Where do I start? What order do I write in? When am I finished? A great song doesn’t need to be something that’s masterfully crafted, carefully planned out or painstakingly obsessed over. It just needs to be something you like and are proud of. This guide will walk you through how to write a song, from understanding what makes up a song, finding your inspiration and how to start (and finish!) something you’re really proud of.
Understand what makes up a song
The foundation of a song that helps give it body.
Writing a 4-minute song can feel like a daunting task. Starting with a structure can help you focus on 2 or 3 different elements. Putting those elements together with some connective tissue can get you very far in making a large task manageable.
- Verse – the part that pushes the story forward
- Pre-chorus – the part that builds up to your main hook
- Chorus – the part that reinforces familiarity
- Bridge – the part that transitions between choruses with a different feel and more tension than the verse
Chord Progression / Key
A lot of times we are suffocated by the limitlessness and freedom of songwriting from scratch. Creativity can really flourish through some boundaries to play within. Starting with chords in a particular key does just this. It helps you parse down some of the infinite choices you have when songwriting that tends to overwhelm musicians and keep them from beginning altogether.
The parts of a song that make it unique and keep people listening.
A melody is the main part that people hum along to when listening to a song, starting here can help you focus on creating something you find catchy, building the song around that.
- Try humming your favorite song and actively listen to how the melody moves. Does the pitch ascend or descend? Is it simple or complex? You’d be surprised how breaking down a common melody and translating its attributes (e.g. a slow, simple, ascending line) to your own can generate a lot of melody possibilities.
Rhythm / Groove
A rhythm or groove is a great launching pad to help you start creating instantly. You can jam on top of this and instantly feel like you’re already creating a song, rather than a single line or melody. Play around until you get something that fits the groove, then you can use that as the central hook or starting point to build off of.
- Try breaking down your favorite song into just its rhythm. You can play this rhythm on one note, sing the rhythm or try it out on drums. Record a loop of the groove and jam over the top of it in a different style. Try to create a new melody over the familiar rhythm and your song will take on a whole new life.
Lyrics / Title
Lyrics can come in many forms. Sometimes they are the main storytelling vehicle and other times they are a more simple mechanism for establishing hooks. A good hook will utilize a concise, memorable lyric paired with a catchy melody and rhythm.
- Read lyrics from artists you respect and songs you love. What about those lyrics moves you? Is it the central theme or the way an artist tells the story? Dissecting songs that resonate with you will help you identify what aspects you like and what you should focus on in your own lyric writing.
Find songwriting inspiration
There are many ways to find inspiration in everyday life, you just have to look in the right places or with the right mindset.
Plug in your headphones and put on a song you’ve heard a thousand times, but this time listen actively. Listen to the way the instruments mix with each other, search for elements you haven’t noticed before, close your eyes and try to picture the song in your head.
Search for music written on instruments you’ve never heard before and try to recreate those sounds on your instrument. This can help you think of lines and melodies in a different light, unlocking a whole new toolkit of tricks.
Do something mundane or repetitive
Ever sing or hum to yourself while you’re doing something mundane? Letting your musical mind wander can help you stumble upon a great song idea without the stress of trying to be creative on the spot. Sing what you’re doing and you’ll be surprised what melodies you come up with.
Look for themes in other art
What are some common themes in the movies, music and art that you love? Make a list of all the themes you find, then pick 2-3 unlikely matches and try to connect them. It’s the journey between two destinations where creativity can thrive.
Reflect on personal experiences
Your personal experiences are a unique story that only you can tell. Write down a personal experience you’ve had, positive or negative and pick out some of the grander themes. Write about a particular decision you had to make, how did you hope it would go, what do you wish you did differently? Your strengths and shortcomings in life are some of the most powerful stories you can tell, tell them.
Imagine something greater
Is there a person, place or experience that you wish were more awe-inspiring? Make it. You have the power to think up a world where no one’s ever been. Make up a place that people don’t know they yurn to visit yet. You can describe it in detail to transport the listener there or vaguely to encourage the listener to imagine their own version of your vision.
Start writing your song
Don’t think, just start
So much of creating something is the thought and intent behind that creation, but if you never actually start you’re likely to get stuck in the inspiration phase.
Trim the fat as you go
Starting a piece to work through writer’s block and get something on paper is great but you may be left with parts of a song that don’t sit very well, and our tendency is to change the most recently written part. When you build on top of something you don’t have to keep the base, what you layered on top may be better than what you started with. Ditch the base layer and try to create something new that matches the melodies and lyrics that sit on top.
Use tips and tricks to jumpstart your writing
Starting a song is hard, and it’s much harder without a little help. There are thousands of different exercises you can run through to get your song up and running, the best ones are those that are affective for your process.
Songwriting exercises & tips
10-minute songwriting challenge
Limiting yourself on time is a great way to get something on paper. Set a timer for 10 minutes and only focus on one section of the song (the chorus is a good place to start). Challenge yourself to write all the pieces of that section (rhythm/groove, chord progression, melody, lyrics and hook). Listen back to what you have at the end of the 10 minutes and change the pieces that don’t resonate with you. Put it in front of some people and get feedback on what resonates with them.
Reverse engineer a song
Sometimes creating a song out of thin air seems impossible. Break down a song you really enjoy and modify it to start your song with a template. Drawing inspiration from artists and songs you like can help you start with substance to play along with. Choose one piece of a song you really like and play it on your instrument. Try to identify what about this is pleasing to your ear. Is it the groove? Is it the phrasing? Play it in a different key. Does that produce the same effect for you? Try to identify that and change the other variables until it becomes your own.
Find the common thread
Choose one song feature and repeat it, changing the infrastructure around it. Once you find some pieces that can fit on top of it and connect it to different sections remove the original song feature you started with and you now have a great start that is 100% original to you.
Play a piece backward
Hearing something from a different perspective pays huge dividends in getting your song off the ground. Use a DAW or other software to reverse a piece, an entire song or something you recorded. The random glitches, quirks and unexpected rhythms will open up your thinking to brand new areas of songwriting.
Finish writing your song
Don’t be afraid to fail – creative types, whether their artists, musicians or performers have the tendency to not show off anything until its complete and mastered. This is natural because you want to show off your best work but it also holds people back from getting great feedback, feedback that can elevate your work even higher. Don’t think of putting a work in progress and getting feedback as any negative or failure, just an opportunity to get better. Songs are never “complete”, even after they are written, recorded and distributed. They’ll live on as long as you’re playing them and people are listening to them, don’t be afraid to let them evolve with you.