So you are ready to unleash your inner songwriter, and learn how to write a song? Welcome!
Songwriting is a craft. And like any craft, it will take time, effort and plenty of practice before you come close to writing your first half-decent song. Which means the best time to get started, when there is so much to learn about how to make a song, is right now. No time to lose…
Of course one post cannot possibly cover every aspect of this illusive craft. What it will do, however, is take you step-by-step through the basics of songwriting. And help you write your first song. It will also show you how you can use songwriting software to make the process a little easier. Then finally we have heaps of songwriting tips and techniques to help you progress.
A quick question for you … What is the difference between an amateur and a professional songwriter? Well according to Oscar Hammerstein, the amateur is “money-mad”. The amateur wants to make some quick money and thinks that songwriting is an easy way to do that. However the professional just loves songs and loves songwriting. Quick tip to becoming a pro: don’t even think about the commercial aspect of songwriting for now. Be a professional, and write songs because you love it.
Songwriting’s a weird game … Keith Richards
Before you get into the ‘weird game’ of how to be a songwriter, take a few minutes to listen to what the late and great Harry Nilsson had to say (in a song of course!) about How To Write A Song:
Nilsson wrote that song in 1976, and of course it is tongue-in-cheek. But it contains tips that are still relevant today. You are about to embark on a songwriting journey that has been travelled by thousands of others over countless years. We still sing the songs of those who learned to communicate from the heart even after 50 or 60 years. So good luck! And remember this …
All is fair in love and songwriting … Norah Jones
Step 1: Get Started with Songwriting and Discover Your Motivation
Start off by thinking about what kind of songs you like, and what sort of songs you want to write. They may be different things. Begin by thinking whether you want your song to be: personal; universal; happy-go-lucky; observational; romantic; socially aware; light-hearted; funny; angry; instrumental; anthemic; religious; or a protest.
Try to understand the difference between personal fulfilment and commercial success. Bring out your inner professional. You are more likely to write a successful song if you don’t think about the commercial aspect at all. So indulge yourself. And learn to please yourself. If songwriting is really about communication more than anything else, then be as honest as you dare.
Here are a couple of songwriting tips to start you off.
- Listen to the songs you love more critically. Think about who the artist is writing for, and why? What are they trying to say?
- Think about the ‘style’. What makes a song fit into the category of pop, rock, electronic, acoustic, folk or opera? What kind of person buys these different kinds of songs? Which do YOU feel the strongest connection to?
- Become a critical listener. Work out how many beats in a bar if you can. Think about the tempo. Listen to key changes that move you. And what takes you by surprise.
Step 2: Spark Your Songwriting Creativity
Now that you are starting to think critically about the kind of songs you want to write, here are a few more ways you can start to get some ideas down on paper. You could start with:
- some lyrics or a poem
- a set of chords
- an instrumental riff or hook, or a simple melody idea
- a memory or story
- a viewpoint or cause
- a person you love (or hate) and think about how you feel about them
- a place, or a time
- a feeling, or emotion, or a particular mood
Step 3: Reflect On Your Initial Songwriting Ideas
Think critically. What difficulties have you encountered so far? Do not give up now, you just began to make your first song! Instead, solve the early problems.
Here are a few tips to progress to step 4:
- Have you chosen the write key for your voice, or your guitar or keyboard. Is it making it difficult to sing and play? Then change the key!
- Have you run out of ideas already? Then think about collaborating with someone else.
- Are you collaborating and don’t like their ideas? Then work alone, or find someone else to work with
- Does your song lack structure or structure? Don’t worry, move on to the next step.
Step 4: Structure Your Song
All good songs, whatever genre, have one very obvious thing in common: structure. To write a good song you need to be an architect. Your song needs to have a cohesive structure, and feel as if it is ‘going somewhere’. Here are two of the most successful songwriting structures. Try using one of these to shape your ideas.
- The traditional songwriting model goes like this: Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus. For example, You’ve Got A Friend by James Taylor
- Another common structure to write a song is the A/B pattern: Phrase A, A, B, A, B, A. For example, Yesterday by Paul McCartney
These structures work well because audiences throughout the world understand them. Which means that they can instinctively follow where the song is going. Provided you have a good hook! You will have to spend time crafting your song so the structure doesn’t sound too forced.
Of course, you might have your very own Bohemian Rhapsody or Good Vibrations on your hands. So in that case, make your own rules. But remember, even songs that ‘break’ the rules are still cohesive, and the pattern is understandable to the listener.
In the first instance, stick with tried and tested patterns. Once you get into the flow of songwriting you can think about breaking the rules.
Step 5: Edit, Edit and then Edit Again
This is where you need to become an analyst. Try to hear your song in an objective way – like a member of the public or a reviewer might. Take out anything that is not needed. Ask yourself if you are: too repetitive; too wishy-washy; is the song too long; is it just a tad self-indulgent. If so, take it out. If the song bores you, it will bore others.
But at the same time, don’t be so hypercritical that you stop. If this song goes wrong, start again with a new idea. Keep doing it. You will improve.
How to write a song? There are almost as many tips out there as there are songwriters! Songwriting is a craft that takes lots of practice. Most people develop their own routes to success after a great deal of trial and error. There are plenty of useful pointers and guides to help kickstart you, and you see many common themes in various books and articles on how to write a song. But with newer technology and software I think you can move beyond the old paper and pen methods to get results really quickly. If you have got lost reading other guides on how to write a song, maybe you need to take a fresh approach.
Where to start? Lyrics or Music?
There isn’t a right answer here, some writers like develop a little riff or hook and build up with nonsense words or syllables until the song starts to take shape. Others are real wordsmiths who start with fully fledged lyrics that they then work into a tune. Every guide on how to write a song that I’ve seen advises you to carry a notebook round so that when you are struck with inspiration you write down your ideas straight away. However with the ubiquitous smartphone, iPad or tablet you can do better than that. There are lots of free recording apps so you can capture melody lines wherever and whenever they occur to you, then apps like Google’s ‘Keep’ are great for noting down and organising ideas and snippets.
Structure and Music Theory
Songs need to make sense from the first time you hear them. Really great songs surprise you with their use of chord sequences, lyrics and so on, but they still ‘make sense’ overall. We are tuned in to recognising sequences and repetition, so songs tend to have a ‘formula’ based around intro – verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – chorus, something that gives the work a sense of ‘whole’. Again every guide will talk at length about structuring a song. This is usually followed by the usual details and advice about music theory: harmony; chord sequences; scales; modes; key signatures and so on.
The problem with so many of those guides on how to write a song is you can very quickly become bogged down with all these technicalities and it can get in the way of progressing any further. It can be difficult to just get started especially if you are trying to teach yourself.
The best way to learn how to write a song, you will be told often, is to write songs… but if you are like me you suddenly you find yourself with writer’s block when you were setting out looking for tips and inspiration! And if you aren’t a great player of keyboard or guitar it can be almost impossible to try out different ideas. If this seems to describe you then I would really recommend you take a look at Band In A Box Software. Band In A Box is one of the longest running music software programmes available and over the years has developed into a songwriter’s paradise.
Write A Song Instantly With Band In A Box
At its simplest level you can literally type in a sequence of chords and then it will generate a whole set of tracks for you. What better way to try out various song structures? You can pick from hundreds of styles, you can add in and take out instruments. This is even before you have started with the harmoniser, the melody line generator and all the other great song writing features that are available at the touch of a button. Once you have got your basic structure you can easily change the key signature, transpose, edit chords here and there, and really feel like you are making progress. That ability to play and adjust will mean your creative genius can start to work overtime.
Once you have shaped your basic song in Band In A Box, then you can choose whether to export it or actually keep working towards a completely finished arrangement. There are plenty of options, and you can also record in a vocal track, add lines using MIDI keyboard, or use VST’s or the Real Tracks to build up a polished performance. If you want to do even more, Band In A Box for Windows also comes with Real Band. RealBand is a fully-featured and powerful music arranging, sequencing, and digital recording program. It can be used as a stand-alone music workstation, or together with Band-in-a-Box as an all-in-one sequencing program with automatic accompaniment.
Band In A Box was originally devised for musicians to generate their own backing tracks. But in my opinion it is simply the best software tool available if you want to learn how to write a song and actually put ideas straight into action. Available for PC and Mac. You can buy it direct from PG Music, but if you buy the boxed copy here in the UK you get all the disks, a manual, and free access to UK-based technical support should you need it.
ps if you want to combine Band In A Box with a great book on Songwriting, then I’ve found an essential guide to lyric, form and structure on Amazon. It is a really well-written and easy to understand book on all aspects of how to write a song. The chapters on theory can easily be followed and trialled in the Band In A Box software.
Finally I found this great article on how to write a song on the Guardian website. “There’s one thing successful songwriters have in common: they all love the music they write. They’re not cynical about their craft.”