How to Write Music: Basic Songwriting Tips for New Artists - Careers in Music
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Please don’t get overwhelmed.

You may not be sure how to write music as a beginner, but you totally can.

In this post, I want to walk you through how to do that.

Here’s how to write music:

  • Learn the basic elements of music
  • Brainstorm song titles
  • Sing gibberish words
  • Use someone else’s chord progression, but change it
  • Write a 5-note melody
  • Find a song title in whatever you’re reading
  • Focus on the intro
  • Pay attention to variation, dynamics, and contrast
  • Don’t make it too long
  • Make music that makes you feel something

Learn the Basic Elements of Music

Before you start making music, it’s helpful to know the basic elements you’re working with. To simplify things, I’ll organize this list into six basic elements.1

Melody

You already know about melody. It’s the thing that makes a song memorable. It’s the series of notes that give the song character and most of its emotion.

This series of notes we call melody works within the boxes of pitch and rhythm (which we’ll cover next). There might be just one melody that runs through the entire song, but most likely there are multiple melodies (verses, chorus, bridge, etc).

Pitch

Related to melody is pitch. The pitch of a sound has to do with the frequency of its vibrations and the size and shape of the thing causing the vibrations.

Basically:

  • Low pitches come from slower vibrations and bigger objects (upright bass, kick drum, tuba, etc.)
  • Higher pitches come from faster vibrations and smaller objects (small strings on a guitar, high-hat, triangle, etc.)

Melody works within the confines of pitch.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the pattern of beats in your song — a pattern that fits within the time signature and tempo of your music.

In other words, rhythm is the groove of your track.

Tempo

Tempo is the speed at which you play your song. Not to be confused with Beats Per Minute (BPM), which is how the tempo is represented in numbers.

Dynamics

Dynamics refer to the volume and intensity of your song throughout its duration. Dynamics are the ebb and flow of a tune, the big moments contrasted with the quieter moments.

It can be affected by many things, like the number of instruments, how loud they each are, and your production choices.

Harmony

You can think of harmony as another melody that’s different from the main melody but one that matches it in rhythm and scale. Harmony and melody work together even though they’re each a different series of notes.

What Is the Format of a Song?

How do you format or structure a song? Where do you start, how do you end it, and what happens in between?

Song structure is how you order the different parts of your song. To make the whole process easier, there are names for each of the basic parts of a song: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge.

You can technically arrange these any way you want. But there are some very common song structures, which include:

  • Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
  • Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
  • Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus
  • Verse – Verse – Bridge – Verse

Most of the hit songs you know fall into one of these song structures. Why? Because, for some reason, these structures feel the most natural to most songwriters.

To learn more about how you can use these formats, read our guide on song structures.

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How Do You Write a Song (for Beginners)?

Now that we’ve covered all the elements of music and how you can structure a song, where do you start? What element do you begin with?

Short answer: start however the heck you want. Songwriting and music-making have no rules.

Longer answer…

There are some methods you can use to grease the tracks of your creative process. These aren’t guaranteed to work for every person, but they can at least get you started.

So here are three of my favorite ways to start off a song.

Brainstorm song titles

Brainstorming is a powerful tool for creativity. This is where you let down your filters and allow whatever’s in your brain to flush out onto the page.

Try this: brainstorm three songs titles a day. Don’t edit yourself. Just jot down the first three titles that pop into your brain.

Most of them may be unusable. But eventually, you’ll come across some that stick.

Sing gibberish words

One of the most common ways I write a song is by singing nonsense.

Here’s how I do it: I come up with the chord progression and the melody, often at the same time.

To help me settle on an interesting series of chords and melody, I’ll sing gibberish lyrics. I sing whatever words come into my head. They could be fake words, real words, or a phrase that makes no logical sense whatsoever.

This helps me decide on a rhythm, the lyrical phrasing, and the notes I’ll be singing.

Use someone else’s chord progression, but change it

Another helpful way to start a song is to use someone else’s chord progression as your starting-off point.

You can reverse it, play every other chord, or randomly jumble them and see what you get.

For example, you could start with the chord progression Passenger’s “Let Her Go” (one of the most popular songs2 on Ultimate Guitar): Am – F – G – Em (verse) / F – C – G – Am (chorus).

Then you could play it backward: Em – G – F – Am (verse) / Am – G – C – F (chorus).

Boom. You’ve got your own chord progression that you can write your own melody to.

Write a 5-note melody

Limitations can be good for your creativity. It can force you to be more creative.

So try writing a melody with no more than five notes. And don’t veer outside of that window for the entire song.

You might be surprised at how catchy your melody becomes.

Find a song title in whatever you’re reading

Starting with your song title has a lot of benefits. It helps you focus on what the song is about, and it also gives you a solid place to start.

So try this: scroll to a random part of this blog post and quickly point to a random part of the screen. The words under your finger are now your song title.

You can also do this with any book, magazine, or even text message conversation.

Making It Interesting

At this point, you might be thinking, “I’m not so worried about starting my song. But how can I make my music more interesting?”

If that’s you, here are some ways to spice up your song.

Focus on the intro

The intro to your song is the first impression the listener gets. Roughly 35% of listeners will skip a song within the first 30 seconds. And about half of listeners skip a song before it’s over3.

That’s why you’ve got to make the intro as interesting as possible.

Play the song for other people, see how they react within the first 30 seconds, and see how you feel during that time. Playing your song for someone else often gives you a good idea of how you can…

Pay attention to variation, dynamics, and contrast

Another super important aspect of interesting music is variation, dynamics, and contrast. These might sound synonymous, but there are slight nuances to them.

Variation has to do with The Rule of Three, which is about establishing a pattern and then breaking it4.

Composer Ryan Leach uses the great example of The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” The lyrics go “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”

“These are not groundbreaking lyrics that are changing the face of literature,” Leach writes. “But they are catchy and memorable. We have a topic [‘Will you still need me?’], the establishment of a pattern [‘Will you still feed me?’] and then a break in the pattern to move the song forward [‘When I’m Sixty-Four’].”

For the purpose of this post, you can think of dynamics to be more about the different frequencies in your song. Think about the different instruments, whether they have higher, lower, or in-between sounds, and if they’re stepping on each other.

Also, how your song flows has to do with dynamics. You don’t want your chorus to be at the same energy level as your verses. It has to be either more or less, not the same. The listener will get bored.

Related to that is contrast. It’s a powerful tool for Songwriters and Producers because it has an element of surprise. If your verse is reserved and your chorus is big and bold, that contrast will be a pleasant surprise for the listener (if you do it well).

Don’t make it too long

Listeners have short attention spans (that includes us, too). Even if the song is interesting, it can get old if it goes on for too long.

And I’m talking about listening to a song, not watching someone perform it. Watching a performance, whether in a video or live, is a completely different experience and a performed song can go on for a long time without losing the audience.

But for streaming music, try to keep your song on the shorter end. It’s not wrong to record a 8-minute track, but you may want to make that an outlier.

The shorter and more interesting a song is, the more people will listen and re-listen to it.

Make music that makes you feel something

If you’re not sure how to write music as a beginner, just make music that makes you feel something. This is true for all music-makers at every level.

Your song can make you feel sad, happy, nostalgic, bittersweet, or any number and combination of emotions. As long as you feel something.

Because if your song makes you feel something, it will probably make other people feel it too.

  1. 1Multiple authors. "Elements of Music". Wikipedia. published: 15 January 2020. retrieved on: 18 May 2020
  2. 2. "Let Her Go Chords by Passenger". Ultimate Guitar. published: 23 January 2020. retrieved on: 18 May 2020
  3. 3Lamere, Paul. "The Skip". Music Machinery. published: 2 May 2014. retrieved on: 18 May 2020
  4. 4Leach, Ryan. "The Rule of Three and Music". Envato. published: 4 June 2012. retrieved on: 18 May 2020
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