How to write a song (Songwriting for beginners)
Have you ever wanted to learn how to write a song?
How easy is it to write a song?
Usually we think of songwriting as a magical and mysterious process, but what if I told you that there are some easy steps that will help you become a better songwriter?
- Music or groove first?
- The Hook
- Most Common Chords
- Creating the Rest of the Song
- Why Co-Writing is a Good Idea
Did you know that one single man has written 21 No. 1 hits on Billboards Hot 100 list?
Source: Max Martin on Wikipedia
The only two persons topping that record is Paul McCartney with 32 No. 1s and John Lennon with 26.
Fun fact: Even though this man is responsible for so many hits I bet that you probably didn’t know his name before this post.
The man I’m talking about is the Swedish songwriter Max Martin. Max has clearly developed a unique formal for writing hit songs!
Just take a look at the full list of his No. 1s:
Most people know all the songs on this list.
It is really impressive!
What can we tell from this?
Well, obviously this man knows what he’s doing. Not only does he make hit songs – he’s done it for almost 20 years. This means that he’s doing something that isn’t just based on a temporary trend.
Do you know what it is?
Let me give you a hint: Quality
This man provides quality pop songs. He knows what makes a good pop song and he’s been writing for so many years that his writing skills have become amazing!
I’ve decided to make this beginner’s guide for aspiring songwriters to show you some steps that will make your songwriting way easier and provide quality to your songs.
These are some of my favorite tip and tricks, which I learned from some of the best songwriters out there.
Let’s get started!
Melody or groove first?
There are a ton of different approaches to songwriting.
Some people write the lyrics first.
Other people write the melody and then the lyrics.
And some just make the groove, beats and music first.
It’s really up to you how you do it
You may be inspired by the work-progress of some of the best writers out there.
If we take a look at Max Martin (from Sweden), he has build his songwriting around writing the melody first. This is one of the keys in terms of making a song catchy.
The goal is to make the melody sound easy to make and intuitive while it’s not. It’s a practice that a lot of top-songwriters use.
How do you do this then?
I like to choose a few chords first and the sing along while I play the piano or guitar and try to figure out the base of the melody. The melody should be easy to listen to and develop itself through the song.
Even though I play the piano while I do this the piano doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of the final song.
That’s the beauty of it – when you’re satisfied with your melody you can shape the rest of the song around it and make the music support the melody.
You can also choose to do it the other way around and make all of the music first. This method is sometimes referred to as the American-style songwriting.
You simply make the groove first and then create a melody that fits into that groove.
The method is often used when bands write songs by jamming.
If you decide to write songs the American-style you need to pay extra attention to the melody afterwards. It can easily be forgotten if the rest of the song rules!
As an ultimate test of the melody’s strength you can sing it while playing only a guitar or piano. If it still sounds as good as with the rest of the music surrounding it, then it probably is a well-written melody.
Also, be sure to include hooks in your melodies so they are easy to remember and sing along to!
Keep reading if you don’t really know what a hook is.
One of the single most important things in a pop tune is the hook.
The hook is the melody that you just can’t get out of your head.
A good hook is a recognizable piece of melody that you can remember almost immediately after the first time you hear it.
You should try to make a hook for every song you make.
Often the melody-hook in a song is placed in the chorus and contains the title of the song too.
An example could be “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys.
You can also create an instrumental hook.
One of the best examples of instrumental hooks is the bass and guitar riff from “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.
This hook is so good that people chant it at sports events and other artists’ concerts. I’ve been at Roskilde Festival in Denmark waiting for The National to take the stage when the crowd suddenly started to sing the Seven Nation Army riff!
The best way to write a catchy hook is to make it simple.
Listen to the riff in “Smoke On the Water” – almost all of my students can play this when they have played the guitar for a couple of weeks.
It’s simple and yet so catchy.
Make a rule to yourself – maybe you should try to write a hook which only consists of three different notes.
Or maybe you should make a hook that only ascends (goes up).
Give it a shot.
The most noticeable sign that shows if you made a hook is that it’s stuck in your head the rest of the day!
Okay, if you have made a melody then move on to the lyrics!
The core of songwriting has always been the lyrics.
The lyrics set the tone of the song. They make it easy to sing along to and they create meaning.
Human brains always search for meaning in every context. We constantly want to improve our knowledge on any subject – just think about how frustrating it can be that you don’t know what comes after death! It’s in our nature to seek and explore.
This is why good lyrics can make you wanting to dive into them and understand them.
There are a few things to consider when you’re about to write lyrics for a song:
- What kind of tone do I want in this song?
- What is the theme of the song?
- Do I write the lyrics before the melody or the other way around?
Write the answers down to the first two questions so you don’t forget them while writing the lyrics
The last question is something you have to try out. The process of songwriting differs from person to person. Personally I switch between writing the lyrics first and the melody first.
I do it because I think both methods bring something new to the table.
So I do it to in order to make an opportunity of thinking in new ways.
A great way of brainstorming AND practice your writing skills at the same time is by doing some object writing.
Lyric-writing is technical. It’s not just something you learn in a single day. It takes time to gain the skills!
Object writing will help you improve your writing skills and at the same time you will get a ton of great ideas by doing it.
So how do we do this?
You randomly pick an object and write about it for 10 minutes.
It can be everything. I have written about a coffee cup and a tree outside my window. Nothing is to small.
When you’ve picked an object you have to focus all of your senses on it.
Try to describe how it looks, how it smells and how it sounds.
And yes, you can write about the sound of a coffee cup or a tree.
Take a look at this example:
The waves of black coffee roar with a comforting sound when I let the milk blend in like a white waterfall of paint. This is the sound of good Saturday morning.
You see how I used my senses to describe the sound and color of the coffee?
Those are the world-bound senses. But you should also focus on describing the object with an inner sense. Try to describe how it makes you feel.
For me the sound of the coffee connected my thoughts to earlier memories of cozy Saturday mornings. This is how the coffee made me feel. Comforted.
Okay, so far so good.
Let’s do some object writing.
- Set your timer to 10 minutes and write as much as you can. It doesn’t have to be good. Actually, it’s VERY important that you don’t delete anything. Just keep writing constantly for 10 minutes.
- Stop when the 10 minutes are over – don’t even bother finishing the sentence you’re in the middle of (Unless it’s really good and something you can use in one of your songs)
The reason I want you to stop writing is because this exercise is creating a space of focus for you. It makes you capable of staying focused for exactly the amount of time you wish.
I also think it’s important to stay within the 10 minutes because you will have to do this exercise every day in a long period to gain something from it.
If you keep writing for 2 more minutes, you might feel the urge to skip 2 minutes another day and this will hurt the results in the end.
So stick with 10 minutes no matter what!
I do object writing once a day.
I could feel a huge difference within the first two weeks of object writing.
It made the words come out faster than they used to. You don’t have to sit for an hour thinking about what to write – you just do it! That’s what I love about this method.
I prefer to do object writing in the morning. Usually just before I eat breakfast. I do this to get my mind prepared for the rest of the day.
If you start out your day with sense-bound writing for 10 minutes your senses are more likely to be aware and awake the rest of the day!
I started to notice my surroundings in a more sense-bound way – this helps your songwriting!
When you have done a lot of object writing you should have a good amount of topics for songs.
You probably don’t wanna write about a coffee cup so you can try to write about something like a special setting in your memory, e.g., your last birthday.
The next step in my process of writing a song is choosing keywords from the object writing.
Let’s say you wrote about a person who keep his thoughts to himself. I would highlight words like
- Locked up
These are words that can be used to set the tone of a song’s lyrics.
What I do next is finding synonyms for every keyword I’ve chosen.
I usually use Thesaurus to do this!
Here’s an example
Keyword: “Locked up”
- Under lock and key
This list can be used if you’re stuck and don’t know what to write. It also helps by making sure that you don’t repeat the same words over and over again.
Do this for every key word you’ve chosen. You should end up with at least 5 synonyms for 5 different keywords.
This is often where I begin writing the actual song. The keywords may have given me a great idea for a first sentence – so don’t hold back.
If you feel the urge to write something, then do it immediately!
A songs structure is important to our lyrics.
One of the most used song structures looks like this: ABABCB
In plain English this means:
As you can see one (out of many) of Max Martin’s No. 1 hits Shake It Off uses this structure.
It’s build up like you usually would in a pop song where you would say something different in every verse and repeat the same thing in the chorus every time.
How can it be that the chorus doesn’t get boring when we hear it over and over again?
I’ve asked myself this question a million times.
I was surprised when I found out how easy the answer was!
The trick is to hold back some information in the first verse and make sure that your verses develop throughout the song.
If you have written two verses, try to make a summary of them.
It could look like this:
- Summary of verse 1: I met the happiest girl in the world
- Summary of verse 2: She does a lot of things that makes her happy. It also makes me happy.
As you see, verse 2 just becomes a repetition of verse1.
Try to give it some more content.
Here’s another suggestion:
- Summary of verse1: I met the happiest girl in the world – she makes me happy too.
- Summary of verse2: She’s in love with the saddest guy in the world.
You see how I made a twist in the story? This is a really basic example, but I hope you get the point!
When the verses give different information your chorus will also sound differently every time you hear it because you will hold it up against the new information you just got.
Coloring your lyrics
It’s not only the order of information in verses that matter. It’s also extremely important to place your different sentences in the right order within the verse itself.
If you place important information early in the verse it will “color” the rest of the verse.
I’ll give you an example
I fought a battle with my sword
I wish it still was nice and clean
But all I see is blood
This verse doesn’t feel right to me. What can we do to fix it? (Consider rewriting it totally!)
Well, let’s have a look at it if we make a few adjustments.
All I see is blood
A deathly battle with swords
I whish that mine still was nice and clean
As you can see, this verse is almost covered in blood – because I started out with a descriptive sense-bound sentence.
My own rule is to place these sentences with heavy information as soon in the verse as possible.
Furthermore, I saved some important information and placed it in the end. This made a twist in the story.
Not only did the character in the song fight a battle – he fought a battle he didn’t want to fight!
This is storytelling, people! Basic storytelling.
Most common chords
Now that we got an idea of how to write lyrics we can move on to the chords.
A good place to start when writing chords for a song is to just play random chords on your piano or guitar.
If you don’t know how to play guitar you can check out my Ultimate Beginner’s Guide.
However, this may not always work out for you and you might wanna look for some help.
Dave Carlton from Hook Theory analyzed 1300 popular songs for their patterns and found the most common chords, keys and progressions used in pop songs.
His analyze told him that songs in C major or A minor were the most common keys in pop songs.
This may have to do with the fact that these songs are easy to play on the piano since they only contain all the white keys.
He also found out that the most popular chord progression is the I – V – vi – IV.
In plain English the progression looks like this: C – G – Am – F.
Even though there are so many songs with this progression, you should try to write a song with them. It’s a good exercise and it can be done in many different ways.
Here’s four songs to give you an idea of how different songs with the same chords can sound:
- “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (1981)
- “Let It Be” by The Beatles (1970)
- “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (2002)
- “Edge Of Glory” by Lady Gaga (2011)
You probably also now the “Axis of Awesome – Four Chord song”. It uses the same progression.
This should give you an idea of how many different songs you can make out of the same 4 chords.
Be sure to consider the tone of your lyrics before you settle for a chord progression.
If you’ve written a happy song it won’t make sense to chose a progression in a minor key.
Minor keys sound sad while major keys sound happy. That’s the easy way to distinguish them.
Try to choose chords for the verses, the chorus and the bridge. You can check out the chords of other songs at Ultimate Guitar
Creating the rest of the song
This part of the songwriting is very different from song to song.
At this stage you should’ve created a melody with lyrics and chords for the song.
Now you need to create the instrumental universe.
For me, this step takes everything from an hour to a few weeks. Sometimes you know exactly what to do with the song. Other times you need to sleep on it and try out some different ideas before settling for the right one.
I usually decide what kind of song I want it to be before I begin adding layers to it.
Sometimes it’s a guitar-driven sound I want with a lot of rhythm-guitar and licks.
Other times I may be going for a more electronic synth-based sound.
The point is: No matter what kind of melody and chords you’ve chosen you can take the song in several different directions. An up-tempo guitar-based pop song can also be turned in to a synth-based ballad.
Sometimes I make several versions of the same song to figure out which universe of sound boosts the identity of the song the most.
I don’t know whether you’ve guessed it or not – but my advice is to just try a bunch of different stuff when it comes to making music. You’ll learn something new with every song you make and you might end up with finding your own original sound.
Record labels love original sounds! That’s one (of many) things they look for in an artist!
Why co-writing is a good idea
Finally, I wanna tell you something about writing songs with other musicians.
It is something I often do and it’s one of my favorite approaches to songwriting.
Because you can use the other person’s expertise and combine it with your own!
For example, one of my advantages is my melody-writing skills. But my beat-making skills could be better.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with a friend of mine who’s a producer. When we combine our forces we make good songs! It’s as simple as that!
We also use each other as executive producers. When I’ve created a melody I sing it to him and he tells me what he likes about it and comes up with suggestions to improvements.
And of course we also do it the other way around with the beats.
Co-writing is a great way of combining peoples’ skills and use them in an efficient way.
If you wonder how some of the beats may sound like, you can listen to a preview right here.
Songwriting takes a lot of practice. It’s not skills you learn over night.
But if you follow this guide you will learn something new and useful, which will help speed up the process of learning how to write a song.
My main advice is to keep trying out different things and approaches to writing a song in order to figure out how you most effectively can write songs.
Quality songs are hard to make. Hopefully you’ve gained some new skills, which will help you in your journey of writing better songs.
Let me know what you struggle with right now in the comments below!