young man writing in a notepad

Mick Head © Mark McNulty

At the heart of many music-making activities is the practice of songwriting. The creation of words and music, lyrics and compositions is central to the creative processes of popular music. Although other forms of music exist (such as the instrumental, the dance 'track' or the various forms commonly used within classical music) the song has been the most common musical starting point throughout the history of popular music. This is probably because songs can be used for many different purposes and social settings and adapted to suit numerous musical genres. The combination of music and lyrics has almost infinite possibilities and can evoke a virtually limitless set of emotions, feelings and responses.

Words and music can combine to make us laugh or cry, feel happy or nostalgic,energised or melancholic. They can also encourage us to act in various ways, such as dancing or protesting. At their most powerful, songs can mobilise thousands or even millions of people to act collectively and change the world. Band Aid's 1984 charity single 'Do They Know it's Christmas?' generated millions of pounds benefiting people starving in Africa. Similarly in 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young described a violent clash between student demonstrators against the Vietnam War and the local police in their song 'Ohio', galvanising the counter-cultural movement to rally in support of the protesters.

These two examples lead us to think about songwriting in a more critical sense. For example, from where does a musician draw his or her inspiration? From other songwriters? Current events? Life experiences? And how does a songwriter translate these situations into musical form? These are all questions to consider in understanding how songwriting works in driving forward the creative processes within music-making.

But more than just a purely artistic endeavour, songwriting is also big business. In all their many forms, songs are also intellectual property. Their creators can be granted legal rights and privileges to exploit their works for use in things like film soundtracks, television adverts, mobile phone ringtones and even performances by other artists. Many famous musicians, such as the Beatles, have been at times unaware of the economic value of their compositions and have since lost millions of pounds.

In addition, songwriting is closely related to technology. In this digital age of music-making the way songs get written is undergoing tremendous change. Through developments like the internet, email and social networking sites songwriters can collaborate with other musicians across the globe and gain access to diverse musical influences without leaving their computer screens.

Advances in technology have had legal and sometimes controversial implications for songwriters. Today peer-to-peer downloading, sampling and piracy present important challenges for songwriters and the music industry.

Songwriters must operate in all of these worlds: the creative, the commercial, the legal, and the technological. Click on the following links to consider each of these in context, and begin to explore some the many processes that influence and shape the craft of songwriting.