Many people think that writing songs is really hard, or only for ultra-talented musicians.
The reality is that anyone can write a song, you just need some basic knowledge of an instrument like a guitar or piano, an idea or two and a process for how you go about writing it.
In this article, we’re going to share that very process, as well as some general songwriting tips.
- 7 Steps for Writing Songs
- Songwriting Tips
7 Steps for Writing Songs
1. Decide on the Type of Song
The first thing to think about is which genre you want your song to work within. Each genre of music (rock, country, jazz, reggae, etc) has specific features that are characteristic of that style. Types of chords and arrangement vary from one style to the other. For example, jazz uses a lot of seventh chords, whereas rock uses power chords.
You’ll probably know what type of genre your music fits into. For example, if you’re a country player it’s unlikely you’re going to want to pen a heavy metal track. But who knows! Often it’s good to break out of your comfort zone and write something that’s totally alien to you.
2. Work out a Basic Melody
You may already have a basic melody in your head for the song. If so, great. Try building on it, playing it up and down the fretboard, in different keys. If you’re familiar with scales, or modes such as the Lydian or Dorian (which are great for finding new ideas), use these to come up with something interesting.
If you don’t have the melody yet, don’t worry, it often comes later once the chord progression and strumming patterns are established (see below).
3. Build a Chord Progression
Like the melody, you may already have a few chords that work together. If so, perfect. Use the circle of fifths to help you build and develop the chord progression and try transposing the progression to different keys. Maybe your chords sound far better in a different key. You can also alternate between major and minor keys within your song which helps to convey different feelings within one piece.
Make sure you listen to chord progressions used in different genres and use these as a source of inspiration. Some of the changes from another progression might help you shape yours.
4. Choose a Strumming Pattern
It’s not all about the chords you use, it’s the rhythm you use to play them. Unless you’ve made a point of learning new patterns, you’re probably just using the same one or two you’ve always used. Listen to as many different strumming patterns as possible, and when you find one you like, try matching it your chords above.
You’ll be surprised how playing around with different patterns gets the creative juices flowing.
5. Add Some Lyrics
If your song is going to have lyrics (it doesn’t have to), now is the time to think about what words and phrases work with the song you’ve got so far. At this point, don’t worry too much about the meaning of your lyrics.
When Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday, it started off as a song about scrambled eggs! His first words were “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs / Not as much as I love scrambled eggs!”.
As you see, getting the melody is far more important than the meaning of the words at this point, and helps to get an idea of how the lyrics and music could work together.
6. Record a Rough Draft
At this point, you have enough to record a rough draft. Like most people, you probably have a smartphone – the good news is smartphones are perfect for recording your rough draft – just use the voice recorder that comes with the phone.
The point here isn’t to record a polished version of your song. It’s simply to get an idea down. You may never even listen to it again, but the act of recording forces you to focus and perform the song, even if it’s just to an audience of one. It will still help to solidify the idea or make you realize the idea needs more work.
7. Lay Down the Track Properly
When you have an idea that you think is worthy of recording properly, it’s time to lay it down properly.
You have a couple of options for recording: you can use a standalone multi-track recorder which is sort of old skool these days, but still have their advantages (way more mobile than using a computer, and less fiddly).
The second option is, as you probably guessed, is to use a laptop and a digital audio workstation (known as a ‘DAW’) to build your own home recording studio.
The second option costs more money and has a steeper learning curve, but ultimately working out how to produce your own music has become an essential skill for many musicians.
We’ve outlined a simple approach to writing a song, here are some more tips for songwriting.
Go as Fast as You Like
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, 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.”
The common misconception at least is that the best songs are written in some five AM drunken stupor. Some of the best tracks may have come about that way (i.e. most Rolling Stones songs) but these days we’re well versed in how important getting a good night’s sleep is. According to social media scheduler Buffer, we are at our most creative 2 hours after we wake up – so start when you’ve gotten up, had breakfast and feeling energized.
Talking of good habits, regular exercise, whether that be a walk in the park or a cross-fit session, gives you a natural high and releases serotonin. While you’re still in the afterglow of this buzz is the perfect time to work on your song.
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.
Listen to Music
Listening to great music helps 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 favorite genre) and analyzing what makes it great is a smart thing to do. Even Bob Dylan allegedly starts his songwriting sessions with a few minutes of meditation while listening to a song that inspires him. If it works for the bard of our time, it’s good enough for us.
The final point is arguably the most important: experiment. Not only try new times and places to write but try different gear too. If you’re a singer, you could try a vocal harmonizer or pitch corrector to see what vibe that brings to your song. Devices like vocal loopers are a great too, letting you try out new rhythms, time signatures and melodies on your won without the need for a band, similarly, the best multitracker recorders let you build up songs and experiment all by yourself.
The songwriting process can be a long, drawn-out affair, and talking of the elusive muse, Bob Dylan said it “cannot be willed, only welcomed”.
The important thing is to stick with it. It’s a skill that, like any skill, needs to be honed. Another master songwriter, Neil Young, points out that failure is part of the process.
“Trust yourself and accept failure as part of the creative process. This will help you overcome your fears and realize that no-one else matters when you’re songwriting. You must be ready for the moment when inspiration takes over, grab it and keep it!”
Now go and write the next Rockin’ in the Free World 🙂
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.