HOW TO: Write a song?
5 Exploration ideas and tips to help write your first song!
(full 10 week course and lessons on songwriting available with our coaches)
1. Writing over an instrumental
Many people assume that if they don’t play an instrument like the piano or guitar, then they can’t write a song but this is just not true. Some of the top songwriters we know and love don’t play an instrument (including Jamiroquai!).
Try this exercise;
Play an instrumental tune you connect with on youtube or spotify and see if you can make some words to go over the tune and fit with the musical phrasing! Some music is even labelled ‘copyright free’ meaning you can use the music if you credit the original source. You should always ask the copyright holders permission to use music in a public capacity or in a bigger capacity. You might even end up taking what you’ve written and that becomes the inspiration for a full song of your own.. (personal note: I find I can write easier when I am physically on the move for some reason..) You could take this concept and find a beat to write more like a rap over too!
2. Structure: Verses and Chorus
If you want to write a pop song then you’ll likely have a chorus that you come back to in the song. (think of a chorus in a song that you love… How does it differ to the rest of the song?) This is typically where the emotional climaxing lies within the song and might have higher notes, more intense phrasing as well as the ‘hook’. The chorus is where your strongest ‘idea’ lies withing the song. The thing you really want to say – and come back to. Once you’ve written the chorus – you come back to this same melody and lyrics each time you hit the chorus in your song. Your song will also feature ‘verses’. A typical structure might look like
- Verse, (possible pre-chorus) chorus, verse, (possible pre-chorus), chorus, possible bridge or instrumental, then back to the chorus to finish. You can also have intros, outros, key changes and lots of other sections.
So let’s say you’ve written an opening verse and chorus for your song. Now you will take a carbon copy of verse 1 and simply add new lyrics to create subsequent verses (remember you come back to the identical chorus again – so that bit is done!) The tune will also stay the same for the verses (just with new lyrics). Good news is that once you’ve got a verse and chorus complete.. you’re a major way into writing your entire song!
What is a pre-chorus? The verses are narrative thoughts or stories that are building to a chorus. A pop song can go straight from a verse into the chorus or we can have a ‘pre chorus’. This is where the listener senses something is building and changing away from the verse.. but we haven’t had the whole hit of the chorus yet… we are in the pre-chorus and what comes next is the main thought or idea of the song which will be realised then in the chorus.
There are of course many variations and ways of using the structure described above… but it is a nice clean start!
3. Case Studies
You’ve listened to many songs yes? But have you reeeally listened? Print some lyrics to a bunch of different songs while listening along; label verses and chorus’s and all the other sections you hear including intro and music breaks, riffs… Make a note of how many bars of music there are for each section, any patterns, repeats or changes in lyrics and music, plus emotional changes and dynamics that occur throughout the song. How does it flow? Rhyming is a big thing too. Make a note of the rhyming of the words. Also, the ‘sounding’ of words together and words at the end of lines.
Focused listening will be one of your greatest tools when it comes to writing because you will understand more and more how a song is put together and what similarities you notice from song to song in any given genre. The more listening and research you can do; the better. Make a mental note of things, concepts, styles you like.. and also what you don’t connect with so much as this will also help inform the songs you then want to write yourself and your inspiration.
SIDE NOTE: Most commonly, songs are written using chord instruments like keyboard or guitar. This is because if we used a single note instrument like say a trumpet or individual voice we only have a tune; but not yet full chords, which develop the body, structure, sections, chord progressions and sequences to add harmonic content to a piece.
Let’s say your song is in 4/4. That means there are 4 beats to the bar and the sections of the song is made up of sections of 4 bars. A lot of music does revolve around pattern and maths. The tempo and groove of a song is the stable foundation on which everything else can go crazy.. but this is more rigid and constant to ground your piece and allow everything else to make sense. Tap along to some songs you like and notice patterns in the groove. “So do your lyrics need to be like 4 syllables for each 4 beats?” NO.
Lyrics are like a blanket covering over the beats of the bars. They are not limited to fall on each beat as an identical match; but instead, the phrasing wraps around the timing. Listen to Adele ‘rolling in the deep’. This song is in 4/4 and the words sung do flow within the bars of the music (notice also the rhyming). Writing becomes like carving at this point – because you might have a great phrase you’ve written, but with the music… there are too many words bunched up or hanging off the end and you’ve run out of bars of music; so you have to carve and weave the lyrics to fit within the musical context. You occasionally hear in a song where this hasn’t been done so well and the lyrics are just crammed in!ha
Consider again how you will rhyme your lines as this will tie in with the tempo and beats of the phrasing, much like the stanzas of a poem. (it is not compulsory to use rhyme in songs but it is a good exercise for some of your early songs to help get a feel for structures)
5. Many ways
There is absolutely NOT a one way fits all for writing. Some people have a strong sense of a lyrical story they want to convey and so might start with the lyrics and then come to the music. In other scenarios.. a strong tune comes along, or chord progression first.. and then by playing around with words and sounds.. lyrics start to form. The song can have a strong lyrical meaning or be complete goboldy-goog! I seem to remember a quote from The Red Hot Chilli Peppers about singing random words over the chords when writing and then songs come..! Just words that feel right with the pace and feel of the music to add that dimension. Song lyrics don’t need to mean anything at all! Whereas if you look at Bob Dylan – you could argue that the lyrics and the story at the centre of much of his writing.
Sometimes the music and lyrics come to a writer at the same time. You might start with a hook. The work is then to create an entire song from this one idea! Alanis Morissette said once, she sits at the piano and then music flows down through her into the piano. She feels like she is ‘channeling’ the music more than actively trying to produce it.
You could try meditating or silent yoga and seeing what thoughts, music comes into your head. My advice is to always have a notebook and recording device close by because you want to capture those moments and ideas. I know a lot of professional writers have a little book where they constantly jot down new quotes, ideas, experiences, random lyrics and more. They can then be used in different songs down the line! Something you take a note off without much thought can become the gold dust to a hit song! You never know!
6. Chord Generator
There are great websites and apps for helping getting started with chord generating (even if you don’t play an instrument) check out; ‘chordchord.com‘ that generates chord progressions for you! If you’re totally new to writing, this can be quite handy to get into it all and get a feel for how chords go together. Then down the line, you’ll come away and start making your own chord progressions. Chords and keys are all linked and if you’re interested then you can research more into keys, relative chords and what chords lie in each key to help structure your songs but if we’re talking about absolute first steps into trying out writing songs and a few exercises just to see how it feels to write then you can use the tips above without having to delve too much into theory and you’ll still have lots of fun and give your mind the space to have creativity. Who knows what songs you might end up creating! You really do have the power.. just give it a little time, and take inspiration from the world around you, your feelings and what your mind says in the quiet time when it has a chance to breathe.
Thanks for reading xx
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If you have ideas or questions about writing songs or joining our songwriting course, write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
Many thanks, Laura