One of the most valuable things you can do as a musician or music producer is write your own material. Knowing how to write a song is extremely valuable; whether it’s a song you are going to sing yourself, or one intended for other artists to perform.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and even work with, some very successful songwriters over the past few years. Here I have tried to list some of the tips I have managed to pick up from them, together with some things I have learned from experience along the way.
All Songwriters Face the Same Challenges
When I started to network with successful songwriters I imagined they would be musical and lyrical geniuses, and that writing great songs would be easy for them.
It turned out that wasn’t the case. They didn’t really have better ideas for songs than me, and a lot of them weren’t very good musicians. However, where I would fail to commit the time for writing, or give up as soon as an idea wasn’t working, they kept going. They took (and continue to take) consistent action.
Something they have in common is that they all talked about having a process or framework of some sort that helps them to keep on track with their writing. That is, they all know how to write a song.
Here I have listed some parts of the writing process that successful songwriters talk about, and that I have found helpful with my own writing.
The items follow a fairly logical order, so they could be called “steps” rather than “tips”, or you could just pick one from the list that relates to the stage you are at with a song you are writing. Anyway, I hope you find them helpful.
1. Brainstorm Ideas for Songs and Keep a “Hook Book”
Songwriters in Nashville often talk about keeping a “hook book”. This is really just a way of saving your ideas for songs.
By the way, this doesn’t have to be an actual book that you write in. Nowadays, the most useful type of hook book is probably your smartphone.
With your phone, you can record ideas into it, type ideas, take pictures of ideas, and more. Also, when was the last time you didn’t have your phone with you?
The song ideas could be titles, or just little bits of lyrics that sound good. However, the strongest ideas will be the ones that will lead to the main focus for your song, which will probably be the title, or the “hook” (which is usually also the title anyway).
So, where do you find these song ideas?
Ideas for songs are all around you. One of the things that successful songwriters do is actively look and listen for song ideas all the time. This is why they often keep a hook book so they don’t lose them.
Remember that successful songwriters often depend on the songs they write to make a living, so they don’t want to lose a single idea (good or bad).
Some Suggestions for Finding Song Ideas:
Look for song titles and ideas on Amazon
Other online bookstores are available, and I’m just using Amazon as an example, but it is the biggest and will have the most potential for song ideas.
If you just look at the book section on Amazon (or other online bookstore) you can get lots of ideas for songs quite quickly.
I just had a quick look myself, and on the first general books page I already saw some that might be quite good. Here they are:
Ugly Love, Escape Room, Lying in Wait, Reminders of Him, A Terrible Kindness, The Light in the Hallway, The Fine Print, Things We Never Say, Should I Tell You?
Now, all I did was just make a note of some book titles that I saw on the page. They might be titles for songs, they might be lines that could be used as a refrain, or as a line in a chorus (more information on these parts of songs below). You can really just look for things that catch your eye.
Look for song titles and ideas on Netflix
As with the Amazon bookstore above, any online TV or movie streaming site can be used to look for song ideas.
Again, just a quick look through provided some possible song ideas or titles. Here y’are:
In From the Cold, The Guilty, The Unforgivable, Don’t Look Up, Hit and Run, The Fall, Inside Job, Love Hard, Me Before You, Just Friends, One Day, I Love You Stupid.
TV and movie titles (and book titles) are often designed to catch your attention, so it’s likely that you’ll find some good ones to use in your songwriting.
You can’t copyright a title
Something to note is that titles can’t be copyrighted. It’s okay to use established titles from books, films and TV as the titles for your songs.
You can find out more about what copyright does and doesn’t protect on this page from the US Copyright Office website. Songs – yes, song titles – no.
Look out for killer lines in TV shows and movies
While you are watching TV shows and movies listen out for killer lines that you could use in a song. If it’s a great line it might be a good hook or title, or you could maybe just use it as a line in a song.
Listen for snippets of conversation
I keep reading about how you should eavesdrop on other people’s conversations for phrases you can use in your songs. However, I don’t think I have ever been able to do this very successfully. Maybe you’ll have more luck.
It’s probably easier (and safer) to watch and listen to conversations in movies and TV shows.
These are just ideas
Remember, these are just ideas, and an idea doesn’t get you very far until you do something with it. You need to develop your ideas into a song.
2. Trust in Your Song Ideas and Develop Them
This is one of the stages where the song idea development process falls apart for a lot of people. Imagine this (assuming you haven’t actually made this mistake yourself).
You have just spent an hour collecting book titles and movie titles for your songwriting hook book. Also, you have been watching films and TV shows, making a note of cool phrases as you go.
Then you sit down to have a look at your list of song ideas, and one by one you dismiss them and cross them off your list. All of a sudden, none of the initial ideas look very good at all. So what just happened?
The critical side of your brain gets involved
The problem is that you were probably in a creative, non-judgemental mode when you were collecting ideas. Now the critical side of your brain starts working and rejects all your ideas.
The critical side of your brain could be looking for a way out
You need to suspend your critical thinking processes for a little bit longer and give your ideas more of a chance. Your critical brain is probably thinking about how much work will be involved in turning these ideas into songs, and it’s trying to take the easy way out.
So what should you do?
Go through each idea on your list and add some additional information relating to people and situations for each one. This doesn’t take much work and avoids having to start thinking about how to turn the idea into a song for a bit longer.
As an example, I just looked through one of the lists above and chose Don’t Look Up at random.
As you probably know, this is the title of a movie about a comet on a collision course with planet Earth. However, we will just be using the film title to help us think of ideas for songs.
An idea that I thought of for this title was for a song about someone who is just getting on with life day to day without ever thinking about where they are heading. Or maybe they are in a situation they just need to get through, so they tell themselves “Don’t look up”.
Another idea I just thought of for Don’t Look Up, is someone approaching a person that they would like to talk to, and they are praying the person doesn’t look up as they approach because they know they will lose their nerve.
There could be other (probably better) ideas. I’m sure there are. Remember, at this stage you are just looking for something with potential.
3. Decide What Your Song Is About
Now that you have picked one of your ideas to develop you need to decide what your song is going to be about.
As we saw in the previous section, you will probably have more than one initial idea, so you’ll have to pin yourself down to the one you think is the best.
There are several different ways that a title or phrase can be developed into a song, so don’t settle for your first idea.
Some song titles (which would have started as initial ideas, as above) have been used in a number of different songs. For example Hello.
I can think of at least three songs with this title, performed by Adele, Lionel Ritchie, and Eminem, and I’ll bet there are plenty more. In each case the word “hello” means something slightly different.
Play with your song idea
You can play around with your idea before you start developing it into a song.
Sticking with the Hello idea above, how about adding some more words?
For example, Hello Goodbye (The Beatles), Hello, I Must Be Going (Phil Collins), or You Had Me From Hello (Kenny Chesney and Bon Jovi). As you probably know, the title of the last one comes from a phrase in the movie Jerry McGuire.
You could also think about the words and phrases in your hook book as concepts rather than just titles.
Again, sticking with Hello, the movie star Lee Marvin had a hit record many years ago called Wandering Star, about someone who is always on the move. It was actually spelled Wand’rin Star, and was a song featured in the film Paint Your Wagon.
There were some great lines relating to the concept of Hello in the song:
Do I know where Hell is?
Hell is in “hello”
Heaven is goodbye for ever
It’s time for me to go
I was born under a wandering star
If you had started with this idea about “Hell is in hello”, you might have come up with the idea of someone who is not keen on meeting new people, is always on the move, and says he was born under a wandering star.
This may be the process followed by the writers of Wand’rin Star, who were Alan J Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
There are lots of ways to approach the development of any initial song ideas you come up with. It’s just a case of trying thing out to see what you like.
Commit to one thing that the song is about
The time has come when you need to commit to the one thing that the song is about. You have to be clear in your own mind what it the song is about and what you are going to say in it.
Are you telling someone you love them? Or that you don’t love them? Or that you can’t make them love you? Or that they should just try living without you?
Even if your song is going to tell some sort of story, there will be one particular thing that you want to say.
Country songs often have a story to tell, but usually there’s clear message in the lyrics. However, it’s not just country songs – most successful songs have a strong point to make, even if it’s just that you should be dancing.
4. Plan Your Song Out
Once you know what your song is about you should plan it out to develop the song structure.
This helps to avoid what is sometimes called “second verse hell”. Second verse hell is where you have written a verse, and maybe a chorus, but then you don’t know where to go with it for the rest of the song.
With a song plan you can decide what the first verse is about, what the second verse is about, and so on.
Remember, the main thing that your song is about will probably be covered in the chorus. This is the main point of the song, so you will normally repeat it, with the verses telling some sort of story relating to the message.
It’s at this point that you can start to think about the song’s structure. You probably already know about the various options for song structures, which are usually summarised using different letters.
Here are some examples of song structures that you could use for the song you are writing, with a little bit of explanation for each.
AAA – Strophic Song Form
Songs using this structure have a number of verses. Each verse is indicated by the letter A, and because the letters are the same throughout each section has the same structure for lyrics and melody.
Often the message of the song is presented in the final line of each verse. This repeated message is referred to as the “refrain”. This refrain can be thought of as the “hook” of the song that we talked about earlier.
The refrain can be very important, since it helps the listener to follow the song more easily. It brings the listener back to the message of the song, and sets them up for the next verse.
The melody is normally the same for each verse, although some more complex songs using this form have a different melody for each verse.
You can have as many verses as you like in this type of song, and you may have come across example of this in folk music, where this form is popular. Some of these songs can be fairly long, telling quite complex stories.
ABAB(AB) – Verse-Chorus Songs
In verse-chorus songs the refrain from the previous type (AAA – strophic) has been further developed into a standalone section, which is repeated throughout the song.
The chorus section is indicated by B in ABAB(AB), since it is different from section A, the verse. The (AB) in brackets indicates that you can have more verses, each followed by a chorus.
In theory you can have as many verses (each followed by a chorus) as you like, but the listener will probably lose interest in your song after a few of them. The AAA song form outlined earlier is more normally used for very long songs, since the short refrain, rather than a long chorus, helps to prevent the listener getting bored
As with the refrain in the previous example, the chorus contains the central message, or meaning, of the song and is normally the same each type it is sung.
Sometimes there are two verses at the beginning to help establish the story of the song before hearing the chorus for the first time. This is still a verse-chorus song, and it’s usually indicated as AABAB in song form shorthand.
The melody of the song often lifts in the chorus, since this is normally the emotional high-point of the song.
In most cases the chorus will be what the listener likes most about the song, and they are probably looking forward to it coming around again in the song as they listen.
If you ask someone how a verse-chorus song goes, they will usually sing you the chorus. This means that the choruses in successful songs are very memorable (containing a strong central idea), which goes a long way to explaining their success.
ABABCB – Verse-Chorus-Bridge Songs
In verse-chorus-bridge songs there are often two verses (A sections), each followed by a chorus (B section). But then there’s a “bridge” section (C section), sometimes called the middle-eight, which is sung before coming back for one more repeat of the chorus.
The bridge section provides an opportunity to provide some more information, and sometimes looks at the subject of the song from a different point of view.
The song bridge section that people have talked about most recently is probably the one in Olivia Rodrigo’s drivers license. I have tried out outline how this works here.
Olivia Rodrigo – drivers license
In “drivers license” the verses present quite matter of fact information.
Verse 1 – A. I finally got my driver’s license but you’re not around to drive with me.
Verse 2 – A. I’m bummed that you’re probably with that blonde girl.
Verse 3 – A. My friends are bored with me talking about you
Chorus – B. I can’t believe that we’re not together anymore and you don’t care.
Bridge – C. This is where the singer lets rip as everything about how driving reminds her of her situation and she becomes very emotional before coming back down in emotional level for the final chorus.
So, with this song form the bridge can be the emotional peak of the song. We’ve heard the verses, we understand the story, the choruses tell us the message of the song, but then the bridge can hit us with something new that stimulates an emotional response.
However, it’s helpful to note that the chorus still contains the main message of the song – “I can’t believe we’re not together anymore and you don’t care”. We keep returning to the chorus, so the point of the song is reinforced for us.
Other hit songs that have a bridge providing additional information include Strawberry Wine (recorded by Deanna Carter) where the singer reflects on her life, Without Me (recorded by Halsey) where the singer reveals why she feels so let down, Stay (recorded by Sugarland) where the singer isn’t putting up with the situation any more.
Many hit songs use this structure, and it’s the one that I personally try to focus on when writing.
I find that it provides an opportunity to tell a story, have a memorable chorus (hopefully), and say a little bit more about the situation in the bridge section.
Just going back to the AAA form we looked at earlier earlier. Sometimes this type of song has a bridge section too, and in this case it’s called the AABA form.
Here you would have the verses with a refrain at the end of each one, and a bridge section to take the listener somewhere else for a little while before coming back for the final verse.
A little note about song structure terminology
Please note that you have to be careful with the terminology used in descriptions of song structure and song sections. For example, sometimes the bridge is referred to as the “B-section”, and a bridge can sometimes mean the “pre-chorus”.
I haven’t mentioned pre-choruses so far, but this is usually a short section at the end of the verse that leads into the chorus. This is why it can be referred to as a bridge, since it provides a connection between the verse and the chorus.
A pre-chorus can also be referred to as “the lift”, since it acts to lift the chorus up towards the chorus, often with some increase in energy during the transition.
5. Choose a Musical Style to Fit Your Song Idea
Now that you know what your song is about and have an idea about the type of structure it might have, you can choose the type of musical style that is appropriate.
You may have come across the terms “prosody” in relation to songwriting. In the songwriting context it usually means that the words and the music fit well together.
So, if it’s a happy song that you are writing the melody is likely to be happy, and it may be an uptempo song. If the lyrics are about sadness and loss then the melody is likely to be sad too, and maybe a fairly slow tempo.
These aren’t hard and fast rules, there are plenty of exceptions, but so that the listener understands your song and is affected emotionally it’s usually best for the lyrics and music to fit together appropriately.
At this stage you are often just thinking about approaches to the song you are writing rather then actually writing chord progressions and melodies.
For example, is it a country song, or a rock song, or a ballad, or reggae, or reggaeton, or a dance track or a song with a hip-hop feel, or any of the many other options available.
6. Keep a Recorder Running All the Time
In the next couple of sections you will be turning what you have worked out so far into an actual song, with lyrics and a melody of some sort. For this reason it’s important to record everything you are doing.
This was something that almost all successful songwriters recommend so that you don’t lose a single idea.
We have probably all had the experience of singing a melody we are writing in a particular way that we love, and then not being able to remember how we did it or how it actually sounded.
It’s these unusual and striking little pieces of melody that can turn a song into a hit.
Think of all the quirky melodies in hit songs that the writer would be very unlikely to produce unless it came out by accident. This might be how the writers of these songs came up with them in the first place.
Examples of my own favorite songs with quirky melodies include, Our lips Are Sealed by the Go-Go’s, Here, There and Everywhere by the Beatles, and the opening of Wrecking ball by Miley Cyrus.
Record your ideas as you come up with them
So you need to have a recorder of some sort running all the time while you are writing. This would be most important for chord progression and melody writing, but it applied to lyrics too. Anything you might do once and then forget how you did it.
You could use the recorder in your phone, or have a specific digital recorder (I sometimes use the Zoom H1n since it’s easy to switch recording on and off). You could even use the camera on your phone or the webcam on your computer if you want to see what you did too.
If nothing you have recorded is important you can delete it right away to avoid filling up the memory available.
If you do capture anything good but it’s part of a really long, otherwise rubbish, recording you can keep just the part you need. Digital files can be imported into your computer and you can remove the unimportant information, keeping only the valuable ideas.
DAW (digital audio workstation) software often includes a facility to avoid losing ideas now too.
Often in the past you might be playing something on your MIDI keyboard that sounds great, but then you can’t remember how you did it. DAW software can provide a way to save what you just played, even though you hadn’t set it up to be recorded in advance.
7. Experiment With Chords and Melodies
Unless you are very musically accomplished and can write melodies easily, you will probably have to experiment with different chords and melodies to write the music for your song.
You can play chords on an instrument like a guitar or piano, and sing along until you find a melody you like. This approach is sometimes called “strum and hum”.
If you have some lyric lines already you can sing those and see what chords and melody fit with your draft lyrics.
Alternatively you can sing nonsense words just to have some sounds on which to base your vocal melody. You probably know the story of Paul McCartney’s nonsense lyrics while he was writing Yesterday. He used “scrambled eggs” to sing the melody until he came up with some lyrics.
Use loops and samples
There is a huge range of musical loops and samples available that you can use, rather than playing chords on guitar or piano and singing along.
The use of audio material that already sounds good can be more inspiring than singing along with your own guitar or piano playing. Depending on your musical skills, your own playing can sound “amateurish” and could stop you believing that your song ideas are worth developing (don’t stop believing).
Also, there’s risk that you might just play the same old chord progressions and note sequences if you do it yourself. This is due to “muscle memory” and habit.
Using loops and other audio material takes you in a different direction and can help you to write a much better song.
Try things out
There isn’t really much more advise to offer at this stage other than “just do it”. Just trying things out, combining your lyrical ideas with your chord and melody ideas will lead to something that can be developed into a complete song.
It might be a section of chorus that sounds good, or you might complete the words and music for the first verse of your song. Whatever it is, you will have something that can be structured into a meaningful song.
8. Write Your Song From Your Outline
To say “now write your song” might sound like a bit of a cop-out here, but by this stage we have a lot of material and it’s now a case of fitting it all together.
You should have a title, or hook, for your song that expresses the main idea, and you know what your song is about.
You have a structure in mind for your song – AAA, ABAB, ABABCB, etc
You have a musical style that fits the theme or mood of your song.
You have been recording your lyrical and melodic ideas as you develop them so you don’t lose anything valuable, and you have started to fit your words together with sections of music.
So let’s say you are going to use my usual song structure of choice: the ABABCB song. Here’s what I would do.
On a document of some kind put your chorus section (whatever shape it’s in at this point), and place it under the word “Chorus”. Remember, this contains the main idea of your song and putting it in first can help to inspire the rest of your song.
Above that put whatever you have for Verse 1. If you have already written anything for Verse 2 put that under the chorus. Now copy your draft chorus under Verse 2.
Now write the word “Bridge” and copy your draft chorus under it.
You will have the following:
But in your case each heading will have something written under it.
How does it look?
It should look good to you, since you now have the outline of your song.
Bear in mind, the chorus repeats three times, so you only have to write that once.
At this point you can decide how many lines you need in each verse, and how long the chorus should be. Your bridge/middle eight might only need to be a couple of lines long before going back to the chorus, so you are now getting somewhere.
If you have some lines that still need lyrics just fill them in with nonsense words for now. The way that lyrics sound can be as important as what they mean in modern music, so just singing nonsense syllables that sound good can take you a long way.
You might even just decide the keep them rather than changing them for words that mean something. Remember Sussudio by Phill Collins or Bad Romance by Lady GaGa?
9. Record and Rewrite Your Song
Even though you have been recording your work as you go (you have, haven’t you?), you should make a recording of the whole thing as soon as you have finished the first complete draft.
Why should you do this? One reason is because you might lose interest in the song at this stage, and then come across it much later, but be unable to remember how it goes.
This initial recording of the song is often referred to as a “work tape”, even though it’s not usually recorded on tape any more.
As you listen back to your work tape you will probably have some ideas for how the song can be improved. This might be soon after you wrote it, or much later on when you come back to revisit songs you wrote some time ago.
Either way, now you have a complete recording of your initial song draft to work with. This means you are in “editing mode”, and your critical side of your brain can listen carefully and make decisions about what you can do to improve your song.
Remember the old saying – “Great songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten”.
Rewriting Your Song
Having reached this fairly advanced stage in the writing of your song it becomes much easier, and much more fun, to work on your song and make it as good as it can be.
Doing this thorough rewriting at an earlier stage of the songwriting process can be tedious and can make you not want to continue writing the song.
Rewriting this first draft can actually be fun, and can feel like you are critiquing and developing a song written by someone else (especially if you leave it a few days before starting this rewrite). This feels easier now because we can usually say what we do or don’t like about other people’s songs.
Maybe I should do a follow up article to How to Write a Song called How to Rewrite a Song.
Successful Songwriters Don’t Settle
Something that successful songwriter’s don’t do is settle for their initial attempts. They don’t just accept the first draft of a song and think “that will do” – they keep working on it and rewriting until it’s as good as it can be.
Once your song is rewritten to be the best song it can be you can make a decision about how far you want to go with a final recording.
At this stage there are a number of options for how far you take the recording process for your song.
You could just make a final work tape so you have an audio record of your song. Or, you could make a high-quality demo to send to artists who might want to record your song. Or you could make a professional standard recording of the song yourself.
If you aren’t sure about where to take your finished song, one option is to enter it into a songwriting contest. You can read more about songwriting contests in another article on the website if you would like to explore this option.
10. Write More Songs – You Learn by Doing It
Any successful songwriter will tell you that you learn how to write songs by doing it. The more songs you write, the better you get.
It won’t work to just sit around planning to write the one great song that will make your dreams come true. Learning everything you can about songwriting before writing that great song.
You have to write songs all the time. Professional songwriters in Nashville talk about how they have writing appointments with other writers every day, and often the songs they write aren’t very good. But they keep writing.
Sometimes the writers don’t think the song is very good, but once it’s recorded it becomes a huge hit (e.g. Need You Now by Lady A). But they don’t know that at the time so they just keep on writing.
One of the main things I have noticed about the successful songwriters that I have met is that they write songs.
That might sound strange and obvious, but what I mean is that they are consistently writing songs, and they do it almost every day, or every chance they get.
Songwriting can be hard work, and it’s easy to become discouraged when things aren’t working. Successful, professional songwriters keep going even when it’s not working out for them.
They have to trust their process and keep working, with the belief that they know how to write a song.
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