Why Honesty Is Important In Songwriting

Faking it is something we’re sometimes told to do that will help us be successful in music, and there’s definitely some truth there. Getting up on stage and performing takes a lot of bravery for some musicians, and when they don’t feel brave, acting like they do is the next best thing. But when it comes to writing music that actually means something, honesty has to be at the core of your process. No, this doesn’t mean you need to sit through an hour of therapy before you write music, but it does entail coming to terms with who you are and how you really feel about the world around you in order to write engaging music.

The show

For some musicians, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and appearances of their identity. The world expects certain things from people who make music, and in turn, we give the world what they expect of us. The problem is that an artist’s image and the music they create are two completely separate things. When songwriters start writing with the motivation of making music that pleases the world and aligns with their image, honesty takes a backseat, and that’s a bad thing. And, strangely enough, the more writers try to do what the world expects of them, the less potent their music becomes. Think of all the bands out there who couldn’t follow up a debut album with anything worth remembering. Music can come off as dull, uninspired, and safe if there’s no meaning or purpose behind it other than to uphold expectations and please the masses. To find that meaning, a songwriter has to make honesty the center of their process.

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Approaching the world with a genuine curiosity is a great way to get in touch with your honesty as a songwriter. Ask as many questions as you can about yourself and the world around you: how you feel, what’s on your mind, what message or feeling you hope to get across with your music. It’s also a great exercise to ask yourself what’s really behind the creative decisions in your writing process. Do you always start writing with an acoustic guitar because that’s what you’ve always done? Is that process really the best way to write honest music? It might be time to change your process. The more uncomfortable you feel, the better.

Yeah, this is all a lot of work, but if you find yourself out of touch with who you are and how you feel in the songwriting process, observing the world and yourself with a renewed curiosity is a great way to start thinking about your music differently.

Honesty doesn’t have to mean restraint

Don’t read this and think that your music has to be restrained and confined to your own experiences. Instead, let your honesty inform the stories you want to tell through your music. Your genuine feelings and experiences can fuel whatever kind of music you want to create, and it will sound vivid and compelling because it’s in touch with who you really are.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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  • David Kingston - August 8, 2018 reply

    Hey Patrick, good subject, but I would say if honesty is important to you as a person anyway, it will naturally come out in the songs you write, not it is something you do ‘in order to write engaging music’ … that is also a bit fake — maybe you weren’t suggesting that though 😉

    nedped - August 10, 2018 reply

    My initial reaction to the “honesty process” was similar to yours, David Kingston. If honesty is to be the core of a process in songwriting, let us fear the effects of processed honesty. And if honesty becomes a rigid guideline in the creation of a song, then we lose all prosperous avenues of guile, subterfuge and deceit that contribute to making a song clever, mysterious and inviting. In a songwriter’s toolkit, honesty is another useful device. … But that was just my knee jerking to the premise that was teased on the emailed front page. After bothering to actually read the essay, I’ve softened a bit. as I think the writer’s heart is in a good place. Still, I support your admonition.

  • Jerry - August 8, 2018 reply

    Thanks Patrick! Being a guitarist, I find keyboards “uncomfortable”, so I will give it a try.

  • Wonda F Macon - August 9, 2018 reply


  • Raymond Fry - August 9, 2018 reply

    Absolutely true.

  • Paul Hartley - August 9, 2018 reply

    This is so true. Every time I’ve written to be ‘commercial’ or ‘mainstream’ I’m bereft of ideas and inspiration. I carry on and, unsurprisingly, the result is, at best, average. I can see things on TV that strike a chord. As you say, it may not be an experience I’ve had but it’s one I can relate to or feel moved by. ‘Moved’ can mean a variety of emotions…happy, sad, funny, confused etc…..but they’re all emotions I actually feel.

  • James Carbonaro - August 9, 2018 reply

    There is an old adage which goes something like this: You may say what you think, but you do as you believe. Same holds true about the songs that you do. You may sing what you think others want to hear. But if you are going to compose your own material, then you have to write from the heart. In other words, you have to express your soul.

  • david wayne - August 9, 2018 reply

    Does that include hits like “MONY MONY” inspired by a ” Mutual Of New York” sign? And others not inspired by “honesty”?

  • Gregory Wong - August 10, 2018 reply

    a good message to be honest in a cut throat business !

  • Janice Freeman - August 18, 2018 reply

    I think that you are right, honesty isn’t safe and it needs a voice…..

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