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Update: 8 Steps to Learning Basic Songwriting

Songwriting is a musical superpower. The ability to write and create marketable songs can transform your career. While original, authentic songs can catalyze your rise as an aspiring solo musician or band member, songwriting is also a venue for those who shy away from publicity or fame, preferring to make their living behind the scenes.

Most successful songwriters say they were born to write, and couldn’t stop writing songs if they wanted to. Even so, songwriting is a skillset, and it must be practiced and developed to evolve to the professional and commercial levels. And, while some songwriters begin their careers at a young age (think Randy Newman), others grow into their passion as they become more adept on their instrument(s).

The following tips will help novice composers find, hone, and develop their artistic voice.

1. Continue developing yourself as a musician

Don’t stop taking music lessons or developing your playing skills because you’ve started writing music. Doing so can actually detract from your songwriting potential because melodies and harmonies can get stuck at the level where you stopped learning and growing as a musician. It may be time to look for music teachers who also teach songwriting, tailoring lessons to your specific interests. That way, increased musicianship is reflected in your future songwriting.

Also, don’t forget about the power of improvisation. Your improvisational sessions, like musical doodling, may be the treasure box from which some of your best melodies or riffs emerge.

2. Start with a title and hook

Writing the title (or hook) first helps the process go smoothly. If you start working from chords or part of a melody, it’s challenging to fill in the lyrics later. Personal ideas and experiences deliver the insight needed for your music, so start with a title that engages the listeners’ curiosity and evokes an emotion.

Consider the song “The Hook” by Blues Traveler. Understanding the pertinent verse lyrics is difficult at first, but the excellent harmonica and addicting chorus made this a major hit in the mid ’90s. So, start with your idea first. Look for titles that will engage and intrigue listeners. The song will provide the answers they want.

3. Develop your theme

Once you’ve decided on a title, it’s time to flesh it out. For example, if you choose “Broken-down Shack” for a hook/title, think about words /phrases that complement and contrast the idea. Brainstorm on paper. Not all of the words and phrase you write down will make it into your song, but this step helps get the creativity flowing.

For instance, words that complement the title include rusty, ramshackle, dilapidated, rickety, decrepit, and similar adjectives. Contrasting phrases could be something like: strong against the wind, a fortress of safety, comfortable, clean, or unpolluted. Don’t stress over this part. It should be a free-association technique that supports your ideas and feelings about the title. The words and phrases you develop will be the basis for your chorus, verses, and bridge.

4. Ask yourself questions about the title/hook

The next learning step involves writing your lyrics. This can be done by answering questions about the title. With the imaginary “Broken-down Shack,” consider these ideas:

  • What does the title mean to you?
  • Does action take place?
  • How do you feel about the meaning or action?
  • Why did the action take place? Who’s involved?
  • Do you have any hopes or fears about what might happen next?
  • Can other people relate to the word images you create?

The last question isn’t as important as the others, because sometimes artists write songs that present a new experience to others. Also, when answering the questions, group your phrases into eight or ten words. That will make it easier to transform them into lyrics, but don’t worry about rhyming too much. That will come later.

5. Find your melody and chords

Chord progressions aren’t copyrighted, so finding the chords that support the melody is relatively easy. However, if you don’t already have an idea about the melody, speak the phrases you made out loud and listen to the cadence and inflection of your voice.

For example, say the phrases “How many times do I have to tell you?” and “How many times do I have to tell you!” to yourself. Do you hear the difference? By identifying the natural melodic structure of the phrases you want to use, you can help define the foundation of your melody. Start with the chorus, and be sure to include your hook/title.

6. Work on the parts of your song

A verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is your best friend when learning to write songs. The verses and chorus contain the same melody and chords, but the bridge adds an emotional dynamic to the music.

Your chorus should include the most important answers to the questions you generated. Verses expand that theme. However, the bridge is where you include insight and/or a turning point.

7. Use technology and don’t get discouraged

There are many great songwriting tools available for budding writers. Noteflight is free and simple to use, and Apple's Garage Band is wonderful for creating original works quickly. Learning composition using notation software designed for that purpose removes some of the frustration.

8. Get lots of feedback from family, teachers, peers, etc.

While you can take it all with a grain of salt, sharing your songs with others and listening openly, and humbly to their feedback can really help you to grow. Knowing when it makes sense to edit a song, and when it’s time to stick to your guns, is also a learned skill. The best, timeless, and most lucrative songs are historically those that fit into current music trends while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of innovation and creativity.

Creating original songs is a great way to expand your musical abilities, so don’t get discouraged while learning. Most songs undergo a continuous evolution before settling into their final form, so be forgiving with the initial attempts. Your songwriting practice and patience will pay off.  When you are ready, check out our article, 5 Tips for Advanced Songwriting.

Violins on the wall