- The inspiration stage
- What are the different musical elements of a song?
- What are the different sections of a song?
- Song structure
- Where to start when writing a song?
- How to write the vocal melody
- How to write backing vocals
- How to write lyrics
- How to write in different time signatures
- Tips on writing songs in a band
- Some bonus songwriting tips
You’ve spent all your money on equipment for your home studio. You sit down ready to record the album the world has been waiting for and then you realise you have no idea how to write a song! You can come up with little riffs and melodies but getting this to translate into a final musical piece is harder than you might think.
I struggled with this for a while. My computer was full of synth melodies and basslines I had recorded in a moment of inspiration, but I had very few things resembling actual songs. And at the end of the day that is what most of us want to make. You will find it hard to get any fans who want to listen to a few random synth riffs you came up with late one night.
In this article, I want to try and add some structure and advice to the songwriting process for a beginner. Where should you start? How do you turn loops and ideas into a fully finished song? How many instruments is too many? How to write a melody and lyrics? These are just a few things I will try and cover here.
I guess in this article I am giving tips on writing a pop or rock song. With the structure and ideas, you would expect to find in those genres. Ideas on vocal melodies and structure won’t be as applicable if you are writing electronic dance music. But I think you should approach songwriting with an open mind. Composing music is an art form after all and you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment by mixing ideas and blending genres. Yes, tips will be applicable to other genres, but I won’t be going into the more complex elements genres such as jazz or classical in this article.
There is no correct way to write a great song. This guide isn’t meant to be a strict instruction manual but it should help you at the beginning of your songwriting journey. This is the usual order I follow but feel free to swap sections around as they are interchangeable.
I’ve also included some video clips of some famous artists too. Either direct examples from their songs or interview clips where they explain why they do certain things. I hope they will be useful when you are learning how to write a song.
The inspiration stage
You’ve got to start somewhere
As with any art form, there are a number of ways you can get from the starting point to the finish line. But usually, there will be a moment of inspiration that will be the initial spark that starts the songwriting process.
These moments of inspiration can occur at any time and anywhere. It could be in the middle of the night or on the bus to work. So be prepared and get into the habit of jotting down notes in a notepad or on your phone. Having a digital notepad and recording device on us at all times is amazingly handy, and something songwriters of 20 years ago would be extremely jealous of I’m sure.
I use Evernote on my phone and every time I think of a potential song lyric, idea for a song or just general thoughts and ramblings I write them down in there. I really hope nobody hacks it as that would be very embarrassing and as stand-alone gibberish, make me seem a bit mad. But when I come to sit down and write lyrics for a song this madness is gold dust and can save me loads of time.
I’ll also jot things down when I hear something I like on the car radio or in a bar/ club…”check out bass line from song X” for example. I then find this note about a week later, listen and most of the time wondering what I was on about. But occasionally it fills me with inspiration. Of course, don’t copy other people’s music, but borrowing ideas and being inspired is where we all have to start.
My phone also comes in handy when I think of a potential melody or hook for a song. I’ll turn on the voice recorder app and then just hum into it. Again, I hope nobody discovers my phone!
Here is one I found on my phone. It’s terrible yes, and quite embarrassing, but it could form the start of a song with a bit….ok a lot of work. You guys can have use that one for free.
So get into the habit, you never know which random lyric idea or mumbled melody could help you write a hit tune!
What are the different musical elements of a song?
No matter what genre of music you are writing there categories that sounds can be grouped into. A song can be as simple as you and a guitar. Or it can be as complicated as 50 different instruments layering up on top of one another. When learning how to write a song it is useful to know the most common elements you are likely to use.
A Rhythm Section
If you are writing a song for a full band you will most likely want to include some rhythm. This role does not have to be filled by one instrument in particular and the rhythm section of your song could be comprised of a number of instruments playing together. But the most likely parts are:
A key rhythm element in many musical styles.
Drums vary greatly depending on the genre. In older styles of music such as country in the 1950s, the drums were simply used as a timekeeping device for the band. But if you listen to jazz music or heavy metal the drums are a key part of the track, varying constantly and providing a key point of listening interest.
The bass or ‘bass line’ is an important element of any song. The best way to think about bass is as the ‘foundation’ of the track. The roots of the musical tree that is your song.
The importance of the bass varies between genres. But in pretty much all genres it is the foundation in terms of the rhythm but also the foundation in terms of the lower frequencies that everything else is built on top of.
In more classical styles of music, the bass tends to play longer and slower notes than the other instruments that play at higher frequencies. This creates a fuller sound as more frequencies in the spectrum are covered. At the other end of the scale, you have jazz and funk basslines, where the bass is arguably the most important part of the track. It is typically played at a much faster tempo and provides a groove to the song.
So bass is always important to have to make your song sound complete, but the importance of it will vary between genres and between songs depending on what you are trying to create. It doesn’t have to be a bass guitar either. Bass can be comprised of synth or strings too, anything at lower frequencies.
Other rhythmic elements
Other instruments can complement the rhythm section or add rhythm themselves. Strumming chords on a guitar can be quite boring if you just strum once on every beat. So many guitarists will add a strumming pattern to their chords to further add some groove to the song.
When writing a song, on top of the various elements that make the rhythmic foundation of your song, you are going to want to add a variety of lead parts. Lead parts add interest and variety throughout the song.
Vocals (Melody and Lyrics)
Vital in most contemporary pop and rock music is the vocals. The vocal track is the part that stands out above everything else and is the part your listeners are most likely to remember.
The vocals provide interest in terms of the melody (tune) that they follow. But they also provide interest in terms of telling a story. Later in this article, I will explain in detail how to start writing lyrics and melodies for your songs.
Lead instrument parts
Lead instrument parts can be played on a range of instruments such as guitar, synth, pianos. The part will tend to sit higher in the frequency spectrum than the bassline and thus sounding brighter and more noticeable to the listener. Lead part can be constant and play through entire tracks or they can be small sections of interest such as solos.
So now you know the basic elements of a pop/rock song how do they all come together structurally when writing a complete song?
What are the different sections of a song?
Once you have some inspirational starting points you are ready to sit down and start planning out your song. When writing a song, I will usually start by setting out the structure, this can change as the writing process continues.
Typically songs have one or more of the following elements, in various orders and repeated various numbers of times:
Pop/ contemporary music is now pretty much all based around a verse-chorus structure, with the other bits added in around them to complete the song. But this is only a relatively modern tradition.
Some genres are much more confusing!
Before this, other structures were the norm and these will probably not be applicable to you. In the Baroque period (17th and 18th century) for example the ‘binary form’ popular in dances at the time. This had two sections (hence binary).
But don’t worry…. I’m not going to explain classical music in detail in this article. People do entire degrees learning that stuff and this article will be long enough as it is! I’m going to stick to what I know and have done in the past and that is pop/ rock. And I may stray into a bit of electronic music too.
From around the 1950s onwards the verse-chorus based structure that we are familiar with today has been the ‘go-to’ for pop music composers when writing a song.
In the following sections I will describe the function of each of these song sections, starting with the verse and chorus and then adding other elements.
The verse is most likely to take up the majority of time in your song. In pop and rock music, the verse is used to ‘tell the story’. It is the part of the song where you as an artist can most clearly communicate your lyrical message.
The word originates from a section within a poem and in the same way as many poetic stanzas have a rhyming scheme. Take the lyrics of a song you know and read them like a poem and you will see what I mean:
Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know
That something wasn’t right here
Oh baby, baby, I shouldn’t have let you go
And now you’re out of sight, yeah
And what a poem it would be. The story is there: how was she supposed to know that something wasn’t right? She’s let them go and now they are out of sight.
The poetic rhyming is there too. Notice here how Britney has cleverly rhymed know and go, and then arguably even more cleverly rhymed here and yeah. This is one form of rhyming pattern ABAB or you may see AABB such as Teenage Kicks:
I’m gonna call her on the telephone
Have her over ‘cos I’m all alone
I need excitement I need it bad
And it’s the best I ever had
I’ll come onto lyric writing and rhyming types in more detail later in the article but I hope that shows the basic idea of what constitutes a basic verse in pop music.
A verse will usually appear more than once within a song and although having the same musical composition will likely have different lyrics. It is common to have a sense of momentum building and forward movement within verses as the song progresses. This might be the addition of extra instrument parts or the addition of backing singing.
The chorus is usually the most memorable part of the song for the listener. It contrasts against the verse in some way either rhythmically, harmonically or dynamically. It is often louder, yes, but it is the contrast in volume that is key. You also often add more instrumental parts and backing singing (which is where the word ‘chorus’ originates).
As with the verse the chorus is likely to occur multiple times throughout the song. But unlike the verse, the chorus usually remains the same musically and lyrically each time. It provides a periodic sense of return as the song narrative progresses in a forward direction.
Lyrically the chorus is usually simpler and therefore sticks in the head of the listener more. It also often contains the title of the song within it. You are effectively provided a summary/ key take-home message for your song and not trying to describe anything in deep detail.
Here is Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters writing a very simple chorus on the spot. As he says here when writing a song, the chorus doesn’t even need to change chords it just has to contrast in some way to the verse:
A pre-chorus is often used when writing a song to ease the transition between verse and chorus. Sometimes the chorus can be in a different key or a different tempo and just jumping directly into it from the verse can sound unnatural and weird.
The pre-chorus is often quite short, hence why it is only called the pre-chorus and doesn’t get it’s own full name. It is often four bars long but can be even shorter.
If one pre-chorus in your song contains a pre-chorus it is likely they all will.
Below is a video of ‘Time Is Running Out’ by Muse. You can see how jumping straight from the spooky-sounding verse into the loud rocky chorus would seem strange. But by adding a pre-chorus the transition is smooth. You can also feel the anticipation building up before it kicks in:
Sometimes going straight from the loud energetic chorus straight back into the verse can sound forced and weird. So to get around this some songwriters will use an element known as a ‘tag’ or ‘turnaround’. The name comes from the fact it is ‘tagged’ onto the end of a chorus.
So think of it doing the opposite job of the pre-chorus. Instead of building you up to a chorus it is easing the transition back into the verse. These are usually only as long as 2-4 bars.
There are plenty of songs that simply alternate between a verse and a chorus. But to add a bit of variety and to keep the listener interested a common tactic is to use a bridge or breakdown.
This section contrasts with the rest of the song, often dramatically. This could be a dramatic change in dynamics or lyrics but often involves something as contrasting as a change in tempo or a temporary change in key.
The name bridge comes from the fact that it ‘bridges’ the gap between two choruses, more often than not the last two choruses. This change can provide an emotional shift for the listener, temporarily taking the story in a different direction. This could be a feeling of doubt or it could build even more excitement before the return to the chorus.
It is also often shorter than a standard verse.
What is the difference between a bridge and a middle 8?
In rock music, in particular, you may hear of a section of the song called the ‘middle 8’. It is called this because it is usually somewhere in the middle of the song and usually 8 bars long. The terms are often used interchangeably.
Below is an example from the middle of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Notice the quite radical change from the verse and chorus. The listener is taken away from the comfort and familiarity of the regular structure before being thrust back into the final chorus with an added guitar solo to make it even better:
Similar to a bridge in many ways you may wish to add an instrumental or solo when you write a song, to provide a temporary change from the verse-chorus alternations.
The instrumental or solo is a section without any lyrical content and is a section to potentially showcase an interesting musical idea (or just show off a bit).
Guitar solos were particularly prominent in rock music in the 80s and 90s and don’t seem to be as common these days. But they can provide a really interesting and energetic section. Usually played over the same underlying music as the chorus but arguably bringing even more energy. The lyrics may then come back in for the final chorus whilst the guitar solo continues underneath.
A drop is an element of a song that is only really relevant if you want to write a dance song. In rock and pop music the chorus is pretty much always the section with the biggest impact, but in dance music, this may not be the case. You still get a chorus but it will be followed by a section with even higher energy designed to get the audience dancing. That is known as a ‘drop’.
This is the introduction. For some reason always shortened to ‘intro’ because we musicians are cool like that. It is quite rare that a song starts immediately with a verse. Songs often have an opening section that precedes the first verse and eases us into the song.
The intro doesn’t usually have lyrics but it establishes the tempo, key and rhythm amongst other things. In contemporary music, a classic intro technique is to start with a low number of instruments playing and then introduce other instruments building up towards the first verse.
Again, it is good to think of writing a song in the same way as writing a story. The introduction is almost like the cover of the book or the opening credits of a film. It lets you know a bit about what you are in for. Is it a high energy rock track in a major key? Or is it a slow melodic song in a minor key? Is it worth carrying on listening to?!? Then by the time the story really starts at the first verse when the lyrics appear then you are geared up for what is to come.
Intros are a pretty big deal in a lot of classic rock songs. Often transferring fantastically into live performances. Below is one of my favourite intros by AC/DC.
You probably guessed that the outro comes at the end of your song. Although unlike the intro it isn’t short for outroduction….
Of course, you can just end the song abruptly after a final chorus, and many songs do just that. But that might feel like the equivalent of a film where the hero kills the villain and doesn’t return home after. An outro is the conclusion to the song and wraps it up.
The outro can vary massively depending on how you want your listeners to feel once the song finishes. Some songs build towards the outro and the outro can be the most memorable section bringing a triumphant conclusion to proceedings.
Something like one day like this by Elbow:
An outro can mirror the intro of your song. It says ‘here we are back where we started’. The example below from Linken Park where the song ends with the same piano it started with. This adds that cinematic feel to the song and completes the story:
Another common outro technique is to continue the same chord progression and melody of the chorus but progressively getting quieter as parts drop out and the song finishes.
Now you have the building blocks from which to build your song. But which is the best way to order them?
Of course, there isn’t a right answer to this. There isn’t a right answer to anything when you write a song. But I will go through some of the most common structures we see in most music as there music be some reason why they are so common.
As I’ve mentioned we like a song to tell a story and some structures allow us to tell better stories. Always think of the song as a journey and not just a series of blocks stuck together.
The Verse-Chorus Structure
One structure that lends itself best to storytelling and therefore the one that is probably most common in pop music is the verse-chorus structure. This structure tends to alternate between verses and choruses and in it’s most basic form would look like:
Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
The verses and choruses form the foundation for this structure. But usually, other elements will be slotted in around them to make the song more interesting. By adding some of the different elements we mentioned above into the verse-chorus structure you end up with the very common structure:
Intro – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
If you are a beginner and new to the world of songwriting then for your first few songs I recommend sticking to this structure. Maybe you won’t write the most groundbreaking song anyone has ever heard but it will keep you sane and you may actually finish them! And not finishing songs is one of the most common problems in songwriting. I bet if you go through 10 of your favourite songs a good percentage will follow this structure, maybe adding an outro on the end too.
The best thing about this structure is it is the repetition. You only need to write the chorus once, then repeat three times and the verse music once and just write different lyrics the second time. A quick side note is that yes you want to keep the verse similar but not identical. You need to keep the forward momentum of the song but keep it similar. Perhaps this is adding some extra parts in the background or maybe some backing vocals. Keep your listener interested!
The AABA structure – The Ballad Form
Song structures are often written down with letters rather than descriptive words. This provides a quick visual representation of the structure. So written out, the AABA structure is:
Verse – Verse – Bridge – Verse
The AABA structure was very popular in the first half of the 20th century, with the songs usually being 32 bars with each section being 8 bars long.
These types of songs don’t have big choruses but often have a part of the verse that is repeated (usually at its end) that sort of plays the role of the chorus. This could be the song title for example. The bridge is arguably even more important in this structure than in the previous structure. It provides the vital contrast to the verse which is probably getting a bit repetitive by the end of the section time through.
Yesterday by The Beatles is a good example of a variation on this structure. The “I believe in yesterday” line acts almost like a chorus but is actually just a refrain at the end of each verse. In yesterday and also in other songs of this structure the first line of the verse also repeats and acts as another memorable hook.
This song is actually AABABA. An extra BA is often added on the end as otherwise the song would only be about one minute long.
ABACABA – Rondo Form
Rondo is more synonymous with classical music. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, last movement for example…..you get the idea. It is all about the A part which is effectively the chorus interspersed with B and C parts which add a bit of contrast.
I’m not going to go into lots of detail on this structure as I don’t think you are likely to use it.
Which Song Structure To Choose?
As I said I really recommend starting your songwriting journey with something along the lines of Intro – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus. You can add some extra sections or take others away but you will find it easiest to create a story and get the song finished.
If you have a particularly strong story you want to tell lyrically, then the Ballad can be a great option. You get the extra uninterrupted verses to delve deep into a story and not distract the listener with the various other elements.
These structures are just starting points and it doesn’t mean you can’t experiment. But the importance of structure should not be underestimated either, as it really affects the overall mood of the song. If you are going for an epic song, you want it to build and build into a big crescendo at the end where everyone is singing along. But if you have a really heartfelt complex message you want to sing about then maybe starting with verse – verse will help you tell the story more clearly.
Which part to start with when writing a song
One of the most common questions is do you write the lyrics or the song first? Well, those are two options yes. But the truth is the songwriting process can start almost anywhere. The important part is to start.
Starting with the Lyrics
If you have a really strong concept for a song, then you may want to try writing some lines first and then trying to build the music around those words.
When I write a song, I really struggle with this as a technique but some people swear by it. They swear that the lyrics are such an integral part of any song that they should dictate the way the music sounds.
I’m going to try and do it more because I believe if you change your style of writing and the order of composition you end up with a more interesting array of songs.
Starting with the drums (the groove)
A common tactic, particularly for rap or hip-hop producers, is to start with a drum beat or groove. So if you are working in those genres it may be a good approach.
For rock and pop music however, the drums aren’t usually as central to the song and it is rare to build around them. But it can work. Use a drum machine or sampled drums in your DAW to start a looping beat and then begin to layer things over the top.
Here’s Mick Jagger explaining how he needs drums very early in the process of writing a rock song:
Starting with a bassline
This is a favourite of mine for certain genres of music. The bassline can form the foundation for which to build other parts around. This is particularly true if you want to write a track that people will dance too. Whether that be funk or electronic dance music they all rely on a strong bassline groove.
It can be far too easy to write all the other parts and then just get the bass to follow along to the root notes. Mirroring the guitar chords closely, perhaps changing ever so slightly. This works fine in many situations and if you are trying to create a driving rock song then maybe a complicated bassline won’t fit as well.
If you fancy making a really funky track that will get people dancing, starting with a great bassline and building around that can be a great method to test out.
Here’s Tom Petty talking about the importance of a great groove:
Plan out the song and arrangement on paper
This is a more advanced technique but one I use more frequently these days.
By sitting down and planning out your song on paper you can start to figure out how it is going to come together. I don’t mean actually writing the musical notes out (unless you are that advanced!) although you can write out basic chord progressions.
The key is to write the structure out, jot down a few notes on the theme and potential lyrics. Will the song build throughout? Will the verse be much softer than the chorus? Getting your ideas out of your head and onto paper can be a great way to start writing a song.
Start with a chord progression
A very common way to start writing a song is with a chord progression. The truth is that you will be hard-pressed to come up with a chord progression that hasn’t been done before and so starting with progressions that are known to work can really help you get started.
The two instruments you are probably most likely to write chords on are a guitar or piano.
So I’ll give you a little process for how to really quickly write a chord progression that is guaranteed to be a great base to any song.
- As a beginner, it is probably advisable to start in a major key, as the majority of music is in a major key. Yes, you can get onto weirder minor stuff later but when learning how to write I would advise starting major.
- Pick a key to write the progression in, let’s use C major as an example.
- Now you want to build your progression around the scale of C major which is C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
- The easiest way to then get a good progression is to use diatonic chords. The diatonic chords in a major scale include some minor chords (that doesn’t mean the song isn’t in a major key) and follows the structure:
Major – Minor – Minor – Major – Major – Minor – Diminished*
*I’m going to leave off the diminished chord in this example as it is a little complicated when you first begin songwriting.
This is often expressed as roman numerals, with upper case representing major and lower case minor:
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi
So in the case of the C major scale that gives you:
Cmajor – Dminor- Eminor – Fmajor – Gmajor – Aminor
- You always start a chord progression on the root chord so here that is the Cmajor. And begin with a simple 4 chord progression.
- The second and third chord can be any of the others
- The fourth chord should be either iV or V in most cases as this brings you more nicely back in a loop to the next Cmajor chord.
As with all these tips, that is simply a starting point to get you writing and there is nothing to stop you putting any chords together. There are loads of websites out there with charts of common chord progressions for you to use (this website goes into ridiculous detail). Have a look at some of you favourite songs and see which chord progressions they use. You’ll be surprised how many are very similar to one another.
A good resource for this is Ultimate Guitar where you can look up the chords for the majority of popular songs.
How to write a vocal melody
So now you’ve hopefully got some basic elements of your song down so it is probably time to start thinking about the vocals.
Too often (myself included here) people leave the vocal melody till the end and just sing the first thing that comes into their head. Bizarre when it is the part that most people will remember. You’d have to write a pretty killer drum part to get people humming along to that.
But how do we write a good melody?
This is a favourite trick of mine when initially trying to get some ideas down for a melody. At this stage, I’m not worried about lyrics or who hears me so I just sing random words over the top of the track until I get something that sounds good. I literally sing anything that comes into my head. Maybe I’ll pick a vague subject such as ‘cats’ and then I’ll just sing random stuff that pops into my head about cats. It could literally be anything just vague semi-coherent sounds.
It is important to use random words and sounds that vary rather than just humming or using the same word over and over because you want to create different sounds.
Here’s John Mayer explaining the importance of starting early with your demo vocals:
How to write backing vocals
Backing vocals are most common in a chorus but can occur anywhere in your track. They can be used to create harmonies and add some more excitement in a melody. But they do require quite a bit of thought and planning to execute well.
Adding backing vocals is another way to add contrast between the chorus and the verse, making it really stand out as the most important part of the song. As with any element don’t simply add it because you feel it is the right thing to do. If it makes the song sound messy or confused then don’t bother.
There are a few different techniques that are quite common:
Same melody different octave
Simply singing the same melody as the lead vocal but maybe an octave higher/ lower can work as a very basic form of harmony.
Using a different melody
Using a slightly different melody can be a great way to add texture with backing vocals. For example, when the lead vocal goes up the scale perhaps the backing vocal could go down the scales instead. Obviously, you don’t want to have an entirely different melody, the rhythm still needs to be the same, but just adding something slightly different can be a useful trick.
Only on certain sections or words
The backing vocals don’t need to mirror all the lyrics in a chorus or verse and can just be added on small sections or phrases to make them stand out. Perhaps you have a line that you want to be the hook that listeners remember. Adding a backing vocal on that section or phrase will really make it stand out.
You don’t have to sing lyrics either. The backing vocals can be used more as another instrument by adding sounds rather than a lyric. This might be a ‘hum’, a ‘doo-bop’ a ‘la’ anything you want it to be.
How to write lyrics
You’ve got a melody down, but not many songs are successful with only humming or doo-bop sounds, so you probably want some lyrics.
I’ll warn you now, writing good lyrics is really hard. It should be thought of as a skill, just like learning an instrument. It will take time and a lot of practice. But it can be the most fun and exciting part of songwriting once you start to get it right.
There are entire books dedicated to writing better lyrics (I recommend this one in particular) so in this article I won’t cover everything. I will, however, give some tips and outline advice that should hopefully get you started.
Deciding what to write about
This is more than likely going to be your starting point. It is much better to have a clear idea of what you want to write about before you start putting pen to paper.
This is where the habit of writing stuff down all the time can be really handy. I will jot stuff down like “why does everyone wait till the 1st of January to change?”. It’s just a thought I had but it’s a starting point. On it’s own it might not be a great line, its very rare I will take the mad scribblings from my notebook and use them directly. But this line does give me a potential theme to write a song about. It could just be the catalyst for writing a song around the theme of personal change.
The key is to get into a habit of writing often, perhaps a regularly scheduled time every day. Then every so often you can condense those thoughts down to the best which you can take forward to use in your songs.
Does it need to be autobiographical?
Not necessarily. It’s true a huge number of songs are written autobiographically. It is easier to access your own feelings around a subject and use personal experiences than it is to attempt to imagine what someone else is going through. If you write a song about being lost on a ship at sea, but you’ve never been on a boat, it will be hard to paint a strong picture. It is definitely possible though and shouldn’t be ruled out, it just depends how good your imagination is. Don’t be afraid to be creative and try something different. Every single song you write doesn’t need to be about falling in love.
Or just do what Kurt did and write about nothing in particular and then come up with an explanation later….
Pick a subject and brainstorm!
As I mentioned earlier in the article there is nothing worse than trying to force each line of your song out one by one. I like to get loads of ideas down on paper before I start trying to write lyrics.
So firstly I’ll try not to overthink and just write whatever comes into my head. Say I want to write a song about cakes, I might write down soft, delicious, gingerbread, over, baking, heat, gooey, brownie, cookies. Or more abstract things like comfort and guilt. After this, you will end up with a piece of paper that looks like the scribblings of a maniac, but you will have a lot of ideas when it comes to writing those lyrics.
Then you can start diving into the thesaurus to look up other words that you perhaps didn’t think of.
Connecting with emotions and senses
There’s a reason so many songs are written about love. It is one of the strongest human emotions and one that virtually everyone has a connection too. You as the songwriter are in charge of setting the mood and establishing how you want the listener to feel. This will come from a combination of the music style and key along with the lyrics. But the lyrics are a very important part. In fact, sometimes I’ll have written the music for a song and start to add lyrics to it but realise the lyrics are darker than the music. To fit better I may then change the key or tempo of the song to better suit the lyrical content. The key is to be flexible throughout the process.
So think about connecting with emotions to get the listeners intrigued and attached. Then focus on connecting with their senses. This is what makes lyric writing so tricky. In a book or film you have a long time to introduce a character and set the scene. In a song you don’t have long, you have to get to the point as quickly as possible. But connecting with the listener’s senses can quickly paint a picture in their mind in just a few words and is a great technique.
Connect to the main senses:
Then on top of that using descriptive adjectives will make the image clearer still. Instead of “the girl with the beautiful eyes” just changing to “the girl with the beautiful brown eyes” makes it so much more relatable and powerful.
Finding a lyrical hook
The lyrical hook is a key element of almost every pop music track. As the name suggests it is what hooks the listeners and has them wanting to listen over and over again.
The hook is usually found within the chorus, repeated enough times throughout the song to ‘hook’ the listener. For many well-known songs, unless you are a dedicated fan of the particular band. You will probably struggle to recall an entire verse or even an entire chorus. But you are likely to be able to recall the hook. That is helped by the fact the hook is often contained in the song title.
With the chorus containing the main theme of the song, the hook gets right to the heart of that theme. With it being so important, it is worth spending time on writing a good hook.
It doesn’t have to be obvious. If you look for the hook in many of your favourite songs it may stick with you but it won’t necessarily reveal the full story. It is more important for the hook to sound great and be infectious and unforgettable. Then once hooked the listener who will then be able to listen to the verses and find out the full story.
Common hook tactics include:
- Names – Jolene, Billie Jean
- Places – Welcome to Miami, London calling
- Emotions – She loves you, I miss you
- A Time – If tomorrow never comes, Yesterday
- A Question – Why does it always rain on me? What do you mean?
Hooks seem to work best when connecting us with our senses. If you can imagine a person, a place or how an emotion makes you feel, then if is more likely to resonate deep inside and stick in your head.
Metaphors and similies
Metaphors and similes are common in story writing and also in songwriting.
Metaphor – when a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally true. It states that one thing is another thing; for example ‘the future looks bright’, ‘give someone a hand’, ‘apple of my eye’. As you can see, these are all stated as if literal fact, but as logical human beings we know they are not true.
Similie – differs from a metaphor in the fact it doesn’t state that one thing is another thing it states that one thing is like another thing. For example ‘as soft as a cloud’, ‘warmth like a summer’s day’, ‘free as a bird’. Here you can see it isn’t as literal and you are asking to compare the object of interest with something else.
In songwriting, metaphors tend to conjure up much stronger images and feelings within the listener. There are several different types of metaphor you can use, I won’t’ go into them here though. Metaphors are quite hard to force and take practice. They are another thing to write down whenever and wherever an idea may pop into your head.
A good tip I came across is:
- when you have an idea of an object you want to write about, write down as many words related to that object as possible. If the word was ‘sun’ you could write down ‘light’ ‘star’ ‘shine’ ‘energetic ‘warmth’ ‘glowing’ etc.
- Then you can effectively try combining any of these words together in a metaphor and it should work because they both have a common ancestor. For example, ‘the cosmic warmth’.
- If you wanted to find a good metaphor to use with the word ‘sun’, you can go one step further and look at similar words to the secondary words so ‘warmth’ could be ‘blanket’, ‘loving’, ‘happy’ and then you can build a metaphor with sun such as ‘the sun was a blanket’ or ‘the loving sun’. You don’t actually think of the sun as a literal blanket, but because it shares a common similar word in ‘warmth’ then your mind makes the connection and you understand what the word implies.
This trick doesn’t always work but is fun to play around with. Get yourself a good thesaurus such as this one, that organises words according to ideas rather than alphabetically, very useful when trying to come up with new comparison words.
A similie is processed by the listener’s brain in a different way to a metaphor and so is useful in different situations. In a metaphor, all the power is transferred to the second part of the phrase. In the ‘sun was a blanket’ example, your mind focusses on the word blanket right away. But if I was to say ‘the sun felt warm like a blanket’ then the word ‘sun’ remains very much at the front of your mind throughout. So use metaphors and similies carefully and think about how it sounds. Maybe try the idea out on someone and ask what images it conjures up in their mind.
Why do songs often rhyme?
Many songs are based around rhyming but why? Once again it is to do with creating a strong and memorable story in the short amount of time you have available to you. A strong rhyme will stick in the listeners head after fewer listens than if you use no rhyming at all. As a listener, we crave a sense of symmetry and comfort. A rhyme also has the added bonus of creating a rhythm to the lyrics.
A perfect rhyme
You can control the emotions of the listener with the type of rhyme you use. A perfect rhyme where the two words mirror one another will create a feeling of comfort and certainty for the listener. Just feel how comfortable this rhyme is:
And then I saw a big grey cat
Sleeping softly on the mat
All is well in the world. The stressed vowel sound is identical in both words and the ending consonant is the same, with only the starting letter varying. The vowel sound is the most important in songwriting as we emphasize it when singing.
A half-rhyme/ family rhyme
If we had to use only perfect rhymes this would limit us in how we tell our story. It is also quite boring. If you tried to stick to perfect rhymes you would probably have to use words that you are not happy with or even change word order which is not a good idea and detracts from the narrative.
A half-rhyme or family rhyme plays a little trick on the brain, taking advantage of its simplicity. These types of rhyme are very common in music because it opens up a lot more lyrical possibilities.
The ‘families’ I refer to, relate to 3 family groups of consonants: plosives, fricatives and nasals.
Plosives: as the word sounds; explosive and percussive. The kind of sounds that create a blast of air from your mouth when you sing them (b, d, g, t etc.)
Fricatives: sticking with the percussion theme, if the plosives are the snare drum of vocals then these are the shaker or hi-hat (v, z, j etc.)
Sibilants: your crash cymbals (s, f, th)
Nasals: resonant sounds born in the nasal cavity (m n ng)
In table form these families look something like:
|Voiced||b d g||v th z zh j||m n ng|
|Unvoiced||p t q k||f th s sh ch|
How to find a rhyme?
Two pieces of equipment will really help you out as a songwriter and they aren’t electronic. These are a good thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. There are plenty of websites that do quite a good job such as http://www.b-rhymes.com but I like to do it the old fashioned way still.
When you have an idea for a line but can’t think of a good rhyme (see what I did there), then you can find alternative words in your thesaurus and then start looking for rhymes in your rhyming dictionary.
You will notice that for many words you don’t get many perfect rhyme options, sometimes as few as one or two words. But as soon as you expand your mind and use family rhymes a whole world of possibilities emerges.
Say you pick the word ‘waste’ you are limited to perfect rhymes of paste and taste….not that inspiring. But when you look at half-rhymes and family rhymes you get hundreds of options based, placed, faced, erased. Even words like eight and state still work in a song because they share plosive sounds.
As I said before, experiment with this. Rhymes are very powerful and can completely change the feeling of a song if done correctly (or incorrectly).
Using different time signatures
I apologize if this is getting a little bit too ‘music theory’ now but I thought I’d quickly touch on time signatures as they are another interesting way to create new and different sounding songs.
For this entire article, I have been writing assuming you will be composing in a standard 4/4 time signature. The first number here is telling you ‘how many’ and the bottom number is telling you ‘of what’. So 4/4 means 4 quarter notes per measure or bar. This is 4 beats per bar. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. this is by far the most common time signature in popular music.
But that’s not to say there are no other time signatures.
3/4 means 3 quarter notes per bar. 3/4 is also referred to as waltz timing. It has a very particular feel that will make you want to put on some medieval looking clothing and prance around the room (maybe that’s just me).
5/4 can add an extra groove to a 4/4 timing if used in the right way. The Mission Impossible theme is a good example of 5/4 timing. The last note of each progression leads nicely into the first note of the next, this is the key to making 5/4 work.
The other key thing to realise is that you don’t need to stay in the same time signature for the entire song. You could switch to one for a pre-chorus and then maybe back to another for the chorus. This is definitely a more advanced songwriting tactic though and I would recommend getting a few songs written in 4/4 timing before getting too carried away!
Tips on writing a song in a band
Songwriting can be quite a personal experience. The lyrics especially. But also the feel of the song usually has a deep connection to the songwriter. This means that writing a song together as a band is not that easy. It really depends on how well you connect with the other members.
Using them as co-writers
In my experience, I feel like this technique works best. Mainly because writing a song can take a long time! Having one member (usually the singer) take the lead in terms of the feel of the song and the lyrics. Then using other band members to add other parts around that idea until you have a complete song. They can critique and question what the songwriter is trying to achieve but do not take over the process.
Particularly important with the lyrics as this can be a very personal process and you are more likely to write something meaningful as other band members are unlikely to have the exact same perspectives and feelings.
Starting with a jam
Some bands start a song by jamming around a riff or idea until they get something that sounds good. This can be quite a long and painful process, it depends on how patient and skilled you and your fellow band members are. If you do try and jam and come up with ideas I would recommend doing it acoustically so you can stop or chat about the ideas whilst playing. Jamming with a full amped-up band and drum kit is fun, but if you are trying to work on an idea I find it quite frustrating.
Writing as a band also has advantages if you aren’t skilled on all instruments. If you play the guitar but can’t play the drums you are unlikely to be able to envisage all the different types of beat that might work well. Playing a chord progression or riff to a drummer and asking them to come up with some ideas will help a lot.
Share your rough ideas before you meet up
To avoid frustration and save some time, send clips of your ideas around to other members before you meet up in person. Then when you get together they can have some ideas ready to play and you can get straight into it. They are also more likely to come up with something interesting rather than just a simple idea that pops into their head straight away.
The other members can also give you feedback on those ideas and maybe tell you to scrap them if they suck. Or (as has happened to me quite a few times) tell you that you have accidentally just stolen a riff directly from another band without realizing!
Thanks to the advancements in technology you can now write and record entire songs without even having to meet up in person. You could technically work on a project with someone on the other side of the country and this is becoming more and more common.
Writing remotely can be as simple as sending clips back and forth or keeping them in a shared Google Drive or Dropbox account. If you are quite technical and hot on musical theory you could use software such as Guitar Pro to write out sheet music or tablature before getting together to record.
Or you can go the full way and take it in turns to work on a piece electronically. With this method, ensure you are all using the same Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software (many subscriptions will allow you to install on 2 computers so this can work out well). When sharing between each other you will need to save as a ‘package’ rather than simply sending the project file around. This is because when writing all the individual ‘tracks’ will be saved locally on your computer and so if you don’t package them all up your fellow band mate will just be greeting with a lot of error messages saying ‘track could not be located’ or something similar.
You could get around this by saving all your tracks into a shared drive such as Dropbox. But you are probably going to have to pay a subscription to get enough storage. Music compositions take up a lot of space, usually 100s of megabytes and often gigabytes in size. Packaging up tracks and sending them to one another usually works fine as long as you have good communication and tell each other when you have made changes.
Some Bonus Handy Songwriting Tips
Its all about contrast
Many people make the mistake of trying to make a chorus sound bigger and better by simply adding more instruments, backing singing and turning up the volume. This might work, but it is probably more likely to make it sound confused and make mixing a nightmare! The key thing to remember is that t is about contrast. If you want your chorus to sound bigger make your verse sound a little smaller. Take out some elements in the verse or make the drums and bass more subtle. This is the real trick to getting an epic chorus.
This is also what makes a great bridge section stand out. A change in tempo or key really contrasts massively against the familiarity of the rest of the song.
Build the story to keep the listener engaged
I’ve mentioned already the importance of telling a good story in your verses. I’ve also mentioned how musically songs tend to have forward motion and build towards a climax near the end. Well, the lyrics should also keep building throughout the song too to keep it interesting.
Keep it simple
I’ve probably already mentioned this one but it is worth mentioning again. The temptation will be to keep adding more and more elements and tracks to your song as if that somehow makes it better or more interesting. “Just one more synth fill”, “maybe I’ll just add a 4th backing vocal doing something else”.
If you listen to some of your favourite songs you’ll often be amazed at how simple they are in terms of the number of tracks playing at any one time.
You only have so much room to play with in the frequency spectrum and so as you add instruments they will start battling each other for superiority. This will make your job of mixing and Eqing very painful indeed. You’ll be surprised how often less is actually more. For your first few songs at least try sticking to 4 or 5 tracks (drums, guitar, bass, vocals, maybe another guitar or synth).
Keeping it simple is not only easier in the studio but if you ever want to start playing your songs live it will be much easier. You won’t have to hire an orchestra every time you want to gig!
Do the work and keep practising
One of the best books I’ve ever read around the creative process is called ‘War on Art’ by Steven Pressfield. I would thoroughly recommend it for any artist particularly musicians.
Making art of any kind whether that be writing a book, painting or making music is really hard work. It is much easier to think about “what could have been”. To tell your friends that you are going to write that album “when I just get a bit more time”. Steven Pressfield refers to this as ‘the resistance’. An imaginary force that will do everything it can to stop us from being successful. The resistance can appear in all sorts of forms from other projects, to a new love interest.
Those other things are great in a balanced life but if you want to get good at something like songwriting you need to keep doing the work, every day, no matter what. Even those days where you have no energy and everything you write sucks, it doesn’t matter, just write something. The only way to truly master a skill is to keep showing up and doing it over and over. So write those crap songs and record them and keep doing it until they get better. So what if your friend Billy thinks they are rubbish at first. Is Billy writing and recording anything?! I thought not. People love to criticize others but you’ll find they are very rarely prepared to do the work themselves.
So keep writing badly and often (every day if you can) and eventually you will be writing well!
Get it finished – Or decide to bin it?
This brings me nicely onto my next point. Should you slog through and finish every song or decide to bin it if it isn’t working out??
I keep changing my mind on this one. My current process is that if a song is just starting and I don’t like it, then I will leave it as I haven’t invested much time. But there is a threshold where if I have spent enough time on the song I just push through and get it finished.
I used to be terrible at this, I had hundreds of songs that were 3/4 full. Just getting that last 1/4 done can be very hard indeed, but once you push through and finish the feeling is amazing and even if you don’t release it as a single or it doesn’t make the album at least you can put it out of your mind and move on.
So there you have it. Hopefully, that is enough information to start you on your songwriting journey. As I said entire university degrees and books are written on the art of songwriting and there will always be more to cover and learn. But you should treat learning to write a song as you would learning to play an instrument or learn a new language. It will take a long time to master and the only way to do that is write lots and keep improving! Happy songwiting!
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