How to Write a Song in Eight Steps
Writing a song is easy, right? Looking at the lyrics of some of the biggest hits of the past few years, it would certainly seem so, but nothing could be further from the truth. At its most basic, songwriting is just putting words to music, but when you actually get started, it is so much tougher…especially if you want to make something people actually want to listen to on repeat and which has a shot at being even a minor hit!
So how does one actually write a song? There are a million different ways to make music, but when it comes to how to write a song, you should probably follow these steps (in whatever order works for you, though the order they’re in is as good a place to start as any).
Nobody simply wakes up one day and decides to write a song completely in a vacuum — they do so because they’ve already been listening to music for years, perhaps even decades. By the time someone has put pen to paper or come up with a melody, it’s likely they’ve already listened to thousands, possibly even millions of different tunes, and those listening habits should grow as they begin to explore their own voice as a Songwriter.
As you begin to write, or maybe just think about writing, start listening critically. By that, I mean don’t just put your headphones on and enjoy a hit single! Stop and think as the music plays. Why do you like this? Does it make you want to dance? Cry? Does it evoke a powerful, important memory?
Also, when you’ve found a piece of music you feel is truly special, hit replay (more than a few times, probably) and try to break down the different parts of the song so you can identify what makes it work so well. Perhaps the words rhyme particularly well, and that makes it fun to sing along to. Maybe it’s got a killer guitar chord you can’t get out of your head. There could be a simply genius melody, and if so, you’ll want to pick it out and think long and hard about why it plays so well.
Listening critically will help you understand your favorite songs in ways you never have before, and once you get into the practice (which can admittedly be difficult and even confusing at first), you’ll find you do it all the time.
As a Songwriter, you should always be writing words, phrases, rhymes, melodies, feature ideas, and anything else that comes to you. It might not mean anything later on, and chances are you’ll only use a small percentage of what you jot down, but it’s worth it to keep track of everything, as you never know what will end up becoming a new favorite lyric.
There are countless stories of gifted young people falling in love with music and writing a hit song entirely on their own a few years later, and some of those lucky few go on to become true superstars. These tales are inspiring, and we all love the idea of a born savant, but the truth is these examples are extremely rare and to have such a skill embedded in their mind and heart from the get-go is not something most people can count on.
The vast majority of Songwriters may have had some natural talent, but they also worked extremely hard to hone and develop their skills, and this is the route you should take. If you already have the once-in-a-lifetime ability…why are you reading this article?
Learning about songwriting can take many forms and it looks different for every person; you should be open to exploring everything, at least at the beginning. Search online for other articles about writing songs, watch YouTube videos, consume interviews with artists who have a proven track record as Songwriters, pick up a book at the library, or even go so far as to take a class in the subject.
With songwriting, there is a lot that can be taught, but the trick is finding what works for you. Some people understand the ins and outs of a melody, and they can hear something truly special in their head and simply make it come out on paper. Others need to put it all together using best practices. Songwriting isn’t a science, so you’ll have to not only play around when it comes to lyrics and notes but also with ways of learning about the practice.
Unfortunately (or maybe not so, depending on how you like to work), writing a song doesn’t typically involve a person simply sitting down and writing out an entire, finished composition. Usually, it’s much, much messier than that, and a single tune can take weeks or months to finish…or sometimes just minutes if inspiration strikes.
For the most part, songwriting comes from non-stop brainstorming, which involves the writer keeping track of anything that might be useful in future pieces. As a Songwriter, you should always be writing words, phrases, rhymes, melodies, feature ideas, and anything else that comes to you. It might not mean anything later on, and chances are you’ll only use a small percentage of what you jot down, but it’s worth it to keep track of everything, as you never know what will end up becoming a new favorite lyric.
I suggest actually writing everything down, as opposed to typing and keeping all of these little moments in your phone. Recording audio snippets of melodies or lyrics is also a good idea, but when it comes to the words, try to have a notebook and pen on you, as it means so much more. Also, you never know how big the song you’re writing may become, and those handwritten lyrics might be worth something someday!
4. Piece Together
Once you have pages and pages full of lines, words, and so forth, it’s time to start piecing it all together into something resembling a song. On the surface, this might seem easy, since you’re starting with so much material, but of course, it’s not. This is songwriting — of course, it’s going to be tough!
Sometimes you’ll be able to pull many different segments together into a finalized product, while other times, just one word will inspire an entire song. There will be instances when you only need to add a few extra connecting words or phrases in the moment to make it all flow, while at other times you’ll be coming up with almost everything brand new, as only one thing works for what you’re writing.
This is where you’ll discover that you only end up using a fairly small portion of the ideas you’ve been jotting down for weeks or months. Don’t force things together simply because you have them! Listeners will be able to tell if two ideas don’t belong next to one another, and your song will suffer if you only try to stick with those items you’ve collected throughout your brainstorm sessions.
You probably won’t come up with something that’s never been done before, but you also should stay away from names immediately associated with a smash. Perhaps “Rolling in the Deep” isn’t the best title for your new release after all.
If you think writing can take a long time, composing a tune is sure to be tough on you. Creating the music to back your beautiful lyrics is always a struggle, especially if you’re actually the one behind the piano/guitar/whatever instrument you’re using (or maybe you’re a multi-instrumentalist and you’re playing everything). You have to start from nothing and create something wonderful, and this can take a very long time. Make sure you budget far more time than you think at the beginning for brainstorming and just generally playing around until something magical happens.
If you’re working with a Producer or are buying beats, you have it slightly easier, but you still need to decide whether the music fits the song, if the melodies and notes you’ve written work perfectly with the tunes. Then you need to move things around, edit, and try something new, even if you feel the product is good. Switch things up just to see how it sounds — you never know what will end up being the absolute best option until you hear it.
When you reach this stage, you should have a fully-formed song, but you won’t necessarily have a product the public can consume just yet. In fact, while I hate to say this, it might still be a while before you’re ready to share anything with your fans. Even if you feel comfortable with how the song sounds when you play it, it’s not exactly perfect just yet. As you demo your creation, you may find when listening that certain things just don’t work, or perhaps what you once thought was wonderful…isn’t.
It’s really important you demo before you commit to laying down a final piece of music, especially if budget is a concern (which it is for most up-and-coming artists). Don’t head into a studio, which can cost you hundreds of dollars per track, until you’ve already recorded it many times over in many different ways. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it will save you money in the long run, and it will make you a better artist.
7. Come Up With a Name
This is the fun part! Naming your song can be tricky, but it’s usually one of the most enjoyable parts of the songwriting process, as it feels like you’ve finally finished a piece of art you’ve been creating for a long time. Some musicians start with the title and work from there, but by the time everything is done, this name may have changed.
When choosing a title for a song, keep in mind it needs to be punchy, catchy, easy to search for on all platforms, and unlike anything else out there. No, you probably won’t come up with something that’s never been done before, but you also should stay away from names immediately associated with a smash. Perhaps “Rolling in the Deep” isn’t the best title for your new release after all.
Okay, now it’s actually time to make the final product! Chances are you don’t have studio-quality recording equipment (what you used to make your demo probably isn’t what you want for your last take), so you’ll need to head to a proper recording studio to track what will become the tune you release to the masses. This step should probably only take a few hours per song, depending on how many instruments are involved, and while it might wind up being fairly stressful in the moment, it’s also exhilarating to know you’re almost ready to share your art with the world.
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