by Robin Frederick Check out my books at Amazon.com.
Whether you want to write songs to pitch to music publishers, TV shows and commercials, or record them yourself as an artist, here’s a songwriting method that will help you get your message across and make sure your listeners stay involved from beginning to end. Of course, this is just one approach to songwriting but it’s used by many songwriting pros and it works.
1. Start with the title. Create a phrase of one to six words that sums up the heart of your song’s message. Try using an image or action word in your title to give it energy and interest. For more tips on song titles read Write a Memorable Title or watch this video.
2. Make a list of questions suggested by the title. Start by asking yourself what you want to say about your title and what you think your listeners might want to know. Make list of questions. Your list might include: What does the title mean? How do you feel about it? What happened to cause this? What do you think or hope will happen next? You’ll need three to four questions. Check out this video for more information.
3. Choose a song structure. Currently, the most popular structure is: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus. Many recent hits add a short section called a “pre-chorus” or “lift” between the verse and chorus to build anticipation. Here’s a tip that will tell you more. Or watch this video to learn the basics.
4. Answer one question in the chorus and one in each verse. Select the question you want to answer in your chorus. Look for images and action words to bring your answers to life. What emotion are you describing? How does it make your body feel? Is it warm or cold? Dark or light? If you get too poetic, add a line that makes a clear statement so listeners don’t get lost. Read more about adding emotion to your lyrics here.
5. Find the melody in your lyric. Choose the lines you like best for your chorus. Say them out loud. Now say them again with LOTS of emotion. Exaggerate the emotion in the lines. Notice the natural rhythm and melody of your speech when you say the lines with lots of feeling. This is the beginning of your chorus melody. Play with it until it feels comfortable. Here’s more info on using your lyric to create a melody.
6. Begin to add chords to your chorus melody. Try a simple, repeated chord pattern. Play with the melody and chords until you find something you like. Record a rough vocal – even if it’s only on your iPhone. Just be sure you get it down so you don’t forget it. You’ll find a several chord progressions you can use in this post. Just scroll down to the section on Chord Progressions.
7. Choose a question to answer in your first verse. Make it one that will draw the listener into the situation. Go through Steps 4 – 6 with you verse lyric and melody.
8. Connect your verse and chorus. After you have a verse and chorus create a transition between them. You may need to raise or lower your verse melody or change the last line to get to your chorus smoothly. TIP: Chorus melodies are usually in a higher note range than verses. When we get emotional our voices tend to rise. The chorus is the more emotional part of your song so it’s higher, while verses add information about the situation.
9. Build your second verse and bridge. Choose another of your questions to answer in Verse 2. Proceed through Steps 4 – 6. Your second chorus will have the same melody and lyric as your first chorus. You are now almost finished with your song. You just need to add a bridge. The bridge section adds a peak emotional moment to your song, a realization, or an “aha!” moment. Try two or three lyric lines that give the listener the best insight you can, or sum up what you hope will be the outcome. The melody should be different from both verse and chorus. Try using a chord you haven’t used before or changing the phrase lengths or motion of the melody. A bridge isn’t a requirement but it can add a lot of strength to your song.
10. Record your song. A simple piano/vocal or guitar/vocal can often be the most effective emotional statement of your song. If you wrote a Rock song, do an “unplugged” version. You don’t need lots of strings and synths – in fact, these can detract. Practice both the instrumental and vocal parts until you are comfortable with every chord, every note, every word. The less you have to focus on playing or singing, the more you can focus on the emotion in the song. Try singing it as if you are speaking it to someone. Record for short periods then take a break. Keep the song and the emotion fresh! Here’s a tip that will give you more ideas on how to record a rough demo.
Now that you know how to write a song in ten steps, here are some Song Starters – titles, themes, chord progressions, and more – to get you going.
1. How to start a song
Before you start writing you need to loosely define what you’ll be making. I don’t mean setting up a strict script to follow.
But asking yourself these key questions before you start will help to guide you early on.
What are my songwriting tools?
I don’t mean pick every instrument right away. Good songwriting means being able to move between all instruments. But choosing one instrument to start with is a good idea.
Traditionally a piano or guitar are the songwriter’s weapon of choice. But a drum machine, a synth VST or a MIDI controller are all good places to start to.
Start with what you know best. Ideas come out easier on what you’re comfortable with. Know your tools first, and write a song second.
Will there be lyrics?
If there will be lyrics in your song, start with writing a few ideas out. It doesn’t have to be in song structure (we’ll get to that later).
But a few basic concepts will help get you started. A great tool for lyric ideas is a rhyme dictionary. It might sound simple, but when you’re just starting out they’re great for finding inspiration.
Write out your lyrics with the instrumentation in mind. Sitting by a piano or with a guitar can help you to understand your lyrics better.
If you ‘play your lyrics,’ parts of the whole song will start to emerge.
Lyrics will also give you a core idea for your song. Once you find the idea you’re going to riff on (literally) then the other parts will fall into place more easily.
All language is music. The best lyrics unlock the music in all spoken word.
Don’t stress about knowing how to write lyrics. The best way to write lyrics is whatever feels right for you.
What is my song topic?
A song should answer a question. Ask and answer it with the parts of your song.
Put your questions and answers right in you lyrics.
Or make it the answer to a question you ask yourself. Like “what does it sound like if I…” or “how can I make this idea into a sound?” are good places to start.
It might sound corny, but good songs need substance. That means emotion, mood, feeling, risk and experimentation.
So what makes you feel a certain way? What emotion will you get out through your song? Music is more engaging if your lyrics and sounds are genuine.
If you don’t feel anything from your own music, how is any one else suppose to feel something from it? So create something real.
All those daydreams and space outs you’ve been having are songs waiting to get out.
Ok great. Now you have an idea of where you want to go with your song. And you know what songwriting tools you’ll be using.
Let’s get started!
5. Build from song ideas
Ok, now that you know the parts of a song and song structure structure it’s time to start writing!
Building around your song sketch means adding on the other parts to compliment it.
Is your sketch a sweet hook? Then it’s time to figure out where it fits. It could be in the chorus, or even the bridge.
Is your rough song idea a couple perfect lines of lyrics? Choose where they’ll go. Maybe they’ll fit in the second verse.
No matter where you decide to put your first idea, deciding where it fits in your structure will help you to build around it.
For example: if you use your main idea to build your first verse, then it’s easier to flow into the first chorus. Each part is a stepping stone that leads to the next.
So drop your doodle somewhere and start building!
6. Finishing a song
So now you have your song idea in place, you know all the parts you need and you’ve picked a structure. Superb.
At this point there is infinity ways to reach the finish line. It’s the magic that makes songwriting so special: there’s no ‘best’ way to do it.
“You can’t say ‘how do you write a song?’ It just comes out. Everyone has their own process.”
‣ How does a song get started? (Good question!)
WATCH THIS ON VIDEO.
Getting started can be one of the hardest tasks in songwriting. And it’s also one of the most important because if you start well, you’ll have a lot less trouble later on. You’ll know where you’re going and you’ll have plenty of things to say.
There’s always the temptation to jump right in and begin with the first thing that occurs to you. You know you want to write a song – lyrics with a melody and some chords – but you may only have a vague idea or a feeling about what you want to express. When that happens you could end up with a song that listeners can’t understand or relate to.
So which comes first – lyrics, melody, or chords? My answer is: None of the above. There are a lot of ways to start a song and you could start with one of those, but I’m going to suggest that you start with THE TITLE.
The title is going to be the line that everyone remembers. More important, it’s going to define the message of the song. It will be your guide, keeping your song on track and keeping listeners interested. Think of your title as the peak of a pyramid. The rest of the song is made up of the building blocks that support it.
Start your song with a title that appeals to you. Make sure it’s a phrase that rings true in your ears. Something that makes you say, “I’ve got to know more about that!” Because if YOU want to know, others will want to know.
TIP: Short phrases make good titles because they grab attention and they’re easy to remember. The ideal length for a title is one to five words.
Where to find good titlesKeep your eyes and ears open for good titles that have energy for you. Action words, images, or short phrases make good titles. Attention-grabbing newspaper headlines are full of good titles. Here are a few examples of titles I picked up by reading through a popular magazine: “A Dream On The Edge,” “Hiding in the Shadows,” “What You Can’t Change,” “Slipping Away.”
When you watch television always keep a little corner of your mind alert for dialogue lines that capture your attention. Listen to your friends and family to see if you can pick out interesting phrases. Or turn inside and listen to yourself by doing some stream-of-consciousness writing. Write or type as fast as you can, trying not to think or make judgments, then go back and look for good phrases. Start keeping a list of these potential titles.
GO AHEAD & TRY IT – Start your title list right now. Pick up a book or magazine, or scan for interesting short phrases. Write down at least three phrases. Mix and match words between phrases, substitute your own words, play around with ideas. Try to come up with at least one phrase that makes you want to write a song. Keep looking for more phrases until you have something you like. Draw a big circle around that phrase. Then keep reading.
Get a boost from Robin’s book “Song Starters” at Amazon.com.
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‣ What happens next?
Writing both lyrics and melodyIf you play guitar or keyboard and you’re going to be writing your own melody and chords. Skip down to the next section for some ideas on how to find and use chord progressions that work well for today’s songs.
Work on the melody and chords using the verse and chorus lyric you have, gradually smoothing and changing until you have something you like. Then write the rest of the lyric to the final melody.
Writing lyrics onlyIf you’re going to be looking for a collaborator to put music to your lyrics, then you should go ahead and finish the lyric now. Filling in the rest of the lyric while sustaining the emotional tone of what you’ve done is a tough job but if you’ve gotten this far, you can do the rest.
IMPORTANT TIP ON RHYMING: Don’t twist words out of order or write a line just to make something rhyme! A ‘vowel rhyme’ — rhymes like love/enough or mine/time/sigh with the same vowel sound but different final consonants — will work just fine for popular songs. (Songs for musical theater are different – they usually do require perfect rhymes.) Check out a web site like Rhymedesk.com or B-rhymes.com to find lists of interesting, closely rhyming words to use.
Read my post To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme on my blog site.
Know when to take a breakWork on your lyric for short periods of time. If you’re not getting anything usable, walk away… literally. Take a walk and let things settle for awhile. Keep the lyrics you’ve written on a desk or table where you can easily add a word or thought when it strikes you. Keep the hit song melody in your head. The most important thing (and the most difficult) is to keep the emotional integrity of the song intact. Don’t settle for anything less. There are times when you’ll lose your way. Stop working! Go away and come back when you’re fresh. You’ll be able to see what needs to be fixed. Keep working on the lyric until you are genuinely moved and excited by it.
Check out my books at Amazon. You’ll find hundreds of shortcuts you can use to take your songs from good to great!
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