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How to Write a Song

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Writing Songs

Some songwriters write for themselves as a form of self*expression; some write for others to perform and are happy to stand in the audience. Regardless of why you want to write a song, the point is that you will soon be joining the ranks of countless songwriters worldwide that continually add to our selection of music. Be careful what you add to it but, if you haven’t written a song before, there is no harm in trying. Song writing is no quick cup of tea; yet, with a fair chance, a bit of spare time, and a few of these how*to tips, you will certainly be well on your way.

Just Do It

Many aspiring songwriters spend their days puzzling over what to write and how to write it. Some are focused solely on the end product of a crowd full of adoring fans, mouthing the lyrics and clapping their hands. The one problem with only wanting to write a song is that it prevents you from actually doing it.

Grab a pencil and paper and sit down right now to begin writing the song you’ve been waiting to write. Whether or not you are able to write the song of your dreams in an instant is beside the point; getting into the habit of putting your thoughts on paper is the first step in learning how to translate your emotions into a song with lyrics.

Writing Exercise #1: Stream of Consciousness

Materials:

  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper
  • Timer, clock, stopwatch, or cell phone

Time Allotted: 25 Minutes

Directions

Sit down with your pen and paper, and set your timer or stopwatch for 15 minutes. When the timer starts, you must immediately pick up your pen or pencil and begin writing. For the next 15 minutes, you must not stop writing. Write as quickly as possible without crossing out or erasing and, whatever you do, try your best not to stop. You can write about anything you want, no matter how striking or irrelevant.

You can write about memories, your dreams for the future, the five things you hate about your brother, the ten reasons why you wish you were going out with your brother’s girlfriend, or even tomorrow’s grocery list. It may not seem to be a long time, but writing continuously for 15 minutes is a task in itself. After about five or ten minutes, you might begin to feel as though you are running out of thoughts. This is normal. The challenge is to continue past this point until you are writing fluidly and naturally.

When your timer goes off you may rest and read over your work. You may notice a transition in what you wrote. Usually your first thoughts are calculated; your subsequent, truly stream of consciousness writing will reveal a natural rhythm and perhaps even a deeper connection with your subconscious. This is a terrific start for song writing.

Keep Talking, Keep Listening, Keep Watching

Many budding songwriters make the mistake of isolating themselves with their instrument, sitting in the middle of an empty room, and just waiting for a new song to hit them. Although this tactic works for some, most of us need to be inspired. This means talking to other people, listening to music, and exposing ourselves to stimulating surroundings. Just think: what would the Beatles have written about if they had never fallen in love before? Having something worth writing about and wanting to get something from your music are two crucial factors in creating well-written songs.

Talking to different people introduces you to entirely new perspectives. When you learn how to look at something from another point of view, chances are it could be worth writing about in a song. Hearing how other musicians play their songs is also a positive practice. As it turns out, supporting the work of your fellow songwriters can also help you discover the type of music you want to make, and even how you want to make it.

Watch Out!

Sometimes, listening to and letting other artists’ music influence your work can lead to subconscious plagiarism. This form of plagiarism is especially common in the music world, and in minimal cases it is perfectly harmless. However, once people begin to mistake your songs for other artists’ songs or vice versa, you could be in for some legal trouble. There have been a handful of copyright infringement and plagiarism cases surrounding song creation, and they are substantial proof that stardom does not exempt you from copying another person’s work. George Harrison, Johnny Cash, and Vanilla Ice are three popular artists who have been charged with some form of plagiarism for songs they “wrote.”

Learn The Structure

Although having a background in music or music theory will certainly guide your songwriting, it is the structure of a song that is most integral. There are three basic musician’s tools:

  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Harmony

Rhythm is the backbone and the beat of your song. Giving your song a beat worth dancing to is just one way to keep an audience listening. Also, being familiar with different time signatures can add plenty of variety to your work. Here is a video that goes over two common time signatures in music: 4/4 and 3/4.

Melody can be described as the running notes that define your song. This aspect of the music is prominent and is usually played at the forefront of the song, either through the chorus or with a lead instrument like guitar or piano. Melody is sometimes referred to as the “horizontal” side of music.

Harmony uses simultaneous pitches, notes and chords to produce a full, multidimensional sound. Visualized as the “vertical” aspect of music, a song’s harmony will stack notes on top of each other at specific intervals—usually in thirds or fifths. Understanding this, of course, takes you down a deeper road of music theory; but, playing an instrument that naturally uses chords, such as piano or guitar, will help you identify pleasant harmonies. This is a helpful video for guitar players interested in melody and harmony.

For a comprehensive read on composing harmonies, check out Deborah Jamini’s "Harmony and Composition: Basics to Intermediate," which discusses the horizontal and vertical relationships of melody and harmony.

Do Not Let Ideas Escape You

In the bath, on a walk, at work, in the car, or even as you cross an item off your grocery list, inspiration can hit at any time. Your most groundbreaking work could be the song that spontaneously rings into your head on a day you least expect it. If you are unprepared to remember it, you could be leaving behind some real jewels. The two must*haves on your songwriter’s tool belt are 1) a pocket*sized notebook and 2) a voice*recording device of some kind. Your voice recorder does not have to be a legitimate tape recorder. It can simply be a smartphone application that allows you to record a voice memo, or if you are seriously stuck, most cell phones allow you to call yourself and leave a voice mail. Those are two ways to preserve any audible ideas you may encounter on a moment’s notice.

Other times, inspiration comes in the form of words, and a short phrase will just pop into your head. This could be an idea for your next song or even a handful of catchy lyrics worth remembering. Either way, you will be thankful you made some note of your inspiration the next time you sit down to expand on it.

Music Or Lyrics First?

It is the songwriter’s age-old question of where to start first when writing your song, and it will most certainly rise to haunt any fresh songwriter. The best and, unfortunately, most elusive answer is that you’ll have to decide for yourself where to begin! If your background is in music, you might feel more comfortable composing first. On the other hand, if you favor prose and poetry, writing lyrics first might give you the structure you need to begin writing your song.

If you cannot decide what to write about, start by thinking back to an event or experience that truly affected you. Many songwriters are influenced by their past romances; breakups can be especially significant and, because they happen to so many people, make for relevant writing material. Love and loss, of course, are incredibly popular subject matter in songs because they are such powerful themes. For the more uninhibited and outgoing songwriter, tales of nights out, parties, and pleasurable times are also enjoyable themes to write about in songs.

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Finding Your Talent

Most songwriters are proficient in at least one instrument, usually piano or guitar. Musicians often find writing songs to be especially convenient because they can write the notes, tabs, or chords to accompany their work. They can then return to their notes and continue working without forgetting the tune. If you play any instrument, you will already be closer to developing your material. If you do not, you might consider picking up an instrument, or you can always enlist the help of a friend who does. You will soon understand the benefit of songwriting with musical accompaniment. Also, when you present your song to others for feedback, it certainly helps to have the correct music in the background.

Collaborating with another songwriter or musician who has a different writing style than you can often lend a new perspective on your music making. In fact, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Rogers and Hammerstein, as well as Burt Bacharach and Hal David show that some of the best songs are written in pairs.

If you share talents or even specialize in opposing aspects of song writing, you can craft music that compliments both of your talents. Finding someone who can put music to your lyrics or lyrics to your music is one invaluable song*writing companion.

Piece It Together

Though some musical prodigies can crank out full songs in a single sitting, most of us are like miniature radio receptors, picking up what we can in little bits at a time. Because of this, songs often come together in pieces. A partial section of your chorus here, some verses there, and a mean guitar solo can all be floating about in your head until, one day, you decide that they ought to come together. More often that that, however, the situation is that you only have one mean guitar solo swimming in your inspirational juices and plenty of pressure to build a song that fits around it. Though fleshing out songs is undeniably an enjoyable aspect of writing music, it does help to have a fair idea of what you have and what you need before you try filling in the gaps.

If it is a set of lyrics that you want to create your song around, you should first decide whether they work best as a verse or in your chorus. If they are catchy and easy to hear repeated a few times like a theme, it sounds as though you might be holding on to some chorus material. Do make note that there is a slight difference between a chorus and a refrain. Musically and lyrically, a refrain resolves a verse and, therefore, carries with it a sense of conclusion. A chorus, however, distinctively opens a new section in the music that lasts longer than the standard two*line refrain. Although this does take you back into music theory, knowing whether you have a chorus or a refrain can give your song a finer structure.

If your lyrics in question run consistently and feel more like a narrative, they might be the makings of some well*crafted verses. The same goes with music; if your chords seem to take your listener along for the ride without being the point of the journey, they will make perfect rhythm and verse material. The climactic, essential music usually suits building choruses and anthem*like endings.

Don’t Add To The Cliché

There is an undeniable appeal to being able to write and play a song. Musicianship has long enticed the masses and, for this reason, many current songwriters do not write for themselves and the art of self*expression; they write for the fame. Writing for fame and stardom is the quickest way to generate cliché material that only clogs the growing spectrum of music with overdone and overrated songs. Do yourself and the rest of the music community a favor and use music wisely. Say something worthwhile and mean it. A good song can get by without having epic or glorious lyrics; in fact, simple, direct, lyrics can make a song punchy and memorable, but save your petty moments for your personal journal. There is no need to hang your dirty washing out in a song for all the neighbors to see and hear.

Many songwriters jump to the conclusion that a song’s mood should directly reflect the song’s subject matter. This is correct to an extent. Sad songs can be sad and happy songs can be happy, but there are far more ways for songs to be made. Juxtaposition, or putting two contrasting ideas together, can give songs incredible dynamics and lead to quite a few musical epiphanies. A pleasant sounding song bearing rough and raw subject material can bring listeners to think twice about what they are listening to. Do not allow your audience to write off your song because it sounds like just another sad song with minor chords and a reduced tempo. The same goes for upbeat songs. Minor chords can add a beautiful contrast to music when intermixed with major chords; even slowing down a cheerful and untroubled song lets your audience savor the melody and take in the sweet moments.


Hear What You’re Saying

Just like any method of conveying thoughts, feelings, or information, word choice in lyrics can strongly affect the way your song is received. There are also many ways to say the same thing. Let us use going to the toilet as a basic example; surely “sprinting for the porcelain” is far easier on the ears than any other bathroom-related euphemism—not that you plan on referring to bathrooms in your songwriting. However, it does go to show that words can make something as basic as a trip to the toilet sound relatively graceful.

Some words sound soft, and others sound to be harsh; depending on the tone of the song you are writing, you can utilize words that compliment its mood. Rhythm is an integral aspect of word choice. You do not always have to rhyme, but having a cohesive rhythm will carry your song across your audience’s ears without a hitch. Become familiar with the texture of your words. If the lyrics do not seem to fit, grab yourself a thesaurus. These helpful tools can lead you to a selection of words that can enhance the rhyme, rhythm, and meaning of your song. For a dedicated thesaurus, you can go out and buy a pocket*sized book, download an app for your smartphone, or simply go online.

Rhyming is another process your words will encounter when you are bringing them together in a song. Rhymes can occur just about anywhere in a verse; however, they are commonly found at the end of a line of lyrics and repeated each line or every other line. Just like in poetry, this pattern of sound repetition is called a “rhyme scheme” and can be displayed in the following examples.

  • I look out the window
  • The leaves on the trees show
  • And I see the wind blow

Rhyme scheme: AAA

  • I look out the window
  • Leaves dancing in the trees
  • To the beat of the wind’s blow
  • They do as they please

Rhyme Scheme: ABAB

Another device used in songwriting is alliteration. This is when a consonant sound is repeated rather than a vowel sound. “Dave does more dives than a dolphin’s tail” is an example of alliteration with the letter “d.” Assonance, too, is a fantastic device in lyrics and can be thought of as a longer rhyme when placed in the middle of verses. Penitence and reticence are two words that are assonant. Get creative with your words with these literary devices and you’ll soon be transforming words in to lyrics!

Take Advantage Of The Bridge

Once you get the hang of them, lyrics and choruses can become habitual to write. So long as you stick to it, your words and music will eventually grow accustomed to falling into place for you. One thing that is a bit more difficult to keep creating well is a bridge. The bridge is a part that differs or contrasts from the rest of your song. Some bridges are instrumental while others are written in different keys; sometimes they just use a different set of chords. A bridge can even be as straightforward as a tempo change before the final chorus. They are also commonly used to transition between the verses and the chorus. When crafting your bridge and including it into your music, remember that variation is elemental in creating a song worth listening to more than once.

Writing a bridge that brings contrast and variation into a song, without departing completely from the original work, can be a challenging endeavor. On the other hand, repetition directly influences how catchy a song is perceived. Unfortunately for many pop songs, it does not matter how good a song might be; if the chorus is drilled into an audience’s ears enough times, that audience will always end up singing along to it. This is the reason why practicing a balance in repetition and variety is critical in writing outstanding songs.

Hook, Line and Sinker

Although you might be at a loss for words in trying to define what a hook is, you will have no trouble identifying it in your favorite song. The hook is the one striking aspect of a song that takes it from being one among the rest to being one in a million. Unfortunately, no one has discovered the formula for creating the perfect hook, and probably never will. These are the moments that make songs exceptional, and their rarity makes them all the more desirable.

If you happen to write a great hook in one of your songs, you will undoubtedly know about it. It is the part of the song that gets stuck in your head and that you hear your fans whistling long after it has been played. The best thing about having a memorable hook in a well*rounded song is that your hook works for you in two ways. If you reel your listeners in with an appealing hook, if you keep them listening with a worthy verse, and if you rally them with a refreshing chorus, even after your song has finished, that hook will keep your audience coming back for more! As they say, “Hook, line and sinker.”

Make Your Parts A Whole

You are likely to be faced with many song writing situations in which you have the promise of an outstanding song but, for some reason, the pieces just do not fit. Either your tempo changes too suddenly or your key change is too abrupt, but something about this song is closely resembling two identical magnets that simply do not attract! Just as we know that unless you match opposite poles on a magnet, they repel each other, there are a few ways that you can smooth out the rough edges of a stubborn song.

  • Gradually change your tempo. If going from 100 miles per hour to a snail’s pace does not suit your song, perhaps you should try bringing the tempo down subtly. This can be introduced section by section or just before the verse or chorus in question.
  • Build a transition. Organizing and bringing parts of your song together can be one of the most challenging aspects of songwriting. This is where writing bridges can be most helpful.
  • Dump the key change. Sometimes key changes are the music gods’ blessing upon your music. Other times, making them work is far more trouble than their worth. You can still have a measure of variety in a song that stays in the same key.
  • Create a music break. One way to bridge the gap is to include a brief musical interlude between two unlikely parts. It might also be a splendid opportunity to start improving your skills as a guitar soloist.

There are countless ways to bring a song together, but sometimes the best strategy for smoothing over your song’s rough patches is to simply keep them apart. There is no sense in trying to force together a song that would sound better as two than one.

Feedback: Not Just That Annoying Ringing In Your Ears

Unless you want to write songs purely for your own self*expression, music is one art form that almost always demands an audience. For fresh songwriters, it is helpful practice to give your work a sneak preview to a few close friends before unleashing it to the masses. By doing this, you can prepare yourself for any reactions you might get as well as receive some relevant feedback on how to improve your songwriting.

Often, when you have been intensely working on a song for a long period of time, you begin to lose a bit of your objectivity. Of course, you have a bias to your own songs. Playing for someone else gives you a set of outside eyes and ears that might spot something you have passed over. Be aware, however, that your family and friends might not always be honest with you about their opinions. This is only because they know you care about the music you create and would hate to hurt your feelings. Yet, even the harshest criticism can bear an ounce of worthy advice. So, while your family may provide you with unanimous rave reviews for your very first song, keep feeding them your body of work. Give it a few more songs; soon you will find your audience beginning to give you subtle hints about which of your songs they liked better and why.

Watch out!

Receiving criticism and feedback well is a skill. Try not to take criticism personally and always remember that listening to others’ opinions of your work will only make it better. It is a guarantee that not ever single person will love the songs you write. Although sharing your music is almost like bearing your soul to an audience, you need skin that is thick enough to handle it if you would like your songs to reach large audiences. Smile, nod, and take note of the feedback you receive and use it to improve your work.

Keep Going

Do not stop writing after though you have finished your first song. The more often you write and practice your craft, the better you will become at it. You will also notice that songwriting does become a smoother process as you stick with it. The early days of sitting and staring blankly with a pen do begin to fade into a routine of inspiration and creativity—if you give yourself time to build the right habits. Yet, even the seasoned songwriter gets the occasional bout of writer’s block. Here are a few quick tips on shrugging off the old writer’s block.

  • Let it sit.

Leave your work and come back to it a day or two later. You’ll have fresh eyes and ears when you return and might discover that all you needed was a little bit of time apart.

  • Write about something else.

If you’re stuck on a song about politics, just write about love for a minute. Changing your approach will encourage your brain back into creativity, at which point, you may go back to your original song.

  • Don’t worry about it.

Many writers develop writer’s block because they are overly cautious and expect too much from their work on the first draft. Relax a little bit and just write some lyrics without worrying about how epic they are.

  • Change it up.

Sometimes, the same old pace and place don’t lend themselves extraordinarily to continuous songwriting. Take a different walk home, wear mismatched socks, pick up a different instrument or simply try composing in a different room. Every little change helps.

You may find it takes you 20 songs to churn out before you write one that you truly enjoy; but, when you do, you will be unimaginably proud of your work. If songwriting is what you love, then stick to it, and the songs will come to you.

Be careful of getting stuck in your own rut. Once you have developed your own song writing style, you might find that it is all you have used since. Give your next songs a chance to sound different from your last and try something fresh. It never hurts to pick up a new instrument or rearrange your process. Adding variety to your songwriting makes it entertaining for you to compose, and it also broadens the scope of your work.

Be aware of plagiarism. Music is a creative craft and a considerable portion of it is held up by the respect for others’ creative property. In the same way, you can protect your creative assets by investing in copyrights. Although this does cost money, it is worth the small payment as protection against someone else crediting themselves with the creation of your hard work.

The First Rule Is: There Are No Rules

Sure, you have just been reading an article on how to write a song, but in truth, you can write a song any way you like. Remember that guidelines like verses and bridges are only there as templates and patterns. These are not requirements. There are many songs that do not feature choruses and even more that do not even have lyrics! As they say in Fight Club, the first rule is that there are no rules. Do not be afraid to bend the conventions that are often mistaken for law.

For a fun and slightly challenging songwriting exercise, try writing a song that does not rhyme. You can also change to a different rhyme scheme. How about writing a song without a chorus? Change your tempos, switch your structure, or simply do not even think about what you write. Compose a song without thinking about how you organize it; just let the music and the lyrics flow. Above all, be natural with your songwriting and the music you create will display your style and personality.

Music is made by the musician and, although many hit songs have been built using typical songwriting conventions, the musician holds complete freedom when creating his work. You as the songwriter can write about anything you like and you should not ever feel as though you need to be following someone else's rules. In fact, make up your own rules! Find your own songwriting style and develop a process that suits you. Music that is different sounds striking against its typical chart*topping counterparts. Do not be afraid to try something new in your quest for the perfect song.

Now that you have been equipped with enough songwriting wisdom to last you a blue moon, sally forth! Go forth into your creative stronghold and write the song you have always waited to write. If you get stuck, remember to remain inspired, learn a little technique, grab a friend to collaborate, and keep going. Do not be anxious about receiving feedback for the first song you write and remember that writer's block is only temporary. All the hooks, verses, choruses and solos do eventually fall into place, but it is you, the songwriter, who must write the first note. Enjoy it.

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