Songwriting sounds like it should be easy, but few songwriters or songwriting teachers tell you the truth:
Songwriting is complicated and takes more work and effort than most people expect.
Once you’re in the middle of it, especially for the first time, you discover it’s tougher than anyone admits. It sounds easy when they explain it, but when you try following their advice or tips, you realize how difficult songwriting can be… and how useless most songwriting advice really is.
To make it more complicated, your goal isn’t even clear! You’re shooting at a moving target… even when you finally get something written, how do you even know if it’s any good?
This is why the two most popular internet searches for songwriting are variations of:
“How do I write a song?” and “Songwriting Tips”
Many beginning songwriters waste countless hours in an endless search for songwriting tips and free advice… usually without a useful answer to their most burning questions:
“How do I write a song?”
They struggle to find a useful answer but there isn’t one, because…
The best way to write a song is:
Whatever way works best for you!
But if you don’t already know how to write a song, how do you learn how to write a song?
How do you figure that out without spending countless hours of frustration and experimentation?
(Spoiler Alert: Your answer is in the video and the summary below it…)
And when you do figure it out, how do you know that you’ve got the best songwriting method?
This is why there’s an old songwriting adage: you have to write 100 bad songs before you write a great song…
I hate that saying! I don’t have that kind of patience and I don’t expect other people to waste their time like that either, so here’s my response, and my suggestions to help you find:
The Best Way to Write a Song!
Below the video is a written summary of all the points I discuss and links to additional resources…
Figuring Out Your Best Songwriting Process
To Write A Complete Song You Need To Write:
- Chord Progression
- Arrangement (what notes to play / which loops in your DAW)
- Song Structure
What Should I Start With?
Choose a path to write a song… start with:
1. What is the easiest for you?
2. What is the hardest for you?
3. What gives you the biggest wins?
I usually start with the biggest wins by creating the lyrics first, but that’s me, not you!
Your Songwriting Process
Do what works best for you to write the best finished song you can as quickly as possible. I’d suggest intentionally planning ahead so you avoid creating problems you need to solve later. Planning helps you avoid problems. There are links to several resources at the end of this article that will help you plan your songs and with solutions to common songwriting problems… you’re not alone!
Breaking Down Your Songwriting Process
I usually break songwriting into separate tasks: writing one element (lyrics, melody, chord progression, arrangement) at a time. I write the lyrics, melody and chord progressions one after another, rather than all at the same time so I focus on one element at a time and finish faster. This also makes it easier to solve problems or avoid them completely.
You can write an element, for example the lyrics, for the entire song or a section at a time before writing the other musical elements, like melody or chord progressions.
There’s nothing wrong with writing arrangement ideas first, or writing melody then adding lyrics… as long as you can do it! I’ve found in my own songwriting and in teaching others, that it’s easiest to focus on one element at a time, especially when you’re first learning or when you have a problem.
Find a system that works for you and be flexible when the song requires it!
My Songwriting Process
I’m not telling you how to write a song, that’s something you have to figure out by experimenting! Rely on your strengths and develop your weaker skills. Write with and talk to other songwriters. But I’m showing you my songwriting process to give you a starting point to save you time figuring out your best songwriting process…
I start with the Lyrics… gives me the biggest wins (and it’s the hardest for me):
I begin with the
- Song Subject, then choose a
- Title, and
- Brainstorm Ideas (fragments).
Brainstorming is my go to songwriting technique and favourite songwriting warm up exercise. In a sentence, you write down ideas related to a topic or title as fast as you can think of them, but without editing or judging the ideas until later. There are several details that will help in this video lesson. Watch it even if you’ve already tried brainstorming before…
Sketch Your Ideas
I Sketch the Song before I start writing lines. I decide what I want to say in the chorus, verse, pre-chorus and bridge.
Then I organize my brainstormed ideas, picking the best and putting them into the section where they fit best. Then I:
- Brainstorm more ideas.
- Fill around the best ideas.
- Brainstorm rhyme words.
- Write lines.
- Edit lines to improve the story, imagery and the flow.
- Build a first draft.
There is still time to improve the lyrics as the other elements come together later…
Bonus Tip: the second verse should match the rhythms and accents of the first verse, so when you set the lyrics to a melody it will work for the lyrics of both verses. It’s easier to write the second verse after you’ve written the melody and chord progression for the first verse.
- I pick a key so I can sing in the middle of my vocal range and that fits comfortably on my instrument, usually guitar (you can always change the key later).
- Brainstorm chords in that key.
- Play around with the chords and find progressions that I like.
- Create a progression for the Chorus, Verse, connect Verse to Chorus with a Pre-Chorus, then the Bridge. You can create chord progressions for sections in any order, but I usually start with the Chorus.
One section at a time, usually Chorus, Verse, Pre-Chorus and Bridge. I often hear melody ideas while I’m writing lyrics so I sometimes write the melody to the section that I feel I can finish the fastest. When the melody doesn’t happen intuitively, I:
- Find the rhythms by speaking lyrics to find the rhythms and accents that feel natural.
- Start singing, improvise with instrument or recording of the chord progression (start with one strum per chord, decide how to play the chord progression later in Arrangement, but remember/record cool ideas if you have them in this stage)
- Start singing, a piece of the lyrics or one line at a time.
- Listen for the melody direction and accent patterns.
- Finish a basic melody (first draft), if there are boring spots or words I want to highlight I’ll change the melody to make it more interesting
- Finish a second draft of the melody for each section
Figure out how to play the chord progression, choosing the notes to play on your instrument or the loops to use in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
- For guitar, choose the strumming patterns, plucking patterns, riffs.
- For piano, what chord voicings in the right hand, what bass line or different rhythms to play in the left hand.
- For a DAW arrangement, choose or build the loops and program the instrumental parts
- For a band arrangement, start with one chord instrument (guitar or piano) and write a basic version of the song. I sketch out ideas for each instrument in a full arrangement later. Pick interesting ideas from the one instrument version to play on different instruments. For example, the left hand of the piano can inspire an electric bass part.
Once I have the sections written, I choose the order of song sections for the full song… the typical form for popular songs is:
V PC C V PC C B C
V C V C B C (without a pre-chorus)
- Write transitions (if needed)
- Write introduction (usually part of the verse or the chorus, whichever feels stronger)
- Write an ending (usually part of the chorus or a variation of the introduction)
Practice and Test Your Song
Practice performing the song, singing and playing your instrument… sing the Melody while you play the Arrangement of the Chord Progression using the Song Structure.
Continue to edit and make improvements anywhere it feels awkward or boring.
Pro-Tip: when you make a “mistake” it’s sometimes better than your original idea, listen carefully it could be an improvement!
Demo (Demonstration) Recording
Phone Demo (Basic Quality)
Record a rough demo on your phone (audio or video demo) of you singing and playing your instrument, to help you remember it. The quality will depend on your performance and how well you record it.
DAW Demo (Basic to Intermediate Quality)
Upgrade to a better recording on your DAW, recording the vocals and instrument separately using better microphones than the tiny little one on your phone.
Full Version (Intermediate to Professional Quality)
Record a full arrangement with more instruments on your DAW or in a professional studio. For release quality, consider hiring a professional mixer and a professional mastering engineer.