Songwriting: How Songs Are Born

I was digging through our garage last night in preparation for a garage sale this weekend. We have boxes in there that haven’t been opened since we lived in Tennessee… 3 moves ago.

In one box, I found a notebook with some extremely old scribbling inside. One of the pages turned out to be the notes I had taken at a songwriting class taught by the late, great Gary Miller. I’m guessing it was at an ACMS/Acafest circa 1994. The notes were not in depth. It was mostly bullet points and a short overview of the thought. Still, I felt it would be a good thing to share. Gary was a fabulous songwriter and I always enjoyed writing with him.

So here, in it’s brevity (with personal reflections) are the notes I rediscovered.

Songwriting: How Songs Are Born

Main Points:

  • Keep a journal. Remember “I Can Only Imagine” by Bart Millard. (I assume he was referring to Bart’s journaling experience after his father’s death, which led to the song itself).
  • Tune in. Keep your antenna up. Part of a songwriter’s job is to find and retrieve inspiration.
  • Listen to what people of God say when they pray or praise. It shows you how they feel and what they need.
  • Event-based. Remember Matt Redman’s “Heart of Worship.” (Again, I assume he’s referring to Matt’s home church where, in search of a worship renewal, they removed the sound system and instruments for a period of time. The song was born from this experience).
  • Use clustering to best utilize left brain vs right brain activity. Put your topic in the center of the page. Then cluster ideas around it – key words, phrases, images, etc. Don’t force it. Don’t worry about order. Once done, go left-brained and organize it.

What makes a song great? There are two main goals:

  1. It achieves the intended effect – laughter, tears, contemplation, worship, etc.
  2. It makes the listener want to hear it again.

The songwriters Cardinal Rule: Make all elements of the song work together to enhance the feeling of the message. Songwriting is an emotional medium, so try to match the mood of the music to the meaning of the message so that the listener can feel it. This makes the song an experience rather than just words and music that sound neat.

Is the idea worth writing about?

  1. Is it biblical?
  2. Is it something other people will care about?

Great thoughts from a great man. Thank you Gary Miller.


  1. Gretchen Miller Chaffin says

    Mo, thank you for this.
    I wish I had half the talent my Dad did in his little finger.
    I can thank God my dad taught me to have a
    good a heart, as he did.

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