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How to Write a Song?

I might be generalizing a little, but you could answer, “How to write a song?” by using just three words – as it comes. 

Some put forward the idea that it is an intellectual operation. You do this, you do that, in this and that order. A chorus goes here, a verse there, a bridge there.

I will go through how that ‘planned’ process works for the sake of an alternative way of doing things. It might work for some, but never would for me.

Can Anyone Write A Song?

The answer is yes. But, of course, the quality will vary. There will be those to whom it is a natural extension of playing an instrument. There will be others who find it more challenging. And, of course, it becomes very difficult if you are using a method that doesn’t work for you.

But, it is something you will get better at the more you do it. So don’t expect those early efforts to rival John Lennon, Clifford T. Ward, or Mark Knopfler. Nor Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young.

A Process?

There can be a process for everything in life. And it is often the people who step outside of that process that create the best things. And that applies to music more than most things. 

If we had kept a process from the 50s, we’d all still be singing “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window.” But people stepped outside of that. 

Yes, you could argue that there is structure to music. We know there is, but that doesn’t mean there has to be a formal structure to how music is written. 

Do you need a process? 

It can help some, but it can certainly hinder others. What is suggested is that there are seven steps for a way you “could” do it. Not the way you “have” to do it. So, let’s take a look at how some see the process of songwriting. Maybe it will work for you. 

And remember, there is another viewpoint here. Many music theorists will talk about “how” you write a song. I would say there is another issue involved with what is going on. Not only how, but “why” are you writing it?

The Seven Steps

The Seven Steps

According to some “songwriting theorists,” there are seven steps to writing a song.

  1. Picking Your Genre and the Song Structure.
  2. Composing a basic melody.
  3. Building Chord Progressions.
  4. Choose a strumming pattern.
  5. Lyrics, if there are to be any.
  6. Record a rough example.
  7. Record the track.

I want to add an extra step. Tempo. Seems to have been overlooked in the ‘process’ but is very important and can make a fundamental difference. Let’s take them individually.

Picking Your Genre and the Song Structure

That is a two-part statement. Choosing the genre has very little to do with the structure or how it is laid out and in what order.

The Genre

I doubt you will have to “pick” your genre. It will come naturally to you. The great majority of writers stay in a zone where they are comfortable. That is what they are good at, so they tend to stay there. 

Nothing wrong with that. You must “feel” the music as well as write it and play it. It wouldn’t do much good for a writer of gentle ballads to try and write for Motorhead. It isn’t going to work. I don’t think you pick your genre. Your genre tends to pick you.

The Structure

This is how you lay out the song in terms of verses, choruses, and a bridge or solos. This could change as your composition progresses. 

You may have an idea of a structure when you start. But that can change. Especially if you suddenly come up with something that becomes the focal point of the song. 

A Beatles Example

For example, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” has a fairly common Lennon/McCartney structure. That is verse, verse, bridge, another verse, bridge, verse, and a coda to fade. What is interesting about this song is that the coda to fade out is longer than the actual song. Four minutes of just the coda. 

Do you think Paul decided that before he wrote it? Of course not. He hit upon it at some point in the composing effort and realized it had an impact. He then let it dictate its length and course. There is no process to that. That is intuition.

Another Example

In the late 60s, another song did a similar thing. The band was called Steam, and the song was “Na, Na, Hey, Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Basic verse, chorus structure with a long coda fade-out. 

Did the fade-out evolve in the writing process, or was it planned? It was spontaneous at the time of recording, not while it was written. That is an example of the songwriting process continuing even up to the recording stage. I shall talk about this a bit more later.

The structure should not be decided by what a book says. It should be decided by what sounds good to you. What works in the confines of the song is right.

Genre Can Dictate Content

Which genre you choose to write in will affect the musical content. For instance, if it is a jazzy song, you might include plenty of 7th chords. In Rock music, you might use power chord 5ths.

The Tempo

Before we carry on down the list, let me insert my “extra” step here. The tempo of what you are writing is very important. There have been many songs that have either been slowed down or sped up from the original. And on many occasions, there was an improvement.

If you have come up with a melody line or a chorus you like, don’t be afraid to try it in different tempos. It’s only you that is hearing it. And you may suddenly find what you thought was an uptempo pop song is going to make a great ballad.

Composing a Basic Melody

Do you consider the melody to be the verse or the chorus? Believe it or not, some songs don’t have a recognized chorus. It must be the verse with the bridge if there is one. And the chorus, if there is one, tagged on.

Once you think you have your melody, as we have just discussed, try different tempos. Try it with a minor key and then a major key. Which suits the melody more? Perhaps a combination of both.

In Different Keys?

This is a suggestion sometimes made, move the key around. But it is you that will have to sing it. Presumably, you are writing the song in a key you are comfortable with. Don’t stray too far because it will be too high or too low for you.

There is no point putting it in a key you cannot sing because a chord on your guitar happens to sound better there. Also, let me remind you to be open to change. 

If you can hear something better when the chords are added. You may find the basic melody is improved by making just a small change. That is what I will talk about next.

Building Chord Progressions

Building Chord Progressions

You may already have a few chords you like when they are played together. I know personally of at least two songwriters who start the whole process with a chord pattern they like. That isn’t in the process, is it? That would put chord progressions at number one, not number three.

But always be ready to experiment and improvise. Use the ‘Circle of Fifths’ to give you options. If you don’t know what that is, I have attached a link to an explanatory book below for both guitarists and pianists.

The Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths theory can be used to change keys quickly. Excluding maybe one whole tone in each direction, we have discussed the danger of doing that. But, this part of music theory does something else. It can show you the chords to use to make a note sound different.

Try it. Play a ‘D’ note with a ‘D Major’ chord. Fairly straightforward. Now play what the Circle of Fifths will call the dominant minor. That is ‘B minor.’ Interchange the chord between D and B minor whilst keeping the melody note of D. 

You can hear the difference it makes. The Circle of Fifths will give you those options and plenty more besides to improve your songwriting.

Using Chord Progressions

You can use chord progressions to add mood and emotion to your song. A quick change from major to minor will do that. You can also use progressions to build to a climax. Furthermore, using even the simplest progression can give you new ideas for changes to your melody.

Choose a Strumming Pattern

Only for those writing using a guitar, of course. The strumming pattern will be closely linked with whatever tempo you choose. There are different patterns, of course, even for songs in 4/4 of a similar tempo.

The strumming pattern can make a difference, but you need to decide if it will detract from the melody. Most people, when they play, will have only one or two patterns they use most of the time, unless there is a strange time signature.

Genres will also affect any strumming pattern. You would usually find the strumming pattern for a straight four to be different from a reggae song.

Lyrics

That is, of course, if there are to be any. Not all songs have lyrics. It may be that you have written a melody that is strong enough to be an instrumental piece. 

If so, then you are free to set the key at whatever makes the melody and the chords sound best. And you are free to add counterpoint and a range of other theories to add to the song.

It Can Be a Struggle

If you are going to add lyrics, for some, this is the hardest part of writing a song. If you have sat down to write a song, what has inspired you to do that? 

In a lot of cases, the “idea” of the lyrics, not necessarily the lyrics themselves, comes before the music. That can set the tone of what you write musically.

Honesty In The Message

If you listen to Bob Dylan, and especially his very early work, something happens. You overlook the nasal voice that might not be the best or most appealing. It is easy to bypass that because of the honesty and sincerity of what he is singing in his lyrics. 

In the vast majority of his songs, the words will come first. The same applies to a great extent with Paul Simon.

It’s Not About An Organized Format

Organized Format

The point I am making is that the ‘seven steps’ or any other kind of organized format for writing a song don’t really exist. Everyone writes in their own way, which is the most honest answer to… “How to write a song.”

If the words come first, then that is fine. If the chord structure gives you the idea, then that is also fine. And if you get a melody first, there is nothing wrong with that. 

You haven’t got to follow the steps when you build your song. You aren’t building a house where things must be done in a certain order.

Not At All Lyrics Need To Change The World

I have met songwriters who think every time they put out pen to paper; it has to be a seismic event. Earth-shattering truths that will change everything. I don’t go along with that. 

The likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon did it, and the majority took no notice. And if they can’t change things, then what chance do the rest of us have?

So, look at musical alternatives because songs can be fun as well. Lyrics can be just a bit tongue-in-cheek, almost meaningless. Or they can tell a story or make an observation. 

The Masters Of The Art

The Beatles were masters at that. We had “The Long Winding Road,” “Hey Jude,” “Blackbird,” “All You Need Is Love,” and two dozen others that sent a message. 

But then we had “Octopus’s Garden,” “Rocky Racoon,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Obla-di, Obla-da,” and others which were just fun.

The point is don’t be frightened of the lyrics. Write what you think and, in some cases, what you see and feel.

Then What?

So, you have finished your song and are jumping up and down with excitement, but what next. Leave it, don’t let anyone hear it?

You could go down the local High Street with your guitar and give them a blast, but that probably won’t do much. You need to get it recorded so you can hear what you have achieved.

Recording At Home

Computers these days all have some sort of wizardry for recording music. One of the most popular is Garageband on Apple computers. Using that, you can lay down the basic instruments. 

You can add drums, orchestras, some brass, or some weird effects. Then you add delay and reverb to vocals. There is very little you can’t do. It doesn’t get you a professional recording, but it will get you three-quarters of the way there if you know what you are doing.

Other Options

Likewise, you can find multi-track recorders for sale. In some ways, I preferred their simplicity, but you are limited as to what you can do. And there are certain other negatives. But, it will get you a basic recording and, in some cases, quite a good result.

If you are completely stuck, and it’s a simple song, you could even record it on the voice recorder on your smartphone.

Why Record It?

Experienced songwriters have a very good idea of when their song is finished. Or at least nearly complete. The budding songwriter may not be in a position to ‘hear’ that yet. 

Recording it, even in a basic format, allows you to listen to it for a few days. Play it, leave it alone, go back to it. You might hear some things you want to change. Make the arrangement slightly different. Change the tempo or some of the instruments. It could be several things.

Can You Improve On It?

The way you do that is by listening to what you think is the finished song and then asking yourself, “Can I make it better?” But don’t try and change too much. And don’t try and add too much either. Sometimes less is more.

Learning To Compose Music

Compose Music

It is like anything else; you have to learn how to write a song or any musical piece. There isn’t a process or a set format. And you may do it differently every time. But, there are things to learn and to keep learning as you keep writing. Here are some things that might help.

The two items on Circle of Fifths I mentioned earlier, one for guitar and one for piano:

If you want to read some interesting insights into the songwriters themselves. Find out what they think and how they do things. Then Songwriters On Songwriting is a great book. Stuck for a rhyming word? One of my ‘go-to’ resources is The Complete Rhyming Dictionary.

Want to Learn More About Songwriting and Music?

We can help. Have a look at our detailed articles on A Guide To The Chromatic ScaleWhat Is Negative HarmonyThe Dorian ModeWhat is Melody in MusicWhat Is Timbre In Music, and What Is AABA Form In Music for more useful musical information.

Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $300, the Best Cheap Acoustic Guitars Under $200, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, the Best Digital Pianos, and the Best 88-Key Keyboards you can buy in 2023.

How to Write a Song – Final Thoughts

Everyone can do this. I have just laid down some ideas. They are certainly not rules, and I don’t mean them to be. You will find you will write songs in different ways. Something you see will trigger the lyrics. Something you play may trigger a chord structure or a melody. It won’t always work the same way.

It isn’t about rules and formality in how you write. It is about what is best for you and what works. Don’t rush it. You haven’t got to finish it by tomorrow. Just let the ideas develop and mature and see where they take you.

Until next time, let your music play.

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