Adam Schlesinger - 5 Things I've Learned About Songwriting

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I write songs for a lot of different things, and in a lot of different styles. When I was starting out, I thought I had to pick one style because it seemed like that’s what songwriters are supposed to do. But I loved many genres of music (as do most people), and eventually I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to choose one and eliminate the others. Now one of my favorite parts of the job is switching gears and getting to collaborate with all kinds of different people. My songwriting process stays pretty much the same no matter what I’m writing for, or what genre of music I’m working in. What changes are the parameters of each project. 

1. Think About Who Will Be Singing the Song Before You Write Anything

I never write songs in a vacuum without knowing who will be singing it. The personality of the singer informs the attitude of both the music and the lyrics. This applies whether the singer is a fictional character or a real person. Even if in the end, someone else ends up recording it, the song will have been shaped by the personality of the singer I originally had in mind.

2. Understand the Assignment

Ask a lot of questions if needed. And if there isn’t an assignment, create one. If I’m writing for TV or film or theater, the assignments are often really specific in terms of style and tone and tempo and what the song needs to say. If I’m writing for an artist, or even for my own band, I try to define the assignment for myself first before writing anything.

3. Deadlines Are a Good Thing

Any creative work takes the exact amount of time that you are given to do it. Meaning: if something is due Thursday, it will get done by Thursday. If you have two years to finish a project, it will take two years. Deadlines make you get things finished. I try to give myself deadlines even for things that don’t really have any due date so that they actually get done.

4. Take Breaks for Perspective

For me, working on one song for hours and hours at a time isn’t usually isn’t as productive as working in shorter spurts and coming back to it with fresh perspective. I try to get enough going in the first session to sketch out the basic idea. Maybe there’s a melody and a hook phrase or a few solid verse lines. I usually need at least a few days to have a final version of a song, but it generally turns out better that way than if I force myself to write it all in one shot.

5. Learn from the People You Work With

No matter how many songs you’ve written, you can always learn something new from someone else’s approach. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and everyone has their own bag of tricks. And even a singer who’s not a co-writer can give feedback and perspective that helps make your song better.

Adam Schlesinger is a songwriter and producer. He is a member of the band Fountains Of Wayne, and also writes songs for film, television and theater. He has won two Emmys and a Grammy, and has been nominated for Oscar and Tony Awards. He is currently working on new music with the band Fever High, and writing and producing songs for the TV musical series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW). For more info, visit