Most new musicians want to know how to write a song so they can start making original music.
But writing a good song is notoriously difficult.
After all, professional songwriters spend their whole careers chasing success.
But everyone has to start somewhere and you don’t need to be a musical genius to write a good song.
In fact, there’s so many different ways to do it that every songwriter has their own unique workflow and style.
And while there are no rules, there are some easy steps you can follow to help you learn songwriting and get to a finished product faster.
Here’s how to write a song in seven steps.
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1. Find a spark of inspiration
Inspiration is the first step of any creative endeavor, but it’s also the hardest part.
Unfortunately, nothing can provide inspiration on demand—but that doesn’t have to be discouraging.
There are plenty of places to find it if you keep an open mind.
Whether your creative spark comes from your favourite music, your experiences in life, other types of art or specific musical features like, hooks, basslines, lyrics or chord progressions, what matters is finding an idea that resonates and following where it leads.
When you put it that way, getting inspired shouldn’t provoke anxiety.
To help you even more, here’s a collection of resources to help you find songwriting inspiration and make the most of it when it strikes.
2. Jot down your ideas
When a good idea strikes, you need to be ready.
Capturing musical fragments in the moment of inspiration is a key part of the songwriter’s craft.
If you build up a bank of ideas, you can come back to them later when inspiration doesn’t flow as freely.
In addition to that, being mindful of creativity helps you build your songwriter’s mindset. The more you pay attention, the more often you’ll unlock ideas.
There are a few ways to do it, but here are some basic techniques to help you build successful habits for songwriting.
Keep a lyrics diary
A lyrics diary is a notebook where you record phrases, lyric snippets or other written material to be used in a song.
Many songwriters keep one for flashes of inspiration or idle scribbling during the day.
Starting a lyrics diary is a great first step for learning how to write lyrics.
Once you get in the habit you’ll never go anywhere without it!
Record sketches in your DAW or with your phone
If your songwriting process lives in your DAW or on your instrument, recording sketches of ideas is a must.
Even if you’re not sure your idea is a “keeper,” making a record of it will help you remember it, or develop it into something with more potential later.
Don’t worry if you end up with a folder full of sessions called, “Idea #274903,” it’s all part of the process!
Use a field recorder to capture cool sounds
If your work relies on sampling you may have a different concept of songwriting.
In that case, you’ll know that sounds themselves can be ideas—and that capturing them in the moment is essential.
Luckily a phone mic or portable field recorder can act like a sonic camera when you hear something that inspires.
You never know what it could turn into in your DAW!
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Field Recording: 10 Ways to Use Found Sound in Your Production
3. Build your creative vision
With your main idea in hand, it’s time to flesh out a vision for your song.
You don’t need to have everything defined beforehand, but developing the general idea of your song will give you a framework for the rest of your creative process.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you build out your vision for a song:
What mood will my song have?
Identifying a mood for your song will help you with all sorts of questions. Is it spirited, or melancholy? Should it be fast and aggressive? Or chill and groovy?
Define the mood and you’ll be able to make decisions faster.
What elements will my song include?
You can really narrow things down if you know what your song doesn’t need.
For example, does your song have singing or lyrics? If not, you can skip that part of the process entirely.
But if you know you need a great bassline to make it work, then it’s worth spending more time to figure it out.
In fact, many songwriters prefer to start with an element they know will be central to the rest of the song.
Does my song have a topic?
Is your song about something? Do you speak to it directly in the lyrics? Or is it more of a general theme?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, try to focus on your topic as you write.
Some of the best songs tell a story!
4. Create a structure
With a great core idea and a general direction, you’ll need some structure for your song to take shape.
Many songwriters consider structure the toughest part of songwriting, but it doesn’t have to be a stumbling block.
In fact the vast majority of popular songs follow only a handful of possible structures.
I’ll go through the basics here, but if you need a more in-depth guide, head over to our overview of song structure to get up to speed.
Song building blocks
The verse is the section that builds and develops your song’s narrative.
The chorus is where that development pays off. It’s a repeated section that usually contains the most direct statement of the song’s main idea. It also tends to be the catchiest, most memorable moment.
The bridge is a contrasting section that leads the song in a different direction before heading back to a verse or chorus.
Bridges are typically used to shake up the pattern and make familiar elements like the chorus hit extra hard when they come back in.
There are plenty of variations on these basics so check out our other resources about song structure to get the full picture.
But most songs can be broken into these three parts. They’re all you have to know to get started!
Common song structures
With that in mind, here are a few examples of structures you’ll often find in specific genres.
These structures are common, but your song doesn’t have to follow them to work.
All you really have to do is think about your song’s rising and falling action—it’s almost like the narrative arc of a novel or a movie.
5. Fill out the arrangement
Even though arrangement seems challenging, it’s not too difficult if you’re working in a DAW.
If you record your parts as you go, your DAW timeline gives you a bird’s eye view of everything happening in the song.
When you look at it like that, all you have to do is make use of musical variety to enhance your song’s impact.
6. Finish your song strong
A great song with a strong arrangement is a beautiful thing. But even a rock solid tune needs the right presentation to shine.
If you’re just getting started with songwriting it might seem impossible to take on a whole new musical discipline. But songwriting and music production aren’t as separate as they used to be.
You’ll never have to turn on a computer to write a great song, but it’s common for motivated songwriters to learn how to produce their own work.
If you develop these basic skills, you can incorporate them into your workflow however you like.
Here are a few ways songwriters can work with music production tools:
- Mix as you go letting your sound shape your inspiration in the DAW
- Write your song first and switch into mixing mode to nail down your sound
- Collaborate with another person in a traditional artist/engineer relationship
7. What if I get stuck?
Creative blocks seem like they can strike at any time. No matter what your songwriting process is like, there’s always a chance for creative momentum to slow down.
But it doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck for good.
Part of being a strong songwriter is learning how to beat creative blocks or make them less disruptive when they come along.
In fact, there are plenty of strategies out there to help you kickstart your creativity and get back into songwriting flow.
Here are a few techniques to help you get past it:
Hot tip: If you’re really stuck, you might have to resort to unconventional methods to get back on track. Check out our list of 17 ridiculous songwriting tips that actually work when nothing else does the trick.
Even when you’re not experiencing writer’s block, you might need some extra support to do your best work.
Luckily, there are some incredible digital tools available that can help you be more productive and finish songs faster.
Here’s a roundup of helpful tools you can download and use right away:
More songwriting tips
The 7 simple steps above can get you started on your songwriting journey. But there plenty of other helpful concepts that aspiring songwriters can use to get unstuck.
Here are a few more tips you can use to break through creative blocks.
Write with a collaborator
Plenty of songwriters have found their sound through collaboration with others.
Think of classic songwriting duos like John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
There’s something about bouncing ideas off a collaborator that can increase creativity and yield improved results.
Finding a collaborator that you resonate with isn’t always easy, but this type of musical relationship can take many forms.
Some songwriters prefer writing music, while others excel at writing lyrics.
Some songwriters love arrangement and structure while others would rather focus on hooks.
Whatever your songwriting style, there’s a collaborator out there that can complement it.
Check out our resources on musical collaboration to dive deeper into how you can get work together with other musicians.
Learn music theory for songwriters
Writing songs takes a bit of knowledge of the fundamentals of music.
I’m talking about basics like chords and progressions, rhythm and form.
These are some of the central topics in music theory.
And while it may seem like music theory is a dry academic subject, it’s actually one of the most direct ways to improve the quality of your work.
The more you understand about how musical elements work, the more creative and empowered you’ll feel while using them.
Luckily, you don’t have to be an academic theorist to get most of the benefits. Even the intro concepts of music theory can be helpful for writing songs.
Check out our guides to getting started with music theory to learn more.
Try songwriting exercises and prompts
Like any skill in music, songwriting can be improved with practice.
But how exactly do you practice writing songs? It’s not quite like warming up on your instrument.
The answer is through songwriting prompts and exercises.
Could you write a song about any subject? It’s an interesting question, especially if you typically write from your own inspiration.
Songwriting exercises give you a specific goal to achieve with a song. Songwriting prompts lay out an approach and challenge you to create something with it.
These practices can take some of the pressure off of step number one.
You may not decide to release material that was created from a songwriting exercise, but you never know! You could stumble onto something that may surprise you using these methods.
Analyze your favorite songs
Which songs move you most deeply?
For many aspiring songwriters, your favorite works are often the starting point for your own songwriting journey.
But how can you emulate greatness without just copying? The answer is to analyze great songs to understand how they work.
You can be informed about the underlying mechanics without copying a song beat for beat.
Musical analysis is another task that will test your theory chops, o but it can be a great way to develop your skills.
Listen closely to a song you love and try to identify these key features:
- The chord progression
- The tempo and meter
- The parts of the song (verse, chorus, bridge,)
- The lyrics and melody
Become a songwriter
Writing a good song is one of the most satisfying feelings as a musician.
It seems tough when you first start, but everyone can do it if they put in some effort to learn the basics.
From fostering inspiration to crafting the final presentation, there are a lot of steps involved in songwriting.
But discovering each one is an exciting part of the creative journey that will help you develop as an artist.
If you’ve made it through this guide you’ll have a great start for writing your first song.
Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.
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