“The big problem with songwriting for me is starting a new song. It’s the thing where all the anguish exists, not in the writing of the song, but the starting of the new song.” – Nick Cave
There are a lot of different ways to write a song. I want to stress early and often that THERE IS NOT ONE RIGHT WAY TO WRITE A SONG. This post is simply meant to be a good starting off point if you are stuck and want to get unstuck. Here are some helpful ways for you to figure out which process works best for you. As counter-intuitive as it is, sometimes having structure and limitations can actually allow more freedom to create.
Just a heads up, this exercise is going to walk you through writing a happy song, in a fairly pop-friendly format. You may end up with a country pop song, a rock song, or a straight up pop song, depending on your style and influences, but this will be a mainstream approach to writing. If enough people find this helpful, I’ll try to write up some other exercises that use different approaches and lead you to totally different songs. Be sure to comment your thoughts at the bottom so I know what you think!
You are not going to have much luck being creative if you are stressed out and up tight. Sit down somewhere quiet in a comfortable chair or couch with a pencil and at least 3 pieces of paper and pour yourself a glass of wine, bourbon, tea, coffee or whatever gets you relaxed. If you’re into candles or incense, go for that too. For real, relax a little and then your creativity will flow easier.
“First thing, I throw on some jeans, a T-shirt and my Keds sneakers and make coffee. That is actually my favorite time of day. That is when I do my songwriting, when I am in writing mode.” Lucinda Williams
So why 3 pieces of paper?
The first sheet of paper is going to be your idea sheet. Anything you think of, write it down here. It doesn’t have to be in order, it doesn’t have to rhyme or make sense, it doesn’t have to be complete sentences (or maybe it is), it doesn’t have to be poetic, this is just to capture ideas.
The second sheet of paper is going to be your lyrics draft. As you start to create the words that will be your actual lyrics, you can write those segments down here. You’re still not locked in, and they may not all be in order, but things are making more sense on this page and you can start to get a sense of the big picture. Basically, you’re boiling down the idea sheet into only the words you need to get your ideas across.
“Words are the currency of songs – spend them carefully.”
The third sheet is for your actual lyrics. Don’t use this sheet yet.
OK, here we go. Start with your idea sheet. Go ahead and write that at the top in big letters: “IDEA SHEET”
Now for a thought exercise …
Think about a time you were happy. Truly happy. As in, so happy you couldn’t stop smiling. So happy no amount of bad news could bring you down. So happy you forgot to eat lunch. So happy you called your best friends to tell them what happened. So happy, you are going to write a song about it! Make a list of the following:
How old were you?
Where were you?
Who were you with?
What were you doing?
What did it look like?
What did it smell like?
What did it feel like?
What did it sound like?
Use that material to start to work on your verses. This song is going to be a verse – chorus – verse – chorus – chorus format, so you’ll just need 2 verses.
You’re going to be telling a story with your verses and bringing it all together with your choruses, so start to think about how you want to tell your story. You can spend some words on the place (use your senses to put the listener in your shoes), the characters (give them just enough depth), and the time (of day, of the year, of your life, etc.). Beyond that, get to the point and tell the story. How does your story start? What is happening in your story? What caused something to change? What affected you?
Here’s where it gets interesting. You don’t have to stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You can, of course, but you don’t have to.
“There’s a lot of personal stuff that can go into songwriting but there’s also a lot of dramatization and fictionalization. You have to do that to make a good song.” Norah Jones
Writing The Chorus
Think about other important times in your life that you’ve been truly happy. Are there any common threads? Are you with the same person (or people) in these memories? Are you in the same place? At the same age? Doing the same thing? Hopefully this is beginning to spark some ideas. Write them all down on your idea sheet.
It’s also helpful to understand what other emotions you associate with these ‘happy memories.’ Did you feel excited? Surprised? Peaceful? Satisfied? The wheel of feelings is always a helpful resource for understanding what’s going on a little deeper than just the surface “good” or “bad” emotions.
Zoom out on your life for a minute and take a 30,000 foot view. Why do you think these moments are so important to you? What is the meaning of all of this? Are you happy when you’re with someone because you feel loved? Do you have a lot of fond memories about a place from your childhood because you always went there with your dad? Start to connect some dots and make a list of phrases or ideas that communicate why these stories have meaning to you. This is a great time to write what you learned and how you changed.
This is going to be material for your chorus, and maybe your bridge too.
So you probably have a couple of pages of ideas now. You may even have a few rhyming sentences, but you certainly don’t have a song yet. That’s ok, we’re going to get there. You do have some great ideas, and a story to tell, and it’s a story that matters to you, so it’s going to matter to your listeners too. Now, let’s put the words aside and look at the chords and melody.
Time For The Music
If you play an instrument, sit down with it and put your notes somewhere close, within arms reach. Since we’re making this a happy song, let’s play in a major key. Remember, there is no one right way to write a song, I’m just walking you through an exercise to get you going. You can try this and hate it, but at least you’ll have a song by the end!
So, sit down and start strumming or playing in a Major key. I’m going to pick G because it’s super easy on the guitar. I’ll give you a couple of options for chord progressions for each part of the song, and you pick what you like (feel free to mix and match, or come up with your own chords, these are just to get you started):
Verse Option 1: G G C G | G G D D | Em Em C G | G D G G |
Verse Option 2: G D C G | G D C C | G D C G | G D G G |
Verse Option 3: C G Em D :||
Chorus Option 1: C9 G C9 G C9 G D D C9 G C9 G Em D C9 C9
Chorus Option 2: G D Em C :||
After you’ve played around with these patterns, pick one that you like for each part of the song, and start to hum along as you find some notes that sound good with the chords you’re playing. If you really don’t know where to start, just start on the tonic, or root note (G in this case) and move up and down the scale from there.
Listen to what you are humming, and when you hear something you like, make a quick voice memo on your phone so you don’t forget it. For the verses, try to find a melody that will work over each of the 4 chord phrases and repeat it, possibly varying it on the 3rd measure.
Transitioning To The Chorus
Going from the verse to the chorus, we want to ramp up and build. So whatever the last 2 measures of your verse are, start building up vocally and with your instrument. We want our chorus to launch us into something new and big for this song. The tempo isn’t going to change, but your rhythm could change. Maybe your strumming pattern is different for the chorus, or maybe on the piano your left hand gets busier or starts playing octaves. Find a way to differentiate the chorus. You don’t want a listener to be confused about where they are in the song. The chorus should, in this case, be easy to identify and feel when it hits.
For a chorus melody, look for a higher register where you can sing. Not super high, just higher than where you were for the verse. If you were singing around the root note, maybe now you’re singing around the fifth scale degree (sing around a D if you’re in G, for example). Your melody can be as repetitive as you’d like for the chorus, it doesn’t have to be busy or have a lot of movement either. Find a group of notes that work really well with the chords you’ve picked and play around with them until you feel like you have something that works. So far, you’re just humming without words (unless you’re an overachiever and you’ve already started fitting your words into the melody). Now it’s time to finish the lyrics and start really putting this song together.
Finishing Your Lyrics
By this point you should have chords, a basic sense of where your melody is going in the verse and chorus, and a bunch of lyric ideas. Pull out your idea sheet and let’s start to craft some real lyrics (on your lyrics draft sheet).
Armed with your instrument and the music you’ve been composing, you can begin to mold some of those words into lyrics by singing them with the melodies you’ve been humming. You will likely have to change some words around, condense some thoughts, expand others, etc. What you want to do is align your syllables with the melody and use rhyming to glue things together.
Don’t force anything. If you have certain phrases that aren’t working with your melody, that’s ok. Let your melody influence your lyrics, and let your lyrics influence your melody. What I mean in practical terms is this: if you have a melody that contains 8 notes and your lyrics only have 7 syllables, think about adding a word, swapping a word out, or inserting an “oh” or “yeah” or “hmmmm” or something to line things up the most natural sounding way possible. Likewise, if you’re married to a lyric that’s just killer, and it has 7 syllables, then try to adjust the melody to fit those words and timing. Things are still very fluid at this point.
As you work, pick a line or two at a time. Your verses will likely be 4 lines, possible 8 depending on how you are dividing things up. Chip away at your verses line by line until you have a complete thought, or a complete section of your story. If something doesn’t fit, save it for later. It might make a great line in the bridge, or maybe it’s for a different song.
Be aware of the accent pattern of the lyrics you are writing and how that fits with the music. For example, here is a sentence where every word has the accent on the first syllable.
Only certain people carry feelings.
Say that out loud. Do you hear how the accents fall? That’s just to get you listening for that. If you have a phrase that seems to be fighting the melody you have, investigate the syllables and accents. You may be able to tweak a lyric and line things up better to smooth out a rough part.
Work through the whole song and start to solidify your actual lyrics. You can even write them down on your final lyrics sheet as you feel relatively certain about them. Fill in the gaps and see where you are. Take plenty of breaks to pace around, pull your hair out, and stare at the wall. This is all part of proper songwriting etiquette.
If you are feeling pretty good about what you have, but sense that there is more you need to say, or that the music needs something else, you can add a bridge between the last two choruses. Here are some chord options to pick from (or, of course, you can write your own).
Bridge Option 1: D D C9 G D D Am Am D D C9 G Em D/F# C9 C9
Bridge Option 2: D D Em Em | C C G G :||
Alright. Sit back, take a deep breath, and see where you are. Did you get stuck somewhere? What was the hardest part for you? Lyrics, melody, chords? Ask any questions you have in the comments below, or post your song on YouTube and tag us @masonmusicrocks.
I hope this has been helpful for someone out there! Remember, there is not one right way to write a song. This is just to get you started. If you hated writing a song this way, GREAT! You know that now. Go find a different way to write. If this worked for you, GREAT! You can stick with it and explore other topics within this framework. Just get to writing. You have stories to tell, ideas to share, feelings to express. Songwriting is a great way to get all of that out and communicate with other people through music. ROCK ON.