Writing songs can be natural for certain people and be a veritable headache for others. But the most important in the process is having fun, after all! So relax and take your time to come up with THE idea by getting creative spark from our article. It will uncover for you, first of all, what is considered a song. And break down the song’s creative process into 5 simple steps, from the idea to the structure, melody, lyrics and chords.
This post is all about how to write a song.
What is a song?
Let’s break this down! Is it a song if you hum a random melody in the car? Is it a song if you jot down lyrics on a napkin in the bus? When we’re trying to write a song, we should first define what a song consists of and, secondly, what makes a great song.
I’m not saying good song, but a great song that sticks in people’s lives and playlists for years! The best song: Happy Birthday, of course! The most sung and played music of all time! How did this song get so huge? It became attached to an event happening in everyone’s lives each year! If you can write an anthem, even just one, you are set for life! Olé Olé Olé Olé has become an epic sports and party anthem! Frosty the Snowman, Merry Christmas, etc. We can call those event songs, which last hundreds of years.
But let’s get into generation-changing pieces. Billie Jean, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Rocketman, Every Breath You Take, Stan, Lose Yourself, Wonderwall, etc. A music pattern or phrasing becomes a song when it is remembered. Once a piece of music is written down, recorded or passed to someone else and remembered, it is now a song. Once it can be repeated in any form, it is now a song!
These songs have attached themselves to generations. When Smells Like Teen Spirit came out, they said the generation of the 90s started. These songs define an artist or band and solidify them into history forever!
How do you write a song like this? How do you change people’s lives? You convey an emotion!
Step 1 – Conveying An Emotion: Your Song Idea
What is a failure of a song? A song that makes you feel nothing!
A song may begin in any way, and every artist has their own process. When I was recording my latest album, my brain was on some sort of auto-pilot mode to get melodies and ideas down into my phone saved under ideas. It may have been the tail end of another song I heard out the window of a passing car distorted with a honk, giving me a melody stuck in my head. That idea would then have notes added to it and become the chorus of a new song.
Some people like pulling out their guitar and strumming chords to then write vocal melodies on top. Others start with lyrics and then figure out what type of song they want to make.
I suggest you watch the movie Rocketman (the life story of Elton John). There is a section on song creation. Elton was initially a pianist in another band who could improvise on the piano like no other but had no song or lyrics. The record label paired him up with a lyric writer named Bernie Taupin. They became known as the most iconic songwriting duo of all time. Elton explained that the lyrics were sent to him in the mail, and he could compose the music and vocal melody within minutes of receiving them. What in the world was Alligator Rock? He must have thought to himself upon receiving those lyrics!
Ultimately in this section, your goal is figuring out the feeling behind the song and finding your starting point, whatever it is in your style.
Step 2 – Song Structure
Depending on the era you live in and the genre of your song, the structure may immensely vary.
Songs in the Beach Boys era were short & sweet, under 2 minutes, layered with a chorus. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, as Dave Grohl famously stated.
Pink Floyd songs could be 8 minutes long, and The Dire Straits’ live version of The Sultans of Swing could last 10 minutes while keeping our attention. Old School Hip-Hop songs could have 8 artists on them, carrying the songs well into 6 verses while staying captivating.
What genre of song are you looking to make? Generally, songs in our era of a Pop Popular structure are between 3 to 4 minutes in length and follow one of two structures:
A: Intro-First Verse-Chorus-Second Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus
B: Intro-Chorus-First Verse-Chorus-Second Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus
Guitar or Piano solos are often added, extending sections. In my opinion, once you get the chorus solid and catchy, as long as you don’t mess up the verses, you’re golden!
Other technical aspects to consider are the Key and Tempo of your song. The key will usually follow your vocal range, so you may sing the low and high notes comfortably, while the tempo (BPM or Beats Per Minute) will determine how fast your song will go to match your desired speed and emotion.
Step 3 – Song Melody
The pinnacle of your song is the melody! It’s the part everyone remembers and will hum walking away. How do we now tell a story with a melody without lyrics? We need dynamics and emotion!
The song dynamics
What are dynamics? These are the highs and lows. As in life, we go through highs and lows, which is the story of our lives. If life were always the same, it would get pretty boring. For sure, we wouldn’t have any lows, though!
My piano teacher taught me this concept when I was learning at just five years old. She would have me start the song really slow and quietly to get people in the mood. I would then be asked to slowly pick up the pace in the middle of the verse and play a bit louder. And remember, we are just using a piano at that time, so I had no lyrics to use to increase the intensity verbally.
Now getting into the chorus, we have two options. Do we gradually pick up the intensity to grow into a huge high chorus, or do we drift down a bit and get quiet in the pre-chorus so that the chorus really comes in with a bang? This question is up to you, as long as you do something! Listen to your demo recordings and compare different options to decide what is best for you!
An important part of the song to consider is the bridge! What is the bridge? It’s exactly what the word is: it connects two somethings. In this case, connecting the last two choruses. What should the bridge be, though?
We want to switch up emotions or create a doubt that something is wrong, a sort of tension that will be released when the chorus comes back. Usually, in pop songs, this is just the same words repeated over and over; which I find a bit lazily done sometimes, so try to make it interesting. Could you bring in doubt with the lyrics? Could you change the chords or chord progression, bringing in an off feeling?
A trick would be to add into a minor chord or bring in a new instrument! Sometimes we can do this in the editing stage by adjusting the frequencies, for example, giving an underwater effect by cutting the high frequencies on the instruments.
Step 4 – Song Lyrics
I may be opening up a can of worms here, but the lyrics mean everything and nothing at all. Some huge artists have stated in the past that the lyrics just need to sound good phonetically over the chosen melody and that they don’t even matter and are open to interpretation by the listener.
When random words put together make a great song
Kurt Cobain, the legend of Nirvana, would sometimes make up random words in the recording session, and they would end up on the final record. The famous Smells Like Teen Spirit song finishes with A mulatto, an albino. A mosquito, my libido.
What do these famous lyrics mean? There are hundreds of theories on Google, and I have written a University paper on him and his songs in an English class. But the point is: no one knows, and everyone keeps discussing them 20 years+ later! One thing to note, not all your lyrics can be randomly made up words, just in a certain spot.
Telling a real story
Lyrics usually start from a feeling as a starting point. Some artists write super literally and are great storytellers. They take an event in their lives and break it down with lyrics event step by event step. If the song is about the birth of a child, the lyrics may go I got in the red pickup with your mom, and we drove down Maple Street towards the hospital. The fog and the streetlights blended, creating an ethereal feeling…
These would be storytelling lyrics, where you break down the whole event you want to discuss with true colours, names, places, actions etc. Everything in the song is true and from the heart. Many of my albums have been written like this.
Imagining a story and creating mystery
Some other songwriters like to make up stories in their minds, bend the truth and make up worlds. Another artist Owl City is known for his imaginative lyrics and titles. For example, A grass blade flashed with a gleam as it slashed open the moonbeam. What does he mean? The words sound good together and have you wonder and create imagery in your mind.
Your songwriting structure may change over time. If you’re writing a song about someone who knows you and listens to your songs, you may wish to use actual events but change the names and location names, for example.
Or go a bit more mysterious with your lyrics. Instead of calling him or her by name, you may call him/her or you. Many faith-based religious songs use this trick to stay on mainstream radio. They would use the lyrics You are my saviour rather than God is my saviour. This would avoid pushing any faith-based lyrics onto others. This would leave the song open for the listener’s interpretation. You could be a mother, father, friend or God. The listener will feel that your lyrics speak to them, and they can relate. Once a listener relates, you have them in your fanbase!
Rhyming or not?
Getting into the question about rhyming, do lyrics need to rhyme? I’d suggest and state that most of the time, yes. A main issue to avoid is what I call thesaurus or dictionary rhyming. This is when an artist basically takes 4 words right out of the thesaurus and creates lyrics to make all the lyrics fit together, and they end up sounding mechanical a bit and almost done by a computer. Try to come up with the words yourself, but I use these tools for help. Sometimes you may find words that rhyme very closely, such as orange, door hinge and porridge, that you may not think of on your own, but find the suggestions with the tools. A terrible example of lyrics structure would be rhyming:
I have a hat
I bought a bat
I saw a cat
Sitting on a mat
We can all tell there was no thought into this; the artist was just reading down the thesaurus column.
Use metaphors and thought-provoking sentences
I also love thinking about mixing metaphors or thought-provoking sentences. One lyric I love is You’re always here, but never around. What could this mean? The person is physically present, but their mind is elsewhere or the other way around? The person has passed away and is always haunting our mind? It may mean something different each time you listen through or may change as you evolve in your life, like watching a movie 10 years later and catching different meanings.
A paragraph of though-provoking lyrics I also love is:
You may tire of me as our December sun is setting ’cause I’m not who I used to be
No longer easy on the eyes but these wrinkles masterfully disguise the youthful boy below
Who turned your way and saw something he was not looking for
Both a beginning and an end
But now he lives inside someone he does not recognize when he catches his reflection on accident
How better to sum up the journey through life and aging? This was written by Ben Gibbard, the lead singer and writer of Death Cab For Cutie. That feeling of the inevitable aging process and how wrinkles can hide our youthful mind being trapped in our bodies that come onto us a surprise one day, living inside someone we no longer recognize. I always strive to write lyrics this good.
In summary, take a feeling and have fun. Take your time using metaphors, and similarities and create a universe around your ideas, come back, tweak and keep adjusting!
Step 5 – Song Chords & Chord Progressions
Under every song’s bells and whistles is the foundation we call Chord Progression. These are the order of the chords that can be played on guitar, piano, or any instrument. This is how we have those YouTube videos of the same song played in many genres: the genre is just the tone and fluff of the instruments. The same chord could be played on an acoustic guitar or a distorted electric guitar giving it two different feelings!
A trick you can use in building your songs is to find the chord progression of other hit songs you love and make yours in a similar order or fashion. Chord progressions aren’t copyrighted, and most pop songs follow the same chord progressions, such as the famous C D G EM variation! You can strum these chords, hum melodies, and glue your lyrics on top! Feeling stuck in songwriting? Change instruments! This may bring a fresh perspective to your writing. You could try different guitar tunings, such as Drop D (which is lowering your fat E string to a D).
If there is one key takeaway, it’s that the songwriting process is something super fun! There is no wrong way of doing it, and so many ways songwriters come up with their own song. So have fun! And once your writing process is over, it will be time to go record your entire song in a recording studio!
This post was all about how to write a song.