Songwriting is far from a mathematical process. There are many possible creative routes that take a writer from an initial idea to a finished song. What is important to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to get there; some songs seem to form easily in a single sitting, others may take time to come together with both melodies and lyrics coming and going.
Here are my top five tips for how to write a song:
1. Don’t Worry About Whether Lyrics or Melody Comes First
The big question around beginning to write a song always seems to resolve around ‘which comes first, lyrics or melody?’. In truth, it doesn’t matter. Whichever comes to you first is a starting point from which you can develop from.
If you have some words but no idea what to do with them melodically, find a note that is in a comfortable part of your range and sing the words to that note. Sing the words again, but change a couple of the notes higher or lower. In its simplest form, you have already begun creating a melody.
If you have a melody but no words, think about a theme or topic which you are passionate about or that has been on your mind recently; anything from happiness, frustrations, loss, love. Your song can be about anything, big or small; something simple that made you smile or feel sad that day. Begin writing down any words that come to mind when you think of this theme or incident. These will start the foundations of your lyrics.
For me, I find a combination of the two the most effective place for me to start. I will have an idea of the theme of my song, and then sit at the piano and find a key that I like to both sing and play in that I feel is appropriate for the theme (for example, a sad song might be in a minor key, a happier song might be in a major key). I will then play around with relative chords, figuring out a chord sequence that I like, listening to prominent notes in those chords and finding a melody that moves effortlessly between them.
2. Record Every Idea You Have
There is nothing worse than singing an idea out loud, feeling proud of it, and forgetting it moments later. Always have a voice recorder on when you sit down to write a song. I find making a new recording for each idea the best way to clearly see where each idea will fit in the song (for example, if I have an idea for the chorus, I will record a short clip and title it as ‘chorus;, saving me from having to listen through 30+ minutes of recording to find a previous idea!). iPhones have a built-in Voice Memo app, which is the easiest way to record your musical ideas – it is also easy to share these across platforms, which I also find helpful in the later stages of writing (see point 4).
3. Stop Being Self-Critical
It is easy to begin to question the credibility of your song. Do not allow for self-criticism and judgement to stop yourself from finishing a musical idea that you were initially excited about. Some of the most successful songs and pieces in musical history are surprisingly simple, which makes them no less credible!
The more you write, the more you will develop an ear for which of your songs are more successful sounding than others. Allow yourself to study the theory behind what makes a piece of music feel ‘complete’, such as how chord progressions work, which will give you the musical tools to create a complete-sounding song. Equally – don’t feel like you have to! If your idea does not call for a ‘complete’ sound, or you find that traditional chord progressions do not do your style justice, do not be afraid to go against the norms. Creating music is a form of self-expression, and does not need to be to anyone’s taste but your own.
4. Reach Out For Feedback
It can be scary to reach out and ask others for their opinion on your work. Find someone you can trust, who has your best interests at heart, and consider sharing a version of your song that you are proud of. Do not feel the need to justify what stage you are at with it – sharing your ideas and welcoming any feedback is enough. You may find your chosen listener provides you with a really useful opinion that you had not considered before; a chord that sounds out of place, a lyric that could be more suitable, etc. Or, you may just get a big sense of achievement for having someone praise your creativity! Remember that you will never please everyone with your output, and that should not be your goal. Enjoy the process of creating and sharing. Any emotion achieved by someone listening to your music (whether it is positive or negative) is an achievement.
5. Experiment with Arrangements
Once you have your idea solidified in its simplest form and have received some feedback, you can start to enjoy experimenting with how best to present it. You may find the piano a useful tool to write your music with, but not necessarily the sound you desire to put your music across. There are many music production softwares that are free or that offer free trials which use keyboard-like inputs, such as GarageBand. Downloading a software like this not only allows you to experiment with different accompaniments, it also allows you to both record and layer your vocals. Harmonies are an effective way of adding contrast to repetitive sections and creating greater musical interest. Have a go with harmonising against yourself, using your keyboard as a musical reference if need be.
If software and recording is not for you, reach out to other musicians who may be interested in collaborating. There are so many Facebook groups and online organisations designed for people to share their work and connect with like minded musicians. You never know who may see potential in your work and what they could add to it!
Songwriting is a really fulfilling creative process and outlet, often allowing us to express thoughts that are hard to explain with words alone. Allow yourself to experiment and make ‘mistakes’, you will soon discover your own voice as a writer and develop the confidence to share the work you have created.
For some examples of my own songwriting, please feel free to have a listen to my SoundCloud.
For more help on your own songwriting, get in touch!