How to Write a Song
Techniques and tips for writing your own songs in the 21st century
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Last Updated: January 2023 | Article Details: 4509 words (24 – 26 minute read)
Article Table of Contents
- i Video Overview
- ii Audio Version of Article
- ii Writing a Song Step-by-Step
- iv Writing Songs vs. Writing Hits
1. Step-By-Step Process In-Depth
- 1.1 Song Structure
- 1.2 Chords and Beats
- 1.3 The All Important Topline
- 1.4 Choose Your Best Melodies
- 1.5 Writing Lyrics
- 1.6 First Draft + Re-Writing
- 1.7 Record Your Final Draft
2. Tips to Help You Learn to Write Better Songs
- 2.1 RE-WRITE YOUR SONGS!
- 2.2 Don’t Be Cliched or Obvious
- 2.3 Don’t Be Too Abstract
- 2.4 Melodies Really Are Everything
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Learn the Secrets to Writing and Producing HIT SONGS
Audio Version of Article
Listen to the entire article instead:
If you want to learn how to write your own songs, we’ll give you a step-by-step approach in this article.
We’re going to get into song lyrics, melody, story and more. We’ll also give you some tips on how you can write better songs below. Finally, we’ll have some resources you can use to improve your skills as a songwriter.
One thing to keep in mind is that there are many ways to write a song – the method we go over here is just one way to do it. But I’ve found it to be a very effective way to write, and many popular artists do something very similar when writing their songs.
Let’s get right into it…
Quick Note: We assume you know what it means when we use the terms “harmony,” “scales,” “chord progresisons,” “melody,” “bars,” and “beats.” If you’re not sure check out our quick music theory guides before you read on.
Writing a Song Step-By-Step
We’ll explain everything in this list in more detail in this post, but here’s an overview of the steps involved in writing your own song.
- Find the Mood of the Song
The first thing to do in writing a song is to find a mood/vibe that you like in the moment. You can start with a chord progression that speaks to you or find a full beat/instrumental online to write your song to.
- Find the Topline
The next step is to find the main melody of your song (the topline) by freestyling and recording ideas using gibberish words or random phrases that come to mind.
- Pick and Categorize Melodies
Now you will listen to your recordings and pick out your favorite melody ideas. You’ll also want to categorize each melody idea as a “verse,” “chorus,” “pre-chorus,” “bridge” melody.
- Brainstorm Lyric Ideas
Now that you have your melody ideas categorized, start coming up with lyric ideas that fit the sound of the melodies. Start with the chorus to come up with a summation of your story, then fill in context/detail in your verses and pre-choruses. Make sure you’re telling an overall story and that your lyrics vibe with the mood of the chords/beat.
- Arrange and Record First Draft of Song
Now come up with a rough arrangement of all your lyrics and melodies together – the basic structure should resemble something like Intro-Verse-PreChorus-Chorus-Verse-PreChorus-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro. Record a rough take so that you can listen to the gist of it as a “full” song.
- Refine and Rewrite
Now it’s time to listen to your recording with a critical ear and refine and rewrite lyrics so they’re more impactful. Maybe you can refine the melody ideas or flow/rhythm of your delivery. Maybe you can think of better phrases/words to use. Rewrite your entire song to make it the best thing possible.
- Record a Final Draft
Now is the time to record a final draft of your re-written song. If you have music production skills or know someone that does, now is the perfect time to record a “demo” of your song with a bit more production work behind it (like a properly recorded vocal, etc.).
Now it’s important to remember – there’s no wrong way to write a song. The above process is just one single way to do it. It’s a pretty effective way, I’ve found, but it’s not gospel.
If a different songwriting process works better for you, lean into it. The idea is to just be able to write the best material possible. So don’t be afraid to do things differently when writing songs for yourself.
Writing Songs vs. Writing Hits
Before we move any further, it’s probably a good idea to get into the distinction between writing songs and hits.
You can write whatever you want to as a songwriter. Let your creativity and oddity run wild. But don’t expect it to resonate with the masses.
Writing hit songs is an art and a science in itself. There is a craft to it. And certain “rules” or “boundaries” that you usually have to follow to maximize your chances of success with it.
That’s just how it is.
If you don’t want to be constrained like that, there’s nothing wrong with writing whatever you feel for your song. Express your art. That’s one of the greatest things you can do.
Just don’t complain about it if the song’s not hitting and no one’s listening. If you want a hit, work within the “pop hit” framework. Otherwise, just do you and find contentment in the art.
Decide now what you’re trying to do with your songwriting: do you want to express yourself creatively or do you want mainstream success? Or maybe a bit of both?
Either way, accept the reality of whatever it is you’re trying to do. And always remember you don’t need to be a “hit songwriter” to have success in music. You can build a great career just doing you.
I say that to say… this isn’t an article about writing hit songs, it’s just about writing great songs in general.
How to Write Songs for Beginners – In Depth
Ok, so now let’s take a look at each of the steps involved in writing a song in a bit more depth. Because of the nature of songwriting, it will be tough to really explain how it’s done in detail, but let’s give it a shot.
The first thing you should know is that most songs have a few different sections:
- the chorus (same melody across choruses, lyrics sum up the song’s “story” in a catchy/hooky way),
- the verse (similar melodies across verse, lyrics gives more detail on the story),
- the pre-chorus (same melody across pre-choruses, lyrics add onto verse and build up into a climactic chorus section)
- a bridge or “departure” section (a new section with new melodies, new lyrics and sometimes even new harmony/chords).
Most pop songs follow this structure – Intro -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Bridge/Departure -> Chorus -> Outro.
Often times each song section is based on a multiple of 4 bars (read this if you don’t understand what a bar is). A lot of verses, bridges and choruses clock in at 8 bars of music (sometimes 16). Pre-Choruses are often 4 or 8 bars in length.
Just keep all that in mind for now.
Step 1: Chords and Beats for Your Song
A song isn’t just music. And music isn’t just sounds. Music (and thus a song) is the change in sound over time. So you need some sort of harmonic movement to really craft any song. And with any song it can really help to start with a chord progression in the very least, instead of trying to come up with a melody and lyrics off jump.
Nowadays a lot of songwriters will search online on YouTube or sites like BeatStars for a pre-made instrumental to write to.
This is a great way to start, because you have a full production to start writing your song to. You can also try to find a local producer in your city to work with, but that’s much more involved.
When you’re starting out songwriting, all you really need is chord progression – whether you’re using a piano, a guitar or even just a midi pattern.
What to Do:
Start with something that’s either 4 or 8 bars/measures and loop it over and over. That’s the “bed” of your song.
Make sure it’s a vibe that matches however you’re feeling in the moment. What kind of song do you want to write? Happy? Melancholy? Angry? Make sure the feeling matches the chords/beat you’re using.
And just play it over and over and start to feel the vibe.
Close your eyes and feel the sounds. You’ll probably want to start humming along with it. That leads into the next step…
Step 2: The All Important Topline
Now that you’ve got a base for your song, it’s time to come up with a topline.
A topline is really just the MELODY of the song. The all-important song melody – the thing people will latch onto, resonate with and remember the most. Not the lyrics, JUST the melody.
This step is all about finding the shapes of your melodies for each part of your song.
Don’t underestimate the power of a great melody in a song. It’s everything – and nowadays, that’s true even if you’re writing a rap song (which is traditionally light on melody).
What to Do:
Set up a phone, laptop or portable recorder to record your voice along with the chords/beats playing in the background. It doesn’t have to be good quality or fancy. It just needs to record audio.
Loop your chord progression for 3 or so minutes if you can. If you’re playing it live with an instrument, just keep playing over and over. If you’re using a beat, just let it play through.
Now start humming along with the musical backing – hum out whatever melody ideas start coming to your mind. It DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE GOOD OR NOT.
This is just brainstorming song melody ideas.
Also, words don’t matter at this stage. You can use gibberish to make up fake/nonsense words while trying to create the melodies, but just humming is fine too.
If you do use gibberish, different song lyric ideas may start to form. Keep them in mind, but don’t worry about finding the right words yet.
This is ALL ABOUT MELODY.
Do this at least 3 times, recording each take. Lots of songwriters use this approach.
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Step 3 – Choose Your Best Melodies
The next step is to choose your favorite melodies and categorize them. You’re going to be choosing the melodies you think are the most impactful for each separate section of your song.
Some things to keep in mind is that each song section (verse, chorus, etc) should be unique and distinct. You don’t want to use the EXACT same melody in every single section of the song or it will be boring.
A lot of times, verse melodies are more subdued than chorus melodies. Chorus melodies are often either really epic or very drawn down. The big thing is that the chorus melody is DISTINCT from the verse melody.
Verse melodies are often also more complex (not much, but a bit) than choruses. Chorus melodies tend to be the most simple and catchy parts of a song.
But again, these aren’t hard and fast rules. You can do whatever you feel like for your song.
What to Do:
Once you have 3 recorded takes of your melody/topline freestyles, play them back to yourself one at a time.
Pay attention for any melody ideas that immediately jump out to you. The kinds of melodies that make you go “oooh that’s dope!”
Categorize that melody – does it sound like it’d be better in the verse or the chorus? Maybe the bridge? Make a note of it.
Listen through every take you recorded and do that for every melody that perks up your ears.
This is where having some basic music production skills can help.
Categorizing audio clips like this is really easy in DAW (digital audio workstation) software.
By the time you’re done, you should have an overall structure of your song, complete with verse and chorus melodies (and a bridge melody if necessary).
Now, you need to record one more take of your melodies over top of your music – this time in the exact order of your song so far (i.e. verse, pre-chorus, chorus).
You’ll be working with this new recording of each melody you chose, in proper order, to tell the song’s full story.
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Step 4 – Writing the Song Lyrics
Now that you have the melody it’s time to work on and write the lyrics. If you’re wondering why we recommend focusing on the melody first, there’s a couple of reasons:
- It’s easier (and more effective) to fit words into a melody than trying to fit a melody onto words
- The melody is always more important than the lyrics in a song. Lyrics are important, but melody is much more memorable and needs to be ON POINT first.
But again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Do whatever is easiest for you as you write. If you work better by writing song lyrics first, do that. This is just what we find most effective.
Remember this: a song is a story – an emotional journey, in lyrics, melodies and musical backing. They all work together to tell a story and convey emotions.
What to Do:
Start by looping and playing a specific section of your new song recording. It’s normally best to start writing the chorus lyrics first.
That’s because the chorus will be a “summation” or “climax” of the story – the main point or lesson or message the story is trying to tell. Start with the end in mind, and then work backwards to fill in the details and context
Usually the verses and pre-chorus will provide background and details on the story you’re trying to tell, and will build up to an eventual “payoff” in the chorus.
How do you do it?
If you used gibberish during the freestyling, there may have been some outlines of words that would work well in that melody. Try excavating an idea from that gibberish. What is the song’s melody “trying” to say when you listen to it? Write down whatever comes to mind.
Usually the song will tell you what it wants to be.
Just always remember that the song melody is all important. Lyrics you write should work WITH the melody, not the other way around. If the melody ends on an “ooh” sound more easily, try to use a word that does too.
Start to piece together your story with ideas and phrases and words that say what you and the song are trying to say. What’s the “summation” or “climax” of the story you’re telling? Write that as your chorus.
Once you’ve got the chorus, then go back and start thinking of lyrics that could fit the verse. The verse will add context to your story and give background and details. Write the story out in a way that leads to the climax/summation in the song chorus.
And then do the same as you write the pre-chorus (if you’re using one) – it should continue to build up the story to the ultimate payoff in the chorus.
Do this for each section of your song until you’ve got everything written. You’ll usually only have to write one chorus, one pre-chorus, one bridge and 2 or 3 verses.
Quick Tip: I highly recommend writing your lyrics down with pen and paper. There’s just something about being able to cross things out and the motion of actually writing your lyrics that helps make things stick.
Step 5 – Bring Your First Draft Together
This step is really straight forward.
Now that you have written a first draft of your song lyrics and melody. It’s time to record a rough take of everything you wrote.
Again, this doesn’t have to be high quality. Recording it on your phone is totally fine. Just record one whole run through, from beginning to end, of all you verses, pre’s, choruses and the bridge if you have one.
It’s ok if you screw up a bit here and there during the recording. It’s a rough take. Just something for you to listen to.
Once you’ve recorded this first take of the full song, step away. It’s time to take a break. Don’t move on to the next step until you’ve had time away. You need FRESH EARS for the rest of the steps. Come back later, or better yet the next day.
Step 6 – The All Important Song RE-WRITE
You may feel great about the song you wrote so far. You may think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. But I can almost guarantee, your song is not as good as it could be.
And that’s where taking the time to perform this extra songwriting step is crucial to writing great songs.
Never underestimate the awesome power of rewriting your song.
Ernest Hemmingway once said something like “the first draft of anything is shit.” And that is the absolute truth.
Spend time refining the songs you write – re-write wherever necessary. That is what will set you apart as a songwriter from everyone else trying to do this thing.
What to Do:
Take the recording you created of your full song’s first draft, and just sit there and listen to it over and over.
Listen to the song at least 3 times – read your lyrics sheet while listening. Pay attention to the song melodies, the flow of the song sections and the transitions between sections you write.
Does anything feel off? Does anything feel jerky or not smooth and like it fits in it’s proper place?
Are the words you used for a particular line, really the best words/phrases you could use to convey that idea?
Would this particular melody sound better if it ended upwards vs. downwards?
While you’re listening to your song, ask yourself “how could this be better” for EVERYTHING.
And then try things out. Re-write and re-record things as you make edits. Does it sound better or worse? Compare the versions against each other.
Really sculpt away at the song until you have the absolute purest essence of what you’re trying to do. You can do as many re-writes as you think are necessary.
And once you learn more about the craft of songwriting over time, you’ll start to recognize these opportunities to improve more and more in all your songs.
Step 7 – Record Your Song’s Final Draft
Now that you’ve refined your song to it’s absolute best, it’s time to record a final draft of everything.
Do something similar to what you did in step 5, above – one full run through of the newly re-written song.
Again, it doesn’t have to be super high quality. A phone recording is perfectly acceptable right now.
But at this stage, if you have access to the equipment/skill, you can record a demo of the song. If you’re trying to pitch the song to other artists or labels, a well produced demo can go a long way.
Having said that, just remember that the SONG has to be there. A well produced but badly written song will go nowhere. That’s why I stress the re-write so much. It’s the only way to do things right.
But record a final draft that you can use for whatever purpose you’re writing for. If you’re the artist you’re writing for, you’ll eventually want to record your songs properly, with good equipment.
Having a full, final draft “scratch track” to work from, though, makes everything easier in the long-run. So just record something for now on your phone.
Tips to Help You Learn to Write Better Songs
And there you have it, y’all! You’re officially a songwriter. Congratulations.
That’s not all there is to it. Songwriting is a deep and intricate craft. It takes years and years of work to master. Keep learning about the art of writing your own songs. There are so many great resources out there for you to work with.
But for now, here are some general tips to keep in mind when you’re pursuing this craft.
RE-WRITE YOUR SONGS!
I have to say it again, because it’s that important. Great songs are NOT written, they are RE-WRITTEN.
Always re-write your songs. They can always be better. They can always be more impactful, more emotional, more catchy.
When you’re listening through to your song’s first draft that you put together, pay attention to what it is each line is trying to say. Is there a better word/phrase to use that is more modern/unique/etc? Is the metaphor you’re using way too abstract so that no one listening will be able to get it?
Also pay attention to your song melodies! Is your verse melody cohesive and easy to follow or is it all over the place with no real motifs that listeners can latch on to? Are you using repetition and contrast effectively in your melodies?
RE-WRITE YOUR SONGS. Make them the best they can possibly be, because you’re competing with everyone out there in the world.
Don’t Be Cliched or Obvious
A cliché is an overused or very obvious and stereotypical idea. Saying something like “it’s always darkest before dawn” would be a cliché. You should avoid using these phrases and ideas that everyone out there already uses. You want to be interesting and unique in your lyricism.
Another thing is you don’t want to be too obvious in your lyrics. Saying “I love you more than everything” is the most obvious and boring and tired way to say what you’re trying to say. Try to find a unique and interesting way to say the same thing.
Say what you want to say, without saying it directly.
Don’t Be Too Abstract
Now the yang to the yin – even though you don’t want to be too obvious, you also don’t want to be too abstract where no one even understands what you’re trying to say.
Great songwriting is the balance between the two within a single song.
Don’t use phrases or slang that is personal or unknown in wider culture. Don’t intentionally try to be so artsy and poetic that it’s difficult to comprehend. And try not to make things so personal to yourself that others won’t be able to connect to it.
Melodies Really Are Everything
Your song’s main vocal melody is SO important. It’s impossible to over-emphasize this. Everything in your song should serve the main melody.
Don’t believe me? Max Martin, arguably the most successful and prolific hit-making songwriter ever, is a strong believer in the power of melody. So much so, that he prefers using words and lyrics that don’t even make sense if it makes the melody of the line better.
Here are some tips for a great song melody:
- Keep it singable – stay within an octave and a half as much as you can
- Simplicity is key – make your melody easy to follow along with – not a bunch of complexity, not a lot of wild jumps in pitch, etc.
- Be balanced – a great melody will use a balanced combination of step-wise movement (note to next note in scale), and intervallic leaps (note to a higher/lower note in scale)
- Use repetition – motifs are small melodic phrases that repeat throughout a song. It heightens your song’s memorability and helps anchor your listener
- Keep it interesting – it’s also important to modify your motifs to keep things interesting and not monotonous/boring. Even slight changes like one different note in a repeated section can make a world of difference
- If you were to draw your melody out on a staff or in music software, it should look like a bunch of rolling hills (gradually moving upwards and then back down again)
Frequently Asked Questions About Writing a Song
The topic of the songs you write is often very personal to you. But you can write about literally anything. It’s important to keep in mind that there are certain universal ideas that will resonate with more people, more often. Those topics include love and relationships, loss and sorrow/pain, interesting stories, inspiration and living life and even introspection and philosophy. The most popular topic to write songs about is, of course, love and relationships.
Songwriting is a really personal thing. So you want to write wherever you’re most comfortable. Whether that’s a bedroom, a studio, the beach, whatever – you want to find a place that lets you be you without fear of judgement. As far as where to write your song lyrics, I prefer a pad of paper and a pen but using your notes app in your phone is totally fine too. Do whatever feels best to you. Coming up with melodies, however, is usually easiest when recording yourself freestyling.
When you’re first starting out and writing songs, it’s tempting to want to get your song out there. But just wait and focus on your craft. Your first 100 songs are PRACTICE. Once you’re a really good songwriter, you can try joining and reaching out to Performance Rights Organizations (like ASCAP/SOCAN/BMI/etc) and getting them to guide you along your songwriting career. It’s also a good idea to connect with artists and singers in your local city to write with or for them.
You don’t need to be a musician to write your own songs. If you don’t play any instruments or make your own beats you can do a couple different things. You can download full beats/instrumentals for your song from places like YouTube or BeatStars. That’s a great way to start with a full production behind your song. You can also use songwriting tools like Beat Building Blocks which contain pre-made, drag-and-drop patterns of chord progressions and drum grooves to easily build your own musical backing to the song you want to write.
When you’re first starting out writing your own songs, you’ll be bursting with ideas. And that’s a great thing – utilize it.
Write as many songs as you can as fast as you can. There’s no getting around it – your first songs are going to suck. It’s just how it is.
My recommendation is to get through your first 100 songs as quickly as possible. Just write, write, write.
Most of what you make will be bad. But after your first 100 songs you’ll likely have become a really skilled songwriter.
The first 100 is just practice. So get it out of the way as soon as possible.
And there you have it – a complete guide on how to write a song for beginners. I hope you found this article helpful!
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
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