This is what happened when we took BBC Maestro songwriting lessons with Take That's Gary Barlow

Gary Barlow, Take That's legendary singer-songwriter, has teamed up with the BBC last month to teach songwriting in bite-size lessons - so we couldn’t wait to sign up!

Gary Barlow BBC Maestro songwriting course
(Image credit: BBC Maestro)

When I first heard Gary Barlow was doing songwriting lessons my inner eight-year-old self was screaming “Yessssssssss”. 

What I would have given for Gary - Take That’s singer-songwriter and multi-award winning band member, to point me in the right direction when I was growing up, scribbling down lyrics in my bedroom. So fast-forward 27 years and I am dying to hear what advice he has before I dig out my old lyric books in my mum’s loft.

The songwriting courses are broken up into 29 bite size lessons - which are perfect for the busiest of people. But if like me, you struggle to find time to sit down, you will be gripped from word go. "I’ll just do a few lessons," I said and 10 lessons in and I was forcing myself to call it a night. But it is extremely addictive.

It’s so simple to sit through the lessons - you don’t have to go to a college, simply log on, plug in some headphones, grab a pen and paper and listen to what he has to say. As an avid Take That fan I was fascinated to hear about Gary’s stories - like him I spent my youth buying singles from Woolworths with my pocket money. Oh how similar our lives were - both northern, except he has a little (or maybe a lot) more money in the bank.

Gary Barlow in his recording studio for BBC Maestro songwriting lessons

(Image credit: BBC Maestro)

What does Gary Barlow's songwriting course cover?

For those wondering what online learning is like, having Gary speak directly to the camera made it feel like your very own personal video message. And even if you’re not a Take That fan, his tips and expertise are second to none. 

So what did I learn? It’s quite comforting to know that he hums or sounds out a beat before he even thinks of the catchy choruses like Rule the World or Back For Good that has stadiums of fans singing along word after word. 

Throughout school I tried to learn an instrument, but one tune on the recorder led to me playing the xylophone keys wrong - the percussion sticks were taken off me mid-assembly performance. And to no regrets, my music career ended there. Then secondary school led to a bit of guitar playing but again, I was hopeless at reading music. So Gary advising me to learn an instrument hasn’t made me rush to book some lessons - as I’m still traumatised enough to stay clear of any musical cupboard, well, not unless Gary's teaching me of course!

Until then I’ll stick with something I’m good at - writing.

Gary Barlow sat playing the keyboard for BBC Maestro songwriting lessons

(Image credit: BBC Maestro)

It was music to my ears when Gary admitted he has spent many years training his ears - mine are reaping the rewards of listening to Take That albums over and over again. And my obsession with the band has put me in good stead to guess the song he plays by the slightest of piano keys. 

Hearing Gary explain how he got stuck finishing off his own hits - are somewhat of a reassurance that even the best get mind blocks sometimes. Phew! And his advice of storing the lyrics up until you need them are what’s going to keep my phone notes - and the loft - full.

With all these tips free flowing, watching Gary construct a song from scratch is a highlight for me. To see him in action, how his brain works to unpick the music and lyrics in a way you've never seen before. He carves out the best sound that he’s looking for and you get to see first hand how he carves it into the direction he wants the song to go.

So just how does he write a number one hit? Well hearing him “scatting” - singing random words until he finds the ones that work is the starting insight.

Gary covers all the bases when it comes to songwriting, from getting inspiration to have something to write about and spending an hour songwriting, to having a version of the finished song and thinking about self-promotion. And while there is a lot to take in, fear not, if there's any bits you need to re-cap then there are course notes you can download or the clips you can revisit at any time - as often as you'd like.

And while (sadly) the course doesn't have that two-way interaction - of Gary being able to give his own views on the verses, chorus and melodies I end up making, there's always the hope that one day he will hear it and that's good enough to motivate me into putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper sooner than later.

This is a must Christmas gift for any Take That fan - and watch out Simon Cowell, for there will be more singer-songwriters entering the X Factor when it returns.

To browse the full range of courses visit BBC Maestro online.

Selina Maycock

Selina is a Senior Entertainment Writer with more than 15 years of experience in newspapers and magazines. She has covered all things Entertainment for GoodtoKnow, Woman&Home and My Imperfect Life. Before joining Future Publishing, Selina graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2006 with a degree in Journalism. She is fully NCTJ and NCE qualified and has 100wpm shorthand.