Are you a budding songwriter? Or have you spent years honing your writing skills and talent? Whether you are new to songwriting or an experienced professional, it is always good to take inspiration from others. In this article, we will detail our picks for the top ten best songwriters of all time. We will also take a look at the best songwriting duos out there and examine what makes them special, and how they can inspire your work.
So, what makes a great songwriter?
The answer to that question is a number of things! A great songwriter is always willing to learn and try different techniques. After all, just applying what you already know could halt your creativity. Plus, we are at our most creative when we are exploring new things. This applies to observing the world around you, as you can garner inspiration from people in the park or coffee shop all day. You never know what inspiring situation you could stumble upon!
Having an innately curious nature is encouraged in creative types, especially writers and songwriters. Ask yourself why, what, when and how when you are considering a situation and get to the root of it. After all, that is where the emotion lies. Finally, great songwriters can appreciate different perspectives and opinions. Put simply, they can look outside their own world view and put themselves in someone else’s shoes in order to achieve lyrical depth.
So let’s take a look at some of the best songwriters of all time…
Bob Dylan has had an incredible impact on popular music as we know it today. The American singer-songwriter’s early songs became huge hits for others. For example, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (performed by Stevie Wonder) reached number 9 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. Dylan also had success himself with songs like Rainy Day Women and Subterranean Homesick Blues.
He didn’t bow to traditional conventions, and this is epitomised by the six minute single “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965). Rolling Stone wrote that “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.” Dylan wrote in his memoir ‘Chronicles’ that “You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.”
Politics influenced his songwriting immensely, and Dylan educated himself on the past to create lyrics that have resonated through the years. Dylan wrote that “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” saying that “they’re like strange countries that you have to enter.”
Smokey Robinson has gone down in history as one of the greatest songwriters, particularly in the Motown and R&B genre. His innovative lyrical ideas combined with his unique melodies make his writing easy to spot.
Robinson landed his first hit song with the Miracles’ “Shop Around”, and went on to great success. He also penned Marvin Gaye’s famous “Ain’t That Peculiar”, and had huge success writing for the Miracles, gaining a number of Top 20 chart hits.
Take his distinctive lyrics “Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage / The love I saw in you was just a mirage”, for example.
Lyrics like these have led other famous artists to reign praise upon him. Bob Dylan called him “the greatest living poet”, and Paul McCartney said “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.” Smokey told Rolling Stone that his “theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea, and tells a story in the time allotted for a record,” and “it has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.” It is not only easier to write lyrics when they mean something to you, but also the music will be more meaningful, and your fans will be able to connect more.
I have no doubt that you will recognise many of Ed Sheeran’s songs that he has written and performed. But what you may not know is that he has written for many other artists (primarily in the pop genre). He wrote Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”, One Direction’s “Little Things”, Hilary Duff’s “Tattoo” and too many more to list!
Sheeran takes inspiration from his life, and you would be hard pressed to find a song of his that doesn’t have a deeper meaning behind the lyrics. He has described songwriting as “laying yourself bare,” and sometimes “coming out with ideas that might be quite embarrassing.” The artist said that it works as a therapeutic process for him, and that he has stopped himself “going mad by writing songs.” He is also known for taking inspiration from the world around him. S,o get out there and start observing – you never know when inspiration will strike!
Eminem has a talent for wordplay and lyrics like no other. He has an incredible talent for creating memorable sing-along choruses, as well as mastering his intricate rhymes. His fast-paced rap style and innovative lyrics have made him one of the best-selling best singer songwriters of the 21st century.
Let’s look at these lyrics from Lose Yourself:
“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy / There’s vomit on his sweater already: mom’s spaghetti.”
This is arguably the most famous and quotable line of his entire career. He is allowing his lyrics to speak for themselves; telling the listener a story and successfully setting a clear scene. He has told Rolling Stone that “Even as a kid, I always wanted most words to rhyme. Say I saw a word like ‘transcendalistic tendencies.’ I would write it out on a piece of paper and underneath, I’d line a word up with each syllable: ‘and bend all mystic sentence trees.’ Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do to practice.”
As the movie biopic ‘8 Mile’ based on his life shows, he also frequented rap battles to help perfect his freestyle lyrics. This is a great tip for rap artists, as attending events like these can help you hone your skills.
Taylor Swift has written and recorded an incredible amount of songs. Beginning at a young age, she wrote songs about the world around her and her experiences growing up. She told fans on her Red tour that “I write songs about my feelings. I’m told I have a lot of feelings.” She is arguably famous for writing songs about her love life, in particular.
Her first three albums focus on the country genre, but more recently she has been writing pop songs. Take a listen to her masterful “Red” album to get inspired by her music. Whatever genre of music she writes, she knows how to tell a story through her lyrics. In fact, almost every song feels like its own mini story. Take a leaf out of Taylor’s book and look into your own life and feelings and take inspiration for your songs. Keeping a diary or journal of your thoughts and feelings can help you create meaningful lyrics.
Now it is time to check out some of the most famous songwriting duos out there. Let’s discover what makes them special…
‘Lennon-McCartney’ represents the songwriting partnership from two of the world’s most famous musicians. Any songs written by them jointly or individually would be credited as such, and there were plenty to credit!
Between 1962 and 1969, they produced 180 songs. These were mostly recorded and performed by the Beatles themselves. In fact, this famous songwriting duo’s partnership would go down in history as one of the most successful collaborations ever. As of 2004, the Beatles have sold over 600 million records worldwide, and this number still continues to rise.
In a pertinent quote,John Lennon once spoke of their relationship, stating that “He [McCartney] provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.” This is important, as it highlights that in a songwriting duo, you don’t need to agree on everything. In fact, it makes things more interesting if you don’t! They brought out the best in each other, and that only comes from listening and challenging each other creatively. Their song “Yesterday” is in the Guinness World Records Book as being covered by more musicians than any other song. Writing a song that can easily be covered is another great way to get your music out there.
One of the most famous songwriting partnerships of all time, this duo has lasted over fifty years! Taupin has created ingenious lyrics to songs such as “Candle In The Wind”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Rocket Man”, whilst Elton composed them.
Did you know that 33 million people bought “Candle In The Wind” (the song dedicated to Princess Diana) in 1997? It has now gone down in history as one of the biggest ever selling songs. Indeed, Elton himself once admitted that “without Bernie Taupin, there would be no Elton John.” Their friendship and collaboration have helped make their songs what they are today. This is due to their open and honest working relationship, with Taupin describing them as a “team.”
Even if you don’t recognise these names, you are sure to recognise the band they were in: ABBA. This is the Swedish pop/rock supergroup that rose to incredible levels of fame. The band was founded in 1972, and while they are no longer making music, together they remain one of the most popular bands in the world. The band was made up of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, with their first letters of their names making up the group’s name.
Andersson and Ulvaeus met whilst out on the road, and didn’t look back as they began to write hit after hit. They had 18 number 1 hits worldwide, and some of the most memorable include “Dancing Queen”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “Super Trouper” and “Waterloo”. The band is known for its arrangements, melodies and harmonies. They broke up in 1983, but their music is just as popular today as it was back then.
So, what is the secret behind their staying power? An obvious reason is that their songs are universal, as they can speak to us all in some way. Their lyrics feel personal and memorable, just look at these lyrics from “Waterloo”:
“I was defeated you won the war / Promise to love you forever more / Couldn’t escape if I wanted to / Knowing my fate is to be with you / Finally facing my Waterloo.”
Their lyrics live on, and even inspired the hit show “Mamma Mia”. In an interview with Music Business World, Benny Andersson offers advice for budding songwriters: “If I knew what it was, I would go straight there Monday morning, but it doesn’t work like that. Maybe it is the same for everyone who creates, every painter, every writer… you need to sit there, you need to keep going, you need to wait for ‘it’ to happen.” So, take inspiration from your own life, and see what masterpieces you can come up with.
This American husband and wife songwriting duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson are famous for writing songs that belong to the Motown genre. They have worked with some of the most famous artists in the world, such as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross.. I am sure that you will be familiar with some of their biggest hits, such as “I’m Every Woman”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”.
They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame back in 2002. Not only did this duo cement themselves as fantastic songwriters, but also as one of the best singer songwriters, as they have had successful recording careers themselves. Remember the song “Solid”? Yes, that was them!
Their most famous songs all have a super catchy chorus that will be stuck in your head all day! Take the chorus for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, for example:
“’Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough / Ain’t no valley low enough / Ain’t no river wide enough / To keep me from getting to you babe.”
Creating a catchy chorus will help you to be remembered as a songwriter, although you don’t need a catchy or memorable chorus for every song you write as the song might not call for it.
This American songwriting duo are famed for writing famous rock and roll hits, such as “Hound Dog”, “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock”. They have written a whopping 70+ chart hits in total! The duo were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985.
Their songs have been recorded by some of the greatest musical artists of all time, such as Elvis, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and more. Stoller said that “We simply made records that we wanted to buy ourselves,” and this is a good tip to take away – if you enjoy your song, then chances are that others will as well! Authenticity is key.
So, there we have it – some of the best songwriters of all time! Listening to their songs or even just reading their lyrics could help to inspire your own songwriting. After examining these songwriters, it becomes clear that they all look inwardly and examine their own lives and the lives of those around them to discover inspiration, and you should consider doing the same.
Top Tip: keep a journal or a diary nearby and record your thoughts and feelings, as this could help to inspire future lyrics. Being able to take criticism and suggestions regarding your work will help you to grow as a songwriter, but also don’t be afraid to push boundaries like the songwriters we have talked about here, or employ the help of songwriting apps. After all, there is a reason that they stand out as some of the best songwriters of all time!
So, now that you have some inspiration to get songwriting, we want to help boost your career and get those songs noticed, including promoting your music and improving your streaming presence! Also, check out our Sync opportunities page to get your music in TV and Film. Try it out for free today by signing up or clicking the button below