Ever tried writing a song? “I haven’t a clue” I hear you say. “I don’t know how to read or write music for a start”.
It turns out, that doesn’t matter at all. Some of the best musicians haven’t a clue how to read or write music either. This article will show you how to write a song; we’ll look at what some of the best songwriters say about writing a song, cover a few simple writing steps, plus we’ll cover some ways to get inspired.
This is what we’ll cover…
- How to Write a Song, According to the Experts
- Neil Young “Trust Yourself and Be Ready”
- Paul McCartney’s “Scrambled Eggs”- The Story of Yesterday
- Elton John “I can write a melody to anything”
- Slash “Play with other musicians and you’ll improve as a songwriter”
- Bruce Springsteen: “If one plus one equals two, you’ve failed”
- Stuart Coles: “It’s the mood of a song as much as anything”
- Best Techniques for Songwriting
- How to Write a Song in 8 Steps
- Hacks for Speeding Up the Songwriting Process
How to Write a Song, According to the Experts
Neil Young “Trust Yourself and Be Ready”
Who better to start with than Neil Young. Let’s hear from the man himself:
Inspiring stuff, isn’t it. By his own admission, he’s failed and been laughed at many times throughout his career. And you know what? He doesn’t care!
His advice in a nutshell is this:
Trust yourself and accept failure as part of the creative process. This will help you overcome your fears and realise that no-one else matters when you’re songwriting.
He says you must be ready for the moment when inspiration takes over- “Grab it and keep it!”
- Key Take Out: You could jot down your idea on a piece of paper, or you might want to record a basic version on your guitar or piano if it’s nearby. But you have to get that elusive moment down somewhere, because it might never come back if you don’t.
Paul McCartney’s “Scrambled Eggs”- The Story of Yesterday
Some songwriters sing nonsense over a melody, to get an idea of how the lyrics and music could work together.
Paul McCartney composed the entire melody of “Yesterday” in a dream. He got up, ran to a piano and played the tune to avoid forgetting it.
The words that we are now so familiar with came later. McCartney started off with:
“Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs / Not as much as I love scrambled eggs!”
I remember mulling over the tune ‘Yesterday’, and suddenly getting these little one-word openings to the verse. I started to develop the idea … da-da da, yes-ter-day, sud-den-ly, fun-il-ly, mer-il-ly and Yes-ter-day, that’s good. All my troubles seemed so far away. It’s easy to rhyme those a’s: say, nay, today, away, play, stay, there’s a lot of rhymes and those fall in quite easily, so I gradually pieced it together from that journey. Sud-den-ly, and ‘b’ again, another easy rhyme: e, me, tree, flea, we, and I had the basis of it.”
- Key Take Out: Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. This isn’t brain surgery, it’s writing a song. Have fun, mess about, see what works, don’t take yourself too seriously!
Elton John “I can write a melody to anything”
The other way round can work too.
Elton John became famous by writing melodies to the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.
In this video, he shows us how to write a song from almost any lyrics. Whether Elton’s your cup of tea or not, you are guaranteed to find yourself smiling at his ingenuity.
- Key Take Out: You have to be a genius to write a good song, right? Wrong. Most successful songwriters laugh at this suggestion! “Anyone can write songs” claims Paul McCartney, while Elton John points to the hours he spends “fiddling around” with chords until he “stumbles on something by accident”. Modesty apart, the message to budding songwriters is clear: don’t be scared to have a go, but be prepared to put the hours in.
Slash “Play with other musicians and you’ll improve as a songwriter”
Musicians don’t always agree about where inspiration comes from.
Slash says that having recording apparatus handy is “essential”, but he finds very little comes to him whilst on his own in a room with his guitar.
Creativity only happens for him when he’s jamming with other musicians. You might be surprised at how much practice is behind those “spontaneous moments” he has on stage. His aim is “putting notes together that have some point”, a telltale sign that he’s a fan of scales, melody and putting a shift in when he picks up his guitar.
- Key Take Out: Let an idea mellow instead of “overdoing it” – leave one idea and go on to the next one, to avoid frustration. Any technical tips? “It helps to have the fretboard in your head!”
Bruce Springsteen: “If one plus one equals two, you’ve failed”
Bruce Springsteen says songwriting is about looking for that bit extra that makes what you create authentic. You need “to have something bothering you, to be desperate!”
Stuart Coles: “It’s the mood of a song as much as anything”
London based musician Stuart Coles, who plays with folk-pop group Colour House, is one of the UK’s most gifted songwriters. He shares his fascinating insights about songwriting below…
Songwriting is a fascinating thing because it’s immensely personal, everyone does it differently and there aren’t really any hard and fast rules.
I’ve learnt that you can’t force it (Steven Tyler said ‘song writing is a bitch –and then it has puppies’) – sometimes it just comes and you have to be ready.
For me it’s the mood of a song as much as anything. But if you get the right phrase/word, chord progression (and if lucky) – a melodic hook all at the same time – you’re flying. Some songs take me months and years to shape –some just come in minutes.
The Only Way (listen below) was written in response to seeing terrible images of children fleeing the war in Syria & thinking about my newly born son.
Best Techniques for Songwriting
We’ve seen six very different artists in terms of style, but it’s no coincidence that they all talk about roughly the same things. Much as we admire the talent of all six, none of them declares himself as a genius.
They all talk about being ready for the moment creative energy starts to run through your veins. They respect the moment and all agree a songwriter has to pay heed and get their ideas down.
Ok, taking all of this onboard and summarizing: I trust myself, I’m ready, I can sing nonsense over a melody and I reckon I can come up with a melody for a lyric. I can sit in my room on my own, or I can jam with other musicians. I’m desperate to create something.
It’s time for the 8 steps…
How to Write a Song in 8 Steps
The following eight steps will help you get to grips with all the things you need to consider when you make a song.
Step one starts with the basics around chord and scales, with a mini case study of how chords and scales fit together in The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
The subsequent lessons look at lyric writing, writing hooks and writing riffs.
Finally we look at song structure, song arrangement and the challenge of writing a song.
Let’s get stuck in!
1. Choosing Chords
Chords are the foundation of any song. So let’s look at which chords go together, how to make an informed choice about finding the right chords, and some great ways if you’re stuck with an idea.
2. How The Beatles Used Chords To Write “Can’t Buy Me Love”
For our second step we look at how the chords to Can’t Buy Me Love work together, breaking down each section of the song. This will help you understand how you can apply the same techniques in your own song writing.
3. How to Write Lyrics with “The Magic Method”
Step three addresses how to write song lyrics, one of the songwriters biggest challenges. We look at a proven technique called the ‘magic method’ inspired by the book ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young.
4. How to Write Catchy Hooks for Your Songs
A hook is a musical or lyrical phrase that’s memorable, catchy and is the signature for the song. For example think about the song ‘Satisfaction’ that actually has three hooks – the guitar riff, the vocal and the chorus. So step four is about writing hooks. Dive right in 🙂
5. Writing Riffs from Chords
A riff can turn a lifeless song into something exciting. This step looks at how to write a great riff, and which chords to play underneath it.
6. Song Structure
Every song, however disjointed it may sound on the surface, follows a recognized song structure. So step 6 concerns the common structures used in popular music and how to choose one for your song.
7. How to Arrange your Songs
A few minor tweaks to your arrangement can transform your song. Step seven covers three different ways to arrange your song – genre & style, instrumentation & groove, and key changes.
8. Let’s Compose A Song
The final step brings it all altogether and offers you guidelines for writing your song.
Hacks for Speeding Up the Songwriting Process
The songwriting process can be a long, drawn out affair. The muse, as Bob Dylan said “cannot be willed, only welcomed”.
Many songwriters can write a song in minutes, for others it can take months if not years to write something worth exhibiting.
Dylan is a fan of quickly written songs. In an interview for Paul Zollo’s book on Songwriting (highly recommended) he says “The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.”
So here are five hacks to speed up the songwriting process:
1. Get a good night’s SLEEP and write in the morning
Ok so the story goes that the best songs are written at 5 in the morning, sleep deprived.
Actually couldn’t be further from the truth.
Getting a good night’s sleep (circa 8 hours shut eye) works wonders. You are most creative 2 hours after you wake up, so start when you’ve gotten up, had breakfast and feeling energised.
2. Go for a long walk
To get your writing juices flowing it helps to get a natural high in the form of serotonin.
Believe it or not a long walk is enough to release this endorphin and get you waxing lyrical.
Make sure that you take with you a method of recording your idea though. It could be an old-school pen and notepad, or if you have a smartphone just use the note taking app. If you’ve created a particular melody you like record it on your audio recorder that most phones have these days.
3. Jam with mates
You know many of the best songs have been borne out of collaboration with someone else. Think Lennon-McCartney, Morrissey-Marr, Jagger-Richards. The list goes on.
However good you think your writing skills are, you’d be surprised by how bouncing ideas with a musician friend will fuel the creative process. It’s no accident that so many bands jointly take the songwriting credits – it’s sometimes a lot easier.
4. Listen to great music
I remember listening to Bob Dylan when I was younger and instantly feeling like I wanted to write my own songs. I remember a friend quickly putting me down, saying ‘no don’t’ do that’.
Looking back that was rubbish advice.
Listening to great music helps massively to inspire you to write your own material. We don’t want to blindly copy, no, there no merit in that, but studying music by ‘the greats’ (whoever that happens to be in your favourite genre) and analysing what makes it great is a smart thing to do. Remember all music has its influences. Standing on the shoulders of giants.
The creative process is one of the most unfathomable things known to man. What is it? How to do you capture it? What brings it on?
One thing is for sure – if you read what a lot of famous musicians say about writing music the one thing they all say is the ‘music comes through them’ (see Dylan’s comment at the top of this page).
How can you invoke it then?
Well I’m a big advocate of daydreaming. That’s right, daydreaming. Letting your mind wander where it will. You never know, you may just hit in an idea for a song, something deep in your subconscious.
Yep, I’m a daydream believer!
6. Songwriters Block?
If you really can’t get inspired you may have songwriters block. Many people think writer’s block isn’t really a thing, but either way: if you’re stuck you’re stuck right. Here’s some ways to shake things up…
So, there you have it.
Do you have to know all this stuff to be a good songwriter?
Of course not! Many brilliant songwriters simply use their ears and they write according to what sounds good to them. That’s fair enough, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
But what I’ve tried to demonstrate is that with some basic notions of theory you’ll be much better equipped as a songwriter.
The tools of chords, scales, hooks, riffs and song structure will help push you in the right direction and help you know how to write a song.
Finally, in case you’ve written songs before but have been experiencing writer’s block, here are 25 ways to break free…
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.