Learning how to write a song is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a musician. As a songwriter, the buzz of creating something from nothing is a feeling you can’t get from playing other people’s music.
However, writing songs for the first time can be daunting. So today, we’re breaking down how to write a good song for beginners in a step-by-step guide.
Follow our songwriting tips to turn your ideas into a hit song. You will discover different ways to write better song lyrics, structure many songs, and everything else every songwriter should know.
Of course, music is art, and there are no rules when it comes to writing songs. The main purpose of a songwriting guide like this one is to help you understand the basics.
I distilled the songwriting process into five easy steps that you can follow to start a song and finish it with ease. Writing and finishing songs is the key to becoming a better songwriter.
Are you ready to write? Let’s get started with songwriting!
And once you have your first song, explore our guide to mixing to make your song radio-ready.
How to write a song in five steps
A great man once said, “Keep it simple, stupid”. So here’s how to write a song, including lyrics and melody, easily in just five steps:
- Make a chord progression
- Add the melody
- Add the rhythm
- Create a song structure
- Write the lyrics
Let’s dive deeper into our guide to songwriting.
1. Make a chord progression
When it comes to writing music, there are three main elements which interact to make a song:
- Harmony (chords)
To start your song, you’ll begin with the harmony, also called the chord progression. It forms the basis of every song and how these underlying chords will determine the rest of the song.
So, starting with the chords when you make music is an excellent way to lay the basis for everything else.
How do you write the song chords?
A great way to start is by improvising as you play an instrument.
Most commonly, a guitar or keyboard is used for this step. Start playing around with different combinations of chords and see which ones stand out to you.
If you don’t know how to create a chord progression, look up the progressions used in popular songs you like (or just common chord progressions) and use that as a starting point for creating your own songs.
To help spice up progressions, use different inversions and voicings for the chords. For the latter, don’t forget that adding and taking away notes can drastically change how a chord sounds.
Brushing up on music theory can help speed up this process and reduce the trial and error required to find your desired sounds.
This step may involve creating a riff instead of a chord progression for styles like rock and metal, but the basic process is the same.
During this step, consider what mood, feel, or emotion you want to convey with the song, which will help guide your choices in choosing a chord progression, as well as choices in the subsequent steps.
These songwriting exercises are best for those who prefer to start from the very beginning of the process.
2. Add the melody
Record your chord progression, then improvise over the top to create a melody.
You can use your instrument for this, or another way to help melodies pop out is to improvise with your voice and recreate it on your instrument. This can help you learn how to write a catchy song, as you won’t get distracted by flashy techniques.
Another method is to improvise in your head as you listen back to the chord progression, and once you hear a good melody, recreate it on your instrument.
The melody is a crucial element that helps convey the feeling and emotion of the song, so keep that in mind as you’re writing to help keep you on track.
3. Add the rhythm
Now, it’s time to focus on how to write the drums for a song. Record the melody over the chord progression, then use that as the basis for writing the drums and percussion.
Note that recording the chords and melody to a click track will be required if you’re going to program the drums so it all lines up.
To speed up the process, I usually tap along as I listen to the previous parts to work out where the main accents should lie with the drum part.
The kick and snare typically lock in with and respond to the chord progression to form the song’s main rhythm (perhaps with some flourishes here and there in response to the melody as well).
You’ll also need to consider what subdivision you want to use on the hi-hat/ride/cymbal part. Using a base subdivision of either quarter notes, 8th notes, 16th notes, or 32nd notes on the cymbal part will play a large role in determining the groove of your song.
I add smaller details like fills and percussion parts after I’ve got the song’s first draft down so they don’t slow down the writing flow, except when the fill is an essential part of the overall song.
If you didn’t already add the bass part while writing the chords, then now’s the time to add that. The bass part typically locks in with the drums rhythmically and responds harmonically to the chord progression and melody.
So, writing the bass should follow fairly intuitively in response to the other elements.
While learning songwriting, sometimes guitarists or pianists are guilty of treating the bass as a way of filling out the low end during writing.
However, the bass is a huge part of making a groovy and memorable piece of music. Don’t forget to give it some love and allow it to contribute to the overall composition rhythmically and melodically.
Another thing to remember is that using rests is a very important element in creating a compelling bass part.
4. Create a song structure
The most common and basic song structure is:
The vast majority of popular music uses this as a starting point for song structures.
As a beginner, you can start with this and add extra elements such as an intro, main riff, pre-chorus, instrumental breaks, and outro to add some individually to the composition.
For an example of how to write a song structure, listen to different artists to help give you ideas about what forms to use.
Writing the music for these different sections can involve adding different chord progressions in the chorus or bridge, for example, to change up the vibe of the songs in different sections.
Working in response to your initial chord progression, you can repeat steps 1 to 3 to add new sections as required.
The ability to create a song structure is perhaps the most important aspect of songwriting. It’s the skill that you’ll need to turn a jam session or a simple concept for a song into a finished piece of music.
For me, fleshing out the different sections of a song and defining the structure to get the most out of the initial idea have always been the hardest part of song writing.
On the other hand, it’s also the most fun part.
Another point I’d like to make here is that you don’t have to copy what already exists when developing a structure for your song. The rules are there to be broken.
Some of my favorite pieces of music, such as early Pink Floyd, did completely unexpected things with the structure of their tracks.
The most important thing is that you find a song structure that you find enjoyable and that feels like a finished, whole song to you.
5. Write the lyrics
If you’re a poetic person, it would make sense to write the lyrics first instead of coming up with lyrics to fit the rest of your song.
However, if you’re like me, writing lyrics doesn’t come easy. So, here’s a quick guide to help you write better lyrics.
So, once the music is done, it’s time to start with the lyrics. The song’s mood you’ve created so far should help guide the lyrical topics and start the creative juices flowing.
Try to think of a feeling you have or an event in your life and start using that as a basis for a song.
You can also use characters or stories for inspiration, such as those in novels, films, or people you know. Remember to personalize it so it’s not too abstract, though.
If you’ve never written a song before, try reading lyrics from your favorite songs (or poems) to help inspire you. You can also take lyrics from a song you love and write a new song based on the patterns and rhymes to give you some practice.
Whether you want to stick to a rhyme scheme or write more free-form lyrics is worth considering.
When writing lyrics, it’s fine to strike a balance between being too direct and being too abstract. If a song is too specific, it might not connect with many listeners, but if you get too obscure, people will probably have no idea what you’re talking about.
At some point, as you’re feeling inspired to write the melody or lyrics for your song, you’ll also come up with a good idea for the song title. Write it down immediately!
On more than a few occasions, I had trouble coming up with a good song title, even though I knew I had a good title for a song at some point in the past.
Which takes us to a very important tip.
Always Record Your Song Ideas
Always write down or record your song ideas. Whether it’s a chorus lyric, a melody for the verse and chorus, a song title, or an entire song playing on repeat in the back of your mind, write down those musical ideas immediately.
Anything works, but I typically use the voice recording app on my mobile phone. It’s a treasure trove filled with different elements of a song that I can use whenever I’d like to start writing a new piece of music.
We can’t choose when the inspiration hits, so we need to save those precious moments of creativity as gold.
What order to write a song in
I mentioned this in the beginning, but here is a reminder. The five steps we listed above are just an example of one way of writing a song.
Many great songs were written in a completely different order. For example, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash wrote the opening guitar melody of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” first, while Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter likes to program a drum beat first and then add the guitar.
Even once you’ve worked out how to write a song from scratch, changing up the order or starting with a different instrument is a great way to get the creative juices flowing.
However, following simple steps like these is important when getting started with songwriting. It’s the same with any other skill – you learn the basics so that you can break the rules later.
If you understand each part of the songwriting process, it will be much easier to write a great song later on, even if you’re going in a completely different order.
Try following our step-by-step songwriting guide and write as many songs as you can in a short period of time. Try to make it a challenge – write 30 songs in 30 days.
After those 30 days, it will be much easier to lay the foundation of the song you’re working on. And if you have some song ideas lying around, get back to them once you’ve completed the songwriting challenge and try to finish them.
Now that you’ve learned the basics with this beginner’s songwriting guide, get out there and start creating!