The Difference Between Writing Songs for Yourself vs. Songs for Other Artists

Posted in The Weekly on April 1, 2024 by

When I began my songwriting career in the 1980s, there were many opportunities to pitch songs to artists in a wide variety of musical genres. While artists such as Elton John, David Bowie, and Carole King, and bands such as the Beatles wrote many of their own hits, most pop, adult contemporary, country, Christian, dance, and R&B acts relied on songwriters to provide them with hit material. Back in the day, with the exception of artists such as Clint Black and Donna Fargo it was practically unheard of for a country artist to record songs they had written themselves.

Artists such as Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Faith Hill, and Tina Turner scored their biggest successes with songs they did not write, and while Michael Jackson wrote many of his iconic hits, quite a few of them were songs written by non-performing songwriters. Similarly, while Barry Manilow penned many of his hits, ironically, he did not write “I Write the Songs,” which was written by Bruce Johnston.

In the U.S., the days of mainstream recording artists releasing songs they did not have a hand in composing have gone the way of 8-track tapes and audio cassettes. It has been estimated that only approximately 30% of the songs recorded by country and Christian artists in the U.S. are outside songs—songs written by someone who is not “inside” the project, such as the record producer, the artist’s spouse, or someone in the artist’s band. The number of outside songs released in the U.S. in other genres songs is almost negligible.

Let’s look at some of the differences between songs intended to be pitched to other artists versus songs an artist writes for his or her own recording project.

Vocal Range

An artist knows his or her vocal range—the lowest and highest notes they can comfortably sing, and where within that range they sound their best. When writing songs to be pitched to a variety of artists, it is typically best to span somewhere between an octave and a third and an octave and a half. (Note that these are not rules, just suggested tools based on analysis of successful songs.)

Artists seek songs that allow them to shine and show off their vocal prowess. Few professional singers record songs that include only an octave or less. Conversely, I advise against writing songs with a range of considerably more than an octave and a half because this could potentially eliminate an artist with less range from considering these songs.

Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty” (written by Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, Carrie Underwood, and Hillary Lindsey) has a melody that spans two octaves plus a whole step. Since Underwood was part of the writing process, she and the other writers knew that she could hit those notes and would sound amazing doing so. But if this were a song intended to be pitched to a wide variety of singers, there would be few who could nail those high notes.

Lyric Considerations

At my workshops, I always ask the writers’ intention for their song before I comment. I need to assess whether the song is appropriate for the genre or market the writer is targeting. In many instances, the writer tells me that the song is for his or her own recording project, but they would also like the song to be recorded by other artists. This does not typically work because a song that effectively does its job of delineating an artist’s distinctive identity is unlikely to suit other vocalists who ideally have their own unique identity.

The songs artists write for themselves need to be an expression of the image or persona the artist hopes to project. In fact, few things contribute more to carving out an artists identity than the songs they record. For example, Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” (written by Twain and “Mutt” Lange) and (“If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!” written by Twain and “Mutt” Lange) are perfect vehicles to showcase her persona—a strong, sexy woman, who is calling the shots.

The ideal song for a recording artist (regardless of whether it is self-penned or written by someone other than themselves) seems like such a perfect fit for that artist’s voice and the identity they project that it seems impossible to imagine anyone else having a hit with that song.

When writing songs that are not intended for ourselves, we need songs with topics and lyrics that could work well for many artists. We need to straddle the fence, writing songs that are fresh and distinctive, while simultaneously being appropriate for multiple singers. This is because a publisher might need to pitch a song multiple times before it finds a home. My song, “Change My Mind” (written with AJ Masters) was rejected more than 75 times before being recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys and subsequently a top-5 single for John Berry, garnering a BMI “Million-Air” award.

Some artists record self-written songs with lyrics that are vague, abstract, and open to interpretation, but they rarely record a song they did not write if it includes lyrics that are not literal. Lyrics for outside songs tend to be built with one line leading clearly to the next, and the verses leading the listener to the title and chorus. The chorus ideally sounds like the organic or logical conclusion to the verse lyrics.

However, artists writing for themselves have the latitude to incorporate lyrics that make little or no sense. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away” (written by Michael Balzary, John Frusciante, Anthony Kiedis, and Chad Smith) and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” (written and recorded by KT Tunstall) are prime examples of self-written hits with lyrics that would have likely been a tough sell to other artists.

Album Cut or Single

With there being so few opportunities to place outside songs in the U.S., most artists only record songs they did not write or cowrite if they believe those are potential hit singles. Artists tend to write those songs that are less likely to be released as singles.


Songs artists write for themselves should ideally be tailored to the act’s unique identity. The lyrics, vocal range, and likelihood of the song being selected to be a single differentiate songs written by recording artists for their own projects from those that are likely to find homes with other artists.

Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His latest book, Happy Tails—Life Lessons from Rescued Cats and Kittens (SPS/Blue Mountain Arts) combines his love of photography and cats. Jason’s songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song critiques. For information about his workshops, recorded lessons, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit

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