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How to Write a Song (and Arrange and Record It)

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Creating original music can be the greatest feeling in the world, but it’s tough if you don’t know where to start. How do you write a song that excites you, and then how do you record, orchestrate, arrange, produce, and mix your track with style and quality?

Hopefully, this beginner’s guide to making music will set you on the right path. Even if it seems like an intimidating journey, it’s easy to get started, and easier once you’re moving. Here are tips for how to write a song from start to finish and help make your musical dreams come true.

Songwriting basics

Ask a thousand songwriters how they write their music and you’ll get a thousand different answers, all of them valid and worthy. Some musicians start with a musical or vocal melody that sticks with them, while others draw inspiration from a verbal phrase they dream up — or even a single word.

Many great artists begin with a rhythm, groove, or beat, while countless more great songs have been written in an effort to share a meaningful personal story or a feeling that can’t really be shared any other way.

Which approach is right for you? Whichever one works. You’ll probably find you use a variety of techniques as you build a catalog of songs. Here are a few tips to get you started on the songwriting process and take your idea through arrangement and recording.

  • Always have a notebook handy, or an app on your mobile device where you can jot down lyrics, chord changes, or other ideas as they come.
  • Get friendly with a basic recording app on your phone that will let you capture audio. Mobile devices now offer lots of sophisticated recording options, and these can be great, but even a basic voice memo app will let you record yourself singing a melody or musical idea so you can come back to it later.
  • Play around with beats, grooves, loops, and samples and see what inspires you. Sometimes a crazy synth patch that you’ve never heard before is all you need to spark all sorts of songwriting ideas.

Regardless of where you find your song idea — or songwriting inspiration — and how you record your songs, always experiment, develop, discard, and rebuild songs from the ground up. Some great songs are written in minutes, while others take years. Again, the right answer here is whatever process works for you.

Song melodies and hooks

Getting the right melodies and hooks when you’re making music can be great fun. If an amazing melodic idea pops into your head for a verse or chorus, write it down or record it right away before you forget it. Or, if you can, grab your instrument of choice, start with your basic song structure, and get to experimenting.

Don’t rush the process of finding the right melodies and hooks for your music, and pay attention to what you find yourself humming in the shower. If a melody or hook sticks in your ear, chances are it’ll grab your listeners’ attention, too.

Even if you don’t know any music theory and aren’t a virtuoso on any instrument, you can still turn your vision into a great song. There’s zero shame in plugging in a basic MIDI keyboard, pulling up a sound you like, and tapping out different combinations of keys until something grabs your attention.

Most importantly, keep trying new things during the music production and writing process and don’t give up.

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Choose your sounds and instruments

Thanks to digital technology, there are almost infinite possibilities when it comes to choosing sounds and instruments to work with. Sample packs, software synthesizers, loops, and the like — it’s easy and affordable to find yourself with a huge library of possibilities. A few tips to help you navigate:

  • Treat this part of making music like you’re a kid in a candy store. Try out random loops just because you like the name. See if a virtual tuba could add an interesting texture, and if not, try an overdriven didgeridoo-style synth instead. Throw some trip-hop loops into your session, even if (or because) you’ve never listened to trip-hop before. You never know what you’ll stumble on and what might inspire your next creative step.
  • Don’t obsess about finding the perfect sound. If you want a Hammond B-3 sound on your song, there are literally hundreds of pieces of software to make it happen. Most of them are excellent and will do the job. Don’t get paralyzed looking for the absolute best option, and don’t let decision fatigue hobble your creative momentum.
  • Keep an ear out for what turns you on as a musician, songwriter, and music producer, not what sounds the popular flavor-of-the-minute song is using. That will help you sound like you and not a carbon copy of some Spotify playlist.
  • If you choose to use samples, make sure learn how to sample music legally so you don’t run into issues after you record or release your music.
  • Stay flexible. The sound or loop you’re looking for may not be the one you end up using in your song, and that’s just fine. Some of the best sonic inspiration can be found purely by accident.

Record, arrange, and layer

Disc Makers guide to Making A Great MasterPeople have written encyclopedias about these topics, but let’s focus on four simple points.

  1. Get a basic recording and producing setup that works. This will likely include a computer or high-performance mobile device, microphone, audio interface, MIDI controller, and speaker and/or headphones. You don’t have to have the fanciest or most expensive gear to make world-class music. Take inspiration from genres like bedroom pop — you can use raw and intimate takes and sounds and make authentic, accessible music.
  2. Learn on the job when it comes to recording, arranging, and layering your tracks. Don’t be afraid to try things, erase them, and try again. Experimentation and experience will teach you tons; when it comes to gaining practical skills and making your musical ideas into finished tracks, any number of YouTube tutorials, instructional books, courses, and other resources will teach you the rest.
  3. Don’t overdo it. One of the biggest mistakes beginning songwriters and producers make when making music is to try too hard. Don’t layer hundreds of sounds and tracks on top of each other unless your song really, truly needs it. Don’t get sentimental about parts or sounds and erase anything that doesn’t actively add to the power and musicality of your track. It can be easy to want to use all the sounds all the time, but less is often more when it comes to production and arranging.
  4. Trust your ears. If it sounds wrong to you, then it probably is.

Edit and mix

Once your parts are tracked and arranged, it’s time to make it sound like a finished record. Some of the most standard editing and mixing practices include:

  • Adjusting volume and panning levels of each track to create a sense of space in your recording.
  • Tweaking the equalization of different sounds, voices, and instruments to make sure your parts aren’t competing to occupy the same sonic space. (Nearly any digital audio workstation you work with will have plenty of EQ options to play with.)
  • Adding reverb, compression, distortion, and other effects to give your sounds more depth and personality.
  • Editing your audio to cut out any unwanted noises or distracting parts of your recorded performances.
  • Crossfading between audio files, if you’re editing multiple takes together, for example.

Editing and mixing are arts unto themselves, but trust your ears and share your draft mixes with other musicians, engineers, and artists you trust. They may be able to hear and suggest things you’d never think of on your own.

Backup and bounce

One rule of thumb to use to ensure your work is secure: if a file doesn’t exist in three separate places, it doesn’t exist. The last thing you want is for your nearly finished song file to get corrupted, or the only hard drive housing it to keel over unexpectedly. Use cloud storage, thumb drives, or whatever else to make sure you have your precious work thoroughly protected, just in case.

Once your entire song is edited, mixed, and backed up to perfection, it’s time to export or bounce it as a stereo file. Before sharing your new music with the world, be sure to get it mastered — so make sure you bounce your song as a high-resolution AIF or WAV file (not an MP3).

Once your song is mixed and mastered, it’s time for the final steps — and Disc Makers can help you put your music on CDs and vinyl LPs so your new fans can get the best listening experience possible!

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About Philip Kinsher

Philip Kinsher is a writer, editor, and musician with a predilection for YA Sci-fi Fantasy books and rock and roll. And golf and pickleball.

3 thoughts on “How to Write a Song (and Arrange and Record It)

  1. Hi Phillip, Nice article! More details about the actual process of chosing chord progressions and melodies, along with other arrangement ideas would be welcome. If you made a follow up to each process outlined in this article, providing more instruction and details, I believe aspiring songwriters would benefit.

  2. This article is written by someone who has put in the miles and had to negotiate the slippery path of the music biz. Every thing here is true. I know because I’ve found out all this for myself.

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