“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”Albert Einstein
If you’ve recently picked up a guitar or sat down behind a piano for the first time, sooner or later you’re going to want to know how to write a song. Even if you don’t play an instrument and are just an avid music fan, you might be curious to know how songs are written.
Songwriting is an exciting, frustrating, emotional and rewarding craft which can take a lifetime to master, and anyone who’s written a song before will tell you that it can be tricky to know where to start.
So we’ve put together this handy guide for beginners and also seasoned songwriters who just need a reminder. Let’s get writing!
What should I write a song about?
“My experience with songwriting is usually so confessional, it’s so drawn from my own life and my own stories.”Taylor Swift
The best subject matter for you to write about is something that you feel strongly about. Those feelings can be positive, like in a love song, or negative, like in a break-up song.
As a songwriter, you need to decide who’s singing the song, or from whose perspective the song is being sung from. Let’s say we’re writing a break-up song – so you need to decide whether you’re the one being broken up with, or whether you’re the one doing the breaking up.
You also need to decide who the song is being sung to – so for our break-up song, this would most likely be the former partner.
Finally, you need to decide what’s being said. Break-up songs will usually focus on themes such as ‘I miss you’ or ‘I’m better off without you’.
Now we’ve established these key areas of focus, it’s time to work on a catchy, simple phrase which will become the basis of our song.
What should my song title be?
A common approach songwriters take is to incorporate lyrical ‘hooks’ – so-called because these catchy phrases will allow your song to get its ‘hooks’ into your listeners. That’s the part they’ll be humming to themselves later!
Therefore, your song title could just be whatever this phrase is, as this will help your listeners to easily identify your song. Think of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Sugar Town’ – the catchy ‘shoo shoo shoos’ lead you right to where you want to be.
Not doing this may cause confusion – Pete Townshend named the Who song ‘Baba O’riley’ in honour of two of his mentors (Meher Baba and Terry Riley) but people still commonly call it ‘Teenage Wasteland’ due to this phrase (or ‘lyrical hook’) being repeated several times towards the song’s end.
But this brings us to the other side of the coin – if you want to give your song a name that isn’t taken from your lyrics, that’s fine too. You might want to name it after someone important to you like Pete did, or you might want to describe the sound or mood of your song. An example of this would be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen – those two words are never uttered as lyrics, but they describe Freddie Mercury’s vision of the song, namely a highly unconventional take on a classical form.
So let’s take our break-up theme a step further. Let’s say we’re going for the ‘better off without you’ angle, à la Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’ or Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’. Write down a few phrases that relate to this subject and say them out loud to hear which of them sound the catchiest.
‘Better off without you’ phrases:
- See you never
- Thank you for leaving
- Waved goodbye for the last time
- Free for the first time
- Got myself back
‘Free for the first time’ is probably the catchiest lyric out of those examples, but you’re bound to come up with something much better if you keep at it!
Whatever you decide to do, your song title needs to be memorable above all else. Don’t be afraid to tweak your song title as you continue to write – ‘working titles’ are extremely common – but this step will at least get you in the right area.
With a clear theme and an idea for a catchy hook in the bag, it’s time for the next step – making some music!
How do I write a chord progression?
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.” –Tom Waits
A ‘chord progression’ is just the name given to the sequence of chords you choose for your song. However many chords you decide to play or repeat is entirely up to you.
Many songs centre around a progression of 4 chords (‘The Passenger’ by Iggy Pop, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana and ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints to name but a few), but there are plenty of exceptions at both ends of the scale. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Run through the Jungle’ is based around a single D7 chord, whereas Radiohead’s ‘Just’ has at least 12 different chords, so feel free to use as many or as few chords as you like.
It’s useful to know which chords belong in each key, so you’ll have more of an idea of which chords to go to and which to avoid once you’ve picked your first chord. You can of course put any chords together you want to, but it’s handy to have a grasp of the basics. A little music theory here and there will just stand you in better stead.
Here are a few common key signatures and their corresponding chords:
|A minor||‘Dreaming of You’, the Coral||Am|
|C major||‘A Little Respect’, Erasure||C|
|D Mixolydian||‘Times Like These’, Foo Fighters||D|
|E minor||‘People Are Strange’, the Doors||Em|
|G major||‘She Moves in Her Own Way’, the Kooks||G|
Pick out 4 or so chords from one of these groups, and play around with the order they’re in until they sound good to you. As you continue to play them, try different tempos and different rhythms, and the outline of your song will start to take shape.
Since the example song we’re writing is about a bittersweet subject, we can pick chords which help us to send that message. In the simplest terms:
- Major chords are happy
- Minor chords are sad
- Chords progression up the scale are happy
- Chords descending down the scale are sad
With this in mind, we can choose a key which suits our purpose (let’s say C major) and use the chords within it to hammer our point home. C is a major key, so overall our message will sound positive, but we can use minor chords to show glimpses of sadness.
One such progression would be:
C (happy) down to Amin (sad) down to Emin (sad) up to F (happy)
This progression starts and ends on a positive note (pun 100% intended) but takes us on a more emotional journey than a progression of all sad or all happy chords.
How do I write a chorus?
“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”Berry Gordy, Jr.
The chorus is arguably the most important part of your song to get right, as it’s probably how most people will remember or refer to your song. You can write any part of your song first, but as the chorus needs to be the strongest, it can help to write this first as it will provide your song with a context your verses and bridge can then fall into.
The word ‘chorus’ can also refer to several voices speaking or singing in unison, such as the ‘dawn chorus’ of birds waking up in the morning, or the background characters in a musical who only show up to join in with the singing. Bearing this in mind, you’re going to want to make your chorus as catchy and easy to pick up as possible in order to get everyone to sing it with you.
Let’s revisit some of those ‘better off without you’ phrases and make a chorus lyric out of them. Because a happy break up is the end of one stage in your life and the beginning of the next one, this is a good opportunity to highlight that life-changing feeling to your listeners.
We also want our phrase to be easy, even enjoyable, to say, so we need to make use of some basic rhetorical devices such as alliteration.
How about we go with:
“We waved goodbye for the last time, and for the first time I’m free”
Then we could use the last part of that sentence as our title (the whole thing is probably a bit too long).
So now we have our 4 chords and our catchy phrase, it’s time to put them together!
How do I write a melody for my chorus?
“The secret of a great melody is a secret”Dave Brubeck
Now you’ve chosen a chord progression you like the sound of, keep playing it over and over and wait for the ideas to flow. You may even want to record a rough version of your chord progression so you can improvise on your instrument whilst it’s playing.
Don’t be discouraged just because you might not have access to all the resources professional songwriters have – there are plenty of free apps and other types of recording software available, such as Garageband and Audacity. You don’t need to shell out for high-end recording equipment just to get your idea down – there’ll be plenty of time for that later!
Writing strong chorus melodies is, in many ways, the most important part of the songwriting process, and often the most challenging. Lyrics aside, this is going to be the ear-worm that your listeners walk around all day with after hearing your song (if you do it right!).
As most chords feature 3 notes, your chorus melody will probably start from one of those 3 notes, then as your chords change, your melody will move to one of the 3 notes of the next chord, and so on and so forth.
Your melody is essentially the path you take to get from one end of the chord progression to the other, and which notes you decide to move to is what will give your melody its character.
You might like to move in step with your changing chords, like Bill Withers does in ‘Lean On Me’, or you might prefer to stay in one place, using the notes that your chords share. We hear this in the chorus of ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis – the long sustained note from the second syllable of ‘Baby’ is an A, a note found in each of the chorus’s chords (D, F#min, A, F#min).
Remember what we said before about ascending being happy and descending being sad? That comes into play here too – but it gets even more interesting. If you, for example, wanted to convey a sense of hope, you could write a chord progression that descends, and a melody that ascends – showing your listeners that there’s some happiness to be found within the sadness.
So if we take a look at the chord progression suggested earlier:
C Amin Emin F
We can look at the 3 notes of C, which are C-E-G, and the 3 notes of Amin, which are A-C-E, and figure out a way of making our melody ascend by using the notes these chords have in common.
We could go from the E in the C chord, then go via the G in the chord to get us to the A of the Amin chord which comes next.
Then we could go up again from the A to a B as we reach the Emin chord (E-G-B), and again from the B to a C as we reach the F chord (F-A-C).
There you have it – descending chord progression, ascending melody. Just what we want for a happy break-up song!
How do I write a verse?
“Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”Paul Simon
The verse explores the ideas that come together for the chorus. A good example of this is ‘Help!’ by the Beatles: John Lennon asks for help in the chorus, and explains why he needs help in the verses.
So when you write a song, the main function of your verse is to support – but not overshadow – the core message of your chorus. You’ll need to expand on your lyrical themes and your musical ideas in order to tie the whole song together.
How do I approach writing verse lyrics?
Once you’ve settled on some strong lyric lines for your chorus – the destination – you need to write the journey. A useful lyric writing tactic to help you get together some building blocks for your verse is to write a list of words associated with the theme. You can use the phrases you brought together earlier for your chorus as a starting point!
- Broken hearted
When you’re choosing each verse lyric, don’t feel you have to rhyme every line – as with every aspect of songwriting, you can pretty much do whatever you want – but a lot of songs do rely heavily on rhyme, and it can be much easier to work to a pattern. Again, give yourself some ammunition by writing down lists of words that rhyme – then all you need to do is drop the parts in the right places.
Rhyme schemes or patterns tend to be denoted with A’s, B’s and C’s, depending on how many different rhymes appear at the end of each line. ABAB and ABCB are both common rhyme schemes which songwriters use – so the second line doesn’t rhyme with the first, then the third line rhymes with the first in an ABAB scheme, but it doesn’t in an ABCB scheme, then the fourth line rhymes with the second in both.
As your songwriting process develops, you might want to write using more complex patterns, but let’s look at some simpler patterns to start with:
|Rhyme scheme||Verse lyrics|
|ABAB||After so many years|
I was certain I would cry
But I have shed no tears
Since we said goodbye
|ABCB||After so many years|
I was certain I would cry
But no tears have I shed
Since we said goodbye
You’ll often find it easier to work backwards from these rhyming couplets, as these lyrics are now fixed reference points which the rest of your lyrics can fit around.
However- the first line of your first verse may be your one shot at a good first impression with your listeners, so it’s worth spending a little more time on your opening line. As good as the rest of the songs are, just think about how iconic and quotable lines such as “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again” from Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ and “He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious” from Avril Lavigne’s ‘Sk8er Boi’ still are to this day.
Get into the habit of jotting down all your ideas, whether you prefer the physical touch of a notebook or the convenience of a mobile device – and don’t be afraid to let older lyrics go as you come up with better phrases and rhymes. Leonard Cohen famously changed nearly all the lyrics to ‘Hallelujah’ in the decade after the song’s first appearance, and most popular cover versions today tend to use a mixture of both the original words and Cohen’s revisions.
As we said at the start of this guide, songwriting is a journey – sometimes for the song as well as the songwriter!
How do I write a verse melody?
“You don’t write a song to sit there on a page. You write it to sing it.”Bob Dylan
You will of course need a chord progression for your verse too. It can be the same as your chorus chord progression (such as in ‘Snow (Hey Oh)’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers), or you can choose an entirely new bunch of chords (such as in ‘Life on Mars?’ by David Bowie).
You’ll also need an idea for a verse melody. The rules for this aren’t set in stone – as long as your verse supports your song idea and feels like a part of the song as a whole, you can experiment as much as you like.
It’s often best to save your strongest idea for your chorus melody, as this is what the verse is leading up to – we all know the most fun parts to sing from ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ by the Darkness and ‘Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus are these songs’ unbelievably enormous choruses.
Other successful songwriters sometimes turn this approach on its head – ‘Where is My Mind?’ by the Pixies and ‘The Bucket’ by Kings of Leon arguably have more memorable verse melodies than chorus melodies – but they still mark a dramatic change in pace or dynamic from the verse, so they still stand out to the listener.
So if we used ‘C Amin Emin F’ earlier with a view to writing a descending chord progression with an ascending melody, let’s try something different for our verse chords.
If we chose an ascending progression, such as ‘Amin Dmin F G’, we can then take our verse melody down the scale, which gives more of a sense of looking inwards for answers rather than reaching outwards for help, as in our uplifting chorus.
Starting on an Amin chord (A-C-E), we can trace our descending verse melody from the C down towards the A from the following Dmin chord (D-F-A), then further downwards to the F of the F chord (F-A-C) until we finally land on the D of the fourth chord of our progression, G (G-B-D).
So to recap, we’ve now got ourselves a (working) title, a lyrical hook for our chorus, a couple of solid yet distinct chord progressions and at least one verse idea – all the raw material we need to complete the songwriting process. Not bad going, eh?
What else does my song need?
This is the question every songwriter asks themselves. There are a few other elements that you might like to add if you think the song structure could use a little shake up.
You might like to add an intro to your song, like the brooding tension at the start of ‘Money For Nothing’ by Dire Straits, or a smart little lead in that just sets the tone and pace of the song that will follow, like the start of ‘Baby Love’ by the Supremes.
Some artists also choose to add an outro to play out their song – ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ spring to mind as they gave us some of the most epic examples of this.
A ‘pre-chorus’ is a popular songwriting technique which creates anticipation for the chorus we know is about to drop – the songs’ Sugar, We’re Goin Down’ by Fallout Boy and ‘Say You’ll Be There’ by the Spice Girls both feature sections that, when we hear then, we know we’re about to hear the chorus.
Songwriters sometimes like to add a bridge, which is an entirely different piece of music to the verse and chorus. A ‘middle eight’ is a common type of bridge – think of the quiet section of Blink 182’s ‘What’s My Age Again?’ or the even quieter section of the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’.
Now you’ve got a few building blocks, it’s time to organise them into a song structure.
Which song structure should I use?
There are many different song structures for you to choose from – you don’t always have to follow the ‘verse chorus verse’ structure. With all the aforementioned songwriting tools at you disposal, you’re free to mix and match as you see fit.
Here are a few song structure ideas along with some well-known examples to bring you up to speed:
’12 bar’ structure
Most associated with blues music, this form was the go-to in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll – but many of today’s songwriters still hold this form in high esteem and revisit it to put a fresh spin on it. Typically, while each verse may vary, each 12 bar pattern ends with a repeated phrase or ‘refrain’:
- ‘Hound Dog’ – Elvis Presley
- ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ – U2
‘Verse / chorus / verse / chorus’ structure
Also known as ‘binary form’, this type of song structure experienced a boom among folk musicians, and really began to explore the idea that the verses could tell the story while the choruses – a more developed and separate piece of music than the simpler refrain – could remind the listeners of the theme or moral – such as with these:
- ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ – Joni Mitchell
- ‘Roxanne’ – the Police
‘Verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus’ structure
This is the most popular song structure heard in pop music today – so much so that it’s often called the ‘Standard Form’ – and offers the songwriter to take the listener in a different direction after establishing the song’s setting by first repeating the verses and choruses:
- ‘Hot N Cold’ – Katy Perry
- ‘Stacy’s Mom’ – Fountains of Wayne
‘Verse / pre-chorus / chorus / verse / pre-chorus / chorus / bridge / chorus’ structure
Our previous song structure’s older, cooler sibling, this structure crams a little more songwriting craft into your 3 or so minutes by way of a pre-chorus – the perfect way to get your listeners hyped up for what they’re about to hear. Some great examples of this form being put to good use are:
- ‘Buddy Holly’ – Weezer
- ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ – Oasis
The most important lesson of all is: keep writing. Keep writing lyrics, keep writing melodies. You can’t expect your first song to be your masterpiece, but don’t let a few weaker songs get you down. You’ll find it easier and easier to write songs as you get more familiar with the process, and you’ll start to settle into your own unique songwriting style. You’re now armed with the same songwriting tools as the best songwriters out there – so go for it!