How to start writing songs!
What every songwriter needs to know and be able to do…
(no matter what your level of experience)
Most songwriters (like me) start writing songs only understanding part of the process. Instead of trying to reinvent songwriting by yourself… keep reading!
I started this article after reading a post in a songwriter Facebook group “How do I start writing songs?”
Songwriting is a complicated creative act. Many songwriters can do it, but few can explain so that a beginner understands…
Although many people posted helpful hints, it takes more than a few sentences to answer this question for a budding songwriter:
To be a songwriter, what do you need to know and how do you learn it?
As a songwriter you need to know how to:
- Sing and play and instrument
- Choose something to write about, know what you want to communicate
- Write lyrics
- Write melodies for the lyrics
- Write chord progressions
- Write an instrumental accompaniment (how instrumentalists will play the chord progressions)
There are more details about each skill set are below.
Note: Lyricists are songwriters that only create lyrics. Some songwriters specialize in creating the music, and only write instrumental music or co-write songs with lyricists. This article assumes you want to learn it all….
How you can learn songwriting skills
- Learn cover songs
- Study music, learn to play and sing
- Study songs, learn how songs fit together, dig into the songs and discover how they fit together
- Study songwriting, books, online courses, YouTube tutorials, songwriting courses, college/university courses and programs
- Study with a songwriter, get lessons
- Co-write songs with other songwriters
- Start Writing songs: good songs, bad songs, hit songs and sh!t songs. Every song you write is a learning experience…
Once you figure out the songwriting process, keep practicing until your songs are good enough to share with others. Experiment and find ways to write songs that work for you… changing things up and exploring different methods helps you grow as a songwriter.
Every experienced songwriter has a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut and nobody is ever going to hear. These songs weren’t failures, they were learning experiences!
Action Steps to Learn Songwriting Skills:
Learn your Voice and Instrument
- Get music lessons for:
- Your main instrument
- Other instruments… I took drum kit lessons to learn how to play and write better drum parts for my songs
- Music Theory, some great songwriters have very little training in music theory… but knowledge is power, learn everything you can!
- Learn to read and write music (bonus, you can be a songwriter without reading and writing music notation, but it is easier to communicate with others if you can)
You can learn all sorts of random things on YouTube. If you are serious about it, invest in yourself and get music lessons from a great music teacher that can give you real-time feedback and advice on how to improve your technique… lessons from a great teacher are worth the money!
Listen to music that you love
Find your favourite artists and favourite genres of music… keep an ever growing list of artists and songs you love so you can check whenever you need inspiration.
Actively listen, pay attention to what is going on, figure out how does the music fit together?
Learn to Sing Covers
- Sing the songs that you love
- Copy different artists, imitate the best qualities of your favourites
- Discover your style, what suits your voice and your temperament
- Who do you want to sound like?
- What is it in their sound that you want for your style?
Learn to Play Covers
If you can’t play through an entire song, how are you going to write and play your own songs?
- Start singing the instrumental parts
- Look up or write your own chord charts and tab for guitar
- Buy sheet music for piano if you can read notation
- YouTube tutorials to learn how to play sections of, and the whole song
Learn how songs are built
There are four types of song sections
- Chorus, the “everyone sings along” part of the song, put the title in here
- Verse, the story part of the song
- Pre-Chorus, an optional transition from the verse to the chorus
- Bridge (Middle 8), an optional contrasting section, tell more of the story from a different perspective
- Transitions, optional music that connects sections together, usually without lyrics
- Introduction, start the song with music usually from the chorus or verse
- Ending, find a way to end the song
Lyric writing is hard for most songwriters. It’s easy to write lines that rhyme, it’s hard to create quality lyrics that have an emotional impact on your audience
Most songs are about 20 lines long (average of 3 verses of 4 lines each, a chorus of 4 lines and a bridge or pre-chorus with 4 lines). There isn’t much time to tell a complicated story, so you have to get to the point… most of my lyric writing time is spent writing more than I need and cutting away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary.
For more help fitting big ideas into songs read Song is Haiku
To find and fix problem lyrics in your songs, read Avoid Lyric Fail
Power Up Your Lyrics
Use imagery (create images with your words) and figurative language (words and phrases that you have to figure out because they have deeper layers of meaning) to get your ideas into the ears of your audience and create a world for them to visit.
For examples in a song, listen to my track Follow Me Down… about a love so big it lasts more than one lifetime:
Learn How to Rhyme
One of the biggest giveaways of a weak song is lame rhyming… every other line is a perfect rhyme. It becomes too predictable and quickly gets boring.
Perfect rhymes (rhyme / time) are exact rhymes with the same vowel and consonant sounds. Imperfect rhymes, also called near rhymes or slant rhymes (rhyme / fine / grind / resign / align / kind) where the vowel sound is the same but the consonant sounds are similar instead of exactly the same. Using imperfect rhymes gives you more options to choose from and makes your lyrics more interesting. My favourite slant rhyme dictionary is online (also available as iOS or android app) http://www.b-rhymes.com/
For help improving your rhymes (and two other lyric mistakes), read 3 Avoidable Lyric Mistakes
Write melodies for your lyrics that fit. Accented syllables are usually higher pitches, and the rhythms should sound natural. For beginning songwriters melodies are challenging because there are so many possibilities. Especially when you are starting out, it is easier to choose a chord progression to fit the lyrics into, than to write a melody and then find the chords that fit it.
Write Chord Progressions
A series of chords that fit together to create the musical backbone of your song and support your melodies.
Once you have a chord progression for your song, choose how to accompany the melody… how to play the chord progression. With a guitar, will it be a strumming pattern or picking one string at a time… what rhythms sound the best? For a piano part, do you want block chords, arpeggios or a mixture?
What You Can Do Next…
If you are already writing songs, you probably have most of these at least partly figured out.
Pick the two that are your weakest and create a plan to start improving your skills… more than two will cause overload
Click here for an article to help you create your own personalized Songwriting Practice Routine.
If you are just starting to write songs, don’t get overwhelmed… follow these
Songwriting Action Steps: Getting Started
- Write a list of 10 artists you love, who you want to sound like.
- List 10 songs you want to learn to sing, pick 2 right now and get started today.
- List 10 songs that you wish you had written.
- Add a few sentences for each song explaining what you love about the song… what would you steal for you own songs
- What patterns do you notice in your answers?
Get Music Lessons
Learn how to control your voice and your instrument so you can get the sounds in your head out into the world. Even if you aren’t planning on becoming a performer, you need to be able to show others what you want your songs to sound like. Understanding how to sing and play an instrument will unleash songwriting possibilities.
Who can show you more about songwriting?
- Do you know any songwriters at your level, either in person or through social media? Somebody you could co-write a song with?
- Find a local songwriter’s group… search for “songwriter group + <your city/town>” and go there… meet other songwriters and learn from them!
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