Finding your co-writing style

If you’re new to co-writing and you’ve found a songwriting partner or two, you may be wondering how to start writing together. I find it helps to choose a collaborative working model first. Here are some popular ones:

 Lyricist and Composer

This is a pretty straightforward division of tasks. It’s the obvious choice if you’re much stronger in one area than the other, or if you have a set of lyrics or composition you’re certain you want someone else to finish. Bernie Taupin and Elton John worked this way for many years, with the words coming first. Burt Bacharach and Hal David also used this method most of the time, with the music coming first.

Starter and Finisher

One songwriter starts with both music and words, then hands it to the next person. Many ongoing writing partnerships use this model, often with alternating roles. If you’re stuck on the second verse, another writer may be able to offer a fresh perspective and run with what you’ve got. Conversely, you may be looking for a co-writer who’ll spark your process with some starter ideas.


When you have a verse that needs a chorus, your partners may have other fragments that fit. The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” developed this way. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” pieces together Lindsey Buckingham’s intro, Stevie Nicks’s verses and Christine McVie’s chorus, finished by John McVie’s outro. If you and your partner or bandmates each write a lot and have plenty of fragments, this is worth trying. (For a more experimental exercise in mosaic co-writing, try a musical “exquisite corpse”.)


If you write with a band, or like to do your composing in a Digital Audio Workstation, you can write the song layer by layer -- for example, one writer starts with a groove, one adds a chord structure, the next writer adds a vocal melody. The Postal Service famously used this co-writing style via mail. Layered co-writing can also emerge from jam sessions.

Eyeball to Eyeball

This means setting a time and place to start the song together from scratch and see it through to completion. Eyeball-to-eyeball co-writing is standard for professional songwriters, who appreciate the efficiency and interplay of this method. If you’re not used to writing songs this quickly, or feel inhibited sharing your raw creative process, it will take some getting used to. I recommend trying it at least a few times to see if you like the results.

There are many other ways to co-write songs, of course. (If your favorite isn’t on the above list, please tell me about it in the comments!) Some of these roles can be mixed, too, e.g., lyricist-starter and composer-finisher, an eyeball-to-eyeball co-write done in layers.

My own first co-writes followed the Lyricist and Composer model, writing music for a classmate’s humorous poetry, and later writing lyrics for friends to set to music. Writing as a composer-finisher or lyricist-starter came naturally to me: I just did half of what I usually did when writing alone!

If I’d just stuck with that approach, I’d still have benefitted greatly. Some of my favorite songs were written that way, and in fact I’m currently jazzed about a collaboration I’m finishing as a composer.

But I’d have missed out on some great opportunities too.

A number of musicians I’ve wanted to work with have different default methods for songwriting. Helen Robertson, for instance, tends to work music-first, so when we started co-writing we split the difference between our methods. Taking on the lyricist-finisher role has taught me new ways to be catchy and concise, and resulted in some of the staples of my repertoire.

And when it comes to eyeball-to-eyeball writing, sometimes you just have to seize the opportunity when you can share time and space. It’s a messier process, but an especially rewarding one too.

Next time: Introduction to the co-editing process.