Choosing Subject Matter

John Legend

Lesson time 13:00 min

Whether you want to write soaring love ballads like “Ordinary People” or capture a moment, subject matter is a key part of your identity as a songwriter. Learn how John finds inspiration in his life and the world around him every day.

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Topics include: Timely Versus Timeless: “Free” Song Study • Don’t Be Afraid of Being Provocative • ASSIGNMENT


[MUSIC PLAYING] - It's important to figure out the subject matter of your songs. It's important to figure out what stories you want to tell. And how you want to present your stories to the world through song. Sometimes, I don't know what the subject matter is when I start writing the song. So sometimes I'll start with a musical idea. The musical idea may be a chord progression that I play on the piano. It may be a chord progression that a guitarist plays that I'm co-writing with. Sometimes I write with producers. And in popular music, R&B, hip hop, a lot of music is producer composed. So the producer will come with what we call a beat. The beat is not just the drums, not just the percussion, but it's the entire instrumental idea. We may add to it. We may change it. But it's a chord progression, it's instruments, it's percussion. It's just a full instrumental track often. And that can inspire me to write a melody, and a lyric, and come up with a subject for it. There are all kinds of musical beds that kind of pushed me toward certain lyrical ideas, and subject matter, and melody. And they can come from different places. Some of them are coming from me individually. Some of them are coming from my co-writers. Some of them are coming from producers who are also co-writers. [MUSIC - JOHN LEGEND, "ORDINARY PEOPLE"] - We're just ordinary people. We don't know which way to go. - With ordinary people for instance. I just started just humming melodic ideas before I came up with the idea for "Ordinary People." and once I said, we're just ordinary people. We don't know which way to go. Then I figured, oh, let's write about the ups and downs of love. I was informed by my parents getting divorced, and remarried, and divorced again. The ups and downs of love that everyone goes through, that became the subject matter. But it was driven by music, then melody, then me singing, we're just ordinary people. And then once I figured out that line, I decided that line would be kind of the signature line, the hook of the song, then I built the concept of the song around that. But I came up with the melody for that before I came up with that lyric. And then that lyric led me to a subject matter, to a concept, to a context, that I would provide around that lyrical hook. And it's funny because Kanye, who was my executive producer for my first five albums, he didn't love the idea of "Ordinary People." He was like, can we figure it out a different word than ordinary? But I was like, no. I feel like this is going to be the right word combination for this chorus. And of course, I was right. But he does give really good advice on music. And I've listened to a lot of his advice, and take it into account. But for this one I disagreed with him. But it's just instinct that tells you, yeah, this works as of chorus. This works as a lyric that I can build a song around. And the only way you know that, only way you develop that instinct,...

About the Instructor

When 12-time Grammy winner John Legend released “Free” in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, he called it a prayer for peace. Now the recipient of the first-ever Recording Academy Global Impact Award teaches you how he wrote and recorded the song—and his process for creating hits like “All of Me” and “Glory.” Layer melodies and lyrics, develop your musical point of view, and make music that makes the moment.

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John Legend

John Legend, the EGOT-winning music icon and coach on “The Voice,” teaches you his process for creating music with impact.

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