How Do I Write a Song?
Learning how to write a song can either be very simple and subconscious, or a sudden meeting with the overwhelming vastness of a blank page. The beauty of writing a song is that it’s something that will come to you when you least expect it, and this will happen more and more if you continuously put in the effort to write. So, if at first the ideas don’t come – keep trying, keep writing, keep listening and looking for inspiration, and eventually it will become as natural to you as preparing a meal.
For those already in a position of having written dozens or even hundreds of songs before now, the art or gift of song writing is a total blessing – it’s akin to keeping a diary, with added creative drive. Knowing how to write a song is a therapeutic form of expression that we can rely on time and time again to help us interpret and understand a certain situation or series of thoughts that we may be having. We even have the added blessing of being able to choose whether or not to share our newly written songs with anyone, or to just keep them for ourselves. For those who are yet to really get started though, and are eager to be able to create what those we admire seem to create so effortlessly – the concept can seem a little out of reach. An easy way to get started with writing a song, is to simply start playing around with melodies.
Building a Chord Sequence
Pick up your instrument, or simply start singing – have a note pad or laptop to hand to note down any lyrics or ideas, and preferably a recording device ready to go in case you come up with something you really like. The important thing to remember is that you really need to get into the swing of writing songs, so don’t stop until you have a complete idea – even if you think it’s no good, or cheesy, or a little too much like something else – just veer yourself in a slightly different direction and try to finish up with a three or four minute song.
Listening to music regularly is a great way to get used to how songs are structured and crafted. Some songs will literally tell you how to write something great – Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the perfect example; listen to the words of the song and follow the chords and the notes as you do. His lyrics quite literally tell you how to a write a song. There’s a definite formula to what sounds good! The problem is though, there are now so very many pop songs that follow these formulas, that it’s become a little tiresome. But, you can avoid that fate with a little of your own personality and creative flair – we’ll get around to this in more detail in a later session.
If you find yourself struggling to put chords together, try learning the chords to a song you know and like – you can search the chords or tabs to most songs online these days – and maybe just write a different melody over it to help you get used to the whole concept. You can even switch the chords around, try them in reverse, just keep experimenting and you’ll learn pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.
Basic Songwriting Structure
The standard or most common way to write a song, particularly the sort you’d hear on mainstream radio, is to follow a fairly set structure. You open with an introduction, around 30 seconds is the expected industry standard, then you write a verse, followed by a pre-chorus, followed by a chorus. You do the same again, two or three verses is the norm, and for a really strong structure that is more likely to keep your audience interested – add a bridge or middle eight just before the final (third or fourth) chorus. What separates these sections of the song is the melody, and, if possible, the expression of the storytelling.
For example, if the verse sets the scene – describes what happened – then the pre-chorus could be the ‘how it makes you feel’ section, and the chorus could be all about the resolve – how will you get past it? The change in chords and melody will notify listeners of the change, so the lyrics will be easier to follow and understand, just make sure to keep it on topic. If it’s an abstract, less obvious song, lyrically speaking, at least have a definite theme or set of feelings in mind that you can work with, then let your poetic mind fill in the gaps. There are no laws about how to write a song; as mentioned, it’s a form of creative freedom, but there are definitely ways to make it something that other people are more likely to enjoy.
Creating a Melody
If you have a guitar or piano to hand, or a laptop or phone that allows you to formulate a chord sequence and leave it on loop, this is the best way to start writing a new song. A little bit of music theory will help, but also – just listening to a lot of music over time will embed some musical awareness in most people; you’ll start to grasp a general idea of how songs are written.
As a general rule, you can hear which chords sound good in a sequence and which do not, but if you do want to develop your skills – it’s really worth while brushing up on your music theory. There are many sites online that can help with this, you could even find a teacher, or head down to your local library and learn a little more about it that way.
Once you have a series of three or four chords on loop, you’re ready to create your melody line over the top. (You could use less than three chords if you wish, or more – the great thing about song writing is that it’s a medium for exercising complete creative freedom, so there aren’t technically any rules, there are only guidelines based on what has worked well among audiences in the past. At the end of the day, these early writing sessions are purely for you, so go ahead and create whatever feels right or sounds right for you in the moment. How to write a song that you like is something you will work out for yourself the more you try.)
There are many websites, books, and Youtube clips that will give you a rundown of which notes can be used effectively over which chord sequences. The possibilities are vast, so just play the loop over a few times and start singing (or, if preferred, adding a musical riff, with your guitar perhaps).
The more you embrace the sequence, the loop, the more you’ll find yourself submerged in the moment, and the more likely you are to come up with something – your mind will want to fill in the gaps with some sort of melody, because that’s what it’s so used to hearing on the radio and in the media. Play around with a few different melodies and see which one you enjoy the most.
If you already have some poetry or lyrics to hand for the new song, then sing the various melodies to those and see if any of them express the idea just right – see if you come across something that sounds and feels just right for what you’re trying to say. Before long, you’re highly likely to stumble upon a combination that just sounds great to you – it sounds new, it feels good to express the ideas in this way, and you’re somewhat addicted to singing the new verse over and over. Voilá! Congratulations on starting your brand new song 🙂
Coming Up With a Chorus
When it comes to popular music, the average person is far more likely to respond to and remember a song that has a catchy chorus. That is to say – a chorus or hook that sticks in their mind, one that they enjoy singing along to, one that they understand and can relate to.
Look at any great pop song from the past, regardless of genre or the year that it was written or released, you will notice that the chorus is the part most people know it for – and you’ll notice, furthermore, that most of history’s more popular songs have had a somewhat striking chorus section.
So, how do you write a chorus for your new song? Well, if you’re working in the rather regimented order of this article, you should already have a basic chord pattern and a verse melody with some sort of concept or lyrical theme going on by this point. It’s worth mentioning though, that a lot of great songwriters will say that they thought of the chorus way before anything else. As mentioned earlier, the more you write, the more the ideas will come, and soon enough you’ll just be driving along one day and a massive chorus melody or idea will come into your head that you don’t recognise. When this happens – please pull over safely, and as soon as you are out of harms way – record the idea!
For the purpose of having to write though, planned writing, as opposed to a sudden stream of consciousness, let’s look at how to write a chorus for your new song.
First of all, you’ll probably need a little of that music theory again to help you take the chord sequence of your verse to the next level. Learn about the natural progression of chords, or perhaps even learn how to play some of your favourite songs, and see if inspiration takes you somewhere pleasant and new. In most cases, the chorus will be a change of notes, perhaps even a change of key, and will have more impact on it’s audience than the verses.
You’ll need a memorable rhyme scheme for this section in particular; make it something to look forward to, and choose a melody that is somewhat simpler than the verses, so that you can repeat the key melody and the key line to make it clear that this is the pinnacle of your song. Some examples of this in action are I will always love you and Creep. Everyone knows the chorus, everyone joins in for the chorus, but if we’re being completely honest; regardless of how famous the song is, most people just mumble their way through the verses, waiting for that big moment – that comforting, familiar moment.
What Mood Are You Setting?
If you’ve written your song in a minor key, you might want to consider the mood of your song on the whole – do you want an uplifting chorus that contrasts with the sadness of the verses, or do you want a hugely emotional song that people can listen to when they’re sad and want to feel understood? It’s entirely up to you how you write your song, but try to be aware of how the verses, the pre-chorus, and the chorus all sound – individually and together – and whether or not that’s the feeling you want to put across.
If you’re writing an upbeat, energetic little ditty – maybe try to keep it upbeat and joyful for the purpose of practicing your song writing. You can play around with creative freedom more and more once you’ve gotten into the swing of things. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll know the basic principles of how to write a song, and the rest is up to you!
When is Your Song Finished? When does a Song Become a Song?
In all honesty, once you’ve written two verses and a chorus – you can consider it a job well done. Many song writers write part of an idea and come back to it later, again and again, to fill in the gaps – to really craft something epic and special. Once you’ve written even just the basic principles of your song, if you’re happy with it – make sure you learn it inside out, and then the more you play it, the more you’ll be aware of what might be missing from it, or what maybe needs to be changed.
In the same way that it helps to listen to songs you like, to learn about how to write good songs, it can also be useful to listen to songs you don’t like. Why don’t you like them?
Nowadays you can find different singers for any number of songs, so if it’s the voice you don’t like, try to see past that and focus on the melodies and the subject matter – is it just not relevant to you? Is it boring? At what point does it get boring, and how might you have written it differently to re-capture your audiences attention before it’s too late?
As with anything in life, practice is the way to get better. Keep writing songs until it becomes a habit, until it’s simply something that you can’t not do – it’s something you have to do, it’s a creative release for you. Once you know, you’ll never again have to ask how to write a song – it will, hopefully, always be a part of you.
It doesn’t matter if half or even all of the songs you write are not what you think of as good – the more you write, the closer you’ll get to that one work of art that really speaks volumes. Many successful people are only known for their major success, but so many of them would tell you that there were many, many failures before this; you may have to get it wrong a fair few times before you can get it right. And remember, even the most famous songwriters at one point in their lives didn’t know how to write a song. Everybody has to start somewhere.
Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Especially not with something so wonderful as songwriting. Try not to see it as a chore or a job, try to see it as something you’re doing to feel better – something that makes you enjoy life more, that makes you feel fulfilled, and something that you want to be great at someday. Keep working at it, do it for fun, do it every day, and soon enough you’ll be a natural.
We’ll talk more about the intricate details of how to write songs that mean something in the next issue – hopefully for now though you feel a little more confident in your knowledge of how to write a song, so you can at least get started. The main thing to remember is to just get doing it; get started and see where it takes you. Enjoy the process!
Photos from Pexels.