LEARN HOW TO WRITE A SONG: a step-by-step guide

This easy-to-use guide will show you how to write a song, from finding a great title to writing your melody. Hands-on songwriting exercises will jump start your creativity, while  ‘how-to’ video tutorials are a fun way to find out more.

by Robin Frederick. Request permission to reprint

What comes first, melody or lyrics? How does an idea become a whole song? How do you know if your song is any good? Well, I’ll answer the first two questions in this article. The third question – How do you know if your song is good? – is answered like this:

  • If a song genuinely expresses your feelings, then it’s a good song. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
  • If a song expresses your feelings AND touches other people, moves them emotionally, or gets them on the dance floor – that’s a  good song with the potential to become a HIT!

So, how do you write a song that moves other people and makes them want to listen? Well, that’s where song craft comes in!

‣ What is song craft and why do I need it???

Good songwriters use song craft to give their songs emotional impact and make them memorable for listeners. The song building tools and techniques we call “song craft” are not arbitrary; they weren’t invented just to drive songwriters crazy or force us to create formula songs without depth or originality. They exist because, over hundreds of years, songwriters have found that they help listeners to understand, experience, and remember the  message at the heart of our songs.

From the opening lines of your first verse to the end of the final chorus, your song takes listeners on a journey. It could be one that leads deep into their emotions or makes them feel like jumping onto the dance floor. But a song that wanders from one idea to another, or loses momentum, or lacks focus can be frustrating for listeners. When that happens, they just tune out. Don’t let that happen! The simple ideas on this page will help you create a compelling, powerful experience for you and your listeners. Like any skill, though, song craft takes little practice so be sure to try the “Go Ahead and Do It!” exercises that follow each step!


ON THIS PAGE…

[ GET STARTED ] [ BUILD ON A TITLE ] [ USE IMAGES]
[ GOOD SONG STRUCTURE ] [ CREATE A MELODY ]
[ FIND CHORDS ] [ FIND CO-WRITERS ] [ DEMO YOUR SONG ]

‣ How does a song get started? (Good question!)

WATCH THIS ON VIDEO.

Getting started can be one of the hardest tasks in songwriting! And it’s also one of the most important because if you start well, you’ll have a lot less trouble down the line. You’ll know where you’re going and you’ll have plenty of things to say!

There’s always the temptation to jump right in and begin with the first thing that occurs to you. You know you want to write a song – melody, words, and chords – but you may only have a vague idea or a feeling about what you want to express. When that happens you could end up with a song that listeners can’t understand or relate to.

So what DOES come first – lyrics, melody, or chords? My answer is… none of the above! There are a lot of ways to start a song and you could start with one of those, but I’m going to suggest that you start with THE TITLE!

The title is going to be the line that everyone remembers. More important, it’s going to define the message of the song. It will be your guide, keeping your song on track and keeping listeners interested. Think of your title as the peak of a pyramid. The rest of the song is made up of the building blocks that support it.

Short phrases make good titles because they grab attention and they’re easy to remember. The ideal length for a title is one to five words.

Start your song with a title that appeals to you. Make sure it’s a phrase that rings true in your ears. Something that makes you say, “I’ve got to know more about that!” Because if YOU want to know, others will want to know.

Where to find good titles
Keep your eyes and ears open for good titles that have energy for you. Action words, images, or short phrases make good titles. Attention-grabbing newspaper headlines are full of good titles. Here are a few examples of titles I picked up by reading through a popular magazine: “A Dream On The Edge,” “Hiding in the Shadows,” “What You Can’t Change,” “Slipping Away.”

Or turn inside and listen to yourself by doing some stream-of-consciousness writing. Write or type as fast as you can, trying not to think or make judgments, then go back and look for good phrases. When you listen to other people or watch television always keep a little corner of your mind alert for phrases that capture your attention. Start keeping a list of these titles.

GO AHEAD & DO IT! – Start your title list right now. Pick up a book or magazine, or scan for interesting short phrases. Write down at least three phrases. Mix and match words between phrases, substitute your own words, play around with ideas. Try to come up with at least one phrase that makes you want to write a song. Keep looking for more phrases until you have something you like. Draw a big circle around that phrase!

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‣ Turn a title into a lyric. Here’s how!

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Now, let’s begin to turn your title into a great lyric by simply asking a few questions – the questions suggested by your title. If you use these questions as a guide when writing your lyric, you’ll be able to…

  • Finish every song you start
  • Keep listeners with you
  • Make your song say what you want.

Ask the Questions hidden in your title!

Every title suggests questions that need to be answered. Some of the questions will be ones that you want to explore, others will be questions that listeners have. You’ll need to answer both. Let me give you a few examples…

Take a classic song title like “Heartbreak Hotel.” Some of the questions you might want to ask are: What is a ‘heartbreak hotel’? What happens there? Where is it?

Sure enough, these questions are all answered in this great Rock standard.

  • What is a ‘heartbreak hotel’? A place to go when your baby leaves you.
  • What happens there? Broken-hearted lovers cry.
  • Where is it? Down at the end of Lonely Street!

A title like Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” suggests questions like “Who was trouble?” “What kind of trouble?” and ‘How did things turn out?” If these questions aren’t answered in the song, they’ll go away disappointed. In a big Country hit like “You’re Gonna Miss This” recorded by Trace Adkins, listeners will be asking “What is it we’re going to miss?” and “Why will we miss it?” Check out the lyric, you might be surprised by the answer! That’s the sign of a great song. It draws you in with questions, then answers them in a fresh way.

You can choose the questions you want to answer. Just be sure to include the questions that listeners will have and answer those, too. If you were a listener, what would you want to know?

Here are some questions that work for many titles:

  • What does the title mean?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What caused it to happen?
  • What do you think or hope will happen next?

GO AHEAD & DO IT! – Go back and look at the title you circled. What questions does it suggest to you, ones that you want to answer in your lyric? Make a list of questions that you’d like to answer. Then add any questions you think listeners will have. Will they understand your title? Do you have to explain what it means?

Tell them why you’re saying this? Start writing a few of your answers now. Don’t bother to rhyme or even think about writing a lyric. Just say what you want to say. That’s the best place to start because that will be the heart of your song.

Visit my Songwriting Shortcuts Facebook page for more FREE songwriting tips!

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‣ Use Images to Bring Your Song to Life

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Just like a potter has clay and a painter has tubes of paint, the songwriter has images, action words, and fresh concepts. These are your raw materials. You’re going to create it yourself by using the words, phrases, and images suggested by your song title.

Make a list of words and images the title suggests

Let’s say your song title is “You Make Me Smile.” To create raw material based on this title, think of words and images associated with smiling! We can start with obvious ones like “happy,” “sunny,” “bright,” and “fun.” These are words you could use in your lyric, but they’re a little but abstract. Let’s see if we can come up with words that will create a mental image for listeners and really make them feel like smiling.

Take the word “fun,” for instance. What are a few things that are fun, things that make people smile? Parties, celebrations, dancing. People have fun when they go to theme parks, like Disneyland. So, let’s picture a ride at a theme park, maybe a roller coaster.

These are just rough ideas. Try not to judge whether they’re good or not at this stage. Just write down everything that comes to you. You won’t use all of it butyou never know what might end up in your song.

Now, let’s try the word “sunny.” Obviously that word makes me think of sunshine, which makes me think of summer and being outdoors, which makes me think of grass, trees, and flowers. Flowers make me think of bright colors – gold, red, purple – and bees buzzing around.

So now we have a whole bunch of words that evoke mental images – bees, flowers, sunshine, parties, dancing, roller coasters! They all have to do with smiling and feeling good. And they all came from starting with one word and letting it suggest more.

To hear how these words are used in a hit song, here’s part of the chorus of “Smile” by Uncle Kracker. Notice how many words are similar to the ones we came up with.

You make me dance like fool
Forget how to breathe
Shine like gold
Buzz like a bee
Just the thought of you can drive me wild
Oh, you make me smile

Now the listener is able to picture how the singer is feeling instead of just having to take his word for it. This is one of the most important tools a songwriter has. Check out this song on Spotify, look up the lyrics online, or watch the video to hear even more fun images and ideas based on smiling!

BONUS TIP: After you have a list of related words, make a list of contrasting words and images, ones that suggest the opposite. For example, I wrote a song called “California Girl.” Obviously the related words will include summer, sun, warmth, waves, water, sand, feeling free – a kind of or paradise. Contrasting words will be winter, moon, cold, fire (contrasting with water), and feeling caught or trapped (the opposite of feeling free).

If you’d like to hear how I turned these lists of related and contrasting words into a lyric, watch the video of my song “California Girl” or listen and read the lyrics here.

GO AHEAD & DO IT! – Make a list of words, images, and phrases related to your title. Write down single words or short phrases. Don’t think about rhyming or making sense at this point. And try not to be critical of your ideas – just write down what comes to you. Then, make a list of contrasting words, images, and phrases. Write as many words as you can think of in each columns. Let one idea suggest another and follow the trail wherever it takes you. This is a great exercise for stretching your creativity!

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‣ Why is Song Structure such a big deal?

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Before we go any further, it’s be a good idea to get familiar with one very important aspect of songwriting: Song Structure. A clear, easy-to-follow structure acts like a path, leading your listener through your song from beginning to end. A good song path will keep listeners involved in your song all the way through.

The most common contemporary song structure looks something like this:
VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS.

Listeners like this song form because it provides enough repetition to feel familiar and enough variety to keep them interested. It also gives you, the songwriter, the chance to add emotional dynamics to your song. Many of today’s hits feature a conversational, intimate verse followed by a big, powerhouse chorus with plenty of emotional punch.

Here are some useful definitions for understanding song structure:

- Verse: The verses in a song all have the same melody but different lyrics. The verse lyrics give us information about the situation, emotions, or people in the song.

- Chorus: We may hear the chorus of a song three, four or more times. The lyric and melody remain the same each time it recurs.The chorus lyrics sums up the heart of the song. The title of the song almost always appears in the chorus section and may be repeated two or more times.

- Bridge: The bridge has a different melody, lyrics, and chord progression from the verse or chorus. It provides a break from the repetition of verse and chorus. The lyric often provides an insight or revealing moment.

GO AHEAD & DO IT!
Use the song form VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS.

Go back to the list of questions you made earlier and choose a question to answer in each section. The chorus will repeated several times so pick the most important question to answer there. Often, that question is “What does this feel like?”

Be sure to use your title in your chorus! Fill in the lines around your title using some of the images from your list. Make sure your listeners understand the song by making at least one direct statement that describes what the song is about. Once you have a rough idea of your chorus lyric, move on to a verse. Verse lyrics tends to be more conversational, so keep it simple and just answer the question you picked in an open, honest way.

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‣ Look for the Melody That Lives in Your Lyrics

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Every time you open your mouth to speak, you start singing! Don’t believe me? Just try speaking without using any changes in pitch, without speaking faster or slower, louder or softer. You can’t do it! You end up sounding like a robot. Although we usually think of singing as something quite different from talking, we actually use a lot of melody when we talk.

When we talk we use pitch, volume, phrasing, and rhythm – all the elements of a song melody. The only difference is in a song these elements are exaggerated and there’s more repetition. So if you have a few lyric lines, all you need to do is speak them to get a raw melody started.

Melody, speech, and emotion

It’s the melody part of speech that communicates emotion. In fact, just by changing the melody you can give the same words an entirely different emotional meaning. Try this: say the phrase “Oh, no?” as if you are asking a simple question. Now, say the same phrase — “Oh no!” — as if you are anxious and frightened. Notice the difference in the melody? In the question, the melody goes up at the end. In the frightened version, the pitch starts higher and then the melody moves downward. Exaggerate the emotion in the second phrase and you’ll really hear it. Now try saying “Oh no” with a sarcastic, disbelieving, ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ tone. It’s an entirely different melody from the other two.

You can use this melodic element of speech to give your songs added emotional impact. If you’ve got a lyric that asks a question, try a rising motion on end of the melody, just as if you were really asking a question. Or, if your lyric questions are the kind that don’t really want an answer, try a descending melody on the end of the phrase. You’ll make the meaning clear and sound natural and believable to your listeners.

GO AHEAD & DO IT! To achieve the conversational tone of many of today’s verses, try speaking your verse lyric in a casual, conversational style, then exaggerate it a little to begin creating your verse melody. Keep the pauses that occur naturally and exaggerate the little ups and downs in your speaking voice. You’ll want to make changes later but, for now, this will give you a good place to start. Remember, this is your raw material, not the finished melody.

Choruses often have more energy and urgency, conveying more of the song’s emotional heart. As we saw with the “Oh, no!” phrase, the more emotion there is, the higher the voice tends to be. That’s why very emotional Pop and Rock choruses work well in a higher note range. Speak the chorus lyric with as much emotion as you can put into it. Now, exaggerate the pitches, keeping the rhythm of the words and any pauses that occur naturally. This will get you started on your chorus.

Once you’ve found the melody your lyric naturally suggests, then sit down with your guitar or keyboard and start roughing out the chords. I like to record my vocal ideas before I even start to add chords, that way I can recall the original “spoken word” melody in case I want to go back to it. Of course, there are other ways to write a song melody but this one will give you a great place to start!

Make your melody one that listeners can’t forget: Use this tip!

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‣ What happens next?

Writing both lyrics and melody
If you play guitar or keyboard and you’re going to be writing your own melody and chords. Skip down to the next section for some ideas on how to find and use chord progressions that work well for today’s songs.

Work on the melody and chords using the verse and chorus lyric you have, gradually smoothing and changing until you have something you like. Then write the rest of the lyric to the final melody.

Writing lyrics only
If you’re going to be looking for a collaborator to put music to your lyrics, then you should go ahead and finish the lyric now. Filling in the rest of the lyric while sustaining the emotional tone of what you’ve done is a tough job but if you’ve gotten this far, you can do the rest.

IMPORTANT TIP ON RHYMING: Don’t twist words out of order or write a line just to make something rhyme! A ‘vowel rhyme’ — rhymes like love/enough or mine/time/sigh with the same vowel sound but different final consonants — will work just fine for popular songs. (Songs for musical theater are different – they usually do require perfect rhymes.) Check out a web site like B-rhymes.com to find lists of interesting, closely rhyming words to use.

Read my post To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme on my blog site.

Know when to take a break!
Work on your lyric for short periods of time. If you’re not getting anything usable, walk away… literally. Take a walk and let things settle for awhile. Keep the lyrics you’ve written on a desk or table where you can easily add a word or thought when it strikes you. Keep the hit song melody in your head. The most important thing (and the most difficult) is to keep the emotional integrity of the song intact. Don’t settle for anything less. There are times when you’ll lose your way. Stop working! Go away and come back when you’re fresh. You’ll be able to see what needs to be fixed. Keep working on the lyric until you are genuinely moved and excited by it.

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‣ Chords

Many songwriters begin their songs by playing a chord or two. Without really thinking about it, they let the chord progression lead them through the song. The downside is that we tend to use the same chord patterns over and over. How often have you caught yourself going to the V chord at the end of the chorus just so you can resolve to the I chord that habitually begins your verses? Your songs are probably sounding less than fresh but you don’t know why.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel
There are loads of exciting chord progressions that use the basic chords within a key. Think about starting your verse on the II min. or the IV chord. Shifting to a new key at the top of the chorus is a great way to grab the listener’s attention at a crucial point in the song. So how do you start writing these new chord progressions if they’re not already part of your existing vocabulary?

Melodies and lyrics ARE copyrighted, but, in general, the chord progressions that use I, IV, V plus a couple other familiar chords are not. C-Am-F-G belongs to everyone! What this means is that you can use this type of generic chord progression in your songs! I am going to suggest that, for now, you do just that.

Let’s say you like Pop/Rock songs by groups like Nickelback or Country hits by top artists like Toby Keith or Tim McGraw. Many of these songs use generic four-chord progressions that have been used in lots of hit songs. These progressions are not hard to learn; just by listening to the track, you can learn to play along pretty easily on either guitar or keyboards. There are also “fake books” and web sites with the chord progressions for hundreds of hit songs.

Here’s a page with a few chord progressions that will get you started.

If you decide to use one of these chord progressions to practice writing a song of your own, just be sure you don’t use any of the melody or lyric in the song. Remember, these are protected by the copyright law.

Learn to play chords
If you don’t play piano or guitar, you might want to take a few lessons. There are ‘instant’ piano and guitar courses you can take that will teach you to read and play chords. Check out my Resources page for good ones.

You can also take a few lessons from a local music teacher. Many music stores have teachers who give lessons. Your local community center or college may have classes. Or ask friends and neighbors to refer a teacher. If you decide to take lessons, be sure to tell the teacher you want to learn to read and play CHORDS. You don’t need to learn note reading.

In general, songwriters don’t have to be great musicians. We know chords, we know song craft, we know how to follow our emotions — none of this has anything to do with how many blues licks you can burn through on an expensive Strat. Just strum or chord along with your voice and keep the emotional feel front and center.

‣ Songs for Film & TV

Many of today’s top TV dramas and films use songs to add mood, energy, and atmosphere to scenes. A lyric with a single, strong emotional focus is ideal for this use. If you’re interested in this market, begin to study how songs are used in commercials, TV shows, and films. Notice how they enhance and deepen the effect of the scene.

As an exercise, choose a scene and try writing a song that would work with it. Record your vocal and a simple guitar or piano part, then play it softly under the scene to see if it increases the emotional impact. For more information, read my book “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” available at Amazon.com.

Find out more about writing songs for the film & TV market.

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‣ Find a co-writer.

So let’s say you have this fabulous lyric. It’s got emotion and good song craft but you don’t play guitar or keyboards and can’t write the music. Or you’re a musician who doesn’t write lyrics and can’t take your melody to the next step. Time to look for a co-writer! But before you do that…. write out your lyrics or record your melody. Indicate which section is the chorus, verse, and bridge. That’s a good start.

Copyright your work

Before you show your lyric or melody to a co-writer, enter it in a contest, or otherwise spread it around, it’s a good idea to copyright it with the Library of Congress. You’ll find a printable form, FAQ, and instructions at the Copyright Office Web site. There’s a fee for each form you file, but you can register groups of lyrics or songs on a single form. There’s also an e-filing service at the at the same web site. Just click on “Electronic Copyright office.” It’s cheaper!

Back to the hunt for collaborators…

Idea #1: There is an excellent site for songwriters called The Muses Muse with a great e-newsletter and very active message boards. You can get feedback on your lyrics and look for collaborators. The Great American Song Contest has a category for lyrics only. It’s a great way to get your lyrics out into the world and attract collaborators.

Idea #2: Check out the Collaboration Corner at TAXI.com. You don’t have to be a TAXI member to join in the forum discussions and meet collaborators. Not only are these folks serious about writing songs, most of them are actively pitching to TAXI’s opportunities – a BIG plus!

Idea #3: Go to the clubs and concerts in your area that feature local bands. When you find a band playing the kind of music you’re interested in, ask if they’re willing to work with an outside writer. When they tell you they write all their own songs, tell them you’d like to collaborate on songs you can pitch to publishers for other artists. They’ll be interested, believe me!

Idea #4: Check out local music stores. They usually have a guitar or piano teacher or will put you in touch with one. The teacher might be interested in writing with you or may know a student who is looking for a collaborator.

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‣ The next step.

Once you’ve written a strong song with a memorable melody, emotionally evocative lyric, and good structure that keeps the listener’s attention, you’ll want to make a demo to show it off. Advances in recording technology have revolutionized home recording. It’s now relatively easy and affordable to put together a home demo studio. Although a course in home recording is beyond the scope of this article, here are a couple of ways to get started…

HOME MIDI STUDIOS: There are many inexpensive software programs that include both MIDI sequencers (for use with MIDI keyboards) and audio recording capability (to record vocals and guitar). Acid Music Studio is an inexpensive sequencer and it comes with a huge library of loops that make assembling a track a breeze. For Mac users there’s Garageband for MAC. It’s included in the iLife software package. You’ll need a MIDI keyboard for use with both of these programs. Apple has one for under $100. Yamaha makes a good inexpensive keyboard.

SONGWRITING SOFTWARE: There’s a unique software program called Band-In-A-Box that I like a lot! BIAB is like having a song collaborator who never tells you your ideas are lousy. It will create a chord progression or you can type one in or play one on a MIDI keyboard. It will create a drum, bass, piano, guitar, and string arrangement based on your chords. BIAB will even create a melody and a title! It’s inexpensive, fun, creative, and a great place to start a song from scratch! To find out more, visit my Resources page.   There are versions for both PC (BIAB for Windows) and Mac (BIAB for Mac).

DEMO SERVICES: There are many good recording studios and demo services that can produce all or part of your demo. They can record the instrumental tracks so you can do your vocal at home, or they can give provide just the guitar or drums. You’ll have a chance to give input or talk with the producer ahead of time. I suggest giving the service an idea of what you want by playing existing songs with a similar style, sound, or feel. Here’s a list of services and online musicians I’ve used.

 

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‣ One last thought…

Of course, all I have given you here is a doorway into songwriting. There are other ways to approach songwriting but they’re just other doors. Once you go through the door, that’s when you really begin to learn. Everything you need to know is right there on the radio, in your CD collection or on your iPod.

Study songs by your favorite artists to learn what they’re doing. Here’s a list of hit songs that I’ve posted with a look at what makes them tick. You’ll find tips on how to use these ideas in songs of your own. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you write a song. Stand on the shoulders of giants; use what others have discovered and build on it. Make it your own! Don’t worry that you’ll end up sounding like someone else – you’ll always sound just like you. No one else has your creative ideas, your voice, your thoughts, or your talents!

May your songs flow! ~ Robin Frederick

Copyright 2006 – 2014. All rights reserved. Request permission to reprint.

Songwriting BooksThis post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. In each book you’ll find over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.