How to Write a Song

There is no one right or wrong way to write a song, but here are some tips and places to start. I found songwriting completely impossible for a long time, but now I write songs regularly. My main problem was an attitude of thinking songs had to be somehow divinely inspired, and that if a perfect melody didn’t appear in my head, then it was hopeless. Gradually I’ve learned that songwriting is just like anything else: you start somewhere, you mess around, if you don’t like it you change it or toss it out and try again. Here are two ways I’ve found helpful for finding your way into a song when you don’t know where to start.

Method 1: Start with a Phrase

If you know what you want your song to be about but not how you want it to sound, try jotting down some phrases related to your topic. (So that I don’t spoil all the Sisyphus ideas, I’m going to use Pandora as an example here). Write down anything you find interesting, poignant, or just things the story makes you think of. I might write:

  • Crown full of monsters
  • An evil for a good
  • Mud in the shape of a girl
  • Mother of the race of women
  • Silver robes
  • (etc.)

Look over the phrases you’ve jotted down. Pick one that you like the sound of. Say it over and over.

Sometimes at this point some magic happens and a melody will reveal itself to you. If it does, document it as quickly as possible! There is nothing worse than forgetting a melody you came up with. I like to use the voice memo app on my phone to record an idea as soon as I get it.

If the magic doesn’t happen yet, that’s okay! Try putting notes to the words. Try an ascending series, a descending series, staying on the same note, jumping a fifth or an octave. You may find this easier to do with a piano, guitar, or other instrument on hand.

Sooner or later, you will find some combination of notes that sounds okay with the words. You’re not married to these notes, you can always change them later, but now you have a foothold. Record them in a voice memo to make sure you will not lose them!

Now choose another phrase. This could be something from your list, or you could expand on the first line. For example, if I started with the line “Mud in the shape of a girl,” I might want to make the whole first verse about Pandora being made out of clay. I might try to think of a phrase with a similar rhythmic shape, e.g., “Dried by the heat of the sun.”

Now try putting notes to your second phrase. You can mess around in the same way as before, but you also now have a first line to build on, so you can consider things like keeping the first few notes the same but then making a surprising turn to different notes (go up at the end instead of down, that kind of thing), or moving the same melody line up or down a step or two. Try stuff out. Find something you like. Document it! Sing the two lines together. Do you like how they sound together? If not, keep tinkering! If so, then keep repeating these steps until you have a whole verse and a whole chorus. (If you want a verse and chorus, that is! There are many other song structures besides verse-chorus, any of which might inspire you).

Now you’re on the home stretch! You have music and lyrics for one verse and the chorus. All you need now are lyrics for additional verses. You have a ready-made musical and rhythmic frame to fit your lyrics into. Unless, of course, you decide your song needs a bridge, in which case, use the same process to write one.

Method 2: Start with Chords

Sometimes it is easier to go in the opposite direction. Start by trying out combinations of chords. You can do this on your instrument of choice, or use online tools like chordchord.com. There are many “standard” chord progressions, such as I vi IV V (i.e. C Am F G) or twelve-bar blues. Any of these would be a good starting place, but if nothing excites you, just try sticking random chords together and see what it sounds like. Try playing in different keys, which can shake your brain into coming up with different combinations. Chordchord even has a random chord progression generator that you could use, like rolling the dice, to try out different ones. You’ll find that each combination of chords has a different mood and feel. Try to find a series of four chords that feels right for your song idea. (Or, if you don’t have an idea yet, just find one that sounds cool to you).

Once you have a combination of chords, play them over and over and over. Get them into your head, heart, bones, etc. Try singing or playing some notes over them. Now you don’t have to pull notes out of thin air, because you already have chords. You want to mostly use notes that harmonize with the current chord. So if your chord is C, try out things involving C, E, and G (it’s fine to have other notes in there but these are the ones that will sound good to dwell on). Again, as soon as something sounds even a little bit good to you, document it, keep tinkering, build on it.

You may want to use different chords for your chorus. If so, repeat this process to find a second set of chords that sound good alternating with your verse chords.

Once you get chords and a melody you like, write the lyrics. You already have the melody as a framework to fill in with words. Sometimes this just happens easily, but if not, I like to write out how many syllables each line has and whether they are long (—) or short (u). So if my first line has two quarter notes followed by two half notes, I would write u u — —. Then write out as many phrases you can think of that would fit that rhythm. They do not even have to be related to your song idea. It helps generate ideas just to try out a whole bunch of things. Maybe you write down “I’m a teapot” and then realize that “I’m a” sounds good as a line beginning, then write “I’m a mermaid, I’m a mailman, I’m a pinecone…” until eventually this generates something you like. Repeat this process for each line of your melody. If you already have a strong idea of what the song is about, the process is the same, but focused on trying to fit the things you want to convey in the song into the framework of your notes.

Another thing to consider as you go is whether you want rhyme and if so, where. AABB, ABAB, ABBA, ABCB, ABCA, ABAC are all good options. It is fine to leave your rhyme scheme loose, since the precision of rhymes is much less noticeable in song than in writing or speech. Sometimes it’s enough to have the same vowel sound, like “know/road” or “sea/meet.” And of course, you don’t have to have it rhyme at all if you don’t feel like it.

Method 3: Write the Lyrics First

You can also start by writing out all of the lyrics before you tackle the music. This is similar to writing a rhymed, metered poem. Your words do not necessarily have to rhyme, but you do want to have the same number of lines and syllables in each verse. Once you are happy with your lyrics, use either of the methods described above to find a melody for your lyrics.

Method 4: Start with Some Other Song

One tricky thing about songwriting is that it is easy to think you’ve come up with a new tune, only to realize it is actually a pre-existing tune that was in your head. This isn’t necessarily detrimental. If it happens, try to determine just how similar they are. Sometimes you can salvage your song by incrementally changing things about it. Swap out some of the chords, find ways to vary the melody so that it is no longer so similar to the other song, and/or switch around the order of the lines and musical phrases.

This can also be a helpful place to start (on purpose) if you are stuck. Choose an old or common song that you like. The first time someone showed me how to do this, we used “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Choose one line and try changing it in various ways. Switch from major to minor or vice versa, speed it up, slow it down, change the lengths of the notes, change ups to downs, change small intervals to big ones. You are not trying to steal this song and pass it off as your own, you are just taking its notes as a starting point to find your own notes. Try things out and mess around until you have an entirely new song. Of course, it is somewhat arbitrary what counts as “an entirely new song,” so you can try singing your song for a friend to see if they recognize the tune.