work ethic have a whole pile of ideas of their own and don’t need to steal yours.

Objection 2: “I Only Want To Write With People Who Have Hits”

It’s great to write “up” if you can and get with an artist or a songwriter who already has a proven track record but here’s the reality of that situation.

If you’re an amateur then the pro is going to immediately notice your less developed skills and will have to work much harder to get around them and write a good song.

After the first time they may not want to write with you again simply because they have better options…with their track record they can write with songwriters and artists who have more skill.

If you’re starting out or you’ve only written a handful of songs it’s a great idea to write with other songwriters who are also working on their craft so you have a chance to grow into the co-writing process.

There’s also a much more important reason you should co-write with everyone around you right now…

The People You Know Now Will Become Hit Makers In The Future

In your local area there’ll be a small core of people who are working hard developing themselves as artists or songwriters.

A small percentage of these will go on to write hits. Some will go on as artists to have hits themselves.

Some will end up being producers or radio show hosts.

Some may leave town and end up in the music industry in other roles as an executive, an A&R person, a song plugger, a receptionist at a music publishers…

Some of the people you know will lead you to serious opportunities in the future…if you’ve given them some skin in the game by co-writing with them.

By Co-Writing With Everyone You Can You Dramatically Increase Your Chances Of Building A Key Relationship That Takes You To The Next Level In Your Career

Nashville is the world’s capital for songwriters with an estimated 5,000+ songwriters who’ve had a top 10 hit.

There they call co-writing the “Nashville handshake”.

In Nashville they understand that co-writes at every level can lead to huge opportunities in the future.

If you’re an artist the principle is the same. The ambitious songwriter you co-write with today now has some skin in the game.

He wants to see you become successful because that increases his chances of having a hit song with you.

And when he has a hit with another major artist he might recommend one of your songs, recommend you as a support act for that artist, introduce you to his new publisher or to the artists A&R friend from a major label or lead you to any number of other valuable contacts…

These are all the kinds of things that happen every day…for the artists who do a lot of co-writing and have taken the time to build those relationships.

It’s Gonna Take A LOT Of Songs…

Here’s another reality of the music industry most amateurs aren’t aware of.

Let’s look at the US country music market as an example…

The average country artist on a major label will listen to over 3,000 songs choosing the 15 or so songs they take into the recording studio to make an album.

If you’re an artist you need to write and co-write a whole lot more if you want to compete at that level on the radio (it’s not pretty or artistic but getting radio play is very much a competition with the other songs being pitched to radio at the time).

Put simply you need a much larger pool of songs to choose from so you have more GREAT songs the radio stations will want to play.

If you’re a songwriter and you want your songs cut by artists your chances go up enormously if you’re writing with the artist. They’re far more likely to record a song they’ve co-written.

And again that means writing with a lot of artists who might be in your local area now (or even co-writing on Skype) and letting time, ambition and just plain hard work do its magic for you.

Co-Writing Appointments Force You To Write

Left to our own devices most of us will write a few songs here and there with random levels of commitment based on how we feel at the time.

But when you book co-writing appointments your commitment level to songwriting goes up in a huge way.

With just one co-writing appointment a week you’re potentially increasing your songwriting output by 50 songs a year (all that co-writing adds up).

A good co-writer will also work on songs and demos when you’re not around (as you will for them) and that means you’re getting a whole lot more work done that will help move your career forward.

Finally and most important of all…

Songwriting Is A Low Cost/High Return Investment Of Your Time

If you’re an artist nearly everything you do is expensive…recording, touring, creating merchandise, buying instruments and sound gear.

Songwriting is one activity that costs you almost nothing but the potential return is huge.

The more songs you write the more likely you are to write a great song and the more songwriting you do the more you develop your songwriting skills…which increases your chances of writing a great song too!

And as I’ve already covered in this article…co-writing songs also helps you expand your contacts and the potential future key contacts that can take your career to another level.

This article gave you come insights into why professional songwriters and successful artists go out of their way to do a lot of co-writing.

Now it’s down to you to take some action with this information. Go write a song with someone!

Are Your Rhyme Schemes Boring?

Most songwriters when they’re starting out rhyme the word at the end of one line with the word at the end of the next line right through the song.

The problem with this rhyme scheme (rhyming in couplets) is it can get repetitive and boring for the listener.

Also using a different rhyme scheme in the verses to the rhyme scheme you use in the chorus is one of the methods you can use to get more contrast between the sections.

One of the most important rhyme schemes new songwriters can master to make their songs much stronger is the
AAB CCB rhyme scheme.

Put simply you rhyme…
1. The last word of the first line(A) with
2. The last word of the second line(A)
3. The last word of the third line (B) rhymes later with the sixth line
4. The last word of the fourth line(C) rhymes with
5. The last word of the fifth line(C)
6. The last word of the sixth line(B) rhymes with the last word of the third line.

Listen to Who I Am by Jessica Andrews…

If I live to be a hundred(A)
And never see the seven wonders(A)
That’ll be alright(B)
If I don’t make it to the big leagues(C)
If I never win a Grammy(C)
I’m gonna be just fine(B)

The chorus of Who I Am also uses an AAB CCB rhyme scheme but the rhymes are further apart creating contrast between the verse and the chorus.

I am Rosemary’s granddaughter(A)
The spitting image of my father(A)
And when the day is done
My momma’s still my biggest fan(C)
Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy(B)
But I’ve got friends who love me(B)
And they know just where I stand(C)

The distance between the rhymes can also make a big difference to the overall feel of a song.

When the rhymes are closer together you might get a more “pop” feel like the verses of Who I Am.

With the rhymes further apart you might get a more anthemic feel like as the verses do in my first #1 hit with Benn Gunn, Only In Australia…

Where that wedge tailed eagle, soars over Ayers Rock(A)
At the MCG, with the crowd going off(A)
Driving that track, cross the Nullabor Plains(B)
Playing backyard cricket, the beer running free(C)
While that hills hoist spins, in the cool ocean breeze(C)
And lightning strikes, out on Byron Bay(B)

When you reach the chorus of Only In Australia the change in rhyme scheme the long notes breaking from the staccato notes of the verse and repetition of the phrase “only in Australia” creates a huge contrast between the verse and the chorus…

Only in Australia(A)
In the land of green and gold(B)
Only in Australia(A)
In this place that we call home(B)
Only in Australia(A)

You can also expand on the AAB CCB rhyme scheme by adding in more rhymes as Bruce Springsteen did in his song Blinded By The Light…

This song is actually an AAAB CCCB rhyme scheme but at it’s core it’s still the same rhyme scheme with a couple of extra rhymes added.

Madman drummers(A) bummers(A)
Indians in the summer(A)
With a teenage diplomat(B)
In the dumps(C) with the mumps(C)
As the adolescent pumps(C)
His way into his hat(B)

With a boulder(A) on my shoulder(A)
Feelin’ kinda older(A)
I tripped the merry-go-round(B)
With this very unpleasin’(C)
Sneezin’(C) and wheezin(C)
The calliope crashed to the ground(B)

Some all-hot(A) half-shot(A)
Was headin’ for the hot spot(A)
Snappin’ his fingers, clappin’ his hands(B)
And some fleshpot(C) mascot(C)
Was tied into a lover’s knot(C)
With a whatnot in her hand(B)

And now young Scott(A) with a slingshot(A)
Finally found a tender spot(A)
And throws his lover in the sand(B)
And some bloodshot(C) forget-me-not(C)
Whispers, daddy’s within earshot(C)
Save the buckshot, turn up the band(B)

Note how the start of the chorus in Blinded By The Light really soars when you get a relief from all the heavy rhyming and short staccato words and notes in the first to long notes and less rhymes in the chorus.

This makes the chorus much more memorable and singable. If you watch when the song is played live you’ll notice most audience members will sing the first line of the chorus…”blinded by the light”.

When listeners sing along to the chorus of your song they take ownership of it…it becomes part of them…and that’s definitely something you want.

The AAB CCB rhyme scheme is often used in the chorus too. You can see some great examples of this in the 20 Bar Power Chorus

Old School Riff Writing

I was watching this fantastic video of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing the classic song “Never Can Tell”…

As Bruce was singing the riff to the horn section something I heard a couple of years ago from a veteran hit songwriter came back to me.

He said earlier in his songwriting career he noticed several times when he was writing or in the studio recording demos with veteran songwriters that they would experiment writing riffs by humming them.

Now keep in mind these guys are Nashville songwriters. Many of them are great guitarists. They could play a great riff just fine.

But when he asked they explained to him that a riff has a better chance of sticking in your head if you can sing it easily.

That’s certainly the case with the riff in this song.

That also gives you an alternative way to come up with musical riffs in your songs…hum them or sing them.

Song Ideas On Overdrive

How important are song ideas?

Hit songwriter Brett James once said once you have 2 or 3 competent songwriters in a room writing a song:

Most mediocre songs are mediocre because the song idea was mediocre.

Most good songs are good because the song idea was good.

Most great songs are great because the song idea was great.

So if you want to write great songs you need to start with great song ideas.

How do you get a steady flow of great song ideas? By writing down a massive pile of song ideas.

Hit songwriter Marty Dodson, go founder of SongTown is known as a great song idea guy. Early in his career he would spend 2 days of the week finding song ideas and 3 days of the week co-writing songs.

Having great song ideas got him into the room with some heavy hitters in the songwriting world.

One suggestion Marty gives is to write down at least 10 new song ideas every day.

There’s some magic in that. When you write down 10 song ideas a day that gives you 70 a week and over 300 song ideas a month. Out of those it’s pretty certain you’re going to hit some pay dirt.

And you’ll always have a song idea you’re excited to write about and a huge pool of song ideas to draw from when you do a co-write with another writer or an artist.

How do you come up with 10 song ideas a day?

Here are some methods that work for me:

Catching Ideas That Are Flashing By You Every Day
Constantly looking for song ideas in the things people say, the things you read, what you see on television or in a movie, on signs, bumper stickers…everywhere you go.

And make sure you have some way of recording your song ideas everywhere you go. I have multiple notebooks and a pile of pens in my car in the glovebox and the console. I have notebooks and pens in my office, in my living room.

I try to remember to carry a notebook wherever I go but if I forget I know I can walk into any place that has gambling (plenty of those in Australia) and use their Keno pencils and forms or walk into a bank and use their pen and a deposit slip. In the past I’ve walked into a supermarket or newsagency and bought a pen and a notebook to write down a song idea.

I never let a song idea escape me.

Actively Listening To Other Songs
I stay current in musical charts by listening to songs that are charting.

I actively listen to those songs looking for lines, parts of lines or phrases I can tweak to turn into a different song idea that’s hot.

I might also mishear a song line or simply get an inspiring idea from listening to music this way.

This is a really powerful method for getting ideas. I can usually get 10-20 ideas in an hour this way.

Describe A Song In A Sentence Method
This works surprisingly well.

You can listen to a song or go through lists of songs you know fairly well from any time period and any genre.

Describe in one sentence what the song is about. Often you’ll find in the description a phrase that makes a great hook for a completely new song.

Here’s an example. The old classic song “As Time Goes By”.

My description would be: “Time moves on but love stays the same.”

I could use that as a song idea by itself. I might also draw two song ideas out of that: “Time keeps moving on” and “love stays the same”.

Spinning Song Ideas
As with any other song idea I’d write those down and I’d try tweaking them to see what other ideas I can spin off those phrases.

Love stays the same
Love never changes
My love never changes
My love stays the same
Love is a game that never changes
and so on.

I don’t sweat it trying to come up with something brilliant. I’m just looking for volume because I know if I do enough of this I’m going to come up with something great.

When I spin off ideas like this I still only count the original idea towards my 10 song ideas for the day so my 10 song ideas might actually end up closer to 50 or more.

Book And Movie Titles
There are some real gems for song ideas in book and movie titles. You can find directories of both online with a google search.

Quotes From Movies And Books
You can google famous movie quotes and book quotes and find some good ideas there.

Movie Trailers On YouTube
In movie trailers they try to compress as much cool stuff as they can into a minute or two and that includes the cool things the actors say in the movie.

Often you can pick up some great ideas from those YouTube movie trailers.

Horse Names
This one is a bit unusual. Often horses have some really cool names that make great song titles.

You can search horse racing results or you can look for horse names at a site like this

The Bottom Line
When you start doing this consistently every day your mind starts changing because you’re exercising the song idea muscles in your brain and turning your subconscious into a song idea heat seeking missile.

It simply takes doing the work.

Now go get started writing 10 song ideas.

The Competition For A Songwriter

Songwriting is incredibly competitive if you want your songs played on the radio.

Let me give you an idea of just how competitive it is.

Here’s a listing from a publisher looking for songs for a successful US country artist:
“I need songs that are as fresh, original, and unique as they get, while still being radio ready. Undeniable, ‘Song of the Year’ smashes, with award winning potential. Engage me through the whole song; don’t make me turn it off after the first chorus because I already know where it’s going to end up. Story type songs that have the best shot at saying something that I haven’t already heard 5 times this week. No bro country, and no stock melodies that I can sing 10 other songs to.”

This listing reveals how high the bar is for songwriters. If you can’t write a song of that quality then you’re not even going to be able to play the game.

So that’s the first step…being able to write a fresh original uptempo song that’s good enough to win Song Of The Year.

But that’s just the beginning because that artist and his camp will be listening to around 3,500 songs to choose the song he takes into the studio.

For this one break out smash they might listen to 500 different songs to choose one they think is right.

And those songs will be almost entirely from professional songwriters who had some kind of connection to the artist or someone in the artist’s camp or some connection with a publisher who has access to the artist.

The pro songwriters are co-writing usually with 2 other professional songwriters…often with the artist too. That dramatically increases their chances of getting a cut with that artist.

So once you can write a truly great song you’re competing with songs the artist has written with professionals, songs the artists friends and other contacts have written, songs written by professionals being pitched by publishers and their professional song pluggers.

To really stand out you’re going to need some astonishingly great songs and you’re going to need to build some contacts in the industry.

Ideally write with artists who are on their way up and build relationships that way too.

With only one in ten artists signed to a label having any success even that is a crap shoot.

It can be intimidating and humbling to realize just what you’re up against. It really is an incredibly difficult and competitive field.

But you should also remember that every month hard working, talented songwriters break through and get huge cuts.

Co-Writing Songs On Skype

Co-writing songs on Skype opens up a whole world of different songwriters to you…literally.

Because I’m in Australia and I have co-writers in the USA I’ve had some experience with using Skype to co-write and these are a few of the things we’ve developed.

First writing on Skype is way more time efficient…no traveling required.

There are 8 other advantages and things you might consider:

#1: It’s easy to record a full Skype session with inexpensive software like Pamela or Evaer.

#2: If you create a Google document for each song you can both access the same document and write down lyric ideas etc as you go in real time right there on your computer.

#3: When you create a work tape note the time on your recording of your session so you can find it easily later.

#4: Be aware of your time zone differences and any daylight savings changes of those time zones. It can pay to Google “time now in Nashville” or whatever town it is your co-writer is from. It can get tricky if you do a 3 way co-write on Skype and it’s best to be on top of any time differences.

#5: Different people might have different opinions but I’ve found things start to drag after two hours on Skype so I usually aim for 2 hour sessions or shorter when I co-write on Skype. It is easier to do more frequent, shorter Skype sessions because you don’t have to worry about travel time.

#6: There are sound limitations. On Skype it’s really difficult for one person to play guitar and the other person to sing at the same time for example. You might want to be aware of that with the way you write and the types of co-writes you set up. If you’re doing lyrics and the other writer is doing melody that works well. Taking turns singing will also work. I can sing and play just fine but on Skype I usually stick mainly to lyric writing and giving feedback on melody. I let the other writer do the melody. That means on Skype I’m looking to write mainly with melody writers.

#7: Because of time zone differences in Australia that limit our available times to write my co-writers are aware I’ll probably write stuff into the google doc when we’re not together (ideas for second verse, lyric rewrites etc) to make the process faster. I’m also okay with them doing that. This is not standard co-writing etiquette and that’s something you might also be aware of. When you change the way you co-write you may also consider being more flexible with tweaking the way you normally do things to make things run more smoothly and effectively. If you do that it’s really important that everyone is on board with it.

#8: When we write on a Google doc we keep everything we’ve written there…every idea, every lyric we discarded with rewriting etc. We have the current best lyric near the top of the document and everything else is just pushed down the page. This really comes in handy when you’re looking for ideas or an earlier lyric you changed.

Andrew Cavanagh Demos

Here are some cool demos and cuts from Australian songwriter Andrew Cavanagh you might enjoy:

#1 hit on the Australian country charts with Benn Gunn
Only In Australia (broke the record for the longest run in the Australian Country Singles Chart)
Benn Gunn/Andrew Cavanagh

I Got The Boat
Benn Gunn/Andrew Cavanagh

We Can Be Mates (#13 on the  Australian country singles chart)
Benn Gunn/Andrew Cavanagh

We’re From New South Wales
Benn Gunn/Andrew Cavanagh

Country Music Makes Me Thirsty (US Version)
Kevin Rowe/Andrew Cavanagh

Country Music Makes Me Thirsty (Australian Version)
Kevin Rowe/Andrew Cavanagh

Take One More Shot
Kevin Rowe/Andrew Cavanagh

Fireworks & Whiskey
Kevin Rowe/Ben Krahne/Andrew Cavanagh

Made In Australia
Marc- Allen Barnette/Andrew Cavanagh

Made In Australia Music Video

I’m A Queenslander
Andrew Cavanagh
Now a single with Australian artist Benn Gunn raising donations for the Cyclone Debbie Appeal…

Real Heroes
Andrew Cavanagh

A Life That Ain’t Lived
Andrew Cavanagh

Cowboys Don’t Call 911
Andrew Cavanagh

Let’s Just Kiss
Marc-Alan Barnette/Andrew Cavanagh/Christine Parri

These 2 songs were written as a project for fabulous Australian singer Christine Parri…

Is That Too Much To Ask (finalist in the Vanda & Young songwriting competition)
Marc-Alan Barnette/Andrew Cavanagh/Christine Parri

3 Lyric Rewriting Tips

There’s a saying amongst pro songwriters.

Great songs are RE-written.

One of the huge things that separates the amateurs from the pros is the polishing pro songwriters do on their songs.

Here’s the bottom line. If you want your song played on the radio you really need it to be better than nearly anything else that’s being pitched to the radio stations you want to be played on.

And that means really taking re-writing seriously.

There are a whole pile of different factors you might consider when you re-write a song. Here are 3 lyric re-writing tips that should help you take your songs to another level.

1. Compare Each Line To The Song Hook

Your song hook (often the last line of your chorus) ties the whole song together giving it a coherent theme.

Go through your song and see if each line makes sense if you say your song hook after it.

This will help you to get your lyrics really tight and on theme.

Let’s do it with the monster US country hit and Grammy winner “Live Like You Were Dying” so you can see what I mean.

The first line is…
“He said I was in my early 40’s with a lot of life before me” Compare that to the song hook “Live like you were dying” yes indeed that works.

“I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays, talking about the options and talking about sweet time” “Live like you were dying” Yes again. Tightly on theme.

“Asked him when it sank in that this might really be the read end. How does it hit you when you get that kind of news.” “Live like you were dying” A big yes again.

“What do you do?” “Live like you were dying” Another huge yes.

“I went sky diving” “Live like you were dying” Oh god yes.

“I went rocky mountain climbing” “Live like you were dying” A monster yes again.

You can listen to the whole song here and finish this exercise yourself…

2. Do Your Lyrics Have Specific Detail?

Ideally to bring your song to life every line in the song should have really specific detail or elicit some serious emotion…or both.

Specific place names, numbers, specific details draw your listener in and make your song more engaging, believable and relatable.

In the same song Live Like You Were Dying writers Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols didn’t write “I rode a bull”.

They used detail and wrote “I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu”.

This is brilliant detail. A very specific amount of time, the specific number 2.7 seconds.

And it wasn’t just a bull it was a bull with one of those crazy names they give their star bulls “Fu Man Chu”. A very specific name.

That kind of line is like ear candy. It really gets your attention and draws you into the song.

Go through every word or phrase in your song and ask yourself “Is this specific enough? Can I change this to add more specific detail and make the line really sparkle?”

Often you’ll hear a song at a songwriters night and hear one line in that song that is just pure magic. It’s just full of imagery and detail. It just works.

You probably have them in your songs too.

What you want to do is go through and make all of your lines sparkle like that great line you’ve already got.

This takes a lot of work but you do get better at it with practice.

3. Do Your Lyrics Have Emotion?

Again every line of your song ideally should have detail or elicit emotion or both.

This takes a little more thought because generally speaking you want your strongest emotions in your chorus and ideally if you have emotion in the first verse it should be even stronger in the second verse and stronger still in the bridge.

Again in the song Live Like You Were Dying notice how the last lines of the chorus deliver deeper emotions.

At the start of the chorus you have the fantastic imagery of this guy going crazy jumping out of aeroplanes and getting tossed off a bull in the rodeo.

And it’s just wild crazy abandon.

Then the writers deliver a whole different emotional depth to the song with the lines:
“And I loved deeper and spoke sweeter and gave forgiveness I was denying.”

Not a whole lot of specific detail there but man do those lines pack some emotional punch when you put them in the context of the major song hook “Live like you were dying”.

You don’t have to start out trying to be so sophisticated with your songwriting. You’ll grow into that and it will become second nature after a while.

To begin with when you’re re-writing you can just go through each line and ask yourself does this line have specific detail or emotion?

If it’s emotion you’re shooting for in a line ask yourself “Will this line make people really feel something or can I make it deliver more emotion? Is the emotion I’m trying to deliver coming through loud and clear?”

Here’s a rundown of 3 ways you can rewrite the lyrics in your song:

  1. Compare each line to the song hook.
  2. Does each line have specific detail (you want detail or emotion in each phrase or line or both).
  3. Does each line have emotion (again you want detail or emotion in each line or both emotion and detail).


Simplicity In Songwriting

In this short video master songwriter Craig Wiseman points out that most of the great songs we listen to and love are incredibly simple 2 chord or 4 chord “crap”.

Watch to the end because he demonstrates how simple songs really are playing just two notes (one note at a time) on the piano and gets the whole room singing along.

Bottom line: songs just aren’t that complicated. If you can get people to sing along…you win.

Repetition In Your Chorus

This is an interesting question…”should you repeat your hook in the chorus?”

In country music there’s a danger if you repeat your hook too many times without a good reason to do it you could dilute the effectiveness of that hook and increase the “burnout” rate of your song (the rate at which people get tired of hearing it).

But there are some masters of using repetition effectively in a chorus to make it more singable.

Multiple hit songwriter Marty Dodson uses repetition in choruses brilliantly.

Here’s one example…the song “Fire It Up” performed by Johnny Reid from Canada…

Notice how the chorus is written so anyone listening who has never heard the song before can sing along after the first chorus.

Also notice how the hook isn’t just repeated. There are lyrics before each repeat of the hook to make it more interesting, engaging and emotionally powerful.

And her heart said “fire it up”
And her soul said “fire it up”
And her mind said “fire it up”
And let love live again

That’s some serious songwriting craft there.

You can get more advanced songwriting tips from Marty Dodson at