Illustration: Nhung Lê
Have you ever wanted to learn how to write a song?
Ask any number of accomplished songwriters how they do it, and they’ll likely all tell you something completely different. This is because there’s no single correct way when it comes to how to write a song; like any creative process, it varies greatly from one artist to another.
If you’re just getting started with songwriting, the best thing you can do is simply write as many songs as you can. Somewhere along the way, you’ll figure out what works for you, what steps you like to take, and what gets your creative juices flowing.
That being said, if you’re completely lost and aren’t even sure where to start, we’ve put together seven simple steps for making a song that you can follow. Use them as a starting point—try writing a few songs using this process and you’ll quickly be able to tell whether it’s working for you or if you need to adapt it to fit your own unique style.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at how to write a song with these seven steps:
- Gather ideas for your song
- Play around with the building blocks
- Finalize a theme and structure
- Fill in the blanks in your songwriting
- Note down any musical ideas
- Edit your song
- Finish the song
1. Gather ideas for your song
Every great song starts with an idea. This may be a title, a concept, a lyric, or a melodic phrase.
Though you’ll sometimes want to sit down and intentionally brainstorm ideas, many songwriters share that their best ideas seem to emerge when they least expect them—in the middle of a conversation, while doing the dishes, or in the shower, for example.
Ideas can come from anywhere—something you hear, read, see, remember, or experience. They can come from other songs, movies, books, works of art, or conversations.
The key is to always be ready to record the idea when it strikes you. Keep a notebook with you at all times or use a notes app on your phone for song titles or lyrics. If you have a melody in mind, use your phone’s voice memo app.
When you finally sit down to make a song, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be inspired to write. But the good news is, you’ll always have a bank of ideas to flip through. And while they may not all be song-worthy, there’s bound to be a gem in there somewhere.
If you haven’t had a chance to gather any ideas naturally, or nothing has come to mind, try a songwriting challenge or use a prompt. These will provide specific parameters for you to work within; without them, the infinite number of directions your song can take might simply overwhelm you.
Here are a few songwriting prompts you can try:
- Write a song about your childhood
- Write about your favorite TV, movie, or book character
- Write about your best friend
- Write about a past relationship
- Write about a relationship you wish you had
- Write a letter to your younger self
- Write a letter to your older self
- Write a response to your favorite song
- Write about a social issue you care about
- Write about a dream you had
2. Play around with the building blocks
Now it’s time to start shaping your ideas into an actual song. For this step, it can be helpful to work with an instrument like a piano or guitar, so you can come up with chords alongside the lyrics and melody. If you have access to a DAW (digital audio workstation), you can record your ideas right away and maybe even play around with some basic instrumental parts.
Look at your notes and recordings, and see what stands out to you, what you can use as-is, and what you’d like to expand on. There are really no rules here—as your bank of ideas grows, you may even find that something you jotted down yesterday fits perfectly with something you wrote six months ago.
Keep playing around with lyrics, melodies, and chords. Some people hear a melody and lyrics at the same time. Some write lyrics like a poem and add a melody later. Others hum a melody first and then think of the words.
Whatever you do, don’t pressure yourself to come up with something great and commit to it. The beauty of this stage is that you can be free to try anything that comes to mind—you can always scrap it or edit it later. And don’t feel like you need to write the song in chronological order, either—feel free to jump around, move lines from one section to another, or use placeholder lyrics for now.
3. Finalize a theme and structure
If you started with a title or a specific concept, you likely already know what your song will be about. However, that’s not always the case; sometimes you’re not sure where the song will go until the building blocks from the previous step help reveal the theme. If you haven’t already, make a decision on what your song will be about, what kind of energy it will have, and what kinds of feelings you want it to evoke.
Once you have your theme, jot down anything else you want to say in your song that you haven’t already. These notes don’t have to look like lyrics right now, but they’ll act as reminders of any important messages you want to include. You’ll turn them into actual lyrics in the next step.
At this point, you should also start to think about your song’s structure. Most songs follow some version of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, but there are really no rules here. Let your message lead the way—if you have more things to say, don’t be afraid to add an extra verse or change up one of the choruses.
Now is also a good time to think about rhyme schemes. Your song doesn’t have to rhyme. But, if some of your building blocks have a rhyme scheme, it’s a good idea to keep that going. That’s not to say that your rhyme scheme needs to stay the same throughout the entire song—this can be incredibly restricting and lead you to sacrifice meaningful lyrics in favor of forced rhymes. As you write your song, prioritize your message and feel free to change up the rhyme scheme if it feels right.
4. Fill in the blanks in your songwriting
You know what you need to say and where in the song you want to say it—now it’s time to fill those gaps and finish the first draft.
In the previous steps, you’ve set up very specific boundaries for yourself, which can be both a blessing and a challenge. Maybe you need a certain number of lines, your line needs to end on a certain word in order to rhyme, or you jotted down a particular message you want the line to convey.
If these limitations help you be more creative, that’s great! Keep using them to finish your first draft. However, if they’re causing you to get stuck, don’t be afraid to throw them out the window and try something completely different.
5. Note down any musical ideas
While writing the lyrics, chords, and melodies, you may find that you get other ideas about how the song should sound when it’s fully produced. Feel free to pause the songwriting in order to get these ideas down.
If you’re playing an instrument while writing, you’re probably doing a little bit of arranging at the same time. If you’re using a DAW to make music, maybe you start including basslines and creating your own beats, or even record a few ideas for background vocals. All of these elements will help you get a clear idea of how you want the finished song to feel.
Again, there’s no one correct order when it comes to writing songs. Some songwriters who know their way around a DAW can produce an entire demo instrumental while writing the lyrics and melody. Others don’t even pick up an instrument until all of the lyrics have been written.
6. Edit your song
If you’re going to remember just one piece of advice, let it be this—do not skip the editing stage. Your initial ideas may be great, but they can almost always be better.
If you can, spend a few days away from the song to give yourself a break. Then, come back with a fresh perspective.
Look for any lyrics that are cliché, cheesy, or hard to understand. Can you say them in a different way? Also ask yourself, “Am I telling the listener how I feel, or am I showing it?” How can you re-write the line so that the main message stays the same but is conveyed in a unique way?
If you’re not sure which lyrics need editing, play the song all the way through and see if anything bothers you, even just a little. Alternatively, you can play the song for someone else and notice if at any point you get the urge to say “I’ll probably change that” or “I’m still working on that part.”
Feel free to also play around with the melodies and chords. Again, take a break from the song and see if any parts of it get stuck in your head. Do you find yourself humming the chorus or any particular lines? If that doesn’t happen, you could probably make the melody a bit more catchy and memorable.
7. Finish the song
At this point, your song should be finished. If you still haven’t gotten it there or you’re not quite happy with it, you may feel the urge to abandon the project and start writing something new. This is the easy route, but it won’t make you a better songwriter. Instead, you need to actively practice finishing songs.
Finishing songs can be hard—sometimes you don’t know if it’s good enough or when to stop editing. But, it’s an essential skill that every songwriter needs to learn. If you never get comfortable finishing your less-than-great songs, how will you ever know how to finish the ones worth producing and recording?
The truth is, not every song you write will be a hit. In fact, most won’t. But what matters is that you keep writing songs, even if they’ll never see the light of day. Finish every song, even just to get it off your mind and make room for something even better.
How to write a song: Conclusion
You’ve written and finished an entire song—congratulations! What’s next? Get ready to write another one. And then many, many more.
If you’re serious about learning how to write a song, you’ll need to make it a habit. Each time you sit down to make a song, your goal shouldn’t be to write a hit. Rather, your goal should simply be to practice songwriting. The hit song will be a nice byproduct—something you’ll accidentally find under a pile of mediocre ones.
As you practice songwriting, pay attention to your workflow. You may find that the seven-step process we’ve gone over works fine for one song, but you need to completely flip it on its head for the next one. This is perfectly fine and is simply part of the creative process—we make rules and guidelines so that we know how to break them.
Above all, keep writing and keep pushing your own limits. We hope you found these tips on how to write a song helpful, and can’t wait to hear what you’ll create!
April 18, 2022