How to Start Writing a Song
What’s the best approach to starting a new song – ideas, lyrics vs. melody + more.
Disclosure: We are a professional review site and may get commissions from purchases made through the links on this page. As an Amazon Associate, Deviant Noise earns from qualifying purchases.
Last Updated: July 2023 | Article Details: 4500 words (23 – 25 minute read)
One of the most pondered subjects in songwriting is the best way to start writing a song. Is it better to start with melody or lyrics? And beyond that, what should you even write about? Should you start with the chorus or the verse? The chords?
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO!?
This life we chose is full of uncertainty.
So, in this guide we’ll get into the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to songwriting, as well as offer some tips on getting started on a song in general.
If you’re looking for a complete beginner’s step-by-step guide to songwriting, read this guide first.
But when you’re staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, it can be pretty intimidating. How do you go from nothing to something? And what’s the best way to get to that “something?”
Let’s dive in…
Deviant Noise TOP PICK Recommendation:
Learn the Secrets to Writing and Producing HIT SONGS
Article Table of Contents
- 3.1 Starting With a Chord Progression
- 3.1.2 Starting With a Beat/Track
- 3.2 Starting With Lyrics
- 3.3 Starting With a Melody
- 4.1 Just Start Writing
- 4.2 Prepare Yourself for Your Writing Sessions
- 4.3 Inspiration and Writers Block is a Myth (Sort of…)
- 4.4 Change Things Up
Audio Version of Article
Listen to the entire article instead:
Before You Even Begin
Songwriting is a bit of an ethereal, dark art. Talk to any songwriter and they may say they have no idea how they wrote that great song. “It just flowed out of me…” or some variation of that is an answer you’ll hear a lot.
And there’s a lot of talk about “the muse” – the non-material forces of the universe that inspire us with great ideas that seem to easily flow out of us.
There is definitely truth in that. But it’s a highly romanticized version of things.
And in reality, you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike when you’re trying to create something.
You have to actually DO the thing for inspiration to strike.
If you wait for the muse’s inspiration before starting, the muse will just keep waiting for you to get started first.
But beyond that, it’s important to understand that songwriting (like any other craft), is learned through doing.
Great songwriting is not about learning the best approach or the greatest methodology. It’s not about the “right” inspiration or the perfect setting. Instead, it’s ALL about consistent action + time put in.
However you choose to write and whatever you choose to write about, JUST WRITE. And write a lot.
Song Ideas – What Should Your Song Be About?
The beginner songwriter (and the experienced one as well) will always face a seemingly impossible hurdle to overcome anytime they sit down to write a song.
That is the age old question “what should I write about?”
And this is a question with an unlimited number of answers. Unfortunately that doesn’t help me or you, stuck starting at nothingness trying to conjure up a great idea (any idea, in fact) that will resonate with the masses.
It’s a tough task.
But the truth is, you can write about whatever you want – love, death or bubblegum. The best writing is often something that emotionally resonates with the writer. If you can feel what you’re talking about on an emotional level – where you feel the tension within your bones, muscles and soul – you’ll tend to write it well.
Having said that, there are a few topics that seem to be the favorites of many songwriters. They are:
- Love + Relationships
- Includes “hooking-up” and sex in general
- Lifestyle + Partying
- Just having fun and enjoying life
- Talking about how great you are or how your life is amazing (“stuntin on these hoes” lol)
- Reflection + Introspection
- Taking lessons from life or experiences to become better, ruminating on mistakes or pondering human nature
- Inspiration + Empowerment
- Lifting peoples’ spirit, offering hope or positivity
- Spirituality + Religion
- Songs about God, the universe, good & evil, etc.
- Captivating stories about anything – crime, sex, drama, intrigue, etc.
- Politics + Culture
- Hot topics in current events, pro- or anti- war/establishment/cause/etc.
There are surely other topics that can be written about, but you’ll find that most songs can be fit into one of those 8 categories.
So, great – you’ve got a list of potential song topics/ideas. But this begs the question “should I start with a concrete idea before writing?”
The answer is maybe.
Songwriting needs to be natural, comfortable and flowing. If you overthink things, you will get stuck.
Do what’s natural in the moment.
So sure, if you have an idea for a song you can start there. Refine it into a concrete topic with a “story arc” or a message.
But if you don’t have an idea of what to write about, that’s ok too. You can still start writing a song before you even have any idea of what it will be about.
Sometimes, the idea will start to take shape as you write.
Coming Up With a Song Idea
Some days you’ll sit down to write with a pretty solid idea of what it is you want to say. Other days, your mind will be empty.
To come up with an idea, the best thing you can do is to sit and reflect a bit. What are you feeling in this moment? What’s something that you’ve been thinking about lately? What’s making you upset, happy, inspired, depressed, etc.?
Taking a few minutes to really understand how you’re feeling today can be a great source of ideas for songs.
Remember, the best songwriting is often the stuff that emotionally resonates with you, the writer.
If you’re collaborating with another person (or persons) to write a song, then a great way to mine for ideas is to simply have a conversation.
Spend the first 15-20 minutes of your writing session (if time allows) just talking. Don’t talk about songwriting, necessarily, but more so about life in general What’s been happening with you; what’s happening with them, etc.
At some point, you’ll have an “a-ha” moment. You’ll think “oh shit, that would make a great song.” Great!
Of course, there are days you won’t have those “a-ha” moments. In those cases, it can be useful to simply take that list of overall topics above, and pick one. Literally, just “throw darts” at the list and see what hits. And write your song about that.
Don’t overthink it. Just run with it.
Note: In the “tips” section below, there’s a technique that is invaluable in coming up with song ideas so don’t skip that section of this guide.
When an Idea Doesn’t Come to You or Resonate Immediately
If you can’t settle on picking an idea, and one doesn’t naturally come to you, don’t worry about it.
As mentioned above, you don’t have to start with an idea already in mind. Oftentimes it’s easier when you already have something you know you want to write about, but it’s not the only way to do things.
You can still start writing a song. In these cases, it’s often just a good idea to start coming up with the “musical” elements of your song – a chord progression, or a short melodic idea, etc.
This is something we’ll get into more in the next section.
Chords vs. Lyrics vs. Melody – Best Way to Start a Song
Like most things in life, this is a pretty contentious topic. There are die-hards on either side of the equation.
Should you start your songwriting session off with the chords, the lyrics or the melody?
The answer is… yes.
Not a very satisfying answer, but all three approaches can work. And you don’t have to stick to just one way. Do whatever is working for you easiest in the moment.
Some days you may have a chord progression in mind, while other days you’ll have a catchy melody or interesting lyric idea stuck in your head. Either way, that seed is a perfectly fine way to start your song off.
Personally, the most natural way to start a song for me is with a chord progression (or a finished beat) and the melody. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you.
Let’s take a look at all three approaches.
Starting With a Chord Progression or Track/Beat
One of the best ways to start your writing is to come up with the harmonic foundation of your song – the chord progression.
Coming up with a few chords literally lays the groundwork for you. It will provide you with an overall emotional “vibe” that you can then start to write to.
You can easily grab a guitar or sit down at a piano and start playing around with chords and see what speaks to you.
There are chord progression templates that you can use (ex/ a 1-5-6-4) if you know a little music theory.
But even if you don’t know how to play an instrument, there are ways to lay down chords easily as the basis to your song. Songwriting tool kits like Beat Building Blocks can be a game-changer for aspiring song makers. They let you easily drag-and-drop pre-made chord progressions into your studio software without having to know any actual music theory.
Either way, starting with the harmony of a song can be a great way to get ideas, lyrics and melodies flowing. Whether you play them yourself, or use pre-made ones get something down that makes your ears perk up in the moment.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you have a little pause as you hear the chord changes or chord quality. Almost like your heart skips a beat.
The downside to starting with the chords is that it can dictate the song topic heavily. And if you’re like me – where you love the sound of minor chords and tend to only write in minor keys – that can box you in to never writing in a major key, for example, if you’re not consciously forcing yourself to try different things.
Using Beats for Starting a Song
The beauty of the internet is that it has democratized distribution and creation. Nowadays you can easily find thousands of high-quality tracks/beats you can use to write your song to.
Places like BeatStars and YouTube have tons of producers on them who constantly upload new tracks/beats that are just waiting for a songwriter/vocalist to turn it into a fully finished song.
It’s a really easy way to get a jump-start on your song. Just listen through the stuff that you find through search terms like “sad soulful type beat” or “[artist name] type beat” and pick one that really piques your interest – remember, what resonates with you emotionally in this moment is a good guidepost.
Then you can either start coming up with melodies or lyrics or both.
The obvious downside to using a fully finished track/beat to write a song is that the vibe/emotion, rhythm and song length are pretty much set. So it can be a fairly “boxed in” way to write.
How to Start a Song With Lyrics
Sometimes, you’ll have an amazing idea for a verse/chorus lyric (or lyrics) in your head. Something novel and clever that just seems like it’s the perfect thing to say. Or you may have the perfect song title ready to go.
If that’s the case, run with it.
You don’t necessarily need that musical backing that chords/beats give you to start writing your song. You can take that single lyrical idea, and start to build a story or narrative around it.
For example, if the lyric you have in your head is “how can I ever know if you were real,” you could take it in so many directions. It could be a song about love, lost love, guidance/spirituality/religion, introspection, etc.
You could take it anywhere you feel like. The trick here is to now build off that seed idea. So how do you do it?
That’s a tough question, but the best way to think about it is to tell a story. There are lots of guides out there on storytelling that can be useful to an aspiring songwriter, so definitely learn more about that art as well.
Oftentimes, the best way to start a story is from the end and work backwards. In the case of songwriting, that usually means the chorus, which is often the “summation” of the story you’re telling, not necessarily the “ending.” The verses are usually where you build the narrative up, giving extra context and details before summing up the “message” you’re trying to say in the chorus.
Decide whether the lyric idea you have would work best as a chorus lyric or a verse lyric. If it’s a better chorus lyric, you can build out the rest of the chorus lyrics around that. If you think it’s better as a verse lyric, then extrapolate from that line an overall “message” for the song that you can use for the chorus.
— Related Content: Song Structure Deep Dive —
On the other hand, you could take that verse lyric as the starting point and start to shape the story’s context/narrative from it. Then work on the chorus later, once you have an idea of where your story is going to go.
The downside to starting your songwriting with the lyrics is that it can be hard to come up with really amazing, catchy melodies when you’re already working with specific words and phrases. You could, however, change words up as you start to fit them into a melody.
Further, though, starting with lyrics can hinder you in other ways – like rhythm. Unless you’re consciously writing your lyrics in a rhythmic way (i.e. counting syllables and bars/measures), trimming the fat in the lyrics is an extra step you’ll have to do to make things tight.
Deviant Noise TOP PICK Recommendation:
Learn the Secrets to Writing and Producing HIT SONGS
How to Start a Song With the Melody
As I mentioned above, melody is usually the place I like to start from. Because if you ask any songwriter, they’ll tell you that the melody is the most important part of the song. It’s the thing that the listener can immediately latch onto (other than the groove).
It’s also the thing that will stick most in their heads. When you hum or sing along to a song, you’re not singing the chord changes or the groove or often even the lyrics – you’re humming/singing the all important topline melody.
Topline can be a confusing subject, but it’s basically just the melody of the song that the lead vocalist is singing. What notes and in what rhythm are they singing, aside from the lyrics? That’s the topline.
Like I said, I’ll actually start by laying down a chord progression so I have some sort of harmonic motion and emotional vibe that I can sing to.
But you don’t have to start that way. You can start by just humming/singing out a melody without any musical backing. You can then re-harmonize that melody by creating the chord progression after. That’s probably a more difficult way to do things, but it’s doable.
The trick to writing a great melody is to just start humming cool little melodic phrases that you think are catchy or cool sounding. You can sing it properly, as well, but you don’t need to worry at all about words at this stage. You are just focused on melody alone.
Just use gibberish and nonsense sounds to sing a bunch of different melodic ideas. You can start with a chorus melody (how I like to go about it) or you can start with the verse melodies, and gradually build up to the chorus melody. It’s up to you.
The best way to do this is to record yourself freestyling these melodies – use an audio recording app on your phone or laptop. It doesn’t have to be high quality – just something to capture the ideas.
Next, go through your ideas, and pick out your favorite ones and start categorizing them – does this melody sound like a chorus melody or a verse melody?
Once you’ve chosen your melodies, you can start writing the lyrics to them. The great thing about this approach is that often times, the nonsense/gibberish you use will help guide you to the actual lyric ideas. Some sounds (ex/ “ooo”) lend themselves to specific words. If your melody idea ends on an “oooo” sound, you could make that ending word true, blue, canoe… whatever.
The downside to this, though, is that same concept. Sometimes when you start at the melody, you’re boxed into using certain words just because that’s what fits your initial melodic idea best. But if you were to ask the most accomplished pop songwriter ever – Max Martin – he’d say the melody is most important anyway, so the word use matters much less. Use what fits and serves the melody the best.
Deviant Noise TOP PICK Recommendation:
Want to sing better FAST? Try out a 14-day free trial of 30DaySinger below and improve your voice risk-free!
Tips on How to Start Writing a Song
Now that you know some of the different ways you can start writing a song, let’s dive into some tips and insights that will help you slog through the tough times.
These truths may seem false to some, but they are absolutely factual. And if you can internalize them and make them part of your life, you will be a much better songwriter for it.
Just Start Writing
I’ve said it earlier in this article. But it bears repeating – don’t overthink shit (shout out to Kenny Beats!).
Your biggest obstacle is simply just getting started. If you can do that, the inspiration (and eventually, the greatness) will come.
The one truth that you should understand before you go any further is this – you have to mine a ton of useless rocks to find that tiny nugget of gold.
The key insight you should take from that truth is that you’re going to write a lot of useless garbage that is corny, weird, boring, dumb and cringe.
There’s no getting around it. So don’t fear it.
Become ok with sucking. We all suck. We will all always suck. But sometimes we won’t – and that’s where all the suck becomes worth it.
You just have to write, and write a lot. Not everything will be good, but all of it is absolutely useful in getting you to your end goal – an amazing song.
The key is to not overthink it and to just write whatever comes to you in the moment. It’s ok if it’s trash. No one else has to hear it.
It’s OK if it’s not good. Hell, it’s totally fine if it completely sucks. The important thing is that you wrote something. That’s key.
The hardest part of any activity – whether it’s working out, studying, writing, painting, etc – is getting started.
So focus ALL of your energy and effort on simply getting started. If you can’t help but procrastinate, then a great trick to use is to commit to doing something for an extremely short amount of time, or to creating the smallest possible unit of something.
For example, if you 100% commit to just working out for 2 minutes every single day – just 2 minutes, that’s all you HAVE TO do – you’ll be more likely to do a complete workout that’s much longer.
Why? Because starting is the hardest part. Once you start, the momentum to keep going builds up quickly.
But the trick is to ONLY COMMIT TO THE 2 MINUTES. If on any day, you can only do 2 minutes and not the full “work,” that’s still a WIN. You’ve accomplished your objective and you can stop. You don’t have to continue the full workout, you only have to do the 2 minutes.
The same applies to songwriting.
COMMIT to doing the bare minimum (where if you don’t even do that you’ll feel bad, since it’s so simple and easy to do). For example, commit to sitting down every single day for 5 minutes – only 5 minutes – and coming up with a single melody idea. More often than not, you’ll keep going. But you don’t have to. You only have to do the bare minimum, and that’s good enough.
Why? Because YOU GOT STARTED. And that’s the biggest obstacle.
Prepare Yourself for Your Writing Sessions
Sometimes, you’ll be able to sit down to write a song from start to finish with a completely blank slate. But if that’s how you’re approaching each of your writing sessions, you’re handicapping yourself a lot.
The best writers are always writing. But not in the way you think.
They’re just always ready to receive and record inspiration. Because when the muse DOES decide to bless you from God’s grace with an amazing idea, you want to be ready for it. And it won’t always happen when you’re sitting down to write.
It’s the same idea behind “shower thoughts.” Why do your best ideas come to you in the shower? Who know, but those unexpected places are where they happen.
It’s very useful to always carry around a pen and pad, or voice recorder (or, if you live in the 21st century… your smartphone).
Anytime you notice yourself humming a cool little melody, or anytime a dope lyrical idea pops into your head, or anytime an overall song idea comes up – capture it immediately!
The brain is a great idea generator, but it’s TERRIBLE at remembering shit. So make sure you’re recording it – either as a voice note, or a written note in your phone.
At first, you’re going to forget to do that. And often you won’t even realize you’re humming a melody or that you just came up with a crazy good idea. That’s ok. Happened to me too…
But the more you start paying attention to those things consciously, the better you’ll get at recognizing it’s happening. And what’s crazy is that once you start capturing those ideas, they’ll start to come to you more and more throughout your daily life.
So pay attention to your thoughts, and capture them in some format for use later.
That way when you’re in your writing sessions, you don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. You can just start working on one of those amazing ideas you’ve already captured and start building it out.
Inspiration and Writer’s Block is a Myth (Sort of)
That’s not exactly true. Inspiration is real. And writer’s block can be too.
But the myth is that you – as a creative – can only start creating when you’re magically “struck” by inspiration.
That’s a total lie. Your job as a creative is to create. And as long as you have the tools to create, you can create.
Inspiration only comes to those who put in the work. Inspiration is out there floating in the ether, searching for someone to strike. But it’s searching only for someone who’s already doing the work.
That’s why you always have to be writing. Eventually, if you put in the time and the work, that inspiration will find you and you’ll create something great. And you’ll look back at it and wonder how that ever came from you.
But the truth is it came from you (or came to you) because you had already been diligently putting in the hard work of sucking over and over again. The work of trying and failing.
And that’s why writer’s block is also sort of a myth. It’s not like you can’t create anything… It’s that you can’t create anything you think is good. And that’s not actually writer’s block, that’s being too picky and judgemental.
So… writer’s block doesn’t REALLY exist – you can absolutely (at any moment in time) come up with a lyric, chord progression or melody. It may not be great. It may be basic and lifeless. It may absolutely suck.
But that’s ok.
Like I already mentioned, not everything you create can be good/great. You have to mine a lot of useless rocks to find the gold, remember?
And what is good anyways, when it comes to art? That’s purely subjective. So don’t worry about it.
So JUST SIT DOWN AND PUT IN THE DAMN WORK.
Don’t worry if what you make is garbage. That’s FINE! The point is that you sat down, put in the hard work, and came up with something.
Consider that a WIN.
Steven Pressfield has a great book about this entire subject called The War of Art – I highly recommend you read it, and it will change your entire perspective on the creative process.
Change Things Up
When you do something a lot, it can become boring really quickly.
And if you become bored, it makes it really hard to get started. And soon enough, you will have not written or created for weeks. And you’ve lost the momentum and the habit.
You don’t want to lose the habit. You want it to be a part of your daily life.
So when you’re in a groove and working regularly, if you start to notice yourself dreading it or becoming bored switch something up.
So, if you’re always starting with a chord progression like me, try doing something different. Start with a lyric.
If you’re always writing in a minor key, try a major key. If you’re always writing about love, try writing about hate.
Just try to keep things interesting for your mind. If things can stay fresh and exciting, you’ll be more likely to continue doing the thing. You’ll look forward to starting, rather than dreading it. Humans like novelty in general. So keep things fresh if you find yourself slipping.
Starting to write a song can seem like a daunting task. And honestly, any sort of creative endeavour can be very intimidating.
When you’re staring at a blank canvas, you can become paralyzed. Going from nothing to something is no easy task.
But now that you have a few different ideas on how to start a song, you can be more confident in your process.
You don’t have to choose one way of doing things. But sometimes it can help to have a “process” that works for you.
And keep this main tip in mind: just get started. However you do it, just start. The rest will flow.
I hope you found this guide on how to start a song helpful.
Thanks for reading!
Related Guides and Articles
- Notes, Scales and Modes in Music Theory
- Chords in Music Theory
- Adding Variation to Your Song Sections
Tools for Songwriters (affiliate links)
- Beat Building Blocks – Tools for Songwriter and Producers
- Songwriting Book: The Addiction Formula
- Songwriting Book: Lyric Form and Structure
- Songwriting Book: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting
- Alicia Keys Teaches Songwriting on Masterclass