How To Write a Song
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: There is no single, clear, universally accepted method for writing songs.
Asking how to write a song is a little bit like asking how to cook an egg. There’s no one way to go about creating music, but there are plenty of helpful tips, exercises, and bits of actionable advice to consider. If you’re interested in writing a song for the very first time, or simply improving your writing process, this guide will be a big help in getting you get started.
Note: Similarly to how there are many ways to approach writing songs, there’s many styles, genres, and structures found in songs. For the sake of convenience, we’ll be focusing on showing you how to write a conventional song through this guide. Conventional songs feature common melodic instrumentation, predictable form and sections, and at least one vocal melody. Experimental music is absolutely worth pursuing if you have an interest in writing it, but a theme we’ll return to over and over again throughout this guide is the need to keep things simple while attempting to create music for the first time. We’re sticking to conventional songwriting here because it’s simple, and because it falls within the range of music that most people are familiar with.
What you’ll need to get started:
– Either a pencil and paper or laptop to record notes and lyrics with.
– A melodic musical instrument such as a piano, guitar, or ukulele. Your instrument should be able to produce multiple pitches at the same time.
Note: If you don’t have an instrument, you can always use a software program like GarageBand to create music with. However, it’s best not to rely on these programs too much when it comes creating music for the first time. Relying too heavily on pre-written drum loops and chord progressions leaves new songwriters at risk for not being able to develop music on their own.
– Some kind of recording device. You won’t use this to record a polished version of your song, but instead a basic demo you can listen back to. The basic recording equipment that’s most likely already on your computer, tablet, or smartphone will do.
We won’t get to deep into music theory terms in this guide, but a broad knowledge of things like chords, melodies, harmony, and rhythm will be a big help in writing your first song.
Let’s jump in.
1. Experiment with chord progressions
The best place to start working on your song is by building basic chord progressions with your instrument. A musical chord is defined by two or more different pitches that are played simultaneously. With your instrument, take plenty of time experimenting by playing different chord combinations in various rhythms and styles.
Music is remarkable in the way that something as basic as pairing two different chords together has the ability to create vast and complex moods and textures. What you come up with will be the musical foundation of your song. Feel free to put together as many chords as you like, but keep in mind that some of popular music’s most well-known songs feature repetitive combinations of simple chords.
Consider recording yourself during this process, as you might stumble on some workable ideas that you’ll need to remember later. When you find combinations of chords you like, keep track of them by writing them down. What you’re creating now through this exercise will serve as the foundational form of your song. Rather than trying to write all the sections for your chords outright, simply aim for building one strong section that you can develop other ideas with.
2. Focus on solidifying sections and structure
Conventional songs feature some variation of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. After you’ve chosen a chord progression to work with, start stretching out and developing that material into other sections. At the bare minimum, you’ll need two separate sections that can be used to build verses and choruses with.
Note: Many great songs feature the same repeating chord progressions for their verse and chorus sections. You certainly can use the same chords throughout your song, but for the sake of being able to create two distinctly different musical sections, you should consider creating separate sections with different chord progressions.
Develop verse and chorus sections
Think of your favorite songs for a second. What you most likely remember about them are their choruses. Most choruses tend to be energetic and straightforward while verses are often more dynamic and serve a developmental narrative purpose. Create contrasting verse and chorus sections and write down the chords for each. Adding in other sections like intros, instrumentals, bridges, and endings is optional at this point. If this is your first time writing a song, keeping it simple with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure is a good idea.
3. Develop a vocal melody for your song
Once you’ve solidified your song’s structure, begin playing through it over and over again on your instrument to develop a vocal melody. Some singers develop melodies by humming, while others sing what sounds like gibberish in a process aimed at hearing what works and what doesn’t. Try out different methods of vocalizing here to see what works for you. When you come up with a vocal idea you like, record it immediately so you won’t forget it later. Don’t worry about the words you’re singing at this stage. Focus instead on not only the melodies you’re producing, but also they rhythmic phrasing of your ideas.
This step should take a considerable amount of time and energy. Writing a solid melody often takes a great deal of experimentation, so don’t rush this step or settle for anything less than something you’re genuinely excited about.
4. Write lyrics and adapt them to your melody
Many would-be songwriters get to this crucial step and throw in the towel for a good reason. Writing lyrics can be a difficult, awkward process, especially if it’s something you’ve never tried before. Whereas developing chords, song structure, and melody are musical exercises, writing lyrics isn’t. To write meaningful lyrics, songwriters have to explore parts of their creativity and life perspective that are totally separate from music.
This step often takes an enormous amount of vulnerability and effort, so it’s vital that you approach lyric writing without judgement. Like every aspect of songwriting, remember that the more time you spend practicing writing lyrics, the better you’ll get.
Choose a lyrical theme
Your song can be about anything you like––a breakup, the birth of your child, the Spanish flu, your dog Leonard. If there’s something that’s been on your mind lately, that might be a good place to start exploring possible lyrical themes for your song. Your first song doesn’t have to be about anything serious, and your goal here should essentially be to get words written down to match the melody you’ve written. Things will inevitably change quite a bit the more you develop your song, so don’t feel like what you’re writing now is by any means set in stone.
Freewriting, the exercise of writing quickly without worrying about grammar, spelling, or content, is a great tool to help unlock lyrical ideas. On a piece of paper or on your computer, try writing continuously for ten minutes and see if there’s ideas or phrases you keep coming back to. Lean into these ideas when they happen and use them in your song.
The lyrics you write can be from your own perspective or from the mouth of a fictional character you create. Your creative freedom is unlimited here, but it might be a good idea to stick with something simple if you’re new to songwriting.
Shape your lyrics to your vocal melody
This part can be tricky even for experienced songwriters. Essentially, what you’re doing here is tailoring the your lyrics to fit the melody you’ve written. Don’t be surprised if certain words are altered, changed, or cut out altogether to fit your vocal melody. This part of the songwriting process takes a lot of work, but it’s critical in transforming your song from a nebulous idea to an ironed out piece of music. It’s common at this stage for the melody to further change and develop since you’ll be spending so much time singing and solidifying your vocals.
Check in with your song to make sure its verse and chorus sections sound defined and separate. If they don’t, spend more time reshaping your melodies to sound more interesting. Remember, verses act as narrative storytelling sections, while choruses typically rely on repetitive and memorable refrains.
5. Practice your song and record a demo of it
Practice, practice, practice
When you’re happy with the way your lyrics and vocal melody have come together, it’s time to start playing through and singing your new song over and over again. The more you do this, the more familiar with your new song you’ll be. Just because you’ve written a piece of music doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to play it yet. Practicing your song will also help give you ideas for how to improve it.
Note: This is the time when a songwriter would normally add in extra instrumentation or production their song. If you’re new to songwriting, it’s best not to worry about that yet. Your goal at this point should be to simply have a basic finished song. You can always revisit your song and add other elements to it later.
Record a demo of your finished song
It’s now time to record a demo of your finished song. If you’ve been practicing singing and playing your song, this part shouldn’t be too difficult. The recording of your song doesn’t need to be professional or sophisticated. The goal here is to record the basic idea of your new song so that you can listen back through later. Taking the time to professionally record even something as simple as a song with an acoustic guitar and vocals is an entirely different subject best left for another guide. Record the best version of your new song and listen back to it later. Note what you like about it and what you think needs improvement.
Writing music can be a challenging process, so if you’ve made it far enough to have written your own song, congratulations! If the results of your early songwriting efforts aren’t what you’d hoped, don’t get discouraged. Songwriting is an artistic skill that often takes years of hard work to develop. The more time you put into making music, the better at it you’ll be. Always remember to keep your demos because they might turn into songs you want to have professionally recorded down the line.
By Patrick McGuire