Songwriting Contest: What You Need to Know

Did you ever wonder if your song has what it takes to win a songwriting competition?

There are many contests out there to choose from, including the International Songwriting Competition and the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Boasting celebrity judges and thousands of dollars worth in prizes, winning one of these competitions could not only help you financially, but it could potentially bring great exposure to your music.

I used to think I should just send my songs to every competition possible, cross my fingers and hope you win one. But with typical entry fees around $30 per song and hundreds, maybe even thousands of other songs competing for the same prize, I realized that any songwriter would want to do everything they can to make sure their song is the best it can be–and that it can hold up to the stiff competition!

So the first question is this: what do the judges look for when deciding which songs are the best? The good news is, most good contests will publicly list the criteria they judge your song’s merit on. The bad news is, these categories can be vague and don’t give too many hints as to what makes one song better than another. I decided to come up with a few pointers to get you started in the right direction.

Being Original

Judging a song on originality can be pretty subjective. But then, judging a song on just about any of these criteria is pretty subjective, so we’ll just have to recognize that your song is going to be at the mercy of the judges’ personal biases and opinions. But what, generally, makes a song original? The easiest way to answer this might be to ask the opposite: what makes a song unoriginal? An unoriginal song is one that sounds like everything else you’ve already heard, or specifically sounds like the songwriter was listening to certain artists and emulated their sound. The best way to sound more original is to draw your inspiration from multiple sources and try your best not to copy someone else’s sound!  Let your music come from you, not your influences.

Memorable Melodies

Just like originality, melody is another vague category. They may be judging a melody, but what do they think makes for a good melody in the first place? There’s no way to know for sure, really. But the best melodies are usually the ones that stick in your head, so the key might be to write a melody that’s as memorable as possible. Your song should have a great chorus that a crowd would love to sing along to. If you’re not sure if your melody is strong, test it out on some friends and fellow musicians to get some feedback, or call Studio Pros for a free project consultation.


When it comes to composition, judges will be looking at the overall structure of how the song is put together. The chord progression should feel natural within the song and move it where it needs to be throughout. The song structure should make sense, be memorable and take the listener on the desired journey that you hope to take them on. They might judge the tune on its use of dynamics or instrumental hooks. Composition could mean any number of things, but it mainly means this: all of the elements of your song should come together in a clear, concise whole.


Your lyrical strategy will depend on what kind of a song you’re writing. You might want to write very confessional, honest lyrics if your song is more personal and intimate. You could write a story in the third person if your song follows more of a narrative structure. Or maybe you’re going for poetic lyrics filled with metaphor or a political theme filled with opinion and purpose. Whichever you choose, be sure the theme is consistent throughout the song and your message is clear. If you’re having trouble, you might try buying a book on lyric writing for tips on meter, rhyme, and structure.

Recording Quality

Here’s where the songwriting contest paradox rears its ugly head: most competitions will specifically tell you that they don’t judge your song based on sound quality. While this may be partially true, the fact remains that whether they realize it or not, sound quality will inevitably sway their opinion of a song. When two songs that are both well-written go head to head, the one that was recorded professionally will always sound like a better song than the one that sounds like it was recorded on a bedroom 4-track. If you need a real world example, take a listen to the song “The Ransom,” which was recently named “Song of the Year” in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Sounds great, doesn’t it? That’s no coincidence–a radio-ready track will get much further than a poor recording in any competition, even if they say it won’t.

Don’t wait until a submission deadline is looming to think about recording a professional version of your song to submit to contests. Call Studio Pros today to start recording a professional quality version of your song–and to be sure a bad recording won’t hold it back from the recognition it deserves!

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