Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Have you got the music in you and want to start writing songs? Here’s a no-nonsense primer to getting your songwriting career started.
Updated March 2023.
Someone recently wrote to us, asking how to get started as a songwriter. So, I thought I’d write an article offering up some tips to help would-be songwriters craft their first song.
The first rule of songwriting
So you want to write a song, eh? Well, first you’re going to have to learn The Official Rules of Songwriting and Whatnot.
Just kidding. There are no rules to songwriting. Well, there is one rule, and it is this: If you like what you’ve written, you’ve succeeded. That’s it. There are no other rules. You don’t need to know music theory or even how to play an instrument. Those things certainly help, of course, but they aren’t necessary.
All you need to write a song is your imagination and your own sense of what sounds good to you.
OK, let’s start.
How do you want your audience to feel?
Writing a song is all about making choices. As you write, you are constantly trying out melodies and lyrical ideas and deciding if you like them. But it’s hard to make these decisions in a vacuum. How do you know if you like a chord or a metaphor if you don’t know what kind of song you’re writing?
So, the first thing you should do is to state your intention. Think about not only what kind of song you will be writing (love song, dance song, protest song, breakup song, etc.), but also how you want your audience to feel. Generally speaking, popular songs — in any genre — make their listeners feel something. Always keep that emotional goal in mind as you write.
Picture your listener
If you’re unsure what feeling you’re going after, try instead to picture the ideal setting for listeners to be in when they hear your song. Are they sitting in bed on a rainy day drinking coffee and doing a crossword puzzle? Are they raving away at a club? Playing at the beach? Driving while beating the crap out of their steering wheel?
All of this is important to map out ahead of time because every part of your song — the melody, the lyrics, the chords, the arrangement — should work towards invoking your lyrical message and your emotional goal.
What’s the lyrical message?
Let’s say you’ve been noodling around on an instrument and you’ve stumbled upon something you like. Great. Now figure out what emotion this invokes in you. This will help you craft the lyrics.
Or, conversely, maybe a lyric came to you and you want to write a song about it, like, “Love is like a sickness.” OK, cool. What kind of song does this suggest to you? To me it sounds like a punk tune, so: high-energy, lots of major chords (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means, we’ve got your back), and an angular melody. It’s an amusing simile, so the lyrics might have lots of medical wordplay and double-entendres.
Be specific about your song’s intention
It’s not enough to say you want to write a happy love song. That’s too generic and it will leave you writing middling lyrics. Be specific from the outset. Maybe you are so wowed by how amazing your loved one is none of the usual adjectives can possibly do them justice. Cool. Sounds like a snazzy Broadway tune, sung at high-speed, with flurries of notes and lots of gibberish words that sound like they could be real. “You’re stupendulous and flunderful and flabusome and marvable!”
Maybe you have a crush on someone and you want to write a song for them, but you know you’re going to be too embarrassed to ever play it for them. That’s a cool idea for a song. I can hear it as either a Bonnie Raitt-style torch song, à la “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” or maybe a wry country tune like “Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Willie Nelson. “I’d rather knit you a warm scarf / ‘cause if I sing for you, I’ll surely barf…”
OK, maybe not, but you get the idea.
Should you write music or lyrics first?
People often say that there are two ways to approach writing a song: words-first or music-first, though I tend to do a little of both at the same time. I’ll come up with a lyric that grabs me, and then I’ll try to sing it. I find that starting with a lyric is nice because it gives you a ready-made rhythm to work with. (Make sure you fit your music to your words, and not vice versa. You want your singing to sound natural. It’s what’s known as prosody.)
Pro tip: Always be listening for lyrical ideas in your everyday life. Take note of anything someone says that sounds musical or catchy. A couple of Beatles songs got their title from random things Ringo uttered, including “A Hard Day’s Night.” “Eight Days a Week” came from something a chauffeur once said to Paul McCartney.
Once I get a melody I like, I’ll sit at the piano and figure out what notes I’m singing. Then I’ll try to set it to chords. At that point, I often start messing around with the chords to see where I can take the song next. Once I have that figured out, I’ll go back to writing lyrics.
How to write a melody
I’ve posted about writing a melody before, but the TLDR version is this: you want something people can immediately latch onto and remember. Therefore, simplicity and repetition are key. You don’t have to write an extended melody with lots of notes. Try thinking in little 3-4 note mini-melodies called motifs. Find a motif you like and then try repeating it, only singing it in a higher or lower register. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the ur-text for this sort of thing, but you hear this in music all the time.
The key is to try different things until you find something you like. And remember to record everything. If you don’t have a digital audio workstation (DAW) like GarageBand, just use a recording app on your phone.
I found this video, which does a good job of showing someone creating a hook melody on the spot.
Crafting a chord progression
As shown in the video, Isabelle looped a pre-recorded chord progression and then tried several melodic variations until she found the one she liked. This is a fun and effective way to write a song, and it’s something you can do even if you don’t play an instrument.
Let me introduce you to a fun (and free) little website called Chord Player by OneMotion. You simply choose the type of song you want to create: pop, dance, rock, waltz, jazz, country, samba, etc., and then drag and drop chords into a player until you create a progression you like.
If you know nothing about music, and aren’t sure which chords go well together, try the “Circle of Fifths” setting (see below). For this example, I chose the key of A. Now you can use any of the highlighted chords in practically any order to create a progression.
There are some great (free) apps for cellphones, too, like NextChord. Choose a key and it will offer up a list of chords for you to choose from, telling you which chords are more commonly used. This app is nice because it lets you easily use chords beyond the usual major and minor.
Don’t stop believing (in your songwriting skills)
Beyond these beginning tips, your best bet is to listen to your favorite songs and hear how they’re constructed. Look up their chord progressions on sites like Ultimate-Guitar.com so you can get a sense of how to construct your own progressions.
Look for YouTube videos about these songs. There are many videos that break down classic songs. Rick Beato has a great series of videos called “What Makes This Song Great.” This episode in particular does a nice job of breaking down all the musical and emotional underpinnings of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Once you start, keep writing (and recording!) and unlock that hit song you’ve got buried inside!