how to write a song for beginners

How to Write a Song (for Beginners)

Songwriting is hard. If you don’t find it difficult, you’re doing something wrong. If you’re a beginner, it might seem daunting just trying to figure out how to begin.

But the best Songwriters have trouble writing, too, even after the masses have tagged them as one of the “greats.” Although without the struggle, would we have such beautiful songs?

So it’s okay to find songwriting intimidating. If you’re looking to get started as a Songwriter, you have to first know how to write a song — where to start, how to finish, and tips that keep you going in between.
Read on to learn more about how to write a song (for beginners), with insights including how to:

  • Start with a student mentality
  • Listen to and learn from the masters
  • Study the masters
  • Copy the masters
  • Keep going like the masters do
  • Rewrite like the masters
  • Set a songwriting schedule
  • Treat songwriting like a craft

Start With a Student Mentality

If you want to get better at something — anything — you need to have a student mentality. This basically means you keep your mind open to learning new things, no matter how long you’ve been doing a certain thing.

The legendary B.B. King once said, “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

Once you learn a skill, no one can take away that knowledge. You can’t lose it like you can lose money. That skill can then make you a better Songwriter.

If you’re curious, that’s what makes you better at your craft. So don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to wonder. 

Keep your eyes focused and your ears open.

Listen to and Learn from the Masters

When you’re learning how to write a song, one of the best places to start is with those who have gone before you. Jumping off the above idea of learning, this is where we’ll talk about learning from the songwriting masters.

So here are some tips on how to learn from your favorite Songwriters.

Study the Masters

The famous Songwriters are famous for a reason, and most likely that reason is that they’re very good at what they do. And you know what — they surely learned from their songwriting idols.

So they’re definitely worth paying attention to.

Pick a Songwriter you admire and start examining their songs. Print their lyrics and break it down. What phrasing have they used? Do they rhyme? If so, how often and in what ways? What images do they convey? What stories do they tell?

Once you figure those things out, let that influence your songs.

If you can’t think of a Songwriter to study, try working with a song by one of these artists:

  • Leonard Cohen
  • Bob Dylan
  • Joni Mitchell
  • John Lennon
  • Nina Simone
  • Paul Simon
  • Stevie Nicks

Copy the Masters

There’s a book called Steal Like An Artist and it’s one of my favorites. It’s by an artist and author named Austin Kleon and the whole idea is that creative people should take ideas from others, put your own spin on it, and make something new that’s yours.

This is a great method for writing a song.

One way to put this idea into action is to take your favorite song and rewrite it. Put it in your own words. Make up your own chords, or reverse the order of the original chords. Write a new melody.

It may end up being a cool song that’s unique to you. Or, at the very least, it could inspire another idea for a song.

The point is, feel free to copy (not plagiarize) the masters. Even if you just use it as a method for creative inspiration, it can really help you get better at songwriting.

Pick a Songwriter you admire and start examining their songs. Print their lyrics and break it down. What phrasing have they used? Do they rhyme? If so, how often and in what ways? What images do they convey? What stories do they tell?

Keep Going Like the Masters Do

Have you ever heard of the 10,000-hour rule? It was made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell who wrote in his book, Outliers, that “ten thousand hours [of practice] is the magic number of greatness.”

The concept goes like this: if you put in enough hours at your craft, you’ll eventually become great at it.

Gladwell references how Bill Gates has been coding since he was a teenager, or how The Beatles played a ridiculous number of concerts before hitting it big in the United States.

Practice, Gladwell surmises, is something you have to do a ton of for you to improve at whatever you’re doing. And 10,000 hours is a lot of time. It will take you a while to get there and that’s why staying consistent and working on your songwriting is the key.

You should be songwriting every day. If you’re serious about getting better at songwriting — especially if you want to become a professional Songwriter — you must stay consistent.

Rewrite Like the Masters Do

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a lyric. But if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. Sometimes a lyric must be re-written. It hurts, but it’s for the good of the song.
Author Ernest Hemingway once said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” (See his book A Moveable Feast).

That’s so good.

The first thing you write is rarely the best thing you can write. Sometimes you get a gift from the songwriting gods and that happens. But most of the time, you’ll have to re-write.

This should be a step that you plan into your songwriting process.

Set a Songwriting Schedule (and Stick to It!)

Some Songwriters think a melody will just fall from the sky, or an idea will just hit them if they stare at the stars long enough.

Yeah, sometimes this happens. But it’s rare.

For the most part, songwriting is work. Fun work, but still work. And that’s why having a writing schedule is super helpful in keeping you diligent.

Even if you only have 10 minutes a day, schedule that time in your calendar. Early mornings and late at night are times that a lot of Writers do best, but whatever time you have is good.

The idea here is to hold your future self accountable by creating an event in your Google Calendar, iCal, or your paper planner. Call it “work on a song” or “do some songwriting” and block off whatever time you want.

The key is to stay consistent. Sit down and write, even if you only finish one line of the verse.

Songwriting is a muscle. You need to exercise for it to get stronger.

“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly,” says Leonard Cohen. “But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.” And you should expect to write some bad songs at first (“bad” meaning songs you’re not happy with). Prepare to fail, because only then will you learn how to do better.

Songwriting Tips

Okay, so we’ve covered the big ideas of starting a song as a new Songwriter. Now let’s dive into some quick songwriting tips (not rules) that you can use in your next songwriting session.

  • Brainstorm three song titles a day and save them in one big list.
  • Stream-of-Consciousness writing as a warmup: just start writing or typing whatever comes into your brain, no filter whatsoever.
  • Start a song with the title: this can help give your song focus because you’ll be reminded to write to your title.
  • Outline your song: pick a song structure then outline what will be in each verse, chorus, bridge, and every other section.
  • Write a bunch of words on a piece of paper, cut them up, and put them back together in a different order. David Bowie explains: “You write down a paragraph or two describing different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections, mix ‘em up and reconnect them.”
  • Play multiple songs at once like Tom Waits did to see if it sparks an idea.
  • Change the key: “Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody,” Bob Dylan said. “And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road.”
  • Sit in a coffee shop and start typing everything you hear: conversations, drink orders, descriptions of what’s around you — anything and everything.
  • Take the first few notes of a melody you love and change it to make your own.
  • Write from someone else’s perspective.
  • Make the songs personal: “My experience with songwriting is usually so confessional, it’s so drawn from my own life and my own stories,” says Taylor Swift.
  • Write a song with another Songwriter.

Songwriting Is a Craft — Treat It Like One

As with any craft, songwriting takes time to master. There’s no quick fix or instant mix that will make you a great Songwriter.

It takes time to develop, hone, and improve.

“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly,” says Leonard Cohen. “But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”

And you should expect to write some bad songs at first (“bad” meaning songs you’re not happy with). Prepare to fail, because only then will you learn how to do better.

“You build on failure,” Johnny Cash once said. “You use it as a stepping stone.”

So, all of us Songwriters should treat songwriting like the arduous, rewarding, difficult, meaningful, discouraging, life-giving craft that it is.

Whether you’re a novice or an expert, you’ll continually learn how to write a song better than you did the last time.

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