Maybe you’re experiencing writer’s block… Or collecting new techniques to help for writing songs. Either way, songwriting is occasionally frustrating and difficult. It’s one thing to know how to play an analog or digital instrument or produce and arrange music, and one completely different thing to write original material.
So how do you write a song? For everyone, the approach to songwriting is a little different. This article collects a few of the many tips and techniques you can use for writing music or lyrics to help you reach a finished song.
1. Start Simple
It may seem like an old trick, but oldies can still be goodies. Choose a simple structure to start and let it become more complicated later. Song structure should not hinder your work while writing. Save moving, editing, and cutting for a later step in the writing process and start with a model which also places the passage by its function.
- Verse 1
- Chorus (or “the hook”)
- Verse 2
- Bridge (or solo/instrumental)
2. Find an Idea
First, latch on to some concept: an idea, genre, text, or melody. Whatever you start with will be the skeleton of your song and you will develop the rest around it, so the main concept should ideally come organically to you. This is a springboard to starting a project, not perfecting it, so allow a lot of creative freedom which will be reigned in during editing.
Since whatever I write tends to fall under the same genre, I like to start writing by taking a chord which sounds good to me and letting my ear guide me to the second chord.
3. Take Notes
Take notes and make demo recordings of everything you write. Especially when starting out a new song, it is easy to forget exactly which transition you used the last time or if you had an embellishment or variation on a particular chord. Use your notes and recordings between sessions to help you remember and to assess whether or not (or how much) a part needs to be rewritten.
95% of pop songs are based a four chord structure. There are entire genres of music which pride themselves on avoiding the “pop” sound and being original. Musically speaking, it is hard to write a song without using a pop convention. Should your song sound cliche? Whatever your knee-jerk reaction is to this question, you should allow yourself to use cliches while writing. If a passage is too cliche for you, then you should ask yourself: does it sound good enough to forgive that? If the answer is no, revise that part at a later time to sound less cliche based on what you’ve written.
5. Creative Limits
So now you’ve got a part or two and you’re not sure where to go with your song. This is a good time to put some creative limits on yourself. Try writing the next part by limiting the amount of notes you play from chords to one or two notes, or by setting a rule that your song has to follow for this part. The idea is to create within these boundaries, not to perfect. It may turn out that you like the result. More than likely, you’ll end up editing this part too, but you’ll create a musical passage before you do which you can build upon.
When all else fails, this could be a good time to let a friend’s feedback choose your next move. Have someone you trust and respect listen to your work so far and then ask for their thoughts. Use what they say to shape the way you design the next section. For example, if they say, “That reminds me of…” or “I really like the part when…” you can take that feedback to conceptualize your next section.
This is also a good time to ask yourself the question: is this song too short or too long? Some ideas work better and become catchy to a listener when they are longer, while others can only happen for a short time before becoming boring. One of the best rules I was taught is: always leave the listener wishing you had played more (and that way, they’ll listen to your song again).
6. Back to the Drawing Board
Once you have enough material for a song, it’s time to edit. If you haven’t made a demo recording yet, now it’s time. Ask yourself often why parts work or not and if they fit together well. Take out parts if they don’t fit, but make sure to save them for future songs. It’s easy to panic when you recognize that sections don’t work together, but while writing a song, you may end up “throwing away” the entire song, but the four parts you wrote become a starting point for four other songs.
7. Using and Creating Dynamic
Add percussion or notes to a section of a song to make your song dancier and more urgent, likewise, the less you play, the more relaxed your song will sound. For example, the hi-hat could play eighth notes, instead of quarter notes, or the guitar could switch to a palm-muted progression. Leading notes are also a similar way to create more tonal movement in a musical passage. If you don’t have a band or a drumset, you can use MIDI instruments, such as the virtual instruments in Samplitude Music Studio, to create drum tracks and additional instruments which will help you envision how the song will sound as a completed composition.
The use of leading notes can create a nice effect when making a song as well as give your song a more dynamic feeling. Especially when working within pop’s four chord structure, this will help give your song direction and tension. In addition to being a dynamic tool, this is a good songwriting technique, as you can use leading notes to help choose chords changes. The more notes in common a set of chords have, the more pleasant a chord progression will sound to the average ear.
Last words of advice
Practice, write, and record your ideas often. If you regularly do all of these, you’ll notice that they come easier and that you’ll develop a personal style.