Songwriting Tips

If you’re wanting to learn how to write a song and you’re not sure how to get started, we’ve put together our best tips, advice and resources to help you.

Beginner Songwriting Tips

write songs with guitarHere is how to start writing your songs. The table below shows the main elements of a song you should learn to analyze:

Song StructureIntro, verse, chorus. ABABCLearn the common repeating patterns.
Song Lyrics & Rhyme StructureUse of hooks, 1st person, 2nd person perspective, rhyme schemeHow are lyrics used to tell the story? Rhyme scheme: AABB, ABAB
Chord StructureWhat is the harmonic progression of the song?What is the emotional effect of the chords?
Rhythm StructureWhat is the rhythmic structure and pace?Is it upbeat, a ballad, 4/4, or 6/8 time?
Arrangement and ProductionHow is the song arranged and produced?What instruments are used and what feel does the recording impart?

When you start learning to analyze a song’s structure and elements, you’ll begin to understand how a song is written and put together.

How Do You Write a Song?

When you first sit down to create your song, you’ll likely need to come up with an idea. If you already have some good songwriting ideas, put the pen to paper and start writing.

If not, you’ll need to start brainstorming to come up with ideas. Sit down with a note pad and start writing down ideas for songs you’d like to write.

At this stage, don’t be too picky and just write down any ideas that come to mind. Let’s say that after brainstorming and writing down ideas, my list looked like this:

  • How hard it is to tell my girlfriend I love her, even though I’m truly in love with her (not true, just an example).
  • How I watched a video of my cousin who died and I saw how happy he was playing guitar and singing.
  • How my brain lights up when I hear my girlfriend’s heels clacking down the hallway when she’s coming over.

These are all good ideas for the concept and subject matter fBrainstorm song ideasor writing a song. All three ideas pack an emotional punch when I visualize each scene.

This is what we’re aiming for as our ultimate goal as songwriters: Emotional Punch

We want our song to hit people like an emotional stick of dynamite. If the song doesn’t make someone want to laugh, cry, feel grateful, or experience some other strong emotion, then your song idea is going to be a dud.

Let’s get back to my list. How do I take these initial topics and turn them into songs? The first thing I would do is to reduce the topic to a song hook and main theme. This song hook, or main theme, will be the central idea and thing our listeners will remember after hearing our song.

For the first topic, I might use a song theme/hook like: “I love you but my tongue gets tied.” or “Tongue-tied love.”

For the second topic: “Your last song lives forever.”

For the third topic: “I get so happy when I hear that clack, clacking.” Yes, it’s a bad rhyme, but at this point we’re still brainstorming.

How to Write Song Lyrics

Now that we’ve gotten our main song theme and song hook, let’s take a look at how to write a song lyrics. Let’s use example number two from above. We’ll use “Your last song lives forever” as our main hook for the song.

Let’s do more brainstorming and write ideas for the story. Let’s start with writing down who my cousin was as a person. Let’s describe him so our listeners can get to know him like I knew him.

1. Worker, painter, worked in the GM plant, played guitar.

2. Joked around a lot and made people smile.

3. A rebel and didn’t like to do what he was told.

4. Moved to Michigan to hunt and work at GM way far from Hawaii and his family.

5. Was always grateful for what he did have, and didn’t worry about what he didn’t.

I would then expand each of these facts about my cousin into verses. The payoff or hook would be, “Your last song lives forever.”

Next we reduce the facts into lines we can use in a song:

  • You worked hard building cars,
  • Though you moved so very far
  • Detroit was just like Mars
  • Still you loved that old guitar
  • Hook: “Though you’re gone now, your last song lives forever.”

You can build out each of those sections into a series of verses. I rhymed them here to show that you can also use them in one verse. Obviously, this is a rough example that needs to be polished quite a bit. I’m giving you an idea of how a song can be developed and how to write song lyrics.

Songwriting Techniques

Songwriters use techniques like rhyme schemes, hooks, and chord progressions to deliver maximum emotional punch. If you’re a beginner songwriter, it may seem like there are too many songwriting techniques to learn. The good news is that you can study them one at time and put them all together when you’re writing a song.

Here are the techniques and disciplines you should study:

Lyric writing, story, and rhyming: There are lots of good books on lyric writing and plenty of online rhyming resources. Learn the rhyme schemes common to most songs: ABAB, AABB. You’ll improve your lyric writing by writing more lyrics and paying attention to what other writers do. Every song should tell some type of story and you should work on this aspect of your songwriting.

Harmony and chord progressions: If you’re just learning how to play guitar and are not familiar with harmony and chord progressions, you’d be wise to start learning some music theory. Leaning music theory seems complicated and difficult at first, but it starts to make sense after you’ve learned the basics.

You need to get a basic understanding of the uses and feelings imparted by use of various types of chords. For example, the chart below shows the general feel a chord type imparts in music:

Tonic or I ChordAt rest, feeling of being back to home
Supertonic or ii ChordOn the move, feeling of action
Mediant or iii ChordAt rest, a substitute for the I chord
Subdominant or IV ChordOn the move, feeling of transition
Dominant or V ChordFeeling of unrest, wanting to resolve to home or I chord

When you get into the study of music theory, you’ll learn there are reasons why those chords sound the way they do and impart feelings of being at rest or on the move. It has to do with the combination of notes in each chord and the tension or lack of tension these combinations create.

To start, you should study some of the most used chord progressions like the ones below:

I-IV-V-I"Lay Down Sally"Eric Clapton
I-V-vi-iv"With or Without You"U2
I-vi-iv-V"Stand by Me"Ben E. King
I-IV-I-V"Brown Eyed Girl"Van Morrison

Do you want to watch an awesome class and lecture on songwriting by Ralph Murphy from Loyola University? Free content like this is why I love the Internet.

More Songwriting Tools and Tips

Here are some more songwriting tips I can offer you and recommendations of good songwriting software.

If you want to write songs you should learn how to play an instrument that you can play chords on. Since I started as a guitar player, I’m partial to guitar, but I also use the keyboard to write songs. Guitar and piano produce different sounds, and the style of song I’m writing dictates which instrument I use.

What do I mean by an instrument you can play chords on? Instruments like guitar, piano, electronic keyboards, and even harps allow you to play more than one note at a time. Playing chords allows you to establish the harmony of a song which is an integral component of songwriting. I plan to publish a resource guide that shows sites with tools to help you to write a song online.

I would not recommend learning an instrument that’s normally used for single note playing for songwriting. Such instruments include the violin, clarinet, trumpet, flute, and any instrument that only sounds single notes. Sure you can use those instruments for writing melodies, but for chords they generally won’t work well.

Songwriting software I’ve used includes Masterwriter, Logic Pro, and Easy Drummer.

Masterwriter is an awesome songwriting tool that offers a comprehensive collection of descriptive words, rhymes, phrases, synonyms, and alliteration. If you get stuck, it’s a great tool to get unstuck and find new ideas. It’s got tools to organize and access your songs and projects. They offer a free trial so you can test it out for yourself. Current price is $199.

Logic Pro X is a music production program by Apple that I use to arrange and produce demos of my songs. Like all music production software, Logic Pro has a steep learning curve, but when you learn how to harness it’s power, your payoff is huge. Many of my best songs would never have been written without the help of Logic Pro software. Current price is $199.99.

Easy Drummer 2 is by Toontrack and is used to create drum grooves, fills, and custom sounds. I actually used the first version of Easy Drummer which is no longer available. When I write rock and blues songs, it often starts with a good drum groove for me. Logic Pro X now has a cool Logic Pro Drummer component built into it, so I’m not sure if buying a separate program like Easy Drummer 2 is worth it.

Songwriting Books

I have a collection of over 20 songwriting books, but here are my three favorite ones by far:

If They Ask You, You Can Write a Song by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. This book is an old classic on songwriting and the information it contains is still valid and useful.

Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell by Robin Frederick. Robin Frederick is a hit songwriter herself and an industry expert. Her book is full of great tips, practical advice, and songwriting exercises. I especially like that she give recommendations of examples of songs to listen to, to illustrate her points.

Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo. This is my overall favorite book on songwriting because Paul Zollo gets into deep discussions with legendary songwriters. We get to hear how legends like Bob Dylan, Carole King, and Tom Petty think about songwriting and how they actually write songs. Reading the interviews will give you plenty of good tips for songwriting. This book is extremely inspirational and will motivate you like no other book I know on how to be a songwriter.

How Can You Get Help?

Can you help me write a song?” I’ve been asked this question many times by beginning songwriters. The answer is yes, I can help you. I can help you brainstorm ideas, I can help you narrow down to the best ideas, and I can help you come up with a theme or main hook.

I can suggest ways to tell the story and help you with chord progressions. Would that mean I’m a co-writer or collaborator and want writer’s credits? If you’re hiring me to help you with your songwriting, then the answer is no, I would not expect co-writing credits.

Who am I and why would you want to hire me as a songwriting coach? I’m a published songwriter, but I have no major hits to my name and only small royalty checks to show for my songwriting efforts. Songwriting for me is a creative outlet and I never pursued it as a business.

Why have I not pursued songwriting as a career? I feel some of my songs are strong enough for commercial appeal, but I don’t want to bet my potential livelihood on uncertainty. In other words, I need to earn a living in ways I know are reliable. I didn’t want to spend my life waiting tables and years shopping my songs around and hoping for my “big hit.” I also didn’t want to bet on landing one of the few staff songwriting jobs in the business.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s important to know who you’re working with and what my experience is and what I can teach you.

If you’d like to work with me, request a sample of a couple of my songs.

Conclusion

Learning how to write songs is challenging and there are lots of skills to learn and disciplines to study. While in the process of writing a song, I sometimes feel like pulling my hair out when I’m stuck. But the payoff is so huge when I finish a song and it comes out just as I intended, that the anticipated reward keeps me going during the rough spots.

I’d like to hear how you feel when you finish your first song in the comments below.