Songwriting 101...


Let's get one thing straight, there is no "One Way" to write music or lyrics.  There are methods that have proven successful and copying them or parts of them can be useful.  Creativity can be flowing like a river or as illusive as a butterfly. 

Most people approach songwriting in the same general way. For those that write music, versus lyric writing only, that process is to go to their instrument and improvise until they stumble upon something that sounds good. They choose to focus only on the "goal of having a completed song" instead of focusing on the wide range of available "processes" to compose music. In other words, these people focus on the "what" (the song they want to write) instead of the "how" (which processes and methods can be used). Once the decision is made to write a new song, they begin with the one process that is easiest and comes most naturally to them - improvising at their instrument.

For the purpose of illustrating the examples below, let us assume your main instrument is electric guitar. Natural pros and cons inherently exist with every songwriting process and method.

While this is a very quick and easy way to get started writing songs, it does have some disadvantages.  Typically there is not much pre-planning or thought, you tend to come up with similar ideas that work easily on guitar so you think like a guitar player and not a musician.  A single songwriting process can be limiting so we will explore a few ways to get the creative juices flowing.

Technology has great resources available to help in the songwriting process.  In fact, I recommend that every songwriter, no matter what your main instrument, have access to midi via a keyboard.  We will explore writing music electronically as  well.

So what comes first, music or lyrics?  As we stated above there is no one way.  Many songs come from teams of lyricists and musicians.  Some songs come from lyrics taken from poems or other literature and put to music.  some songwriters write both the music and the lyrics.  there is no one formula but in this short commentary on songwriting we will look at writing lyrics and music but not necessarily in that order.



Again, there is not a right or wrong way to go about writing lyrics.  Sometimes words may just come to you and a simple song can be created in a short time. However, this is not usually the case.  Songwriters write hundreds of songs to finally get the one that stands apart.  I do recommend a formula when you are searching for inspiration.

  • Start With the Title:  The title is the essence of the song.  It may be the "hook" in the chorus.  Because of this I feel it is important to start with a title.  So how do I come up with a title?  Songwriting must be part of your life to be successful.  Just sitting down for an hour here and there will not produce results.  this is why it is important to carry a notepad or voice recorder with you whenever you can.  A title can come from newspaper or magazine articles, radio or TV, books or something you overheard.  Keep track of anything you read or hear that could be a song title and use this when you sit down for a serious songwriting session.
  • Ask Questions...  Who, What, When, Where, Why. You are telling a story so if the song is about a person you once knew then, when did you meet, what was the attraction, when did it happen, where did it happen and why did you become friends.
  • General Tips

    • Keep it simple. The most popular, catchy tune on the radio is probably the simplest, most oft reproduced melody in the world. But that doesn't stop you from humming it all day, does it? Never forget that when some people hear "a complex, thought-provoking piece", others hear "an over complicated mess."
    • Have confidence. Your song may not be the best in the world, but a gutsy, less talented performer is always more admired than an amazing performer that is too shy to get a single note out.
    • Keep trying. If you don't "figure it out" immediately, that doesn't mean that you never will. If something sounds terrible, try the opposite, or only use the second half of whatever your work on. The key is to keep trying different things until something clicks.
    • Don't get frustrated. If absolutely nothing is clicking, then just come back to it later. Record whatever you have, take a break, and play it again later. The song isn't going anywhere you aren't going, and it'll still be there the next day.
    • "Borrow" someone else's melody. Often the best melody is the one that already exists. The history of music (and any art, really) is checkered with people taking bits and pieces from other artists and adding their own spin to it. However, this doesn't mean you should just copy some famous song and call it your own, because chances are someone else will notice. Other songs should be used as a source of ideas, not something you can photocopy.
    • Ask someone else. You might be stuck in the same rut, but that doesn't mean anyone else is. Ask another musician (or even a regular person) what they think might fit well. Sometimes the advice will be surprising. With this method you have to be careful of copyright issues, especially if you make it big.
    • Turning Chords into Songs

      Often players come up with a catchy riff or two, and they're not sure how to develop it into more. Songs typically are built up in layers; for example, in a band, one guitarists creates a riff, and another adds a catchy lick over top, the bass player brings in something to support it and the drummer keeps time and adds some interesting rhythms. Even though the first guitar part might still be the same, it is ultimately the contribution of the other parts that turns a few chords into a song.

      The most important thing to remember when writing a song is that very little sounds good completely on it's own, and generally it requires at least more than one part to make things interesting. There are many ways to add a second part to a song. For instance, some players (especially those that can finger pick) can simultaneously play a bass line on the thicker strings and a melody on the thin strings. Really complicated riffs can also sound good on their own, however these tend to be difficult to write and you may not have enough technical skill for complicated writing.

      Another player can also add depth to a riff. For example, a bass player can add another sound texture, and having two players allow them to bounce melodies off one another. The song Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance is a good example of how two players can create an interesting, purely instrumental song.

      But if none of these options are available to you, or perhaps you only like to compose songs alone, there is always one other layer you can add to any progression; your voice. Amazing singing can turn even the simplest progression into a groundbreaking song
    • Creating Melodies and Hooks

      The main melody, often called the "hook" in popular, radio friendly music, is the catchy, often repeated words and melody that makes the song most memorable. In most songs, especially modern music, the hook is contained somewhere in the chorus. However, this is not always true, as some songs use hooks in the verses, or put hooks in both the verse and chorus.

      In general, it is much easier to put words to a melody, rather than a melody to some words. Words tend to have their own syncopation, and this can make it tough to make them fit with an irregular strumming pattern. Already having words is also tough because generally the author does not want to change them.

      There are certain cases where putting music to words is a better option. For instance, a rhyming poem or free verse with a regular meter can easily be made a song. Simple chord progressions lend themselves well to these sorts , especially the I - IV - V and IV - V - I.

      Often when you are creating a song, a chord progression comes easily, but it is tough to figure out what goes over top. Even if it seems difficult, there are many ways to make things easier for yourself.

      • Record a chord progression, then play it back and try to hum or whistle a melody over top. Often this is enough to get things started and get you unstuck. You can accomplish the same thing by just playing the progression over and over again, but it takes a surprising amount of coordination to play a new riff and spontaneously invent a melody.
      • Record a chord progression, and then try to solo on top of it. This is similar to the first method, but actually using the fretboard can help you figure out what notes work best.
      • Isolate a particular part of the progression and repeat it over and over until you come up with some sort of start. it is best to use at least two chord changes, because just strumming the same chord all the time is uninteresting, and it tends to make coming up with a melody even more difficult.

      Another approach is to begin with a melody form, and then put chords behind it to turn it into a song. This may be more challenging, especially if you already have a chord progression you really enjoy, but sometimes approaching a problem from a different angle can make things easier overall.

      For instance, in the well known 'Danny Boy' or 'Derry Air' as it is sometimes called, the 'hook' is found where the melody appears to try to surge forward into the chorus and the words "But come ye back" accompany that surge in chord progression.

    • Use a Method

      It is recommended that you work following some simple procedures instead of just trying to come up with something remarkable from scratch. Here are some guidelines on how to work step by step in order to be more efficient.

      • Choose or come up with a scale for the song before you start working on it. Although experienced guitarists might be able to follow a scale subconsciously, thus skipping this step, it is better for beginners to use a scale so as to avoid inconsistencies and to set a mood for the piece. Keep experimenting with scales until you find one that suits the tone you want to give and then start working on the song. Note that you can change scales for different parts of the song, what you shouldn't do is change scale in the middle of a single riff or melody. Also keep in mind that when you are more confident with your guitar you can break away from the scale and use notes not included in it, but the best way to work is to play along the predefined scale and play an odd note only when you want to add a different tone. This usually results in a more original melody, but is hard and might result in sounding like random notes if not used properly.
      • Keep in mind the desired result. You won't get a very good result by simply coming up with random riffs. You must always focus on what you want to create. For example, you might want to create a complicated, original riff for the intro to attract the listener's attention or you might prefer a more melodic but less memorable intro. Either way, you must always have the goal in mind instead of composing aimlessly and keeping the riffs that sound good. This way you won't end up with a style you didn't intend to create.
      • Start simple. If, for example you want a a complex riff you should start with a very simple melody and then modify it gradually, by expanding it, for example, or altering the rhythm, until you get the desired result. This will not always give better results, but it's easy for beginners.
    • Random Thoughts on Songwriting

Authors and Musicians...
I have had some people tell me that composing music is easy, and that anyone can do it. Yes, anyone can do it, but few can really do it. Writing a song is much like being an author. Yes, we all have tools to write (everyone has a brain I hope!), but that doesn’t all of a sudden make us best selling authors. Authors work at their abilities, often every day. The prime goal of an author is the same as a musician, which is to emotionally connect with the reader in some way or another. Writers do this by using motivation, chararacterization, and powerful word combinations among other things. Composers, like authors, have a lot in common. Our main goal is to connect with the listener emotionally.

This is where our first tip comes into play: Never stop working at your abilities. If our main goal is to connect emotionally, we should want to have as many tools as we possibly can to achieve that goal. The more abilities that we have, the more choices we can make musically. It’s important to have a wide arsenal of choices at your disposal, because if we keep doing the same ‘tried and true’ methods, their emotional effects will wear off as the songwriting becomes caged into a predictable movement.

Who are you writing your music for? Know your goal.
The reason why you need to know this is because when you make music for yourself, there is no limit to what you can do to be ‘expressive’. If you are making music for other people, you will have to be aware of how people relate to it. It is like this: when you are a computer genius and you want to tell someone how to fix their computer, you have to speak in their terms so they can understand what the heck you are saying. If you speak in your lingo, you will most likely lose them in techno-talk. Another example is the author. He can write a story with the largest, most sweeping words he knows- but if the reader does not know what those words mean, the entire meaning gets lost.

We, as musicians, face the same predicament. Overcomplicated songs will lose the average listener. Now, other hardcore musicians will greatly appreciate your abilities and probably get more feeling from it- but the common person will most likely not be able to follow. Once again you should ask yourself when you write a song: Who am I making this music for and will they be able to relate?

Scratching in the dirt
Minds are like flowers. If you let it sit there without soaking anything up, it will dry up. Not to say that you can’t invigorate your mind again, but it is saying that it is harder to do so. Just like weight lifting. If you haven’t worked out in awhile, it is quite hard to lift as much as you did when you were lifting every day. So this is my first suggestion. Practice. I’m not talking about technical ability this time (although you should practice that too!). I’m saying that you should practice making new songs. Make a goal to make 1 new song every week, even if it is only 50 seconds long. It is the fact that you are working your brain out. Once you begin the song, you can latch onto ideas rather quickly. That is not the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to get your brain to find new avenues by exploring different ideas. It’s about trying something new every time.

Music vs. Robots
Music is an art form. It is a way to wordlessly communicate. There are computer programs that are designed to ‘make songs’ on the fly. How much do you think that communicates? Please don’t be a robot! Don’t give in and throw in random notes that fit in a scale just to fill a passage. Make a reason for why every part of your song exists. Find parts in your lead passage that really hook you. Now delete all the other parts. Now build off of the hook. Get it? Computers cannot find hooks, but your ear can. If you can’t feel anything interesting from a part, get rid of it. Unless of course you want to have a “boring” part to build into something grand! There’s a nice strategy.

The song’s opinion is better than yours! Nyah!
When you think in the best interests in the song, you may have to rid yourself some very good ideas that you wanted to do. I have come up with very creative ideas that really didn’t work with the song I was currently composing. Don’t mess up your song by trying to fit it in! If you can fit it in and it feels right to put it there- good shot! If it doesn’t- well then you have an idea for your next song to go! Remember, the song’s opinion is better than yours!

Oh, here is a good one. Just because you got a new toy, does not mean every song needs to have it! There, I said it. Just because you get a wah-wah pedal for your guitar, now every song you make after that needs to have a wah-wah?? I think not! Think about what the song needs not what you want. The both of you might have varying opinions. When you make the music bigger than you are, then you’ll understand what I mean- it tends to have a mind of its own.

Where does inspiration come from?
Quite often when I write a song, I think back to a moment in my life. I use what has happened in my life as an inspiration to make music. The more I do in my life, the more I can write music about- new experiences. Sometimes just getting out of the house and doing something you haven’t done in a long time (or never done!) can open up the doors to musical inspiration. Open up a photo album, read old letters, visit family, friends, go do an activity, do anything but music! Read poetry, watch ballet, go see a movie, walk around in a museum, look at oil paintings and sculptures- these are all different forms of art. Music is an art form too. Sometimes other forms of art can be inspiring to the musician. Come back, after your mind has been freed, and try to write a song about it.

Oops I made an accident.. er- no I didn’t!
Once we begin a song, our minds begin to formulate where to go next, and most of the time- we excitedly travel down the road. Throughout the excitement, we can make good mistakes. We hit the wrong key, and all of a sudden, our mind is opened to a new avenue. Mistakes can be good things, because it is an unexpected thing. I think the best music sounds familiar enough to know where it is going, but unpredictable enough to avoid musical clichés!

Sometimes I will click on a random sequence of notes- not to actually use it in a song, but to see if I can find maybe a simple pattern that I can build off of. About 95% of the time, I just hear musical mush that I can’t use. The other 4% it is good stuff, and 1% of it is amazing! Accidents can be good things. Remember that. If you don’t have an inspiration, sometimes just ‘playing around’ is a good answer!

I like it, but what do you think???
Let me start by saying that your friends and family members will most likely be very biased about your music. Ask them what they think if you want a self-esteem booster. I take compliments more to heart from strangers who like my music. The most important thing is that you like the music. Will others like it as well? Maybe, maybe not. If they offer suggestions, consider them... There is no right or wrong way to write a song. There are only songs that people can and can’t relate to. And I’m sure that almost any song that was ever made could probably relate to at least 1 other person in this world.

Catchy phrases for lyrics
If you’re planning on writing lyrics, then I offer you this suggestion: Use words that people use everyday. Why? Because if those same words are used in just an everyday conversation, it will remind that listener of your song. For instance, if I said “I was outside last night and saw a twinkle twinkle little star”, immediately that song pops into your mind. Of course no one would talk like that, so if you mold your song around an everyday phrase, then it will remind people of your song easier. Just think of Staind, “It’s been awhile”. Every time someone says that phrase it reminds me of that song.

Be healthy. Eat, sleep and exercise regularly as part of your daily routine.
Strange to think how proper sleep, exercise and food come into play, but it can. Just think of this: Food is your body’s fuel. Without fuel, your body wants to shut down. That is why people who aren’t healthy are tired more often. When you’re in shape, your metabolism will rise giving you an extra supply of energy that you can use to focus onto music or whatever. Does that mean that if you’re out of shape and not eating right that you can’t make good music? Of course not! But what I am saying is that if you do choose to eat right and get in shape, it will help you keep your focus and energy for a longer period of time. I can’t stress enough how different one feels when they choose to get in shape, but it really helps you psychologically, mentally and physically.

Building a hook.
Some of the most powerful hooks are derived from taking a simple melody and modifying it ever so slightly. Why does that make it powerful? Hooks need to be predictable and not predictable at the same time. If there is a degree of predictability then the listener will be able to relate to the song more quickly. For instance, how many of you have said in your mind, “that would be so cool if this song did this...” and then the song took the same direction you wanted it to go. Immediate satisfaction.

If you twist it a little bit, then the song will have its unique identity that separates it from the traditional cliché of many hooks. People have heard different artists use the exact same musical hooks and patterns, and if there is no unique twist then you will hear something like, “they copied (fill in the blank)’s song. Sounds just like it but with different words.” You will most likely want your song to have its own identity.

Have fun
Have fun!? What kind of topic!? Guess what. People don’t have fun making music all the time. It’s really sad. If you don’t believe me, think about all the people who have been upset because of something their band did to them. Revert to the very beginning, when you first realized that you loved to create music... and have fun!