Getting started writing your own song can be a bit nerve-wracking! As an artist, your early work can often define who you are, as it lets music listeners what you’re all about. Lyrics, composition, chord structure, genre…these are all things people will look for and decide very quickly whether or not they’re going to follow your career. That being said, even though you are writing music for the world to hear, in reality you are making music for yourself.
Songwriting is inherently a selfish process — why? As a friend put it to me recently: “I like listening to my own songs because I write what I want to hear.”
If you don’t like the music you are writing then there’s no reason to be doing it. So here are 10 steps on how to begin writing songs.
Before you pick up an instrument, you need to ask yourself one question: “why am I writing this song?” As song that lacks purpose is a song that won’t connect with anybody — yourself included. Inspiration can come from anywhere. As a musician I’ve often found that the weirdest events in my life often become the subject of songs my fellow bandmates and I have brought to the writing table. Song ideas can come from big events like breakups and death, or small circumstances like a funny conversation you had with a friend over dinner. Nothing is too big or too small to talk about.
ALWAYS BE PREPARED
Everyone tends to start the writing process differently, but I’ve found the most organic way is to work off of small ideas and build upwards. Start with a melody in your head and transpose it into whichever instrument you are playing. Carry around a recording device (your cell phone will do) and record yourself singing little melodies as they come to you. As a songwriter nothing is more frustrating than coming up with an awesome melody or lyric when you’re out and about, and then forgetting how it went later on. Always be prepared!
There’s no better way to get a feel for good songwriting than to actually listen to good songs. If you think you know what genre of music you want to write, do some research and get listening. Let’s say you’re interested in country music, start by getting a feel for the classics: i.e. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton and so on. Next, listen to some of the genre’s newer and trending artists to see how things have evolved. Having a comprehensive knowledge of the genre you’re writing in and/or the artists who inspire you will give you better context on how to approach your own songwriting.
When it comes to songwriting, start small and work your way up. Some people prefer to start writing with lyrics done first — which is totally fine. If you are beginning the process more naturally by noodling around on an instrument, many artists have found the spark of their song by starting with a simple hook or melody. Build out a verse or chorus and see where it takes you.
Lyrics can often be the most difficult part of the process for new songwriters. For someone who has never touched lyrics before it can be pretty daunting as you’ll be taking on a whole new artform. However, that shouldn’t discourage you. Start by reading your favourite song lyrics and poetry and see how they are written. Ask yourself the question what question you are trying to answer, or what feeling you are trying to evoke. Everyone will have a different style and different approach, so get just start writing and see where you end up. It’s always easier to cut down lyrics than it is to add them in afterwards.
Repetition is one of the greatest tools of songwriting. Whether it be a vocal hook or a guitar line, repeating and returning to certain melodies adds familiarity to your song. Repeating parts in a song will burn a memory in your listeners minds and create a lasting impression. The true test is finding the balance between repetition and variety. Much of that process will come with how you approach the structure or your song — which is why most music in the popular format are written in a verse-chorus structure. That being said, there are certainly artists who break the mold and write songs without a proper chorus. You decide what works best for your song.
If you’re having trouble fitting together pieces of your song try writing transitional sections like pre-choruses or instrumental breaks. These sections are used to shift the tone, the pace or refresh the listeners ears to lead them from one section to the next. Keep in mind, choruses are typically higher up in range and more energetic than verses so you may need to lower the verse to make the chorus pop. However, if you can’t seem to fit them no matter what, save each piece and separate them: you may be sitting on two sections of two different songs.
Bridges are another type of transitional section that are typically used in common song structure. You’ll typically find these between the last verse and chorus of a song before a reprise as they help bring the song climax. Bridges may be instrumental, in a different key and structurally differently than the rest of the song.
Similar to editing an essay, it’s hard to listen back to your music with unbiased ears. Show your music to as many friends as you can and get their unfiltered feedback. If available to you, workshop your music with another more experienced songwriter and see what changes they think you should make.
Songwriting is like any craft: the more you do it the better you get. Once you’re done your first track, keep the creative juices flowing and keep writing. Once you have one or two songs, start performing at open mics or get opening sets for local acts. Performing live will give you immediate feedback on how well your songs perform. Talk to audience members and artists alike after your performance. See what they liked and didn’t like — all feedback is important.