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In the process of making music there are often roles that get confused with each other or seem to blend together out of how we hear the words used. 

Songwriters and producers are two examples of this dynamic where people often use both words to refer to a person who creates music. 

For example, we may hear of someone like Timbaland or Dr. Dre who are producers who make songs, but did they WRITE the song? What exactly is the difference between producing a song and writing it?

That’s what we are going to talk about here so we can identify the difference between songwriters and producers, their roles, and even the places where songwriting and production overlap. 

What is the Difference Between a Songwriter and Producer?

The main difference between a songwriter and producer is that a songwriter is usually responsible for crafting a musical idea into a full song, while a producer will find ways to enhance the song by editing the songwriting, directing the recording process, and helping it meet the quality standards of a polished, professional end product.

One caveat to mention is that depending on the genre there are producers who write an entire song instrumental so that the artist can write the lyrics and melodies for it (often referred to as the topline). This is more common in genre’s like pop, electronic, rap/beats rather than genre’s like rock, metal, jazz, etc. 

This is why you often hear beatmakers referred to as producers and not songwriters even though they pretty much wrote an entire song. It adds to the confusion between what a songwriter and a producer is. 

Anyway, these two roles work very closely together and it is quite common to see both songwriters and producers as the leading roles in creating a song from start to finish. 

But let’s go a bit deeper in order to get a more accurate distinction between them by looking at the sort of tasks each role takes on. 

What Does a Songwriter Do?

A songwriter creates an initial musical idea and crafts it into a full song by adding a song structure, melodies, rhythms, chord progressions and lyrics. They may also create a concept for the song, which helps guide the decision making further down the production process. 

When people think of the word songwriter, they often picture the artists playing acoustic guitar or piano at open mics and coffee shops. However, the term songwriter really extends to anyone who writes songs. 

This means that if you are the person who writes the songs for your metal or rock band, you are a songwriter. If you write full songs for sync licensing for media, you are a songwriter (or composer). If you write full songs on a DAW with software instruments instead of traditional instruments, you are a songwriter.

What skills do you need as a songwriter?

There are a few skills that are common for songwriters to have. These are:

  • Being able to play an instrument: Songwriters often know how to play an instrument such as guitar or piano but nowadays you can also write songs entirely with software instruments as well. 
  • Understanding basic music theory: Music theory knowledge is not a complete necessity  but many songwriters understand at least the very basics in order to make sure their songs sound organized, coherent and use the guidelines that theory provides for what sounds good. 
  • Creating chord progressions: This is one of the most fundamental skills many songwriters have, as chord progressions create a strong foundation for a song. Many times a songwriter may also have an idea for a melodic phrase and need to put chords to it. So whether chords come first or melody comes first, this is an important skill to have. 
  • Creating melodies: Being able to make good melodies is also a core skill of many songwriters, so knowing how to apply different scales like major, minor, modes, and more exotic scales is a big help. 
  • Skill in creative writing: Many songwriters write lyrics for their songs and make use of creative writing tools such as metaphors, similes, rhymes, storytelling techniques, and more. 
  • Ability to perform live: While there are certainly ghost writers who write songs for other artists to perform, many songwriters also have skill and experience in live performance themselves. 

In addition, these many not be foundational but are extra credit and many songwriters have at least a basic understanding of:

  • The recording process: Knowing proper recording techniques such as proper mic placement, how to get a good quality take in the studio, and how to prepare in order to be time efficient can help songwriters know what’s achievable in the studio vs live and how to get the best representation of their song in a recording. 
  • The mixing process: Understanding how mixing works can help songwriters get a clearer vision for the end product of their song. When you understand mixing you know the capabilities and limitations of things like EQ, compression, spatial arrangement in the stereo field, and more. This helps get ideas during songwriting which can be realized later down the line in the studio. 
  • What gear to use for recording the desired sound: As a songwriter, part of creating a song is understanding the gear needed to create the overall vibe and aesthetic it calls for. Sometimes the gear affects the songwriting. As an exaggerated example, it would be awkward to try to write chunky heavy guitar breakdowns on a strat. As far as the studio, if you have an idea for some bluesy chords it will give you a clearer idea of the end result if you know whether you want to use a tone from an Orange amp vs a Fender vs a Vox. Certain styles and genres usually have their preferred gear. 
  • Instrumental arrangement: Many songwriters often know what kind of instruments they would like in their song. They might say something like wanting strings, or maybe something folky like a banjo or a standup bass. It’s important to know how to arrange those instruments so they don’t conflict with each other and sound like a jumbled disorganized mess. Knowing what instruments should stay mostly in the low, mid, and high range of the song, and when they should play or be quiet, is important. 

What Does a Producer Do in Music? 

A producer helps take a song from demo to final product. This can involve decision making while working with the songwriter/artist to edit the songwriting and arrangement, working with an audio engineer to record and mix the song, and ensuring the production quality standards are met for a polished, professional end product. 

A good producer is someone who understands the vision for a song, guides the process of making it into a finished product,  and makes sure the end product still matches that vision with the best quality possible. They often have the ability to make tasteful decisions throughout the entire process that bring out the best in the song. 

What skills do you need as a producer?

Producers are unique in that they need to be creative while also being great project managers. They can be visionary, while at the same time being calculating and grounded to the concrete practical steps needed to make a record. 

The skills producers need to have can include:

  • Project management: It’s important for producers to be able to manage a project from start to finish. To try to meet deadlines, coordinate with other people working on the production project, and be overall organized to make sure things get done and done properly. 
  • Creative: Producers can often have a say in the songwriting, recording, and overall production process for a song so they need to be able to be creative and understand what the creative vision for the song is. Depending on the genre, a producer may even write an entire song instrumental for an artist to write lyrics and vocals over. 
  • Great at picking the right sounds for the right songs: Aesthetics are very important in making music. Sounds are not just auditory, they have colors and textures. There are differences between smooth pads, grainy synths, fuzzy guitars, etc. Producers have good taste in picking the right sounds that match the vibe of the song at the right moments. 
  • General understanding of recording and mixing: I don’t think a great producer needs to also be a great audio engineer but they should know the recording process and how mixing works in order to communicate what must be improved as well as possible.  
  • Knowledge of recording gear: Again, doesn’t have to be an audio engineer but at least some knowledge of the gear needed to get the desired sound is a big help. It’s easy for someone to know when something doesn’t sound right, but it really helps when that person can say something like “we need to switch the mic to X microphone to get a punchier sound” or “let’s EQ the vocal with X plugin to increase the high mids without making it harsh”. This is much more helpful for the people who are collaborating in the project to understand your feedback and end goal.
  • Good at recognizing hooks: Sometimes a songwriter might make a song without realizing that the catchiest, hookiest part of the song is not being milked enough or is being used as the wrong song section. Good producers have a good ear for the juiciest ideas and know how to shine a spotlight on them to bring out the best of the song. 
  • Can hear the song from the perspective of a fan: Sometimes when we are too close to our own work it’s hard to get an objective perspective on a song. Producers take into account how a listener will hear the song; how the song will sound to someone who doesn’t know or care how complex the music theory is or how many advanced recording or mixing techniques were used during production. 
  • Basic understanding of music theory and songwriting principles: Knowing at least the basics of music theory and songwriting can help producers understand how a song is constructed and know what options there are for improving things like the chord progression, melodies, lyrics etc. 

Are Songwriters and Producers the Same?

Songwriters and Producers often have many of the same skills but they are not the same. Songwriters focus mainly on creating an initial musical idea and crafting it into a complete song, while producers mainly focus on editing and enhancing a song, and taking it through the recording and production process towards a final end product. In some genre’s, a producer may write an entire song instrumental for an artist to sing over. 

With advances in recording and production technology, it’s becoming increasingly common to see songwriters who produce their own songs as well as producers who write songs. 

The way I see it is as two frames of mind for creating music.

Songwriters who produce themselves tend to write songs with a focus on the song itself first (in terms of chord progressions, melodies, lyrics etc) and a focus on live performance. How the song will end up after studio magic may come as a second step. 

On the other hand, producers that write songs may often write a song with the studio production frame of mind first. They may be more likely to consider production details such as mixing, arrangement and recording techniques earlier in the process of writing a song and focus on the vision for how the song will sound as a final recording first, and a live performance second. 

Songwriters and Producers are two sides of the same coin. They are both music creators that lean towards different parts of the music creation process and come together towards a final product. Sometimes the lines are blurred quite a bit in their roles and tasks.

Wrapping it up

These two roles are paramount in the process of making music and I encourage any and all songwriters to learn as much about production as they can. It will make you a better songwriter because it will give you a clearer vision for the end result of your song and what you can do to get there with the least amount of problem solving needed. 

If you know where you are going from the start you will get there much faster. 

Also, to songwriters working with producers…be open to hearing the producer’s suggestions. At least consider it or give it a shot if only to hear it and see if you like it. As a second pair of ears, they might be hearing something you’re not noticing in the moment.

Don’t be one of those guys that is so attached to their work and holds creative control so tight that you choke all the life out of it. Working with others requires openness and some flexibility when needed. 

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