Getting started with writing songs can be more challenging than you might expect.
For this post, I researched professional songwriters.
These songwriters are very well-trained in the art and craft of songwriting.
I summarized what I thought should be the top songwriting tips for beginners.
This expert advice should get you off to a flying start.
If you find yourself struggling to write a song check out this post:
Before we get started, it’s important to note that there is no one true book or tutorial to start writing a song.
Just google “songwriting tips for beginners”, and you’ll see many different suggestions on how to write a song.
Since people are different from each other, the process of writing music is different for everyone.
So, think of the following tips as a collection of techniques that are likely to have the desired effect on your songwriting.
- Where to Write a Song [A Review of places to write songs]
- Songwriters Block: 11 Tools That Beat it
- Songwriting Ideas for Beginners: How to Find Great Song Ideas
- Song Elements (Why you should know them and some great examples)
1. Start with a Concept
Before putting your pen to paper it’s good to come up with a concept for the song.
Concept is a clear summary of what the song will say.
You can think of it as a road map that points the way to your final destination –the finished song.
Stephen Criton, (a composer, lyricist and lecturer) author of Songwriting: A Complete Guide to the Craft says that without concept your song will wander and lack cohesion.
The clearer I am about what I’m going to write about, the easier the process is.
In other words, the purpose of the concept is to help you write the song with clarity and focus.
Let’s say you want to write a song about “war”.
Before you write down anything, you have to be precise about what war will it describe.
Will it like Metallica’s “One”, a song about a World War I soldier that looses his eyes, ears and limbs?
Will it a protest song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in The USA”, which describes the harmful effects of the Vietnam War?
Or will it be like Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills”, a song about the wars between Native Americans and white settlers?
Authors of Songwriting for Dummies suggest writing one sentence that explains what your song is about.
You can refer to this line often to make sure the lyrics you’re coming up with still support the concept of the song.
If your lyrics start taking you in a different direction, it could be a sign that you need to change your concept.
However, this may be a good thing because you may find material for more than one song.
2. Remember: Songwriting Has Rules But Doesn’t Have Rules
Almost all the songwriting experts that I researched while writing this post agree on one unchangeable rule of songwriting:
All rules are subject to change.
C.J. Watson, author of The Everything Songwriting Book wrote a great description ofthis unchangeable rule:
“If you walk into a publisher’s office with a song that’s a surefire hit for 1987, you will probably walk out with a disappointed look on your face three and a half minutes later. But that could change next year: Eighties revival music could be the next big thing. Of course, it could be Bolivian folk or polka –you just never know.”
Bob Dylan once commented on songwriting by saying:
“There’s no rhyme, or reason to it. There’s no rule. That’s what makes it so attractive. There isn’t any rule. You can still have your wits about you and do something that gets you off in a multitude of ways.”
(This quote was taken from Songwriters On Songwriting)
Simon Hawkins, author of Songmaps, writes:
“I’m sure you know already; there is no single right way to write a song. Not even in the writing rooms of Nashville, where hundreds of co-writers sit together each day and hammer out hit after hit; while the physical environment may look familiarly creative, and there are some unwritten conventions about how a co-write generally might unfold, these are certainly not hard-coded or written in stone.
The only rule is that there are no rules and people just get on and write the best song they can.”
When songwriter, Lamont Dozier, was once asked about how he goes about his songwriting process he replied:
“It’s trail and error. You sit and play chords. Everybody has their own way of doing things. There’s no law and there’s no book. You can go to Julliard and Oakland and all of these places. A lot of people come out of these schools and they never do anything; they never tap into these things. Because you have to find that yourself.”
(This quote was taken from Songwriters On Songwriting)
3. Develop a Song Structure
Most experts on songwriting agree that a lack of form, or song structure, is the biggest reason why songs don’t work.
If a song is poorly organized, with scattered elements, it will probably not sound well.
Garry Ewer, author of the excellent book, The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, compares song structure to a landscape:
“If your backyard is basically flat with only a tree in the middle, you’ve pretty much seen everything there is to see with one look, and it’s a bit boring.
But you can’t just start planting trees and flowers everywhere with no thought for the basic layout – the form– of your backyard.
But here is the crucial point: most lousy-looking backyards are not lousy because of the plants that are there. They’re lousy because of how those plants have been placed.
In other words, if you think your music needs help, you may be surprised to know that all the elements of good composition are probably already there!
What is probably lacking is form and direction.”
The terms “song structure” or “form” refer to the basic design and elements of your song: verse, pre-chorus, chorus/refrain, hook and bridge.
If you would like learn more about the elements of a song read the following post:
Song Elements (Why you should know them and some great examples).
The most popular song structures nowadays are:
1. Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
2. Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus
3. Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus
4. Verse – Verse – Bridge – Verse
You can pick one of these song structures and see if it works for the song you’ve just written.
If you are worried that the technical aspect of song structure will hinder your creative freedom, don’t be.
Here are opinions of more experts that agree that structure is essential for communicating ideas clearly in a song:
Jason Blume, author of Six Steps to Songwriting Success, Revised Edition: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs
“Using song structures does not alter the message or the essence of our songs: rather, it helps us deliver our melodic and lyrical ideas to listeners, enabling them to more readily feel those feelings that we hope to evoke.”
Authors of Songwriting For Dummies point out another benefit of using song structure:
“It’s important to understand the basics of song structure even if you choose to stray from it in certain instances. There’s something reassuring in the use of familiar song organization that can help a songwriter sound immediately more professional and commercial.”
C.J. Watson, author of The Everything Songwriting Book writes:
“Once you understand the basic parts of a song and what they can do, you still have to put them in some kind of order. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it can make a big difference in how your song affects the listener. Song structure is a great tool for controlling the flow of your storyline and keeping a song exciting.”
4. Don’t Wait for Inspiration
I used to spend a lot of time waiting for inspiration.
I was sure that with inspiration I’d write the best songs.
But guess what happened?
Inspiration hardly ever came by.
I ended up waiting and waiting without getting any songwriting done.
Songwriting experts agree on this:
Robin Frederick, author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell writes:
“One of the things songwriters frequently wait for is an idea that will launch them into the deep emotional waters of a song. Although these ideas do turn up from time to time, it’s hard to build a substantial body of work on such an unpredictable resource.”
Garry Ewer, author of the book, The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, writes:
“Inspiration is, without a doubt, the most misunderstood part of the compositional process. If you are waiting for inspiration to compose your song – don’t wait! Start writing without it, because if you are a normal human, you could be waiting a long time. It bears repeating that most composers would place the importance of inspiration far, far down on the list of necessities in the songwriting process.”
This was Leonard’s reply:
“I haven’t had an idea in a long long time. And I’m not sure I ever had one…I don’t have ideas. I don’t really speculate on things. I get opinions but I’m not really attached to them. Most of them are tiresome. I have to trot them out in conversations from time to time just to cooperate in the social adventure. But I have a kind of amnesia and my ideas just kind of float above this profound disinterest in myself and other people. So to find something that really touches and addresses my attention, I have to do a lot of hard, manual work.”
“Perspiration always beats waiting for inspiration. Why? Because energy in motion creates emotion, and emotion inspires you. In other words, allow inspiration to follow a consistent work ethic. You will find that your mind tunes into your habitual actions and will set your music as a higher priority. This will lead to being inspired much more often.”
Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie, says:
“You will fail more times than you succeed. But I think you need those failed endeavors. During our first few records, I would just kind of wait until I felt like writing. I got some pretty good songs that way, but I firmly believe that being a writer or artist in any capacity, you have to kind of go to work every day and try to do what you do. And as crazy as it is for me to say out loud, I am a professional songwriter and singer, and this is what I do for a living. I get paid to do this, and I should treat this as such. It is a job..and it’s a difficult job.”
(This quote was taken from Righting Wrongs in Writing Songs)
5. Writing a Song often Takes Time
By reading the description, we can learn that writing a song doesn’t often happen overnight:
“It wasn’t an easy piece to write. I started my title song that afternoon but didn’t finish it until six months of trial and tribulation later.”
Over months, I could feel the story I was aching to tell seep into my lyrics.
Slowly, I found words I could stand to sing, always my first, last and only criteria to move ahead. Slowly…it felt real.”
While the lyrics were being written we struggled with the recorded sounds of the instruments, the drum sounds, the guitar sounds.”
Sometimes it’s best to spend time writing the song you’re working on.
If you feel a need to — put it aside and come back to it later.
Don’t publish yet until you feel comfortable with what you’ve written.
6. Writing a Song often doesn’t take any time at all
Bob Dylan once said:
“The best songs to me – my best songs – are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.”
(This quote was taken from Songwriters On Songwriting )
Indeed, some of the best songs I’ve written are ones which I wrote quickly and spontaneously.
This brings us back to the one rule in songwriting which most experts agree on:
All rules are subject to change.
One songwriter may take time in writing songs; another songwriter may do it quickly.
One song may take three minutes to write while another song may take three years to write.
7. Record Everything
Sometimes when I try to write a song, I play around with different chords.
Many times, while playing around I’ve discovered great riffs and hooks.
Unfortunately, I lost them a few minutes later.
Because I didn’t hit the record button!
Conclusion: hit the record button and leave it on.
Here are some expert opinions on this matter:
Jason Timothy, author of the Music Habits – The Mental Game of Electronic Music Production: Finish Songs Fast, Beat Procrastination and Find Your Creative Flow writes:
“It’s best to just record everything you do, because often it’s the mistakes that end up being your best most unique sounds and give your music some real personality.
Don’t even worry too much about creating a song, simply enjoy making sounds and taking note of what strikes your interest.
Continue to do this for as long as you enjoy it. By the end of this, you should have a few inspiring parts to work with.”
“From the very first tentative chord of the writing session I have my machine running and locked in “record” because even though I am going to be jotting down notes on paper and keeping a reasonable pace with my own thoughts there are going to be times when my brain darts ahead, instinctively doing something impulsively and so quickly that my conscious mind will not be able to follow.
It may even be something no more mysterious than a mistake. (Even though many times these so-called mistakes are no such thing. They are subconscious traveling at light speed a few nanoseconds in front of the conscious mind.)
In such a case I will not (except on the very rarest of occasions) be able to remember exactly how I did what I did because in the strictest sense I didn’t do it.
I have every note on the tape recorder.
If I want to seize that lovely mistake and make it useful I simply rewind the tape and listen to it repeatedly until I learn it well or else write it down on the pad in front of me.”
Singer-songwriter, James Taylor once said:
“I travel with a digital voice recorder which catches all of my thoughts; I’ve done it since the mid ‘70s.”
(This quote was taken from Righting Wrongs in Writing Songs)
David Alzofon, author of COMPOSE YOURSELF! ,writes:
“New ideas are as ephemeral as ghosts or dreams, so it is vital to snag them before they evaporate. Keep a handheld, battery-operated tape recorder near the shower and sing your ideas into it as soon as they come to you.”
Authors of Songwriting for Dummies write:
“Try to carry with you, at all times, a notebook to jot down ideas and a digital recorder to capture your musical phrases. Never fool yourself into thinking you’ll remember the ideas when you get home. And don’t think that “If it’s really so great of an idea, I won’t forget it.”
Some great songs will never be heard because the songwriter couldn’t reconstruct some once-in-a-lifetime moment of inspiration.
Those cool ideas that you know you’ll never forget will be “dust in the wind” if you don’t have the discipline to write them down or hum them into the recorder when they hit.”
Casey Kelly and David Hodge, authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Art of Songwriting write:
“Whether you’re writing music down or just noodling idly, turn on the cassette recorder and let it play.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just been playing piano for relaxation and a great idea has popped into my head, prompting hasty, frantic efforts to turn the recorder on before the idea disappeared.
Consider every second you spend at your instruments composing time. If you wear out a few batteries by letting it run, so be it.
The best tunes and concepts may sneak up unexpectedly.
Spontaneous ideas don’t stick unless they’re caught the second they occur to you.”
That’s it for songwriting tips for beginners.
And now I’d like to hear from you:
Do you have any questions about starting to write a song?
Or maybe you have a cool tip that I didn’t include here.
Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below right now.
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