1. Songwriting

How To Write A Song: The Beginner’s Guide

You might be part of a cover band…

Perhaps you’re an author…

Or just an individual with a vivid imagination…

One day you wake up, take a deep breath and feel so inspired to be musical that you decide to write your very own song.

You’ve prepped a hot beverage, grabbed a pen and paper, got comfy and…

*hesitant pause*

Nothing…

You’ve got loads of ideas, but how do you translate them into a song which usually has less than 250 words?

In today’s post, we’ve broken down the most common parts of songwriting to help you understand how to go about each part productively without hindering your creativity.

Let’s get started…

Part 1 – Writing your lyrics

We’ll start off with lyrics as it is probably the most common place songwriters begin, so let’s continue with our beverage (don’t let it go cold if it’s hot) and begin crafting our song.

The story

If you’ve already got dozens of ideas for songs, open up a spreadsheet and make a note of each one. You never know when creativity may strike, so having a database of song ideas is incredibly handy.

I’d like you to pick one of your ideas. It could be an idea of going to your dream location and sunbathing, getting lost in a spooky forest, or falling in love with the man/woman of your dreams. Our next task is to expand on this idea with a mini blurb or summary (a few sentences will do); so if for example my idea was getting lost in a spooky forest I could write:

It was Halloween and I decided to take a shortcut back from work through a forest. It was late at night, there were no lights and there were a lot of creepy noises and movement in the bushes. I got scared and ran home as fast as I could.

Even though this summary is simple, I can pick out parts of it to emphasis in my song such as: it being Halloween, it being night-time, hearing creepy noises and seeing movement. All these parts can be used as inspiration or elaborated on in my lyrics.

Note: Don’t worry if you can’t think of any stories at the moment. Check out this post on 30 Topic Ideas For Songwriting if you need a little helping hand.

The structure

Our next step once we’ve got a summary of the plot is to break it down into individual sections, you may be familiar with the terms: verse, chorus, bridge, pre-chorus; these form the structure of a song.

Verse

You’ll usually have 2 verses per song, each with different lyrics and focusing on a different part of your story.

Verse 1 is where the story begins, it’s your opening scene and introduces the listener to your story. Verse 2 takes the story further by either changing the scenario, the character you’re focusing on, the portrayed emotion, or even the time-frame of the story.

In our example we could have:

  • Verse 1 – Finishing work late and deciding to take a shortcut through the forest because you don’t want to be late for the Halloween party.
  • Verse 2 – Regret on the decision of choosing to go through the forest so you decide to ring a friend but you have no phone signal.

Verses tend to be structured in clusters of 4 lines, of which there are usually 2 clusters but sometimes one will suffice if the line length is long.

Chorus

Most songwriters will agree that this is where they spend most of their time, perfecting their chorus. The chorus is usually the most catchiest part of your song, as it’s repeated 2-4 times throughout.

The chorus is the pivotal part of your story, the main focus which each other section of the song directly connects to. For example in our spooky walk home through a forest example story above, my pivotal part of the story could be running through a dark, unlit forest, scared out of mind.

Choruses tend to vary in structure, therefore can appear as a cluster of 4+ lines, but be as little as one. It depends on the message you’re conveying, but because choruses are simple and repetitive, they’re usually short rather than long.

Bridge

The bridge of your song, aka. ‘middle 8’ is the potential game changer part. A bridge is usually the peak, the climactic part of the song where either all hell breaks loose, or the pieces fit together perfectly. Depending on how your story ends, only you can decide how you may utilize this section.

In our example we could have the climax as:

  • Running fast and finally seeing a street light, knowing the forest is coming to an end and you’re safe
  • Everything looking familiar, the footpath disappearing, fog approaching and realising you’re completely lost

Bridges usually appear in clusters of 4 lines, but can be as little as one or two. Your bridge can also sometimes follow the same pattern as your pre-chorus or act as a 3rd verse.

Pre-chorus

Not all songs utilize this section, so don’t feel bound to always write a pre-chorus for your songs. Pre-chorus’s are best described as a small section before you reach the chorus to add anticipation, or perhaps change the dynamics and prepare the listener for the chorus.

With our example chorus focusing on running and feeling scared, we could use the pre-chorus as a teaser prior to running such as: hearing creepy noises making your heart pound with fear so you RUN!

Pre-choruses are usually short, ranging from 1 to 4 lines.

Here we have a guideline on how the average song is structured:

  • Verse 1
  • Chorus
  • Verse 2
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

Rhyming

To make your songs memorable to the listener, rhyming is an essential (though sometimes not necessary) part of songwriting.

The two most common types of rhymes are: alternate rhymes and rhyming couplets.

Alternate rhymes are structured like this – ABAB, for example:

  • I love you (A)
  • I’ll be with you forever (B)
  • You love me too (A)
  • Let’s reach the stars together (B)

Corney yes, but you get the idea!

Rhyming couplets as the name suggests, rhyme in pairs with the consecutive line – AABB, for example:

  • I love you (A)
  • You love me too (A)
  • I’ll be with you forever (B)
  • Let’s reach the stars together (B)

As you can see, each letter rhymes, therefore all the A’s rhymes, and all the B’s rhyme.

You don’t have to stick to these common rhyming schemes, you can get incredibly creative with your rhymes, such as:

  • ABCABC
  • AABAAB
  • ABBA
  • -A-A
  • -AA-BB

The possibilities are endless, but if this is your first song, or you’ve written less than 10 songs in the past, keeping it simple is best practice until you find your feet.

Example rhyming structure

In the example below we have each verse and the bridge using the same rhyming scheme, alternates. Pre-chorus is using a single set of rhyming couplets. Lastly, the chorus has a pair of rhyming couplets followed by an extra single line which will rhyme when the section is repeated.

  • Verse 1, 2 & bridge – ABAB
  • Pre-chorus – CC
  • Chorus – DDEEF x2

So now we’ve been through your story, structure and rhyming take some time to write about the first draft of your song.

Part 1 - Writing your lyrics
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Note: Struggling to write lyrics? Check out this post on: 11 Songwriting Tips To Help You Write Better Lyrics.

Once you’re ready, let’s move onto part 2.

Part 2 – Figuring out an ideal chord progression

Congrats on writing your lyrics to your first or next song. The next step in the songwriting process is finding an ideal music scale to craft a chord progression to, then subsequently your vocal melody.

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with music theory, you may find crafting your chord progression, as well as your melody difficult. Understanding the fundamental basics will take you very far. Check out this Beginner’s Guide To Basic Music Theory, which covers music scales, as well as chords and chord progressions.

Music scale

Now you’re up to date with the basics, first thing to figure out is an ideal music scale. This is relatively easy, as there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Major scales tend to be happier, and minor scales tend to be sadder; but don’t let this restrict you because different chords and combinations can easily change the mood of that scale.

If you’re a beginner guitarist or pianist, using scales C and G or their relative minors are the easiest, especially if you plan on performing or recording chords with an instrument.

From our example earlier, we could use Ab major because the scale naturally sounds haunting, but then we also have Eb minor whose scale naturally sounds fearful and anxious. Both fitting with the feel of example story of walking through a creep forest at night.

So, sit down and listen to each scale and listen to which one resonates more with you. Which one makes you go ‘ooooo that one!’

Chords

Once you have your scale, what do you do with it? For most songs, our next phrase is to put together the ideal chords in a pattern which expresses the emotional progression of the song, this is a chord progression.

Chords come in all shapes and sizes: major, minor, augmented, diminished, suspended, fifth, sixth, seventh and many more. If this is your first song then sticking to major and minor chords alone from a given scale is the simplest way to find your chords and craft your chord progression without other thinking the process.

The majority of songs have between 3-5 chords throughout, which usually come in 2 different chord progressions; one for the verse and the other for the chorus.

Let’s say we have chosen Eb minor as our scale, these are our basic major and minor chords to choose from:

  • Eb minor
  • F diminished
  • Gb major
  • Ab minor
  • Bb minor
  • Cb major
  • Db major

I could use just these chords for my song: Eb minor, Ab minor, Bb minor and Cb major, and create 2 different sequences.

Common chord progressions

The easiest way to decide what order to place your chords is by choosing a commonly used chord progression.

The most common chord progressions are:

  • I-VI-iv-V (1-6-4-5)
  • I-V-VI-iv (1-5-6-4)
  • I-iv-V (1-4-5)

From our Eb minor scale, our chord progression could be:

  • Verse – Eb minor, Cb major, Ab minor and Bb minor (1-6-4-5)
  • Chorus – Eb minor, Ab minor and Bb minor (1-4-5)

It’s your turn to craft your chord progression from the music scale you decided on earlier. Once you’ve done that, head on over to part 3 which is writing your vocal melody.

Part 2 - An ideal chord progression
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Part 3 – Working on your vocal melody

You’ve worked hard crafting your lyrics and your rhymes, now we need to put music notes to each syllable and complete your song.

The music scale you’ve chosen, holds the music notes you’ll use for your vocal melody, in our example of Eb minor we’ve got: Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb and Db.

Your vocal melody is the only part which, if you plan on performing it, has to be designed with your voice in mind. If you can’t sing a particular note, it’s silly to use it in your vocal melody.

Vocal rhythm and range

When you have a script of words in front of you, it’s hard to visual what notes you want to use. So first, try figuring out a natural rhythm by speaking your lyrics out loud, almost like your rapping your lyrics.

Another thing to consider is your vocal range. Not all of us have a 4 octave range, and even the most talented singers only have a range of just over 2 octaves, so don’t fret if your range is limited. Sometimes it’s how you express your words that gives the song it’s impact, rather than the note you’re singing.

Melodic phrases

Your vocal melody is designed by combining several melodic phrases. These are a group of music notes which form a musical idea, these usually attach themselves to your lines of lyrics.

Here we have the corney lyrics from part 1:

  • I love you (A)
  • You love me too (A)
  • I’ll be with you forever (B)
  • Let’s reach the stars together (B)

The two A lines could be one melodic phrase, then the two B lines could be another melodic phrase, different from the first.

The great thing about the structure of a song is that we have 2 verses, both which usually contain the same melodic phrases. So when you craft your melody for your first verse, it is very common to use it again for the 2nd.

Vocal melody and your chords

Your vocal melody and your chord progression have to work in harmony for it to sound pleasing to the listener (unless you intentionally want it to sound bad). This means that when you play a particular chord, the majority of the notes in your vocal melody for this section (usually the ones that fall on the beat) will align with the notes in your chord.

For example, if we were to play an Eb minor chord for 4 beats, on each beat we would try and use a note from that chord – Eb, Gb or Bb.

Another method that some musicians do is when transitioning to a new chord, the first note in the vocal melody would be one from the new chord. This method means there is less limitation on the notes you can use in that section, however be aware that it may not sound as harmonious.

Varying your notes throughout your song

An excellent approach to take when crafting your melody is understanding the emotional highs and lows of the lyrics.

If the lyrics show a growing feeling that’s about to burst, then having your melody slowly go up the scale to a peak can have this effect on your listeners. Having your notes slowly descending can have the opposite effect.

If the lyrics are happy and joyful then going slightly up and down the scale like a small continuous wave, can be very effective in creating a lullaby sound.

Experiment with your notes and see which combinations give you the feeling you want.

Vocal dynamics

What we can do with our vocal chords can be incredibly broad, ranging from singing, whispering, growling and even impersonating accents. Another useful tool is understanding how the dynamics of your voice can impact how the lyrics are portrayed to the listener.

Shout a lyric line, it can come across powerful and demanding. Whisper a lyric line it can come across soft and sweet. Use the dynamics in your voice to accurately portray the lyrics, but also to keep the listener engaged. If your verse is soft and quiet, gain a little volume in the pre-chorus so you’re ready to belt out the chorus.

Part 3 - Your vocal melody
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Note: Struggling to craft a melody? Check out this post on: 11 Songwriting Tips To Help You Craft The Perfect Melody.

Part 4 – Putting it all together

Congrats! We have our lyrics, chords and melody all ready and prepped. That means we done and dusted, right?

Not necessarily.

For many, this process is all about gathering together a rough draft of a masterpiece. Now is the time to review your work, refine the details and make it better.

So, before you go ahead and announce your new song to the World consider these questions:

Do I need to revise or improve any sections of my new song?

Perhaps your chorus a little wordy and you feel it’s a little overwhelming for the listener, or maybe you’ve realised you’ve put waaaay to many cliches in your song so it sounds kind of embarrassing. Therefore, you may need to consider rewriting some of your lyrics.

Does the melody and rhythm flow throughout the song?

Sometimes when we treat verses and choruses as separate entities, they don’t end up flowing naturally together in a song. This can be resolved by slightly altering the melody, or adding in a pre-chorus to adjust the flow.

It’s great vocalising your lyrics to find a natural rhythm, but when we add notes they have to flow with the rhythm. A song which notes jump all over the place can lead the listener to feeling confused, and also not enjoy the song.

Do you need any other instruments?

If you’re planning on just having yourself and a guitar or piano then you probably won’t need to consider any other instruments. However, if you’re in a band with others, then you’ll need to work on perhaps drums, bass and any other instruments you fancy such as synths and strings etc.

In addition, if you’re planning on trying to make a name for yourself or your band, then you’ll need to delve into sound design, to make your tone or your style stand out from the rest.

Song title

Do you have a song title? I know it may feel strange leaving this to last, but a song title is best generated once you have the completed picture. But there’s no harm in being inspired by a phrase, and using it as a song title before you’ve written any lyrics.

The most common way to find a song title is by using the ‘hook’ or a repeated phrase throughout the song (usually in the chorus) for your song title.

Part 4 - Putting it all together
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To summarize

Thanks for making it this far down the post. Let’s briefly summarize each part:

Part 1 – Writing your lyrics

Having a brief story outlined before you delve into your lyrics is beneficial so you know you’re keeping your lyrics relevant and not going off track.

The typical song has the structure of – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge and chorus.

Don’t forget your rhymes, as it’s an essential part of songwriting. The most common rhyming schemes are alternates rhymes ABAB, and rhyming couplets AABB.

Part 2 – Figuring out an ideal chord progression

Once you have your lyrics, your next step is to find the ideal music scale to craft your chord progression.

Sticking to 3-5 basic major and minor chords is the easiest, especially if you’re new to writing your own music.

The most common chord progressions involve the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th chords.

Part 3 – Working on your vocal melody

Your vocal melody has to be designed with your voice in mind, and your capabilities.

To start, speak your lyrics and figure out a natural rhythm, once you’ve achieved this, add melodic phrases to lyric lines or groups of lyrics lines and repeat them throughout.

Verses are usually the same melodically.

Your vocal melody and chords has to sound harmonious together, this can be achieved by using notes from the chord at the beginning of the transition or on each beat.

To keep the listener engaged, vary your vocal dynamics throughout the song to accurately portray the lyrics.

Part 4 – Putting it all together

Now the majority of the song has been written it’s time to review your work and make any changes you feel are necessary.

You’ll need to consider the flow of the song such as transitions between sections (verse to chorus).

If you’re in a band you may need to think about drums and bass guitar, plus any other instruments such as strings or synths.

Lastly, a song title which is commonly generated by using the ‘hook’ or a repeated phrase throughout the song, usually from the chorus.

Over to you

I hope you’ve created something amazing whilst going this guide on how to write your first song. But don’t stop there, practice makes perfect and when creativity strikes you’ll want to write more and more.

Good luck and get creating!

Related reading: 23 Easy Guitar Chords That Every Beginner Should Learn.

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