The songwriting skills every songwriter needs to know, no matter what your level of experience.
Most songwriters (like me) started songwriting only understanding part of the songwriting 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 get started 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!
What You Need to Know and How to Learn It to Become a Songwriter
To write songs 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)
Each skill set is explained in greater detail below, as well as ways to level up your songwriting skills.
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
- Write songs: good songs, bad songs, hit songs and sh!t songs. Every song you write is a learning experience…
Once you figure out the process, then you have to keep practicing until your songs are good enough to share with others. Every experienced songwriter has a collection of songs that nobody is ever going to hear.
If you’re struggling with your own songwriting process, click and enter your email address so I can send you: How to Write a Song Chorus, an easy to learn songwriting process to write the lyrics, melody and chords to a song chorus!
Action Steps to Learn Songwriting Skills
Learn Your Voice and Instrument
Find a solid music teacher and pay for music lessons for:
- Your main instrument
- Other instruments… for example: I took drum kit lessons to learn to play and write better drum parts for my songs.
- Music Theory, some great songwriters have little training in music theory, but knowledge is power, learn everything you can!
- Earn to read and write chord charts
- Bonus: learn to read and write music notation *songwriters don’t need to read and write music notation, but it’s easier to communicate with other musicians if you can)
You can learn randomly on YouTUbe, but if you’re serious about songwriting, invest in yourself and get music lessons from a great music teacher who can give you real-time feedback and advice to improve your technique… lessons from a great teacher are worth it!
Listen Critically To Music 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 the music fits together. Make written notes of what you listen to and ideas you can borrow and adapt for your own songwriting.
Don’t ask the internet “how many lines of lyrics do I write in a verse?” pick songs in your favourite style and pull them apart.
Don’t play randomly, hoping to find a great chord progression or arrangement pattern, pick some of your favourite songs and adapt the ideas for your song!
Learn to Sing Covers
- Learn songs 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
You really know a song if you can play it. 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
- Write out your own chord chart or tab for guitar (before asking the internet!)
- Buy sheet music for piano if you can read music 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 many songwriters, especially compared to the music if you’ve spent years learning to play an instrument.
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.
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.
Study Great Songs
There’s a history of songwriting. Professional songwriters know songs and reference them in their own songwriting. Good songwriters learn from other songwriters. Nobody writes completely independently.
Study songs by listening with your full attention. Decide what you love about these songs and analyze how they’re constructed. Analyze your own songs, too.
You can check out an analysis of one of my songs, Factory Fresh, to see how I pull songs apart.
Learn How to Rhyme
One of the biggest giveaways of a weak song is lame rhyming… every other line is a perfect rhyme. Perfect rhymes (rhyme / time) are exact rhymes with the same vowel and consonant sounds. Slant rhymes, also called near rhymes or imperfect rhymes (rhyme / fine / grind / resign / align / kind) where the vowel sound is the same but have similar consonants. Using imperfect rhymes gives you more options to choose from and makes your lyrics more interesting.
My favourite slant rhyme dictionary is online (and available as iOS or android app) http://www.b-rhymes.com/
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
The musical backbone of your song, they support your melodies. Once you write 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 or arpeggios?
I choose how I’ll accompany a song by sketching ideas for the entire song first. It’s much faster than randomly playing and hoping to discover something. It also keeps me focused on the big picture so I consider the entire song.
Think about the energy level and the range of the notes for each section. A sketch can be as simple as
- Verse = power chords, find a cool riff to use between each line of lyrics
- Pre-Chorus = chords, 1-2 strums per bar
- Chorus = chords with energetic strumming
- Bridge = barre chords for a different guitar tone, arpeggiate playing one string at a time
Or for keyboards:
- Verse = steady rhythms, chords within an octave, slowly build the intensity
- Pre-Chorus = arpeggiated chords, build more energy
- Chorus = open voiced chords, most energy
- Bridge = similar to verse, but arpeggiate the chords
How to Build Your Songwriting Skills
If you’re 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 at once often becomes overwhelming and discouraging.
Songwriting Action Steps: Getting Started Writing Songs
- Write a list of 10 artists you love, who you’d want to sound like
- List 10 songs you want to learn to sing, pick 2 right now and get started
- List 10 songs you wish you’d written
- Add a few sentences for each song explaining what you love about the song… what ideas would you adapt for your own songs?
- What patterns do you notice in these answers?
Get Music Lessons
Learn to control your voice and your instrument so you can get the sound in your head out into the world. Even if you aren’t planning to become a performer, you need to be able to sing comfortably to show others what you want your songs to sound like. Understanding singing and playing unleashes songwriting possibilities.
Find out who the best local teachers are… talk to other musicians, staff at your local music store, call the nearest music college or university with a music program, or the nearest office of the musician’s union. Musicians are social, they all know who the best players and teachers are in your area.
You can search on the internet, but you’ll find out more by talking to musicians. You’ll also get faster results by calling (yes, on the phone) music teachers and mentioning who referred you to them.
Where to Learn More about Songwriting
Do you know other songwriters at your level, either in person or through social media? Somebody you could co-write with?
Find a local songwriter’s group… search for “songwriter group + <your city / town> and go there… meet other songwriters and learn from and with them.