Learning how to write a song is a natural progression in the life of a musician. We are usually quite eager to get right to songwriting as soon as we begin learning our instrument or musical craft.
But the truth is, this is something that cannot be rushed! No matter how inspired to write music you feel it is not something that can be forced.
So if you are just learning to play an instrument, I would recommend that you continue to focus on that.
Give yourself some time to really get a good handle on your instrument and stay laser focused on it!
Learning how to write a song will follow. It’s also beneficial to practice to other musicians music as it gives you an idea of song structure which will help you later on.
But if your at the point in your musical endeavors that songwriting is your next step, then this definitive songwriting guide will help you learn how to create great music!
We are going to look deep into writing music and hopefully you will find the groove that best fits you!
Ready to get started?
How To Approach Songwriting
There are many ways to create a song, but only a few of them will be most comfortable to you at first.
Finding your groove and then executing on it is something that will come to you as you get started and as you gain more experience.
But learning what is best for you is only something you can decide.
We do have a couple of methods we would like to explore with you.
They are methods used by some of the best songwriters in the world, and should help get you started.
There are 2 more common approaches to writing a song that we are going to explore in this article.
- Beginning with your story already written (lyrics), and then creating music.
- Beginning with the music already written, and then adding the lyrics.
Most songwriters are also singers and or instrumentalists, and so these 2 methods are pretty common.
You see, if your a part of a band, you may be a collaborator in songwriting, and so the music might come first.
Or, if your the main songwriter for a band or another artist, then in this case the lyrics might come first.
You might already be writing music using one of these methods, or perhaps even using another method that works for you.
That’s great, because there is no wrong way of writing music! But we would also like to introduce you to other methods that might help refine your songwriting skills.
It can never hurt to have a few new tools in the songwriting tool chest!
If you want to start with the lyrics, just continue along with this article. If you want to start with music, jump to the song structure section here.
How To Write A Song - Lyrics First
If you are already writing music by creating the music first, or are just learning how to write a song, creating the lyrics first might seem very difficult.
I mean how do you create a melody from words without music right?
Truth is, it’s not very difficult and in some ways can really help shape your music in ways you could not have realized.
When your getting started with this method, I suggest finding a title first instead of trying to just piece words together to try and create a story.
This can be quite difficult as trying to piece words and phrases together can lead to writers block and frustration!
I mean maybe you have a topic, but how do you explore that topic that makes sense as a story. And will your listener be able to relate?
The title is going to be the focus of your song, the line in your chorus that your listeners will sing along to.
So it only makes sense to start with the title and then branch out from there as your guide.
Then your story will become easier to explore and keep your listeners engaged and interested.
Purpose Of A Song Title
Now because we want to entice the listener and keep them engaged once they begin to listen, we need a powerful title.
The title needs to be the focus point, and needs to possess certain qualities. Both for you as a songwriting guide, and for the listeners enjoyment.
Your title should:
- Be Imaginative
- Stir up emotion
- Be of interest
- Be Relatable
- Create a mental image
- Be memorable
The title needs to draw a person to want to find out what the story is about.
So when you are creating your title, make sure that it is something that excites you.
Because if it’s something that gets your attention, others will feel the same.
Just try and keep your title somewhat short.
This way it is easier to remember and will be a better attention grabber. So try and stay between one and five words in your title.
Finding A Title
This is the part that can seem very hard at first when your trying to find a title or theme.
But our world is filled with many different people with many different experiences.
And we all relate in some form or another. Which is what music does for people, it can unite us because of our experiences.
Your title can be one of your experiences, or even someone else’s experience.
It can come from the headline of your local newspaper or an incident you seen on television. There are many things that you can write about that are relatable.
The question is, have you been paying attention to all these songwriting opportunities as they pass by you?
There are many songwriters that keep a notepad with them to record different ideas as they hear about them.
I mean sometimes the best song ideas pop up at the weirdest times. You may want to consider doing this for yourself, it can create a wealth of ideas you can use later on.
Especially if some of these concepts evoke emotions.
Song Title Ideas From Topics
So let’s look at 10 topics that are pretty common that might make a good title or theme.
- Teenage Angst or Rebellion
- Personal Growth
- Fear of the unknown
- Social Injustice
These are just ten broad topics that could potentially lead to a good title. Just as a quick exercise, you might want to take a notepad and just start writing what comes to mind quickly.
Don’t think too long about the topics, just look at the topic and start writing what comes to mind.
Then move to the next topic and do the same. This might be a rough idea that eventually leads you to your title!
Song Title Ideas From Stories
Another method i sort of touched on earlier was getting titles or themes from newspaper stories.
But this doesn’t have to be the only place to find inspiration for a title. There are many stories that can be found in many different places that we normally don’t consider.
Good Song Title ideas Can be found:
- In newspapers
- Social Media
- Interactions with People
- In novels
- Personal experiences
These 10 sources can lead to many different themes and titles! But there are many more.
Where do you frequently go?
Who do you normally meet?
Is there a story there for you to find and write about?
Maybe go for a walk, sit under the stars and do some soul searching. What do you discover when doing this? Write it down!
Just remember, what ever you come up with first, is really just a rough draft. The title can be molded later as you begin to explore it further.
So don’t be too hard on yourself if it isn’t polished. That will come with exploration and adjustment. Go easy on yourself when you are gathering ideas.
Unpacking A Song Title Into Lyrics
So you found a title or theme that you want to write about, great!
How do we begin writing in a way that really creates a good story and builds up the title?
Now we want to start looking into out title or theme and ask some great questions that can lead us to build upon a story.
The story could be in a certain place, about a certain someone who did a certain thing. Or, maybe it’s a personal experience that felt a certain way because of a certain person or place.
We need to figure out how to create it.
First, let’s consider what kind of questions you can create from this title. We will use a song from the Beatles as an example.
It’s called “Yesterday” and you might have heard it before. It’s one of the most successful songs in pop music history.
And while the lyrics are somewhat vague, they are not boring and still leave room for the listener to imagine. It is also very relatable.
So if we were to have come up with this title “Yesterday”, what kind of questions would we try and create to unpack a story?
Well we might ask some questions like this:
- When thinking about yesterday, does it convey happiness or sadness?
- Who were the main characters?
- Did things turn out good?
- Did things turn out bad?
- What happened?
- How do you feel about that?
- Is there a specific location?
- Is it a certain time of year?
- How does the main character feel?
- What would the listener want to know about the theme?
So if we were to look into the song, we can see that the character is longing for a certain someone.
That things didn’t turn out quite the way the character had hoped. Things seemed to be good, then something was done to cause trouble that ended a relationship.
Now there are feelings of sadness and nostalgia for the past.
The song has questions and answers around it that can be used to find the main points and the emotion.
So take your new title and think of some questions that you may want to know about in the context of the title.
Things that might include people or places, things and feelings. Then, when you have created a list of questions that you might like to explore about the title, start answering them.
Once you have some good questions and answers around the title that you like, create some that the listener might like to know.
Keep in mind this is a very rough draft, so don’t try to do anything fancy with rhymes or story structure yet, that will come once you have a good amount of questions and answers about the title or theme.
A few other things to consider when doing this:
- Keep phrases short – 10 words at max
- Create reference to images as well as emotions around the title
- Keep the Questions and Answers related to the title
- The lyrics will eventually need to lead the listener to the title
Make A Rough Draft
Once you have some questions and answers to the theme or title that you have selected, it’s time to start making a rough draft of the story.
To do this, you will want to take your questions and answers and begin piecing them together in a way that begins to go somewhere.
At this point you should have an idea of what the story could be about by the questions and answers you wrote down.
Now it’s time to build the framework. Start by breaking the story into sections like, beginning, middle and end.
The beginning of the story could be more descriptive scenarios and imagery while the middle then begins to reach a climactic turning point.
You could then slowly bring it to an end that might leave the listener to imagine the rest or in a satisfying way that wraps up the outcome.
But remember that your title should be intertwined in the climatic turning point somehow.
You will need to support your title in the story within the way it flows from start to finish as best you can in this rough draft.
Decide on how to introduce the character or situation to the listener.
This will also help when it comes time to apply the lyrics to the music and structure later on.
So when you are breaking things into sections, also keep in mind that we will also want emotion to create a hook in different parts of the song.
If you are feeling stuck and not sure how to go about piecing it all together, it can always help to listen to a song that is similar to the type of music you want to create.
Listen to how the lyrics tell their story and see how it flows from start to finish. Pay close attention to how they use their theme and where the emotion really comes out.
Being inspired by a song written by a favorite musician is a great way to also understand where your creativity lies.
It’s no surprise that the music you listen to might be similar to how you write a song.
It is the reason you like it in the first place! Just remember you don’t want to copy a song you like, you simply want to understand how it is written and structured.
At this point, you should have a rough draft of a story. Nice work!
The more you do this, the better you will get and the more refined the stories will become.
So give yourself a pat on the back, you should be proud of your work no matter the outcome!
Next we take a look at the structure of the music as it is very important when you are learning how to write a song.
Understanding The Parts Of A Song
Before we start looking into how to apply your lyrics to music, it’s a good idea to look at the different parts of a song.
These are the different sections that will structure the song and provide enough variation to keep it interesting throughout.
Some parts are repeated and some are not, but it’s important to know how to use them and where.
Now you don’t have to use all of them in a song, you can pick and choose what might work for the song in any way you like.
They are the building blocks that can either be included or not. But as you will see, there is an order to how a song is built because each part has its own purpose.
If you followed along and created a story in the first part of this article, you will see how to apply the story to the song and its parts.
The Introduction or intro, is the first section of your song where you are trying to introduce the melodic theme and catch the attention of your listener.
Not all songs have intros and not all songs need intros.
But in most songs, you will find that they have an intro in some form of fashion and this can be done in many different ways.
The most common intros in music are usually just a portion of a song played by the rhythm section.
The chords of a chorus or verse that build up to your first verse and creates an atmosphere or feel for the song.
Normally this can be helpful for the vocalist as it can give them the key the song is played in before any singing is done.
But depending on the verse, the intro can also be a great way to prepare the listener for what’s to come.
Other ways of introducing a song can be done by the vocalist, or using a single instrument like a bass or the drummer.
Even an electronic format using computers can work and has been done many times. However you do it, just make sure it is musically relevant to your song.
If it doesn’t set the right feel for the song or misses the theme all together, it may not hook the listener to continue listening to the song.
Verse Of A Song
The verse in a song is where the story is told. Its where the songwriter normally explains the events, builds up emotion and paints a picture of what is going on.
The Verse in a song is normally played more than once. Each time the verse is played, you will find that the songwriter has a different set of lyrics to get the major points of the story across to the listener.
Musically the verse can range tremendously. Some songs may have a verse that consists of one instrument and a vocalist.
It can also be a musically intense section that really drives a point of the story. But at all times the verse must support and lead into the chorus in a way that builds up emotion.
You want to keep them on the edge of their seat awaiting the next section..
Pre-Chorus Of A Song
The Pre-chorus of a song is not really a section of its own, but can be considered a type of bridge or a second part to the verse.
A pre-chorus would normally be used when the verse and chorus resembled each other musically. Or if you intend to introduce lyrics that suggest change.
The pre-chorus can be a great way to lead into a chorus and create a build up or change of focus.
Some have said it was a great way to “lift” your listener into the chorus.
One thing to keep in mind is that the pre-chorus is not a section of its own persay and should be kept brief simply changing the direction of the story into the chorus.
Chorus Or Refrain Of A Song
The Chorus is the section of the song where you deliver the central message of the song or story.
This is where you hook the listener emotionally with a melody, idea or message that remains the same throughout the song.
Most listeners will remember the chorus of a song because it’s very catchy. It is also normally repeated more than once both musically and lyrically through the course of the song.
Because the chorus sums up the emotional parts of a story in the song, it is also normally the part where the name of the song is derived.
Because of this, most listeners are able to recall the song by its name which is also part of the hook. Make sure to use this technique in your songwriting when you are able.
The refrain is a repetitive phrase that reinforces a point lyrically within the chorus.
The refrain serves to deliver the message within the chorus but isn’t long enough to be the chorus itself.
An example of this can be found in The Beatles song “She Loves You”. The repetitive phrase we find in that song is the “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah and is the refrain.
You might hear that some people call the chorus the refrain and this is correct. They technically mean the same thing which is “to repeat”.
However, the chorus is the section of the chorus that is repeated musically, lyrically etc.
Where as the refrain is simply a repeated line or small set of phrases, or phrase that is repeated within the chorus like in our Beatles example above.
Bridge (AKA: Middle Eight Or "The Release")
In a song, when a bridge is used, it is normally only used once and usually precedes the final chorus.
This section normally contrasts all the other sections of the song and highlights a peak moment in the song.
This is also a good point to add a twist to the story or express something musically that builds up the chorus it will lead into.
Some songs will use a combination of an instrumental solo and bridge to create a peak moment, change of plot or a hint of danger before returning to the chorus.
This can add anticipation for the listener, especially when the great hook you have created in the chorus is about to return and can be very powerful.
But it can also break up any repetition created by the other sections and keep listeners engaged.
Song Outro Or Coda
The Outro is the point of the song where you begin to signal that the end of the song is approaching.
The outro is normally not a new section but will repeat the verse or chorus in a way that is different than before.
There are many ways to create an outro and as long as its musically similar to the rest of the sections, there is no wrong way to create this part of the song.
Some songs will conclude with a solo while others simply begin adding less lyric to the chorus eventually just stopping on a note and holding it until it rings out.
While others just continue to play a section and fade it out until it cannot be heard anymore.
Some songs may have a perfect story or theme to include an instrumental solo.
In this case a great emotional experience can be created when a breakdown is created using a solo of one or more instruments within the composition of the song.
In some cases, a solo might be considered instead of a bridge, or both.
The solo is usually created over the chorus or verse rhythm section right before leading back into the chorus.
But the solo section can also be a part of an outro or both depending on the story and melody of the song.
Most Common Song Structures
When considering how one might go about combining all the parts of a song, it’s best to look at what the most common structures are today.
These structures are used in some of the hits you listen to. They are also the structures that others listen to.
And while one might want to do something different for creativity’s sake, you also have to think of the listener.
Most people who do not play music or know how to write a song, don’t know the parts of a song. They don’t understand they are broken up into parts or that these parts have a name.
But they have been listening to these songs with these structures and are familiar with them. So much so that anything that is radically different may not be accepted well by the listener.
So while being different is great and can add a twist to your music.
Just make sure it’s going to appeal to the listener. If you are just getting started, I would suggest you learn what is commonly used as song building blocks.
Once you understand more of what your listeners will gravitate to, you will know how to structure your songs.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the common song structures you will find in popular music. This will help when learning how to write a song!
This structure is probably one of the most popular structures.
You will notice that in this structure there is no third verse, but the bridge that goes right back into the chorus.
The bridge adds a peak moment that refreshes the listener before going back into the chorus.
This can add anticipation and excitement to the experience of the listener before returning to the chorus.
As you have seen before, the verse is where the lyrics are normally different with each new verse.
If then followed by a chorus, this can get predictable the more you change between them.
A bridge can be a quick jab before delivering a right hook with the chorus and is a great way to keep things interesting. It is no surprise that it is very popular and well received by listeners.
This structure is also known as an ABABCB structure. In this case, the A is a verse, the B is the chorus and C is the bridge.
A song example of the ABABCB structure: “Here without you” – 3 doors down
Some other variations of this structure might be to add a pre-chorus:
Verse>Pre-chorus>Chorus>Verse>Pre-chorus>Chorus>Bridge>Chorus (ABCABCDC structure)
Or to add an intro and or outro:
And depending on how complex the song is, you could include it all:
This is another common structure also known as the AABA structure. In this case there is not a chorus but a bridge.
The verse is played a couple of times back to back.
But each time it is played, the title of the song or another supporting phrase is inserted into the verse and is used as the refrain.
We touched on the refrain a bit earlier, but this is the lyric that reinforces a point lyrically.
A great example of this is the Beatles song “We can work it out”.
This song is a modified AABA structure where the bridge and verse is repeated again. This is a pretty common modification to this structure called AABABA.
If you notice as you listen, “we can work it out” is the theme or title made obvious by the way the vocal melody emphasises this phrase.
But because of the way it is emphasized, it also works to wrap up the verses individually as a quick seudo chorus without actually going into another rhythm section.
Its a very simple structure but can be very entertaining to the listener as its easy to digest musically and the songs are usually quite short.
Choosing A Song Structure
To get started, I would suggest you look into one of the most common structures that we looked at in the last section.
These are the most common structures because they keep listener attention and they work!
So reinventing the wheel is not necessary, at least not until you know exactly how the wheel works and why.
Get real comfortable and experienced with what works now and anything you do later will be that much better!
Keep it simple and don’t overthink it, while writing a song is a strategy, it’s also an expression and should flow.
Some hit songs don’t come together right away and also require tweaking. A verse you write today may be changed to something else tomorrow and that’s ok.
The biggest hurdle is just getting started and getting things written and recorded. Even just on a pad of paper.
I would suggest that if you are really stuck on selecting a structure that you start with:
Now Create The Music
Start with the verse. Grab your guitar, or get to the piano, whatever it is you play and lets get that creativity flowing.
Perhaps you already have a few pieces of music that you have been working on or some concepts you have come up with. Now is the time to try them out as a verse or chorus.
If you don’t have an idea yet and are stuck consider this.
If you have followed along with this guide and created a story and some lyrics, you can start with those. How do those roll off your tongue when you speak them?
One way to get some music started is to speak the words you have created when you wrote one of the stories you want to turn into a song.
Take the beginning of your story, and say a question answer or phrase out loud. Can you find a melody in the words?
Maybe try saying the phrase a bit differently, change your emotion in how you speak it. Hear a melody?
This can be a very helpful way to get a song started and is why starting with the story or title can be a helpful way to get a song going.
Now try changing it up a bit, and if you feel a melody in the words, try and capture it on your instrument.
This can be a great exercise to try when writing music because in most cases the words we speak are a melody. It will just take some practice.
Try Not To Force It
One important thing to realize is that when your learning how to write a song it can take time. Sometimes things seem to flow at an amazing rate.
And sometimes things do not flow at all. While we all want the creative tap to be wide open, this just isn’t always the case.
You have to take things on a little at a time when it isn’t going as planned.
And other times you simply need to walk away and leave it for the day.
One thing you want to be good at in the beginning is giving yourself the space to prevent frustration.
If you try and force things and get frustrated, the songwriting experience will be tarnished. It will seem like an unforgiving task that will lead to another fruitless waste of time.
But the thing to remember is that all great things take time including those hit songs.
So go into this with the right mentality and the patience to keep it exciting.
This will also lead to more creativity down the road.
Find ways to unwind like going for a walk when your having trouble getting things to work.
Putting It All Together
This is the fun part! This is where things start to take shape and look like a song!
And as things take shape, make sure to enjoy the process, it should be very rewarding as you progress.
But ultimately this part is all yours! This is where you need to start finding your songwriting groove and development.
So as you tweak your song structure and lyrics to fit together, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Stay Focused On The Theme
Your lyrics are probably going to change as you mold them into the different parts of the song. Just don’t move far away from the theme of your story.
You don’t want to end up with a story that doesn’t really make any sense as a result.
Be Careful When Rhyming
Yes it is great to have some rhyming in your lyrics, but just be careful that you don’t go overboard! This is one quick way of losing your listener.
Rhyming needs to be strategic, and so make sure you are not overdoing it.
Don't Jump Around Too Much
When you are telling your story, try not to jump around too much in each part. For example, if you are in the first verse, stay focused on the beginning of your story.
Like i said earlier in the article, your story will have a beginning, middle and end.
So if your at the beginning in the first verse, don’t jump to the middle and back again.
The story needs to flow and make sense, otherwise your listeners will be confused and lose interest.
Pay Attention To Song Structure
You will want to make sure your verse and chorus don’t sound the same. There should be a distinct difference between the two parts so as to keep engagement from the listener.
But you will also want to make sure each verse sounds the same and each chorus sounds the same when you play them.
Otherwise your listener will not have the structure they expect from the song.
Make sure to keep your songs between 3 and 4 minutes. In Fact 3 minutes and 30 seconds is an industry sweet spot.
Too much longer or too much shorter will normally lose your listener to boredom or confusion.
A few things that could help as you develop your songwriting skills.
- Listen to other music you like and dissect how they structure their music.
- Work on expanding the chords you commonly use
- Work with other musicians
- Learn to play other instruments
- Explore different sounds
- Don’t be hard on yourself if it takes time
- Let people you trust critique your music, be open to their feedback
Famous Songwriter Quotes
While it can be tough to write songs, you are not the only one!
Here are a few quotes from famous songwriters that may help you put things into perspective!
“It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone… But you can’t just copy someone.
If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.”
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”
“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”
“I don’t force it. If you don’t have an idea and you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go mow the lawn… My songs speak for themselves.”
We have covered some great material! We have looked at ways of creating lyrics, and we have looked at the song structures and methods of creating music.
And so now you need to figure out how to combine the parts and work your way to a finished song!
Now as much as I want to say it isn’t going to be easy, the truth is, for some people it is!
It’s just going to take some work, practice and refining.
You need to find the process that best fits you and your writing style.
Look for things that inspire you. Maybe there are songs that you love that are inspirational.
Work on finding out what makes them so powerful in your life. Dissect them and study how the story applies to the music.
Then, use what you have learned and apply it to your own music.
Just don’t copy, that won’t help you learn how to write a song, and you don’t want to take on any bad habits. Your creativity needs to be yours and yours alone!