5 Easy To Follow Songwriting Tips

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A lot of my posts have been aimed at the establishing songwriter. The current composer. The working performer. Those who are starting out, working their way up in the industry, but already have a few years of musicianship under their belt. These people tend to already be at least halfway into the muso-mindset. This is their passion. Their dream. Their desired vocation. They already express themselves playing their own or other people’s music every single day.

And I, from my more professional vantage, having been dishing out the sort of pro-tips that you need to extend that dream you’re living in into an ongoing reality, your actual full-time vocation; a method by which to turn your creative output into a workable long-term career.

But today, I want dial things back a few paces. I want to address those who’ve never successfully written a song. I want to address the people dreaming of a future in which this music thing becomes more than a meaningful pastime. I want to address the musician who’s always thought they just weren’t the creative-type, that songwriting was a thing for other people.

But first I need to clarify something for you. SONGWRITING IS NOT JUST FOR OTHER PEOPLE. That’s patently untrue. People are creative by nature, and music is one of the absolute best mediums for expressing that creativity. Dave Grohl and Sir Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) were just drummers in famous bands originally. Both have gone on to write and record RIAA-certified “Platinum” records.

So, no matter where you’re at as a musician, whether you’re an old hat or a new goose, it’s time to get creative and begin writing your own songs. There’s no specific method or structure that you have to follow as a songwriter. All the same, to somebody who’s never really done it before, it can be as daunting as playing Wembley Stadium. As such, I’ve laid the whole process out below as a template for you in the following 5 easy steps.

1) Pick your key and chord progressions.

As I’m sure I’ll dig into in more detail elsewhere, there’s only really four fundamental elements to a song: Melody, Lyrics, Rhythm, and the underlying Harmony (Chords). With the exception of important Riffs and Solos, the Melody is generally coupled together with the Lyrics. The Rhythm and Harmonic progression, on the other hand, generally couple together in the form of instrumental accompaniment.

(Obviously, if acapella groups on YouTube have taught us nothing else, it’s that you can do all four of these fundamental elements with just human voices if you really want to, but that’s beside the point. Today, I’m talking about what a single person, in terms of musical expression, can do with their hands and their voice.)

As you build a song step-by-step, you need to start somewhere, and that easiest somewhere (for anyone with even the vaguest musical background) to begin is the Chords.

Let’s do this together.

Pick your key. I personally play guitar more than piano, so I’m going to default to popular guitar shapes and pick the key of G. Now, there are only really 7 chords in a key. In the key of G, they are: G-major, A-minor, B-minor, C-major, D-major (or D7), E-minor and F-sharp-diminished.

Now, we can happily forget the diminished chord for the time being; that leaves us with only 6 chords to choose from. 3 major chords. 3 minor chords. And you definitely DON’T need to use all 6. (Most contemporary songs use only 3-5 chords throughout the entire song.) Each chord has a slightly different feeling to it, but generally speaking, the major chords are happier, and the minor chords are more sad, melancholy, thoughtful, etc. Depending on the emotional direction of the song, you may want focus more on major chords, minor chords, or shift that focus between verse and chorus and bridge to show emotional development as the song progresses. We don’t need to all the words yet, just the general feeling we’re trying to convey.

So, let’s say we’re writing a relationship song. It’s not a straight love song. It’s not a break-up song. It’s just an emotional journey in which we can express thoughts, questions, even concerns we might have, because we’re currently incapable of actually having that conversation directly with our partner/love interest, and songs are a great method for unpacking our feelings. So maybe we’re uncertain, unresolved, flipping back and forth between major and minor chords, something like:

Em, D, Am, C :|| OR Em, C, Am, D :||

I’ve avoided the tonic/home chord altogether (G), because that’s where the resolution happens, and that will come later. Now, we can’t do both here unless we combine them into an 8-bar progression, and let’s not overcomplicate this for ourselves; a 4-bar is more than sufficient for a pop/rock/folk song. So, I would play around with those two progressions, i’d maybe try some different inversions, some different strumming or picking patterns with them, until I land upon something that most closely matches the feeling I’m going for. In this case, because I do want that hopefulness in the chorus, and because my Am-to-D combination sets up a really powerful 2-5-1 cadence leading into my tonic/home chord, I’m going to choose the second option for my verse: Em, C, Am, D :||

Now, the chorus… I already know I want it to start with a G-chord. And if my 3rd and 4th chords are that same Am-to-D combination, I can continue to monopolize on that driving cadence pushing the song forward. So, to keep things really simple, I might just take that same progression from my verse, but substitute that E-minor chord for a G-major, making my chorus: G, C, Am, D :|| However, because I don’t want it to sound too obviously similar and repetitive, I might do 2 bars of each chord and only repeat the progression twice, effectively halving the feel/beat/timing of the chorus. This also serves to give the listener a feeling of greater stability which is really what I’m going for after the less stable, less certain verse.

Now, I do want my song to have a bridge for a half-dozen reasons that I won’t articulate here, and I do still want it to be generally hopeful, though less certain than the chorus, so I would opt for something like:

C, C, Am, D :|| OR C, Bm, Am, D :||

I’m avoiding the resolution-G-chord again, so I can continue to nail down the power of the chorus, and even though both progressions have merit, unless my melody calls for that B-minor chord, I’m going to go with the first option. Yes, it means that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th chord of every progression throughout the entire song is identical, and only the first chord changes each time, but hey, that’s exactly what Coldplay does in The Scientist, and it actually works really effectively.

So now I have my 3 different sections I’m going to have in my song:

Verse: Em, C, Am, D x 4

Chorus: G, G, C, C, Am, Am, D, D x 2

Bridge: C, C, Am, D x 4

2) Give your song a basic structure/outline.

I’ve talked a bit about my go-to song structure in another article. It’s an easy, time-tested structure: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Outro. For today’s purposes, we’re going to forget about the Outro. Unless there’s a special lyrical or harmonic idea that you have for an Outro, it really isn’t necessary. It’s more of a personal flourish of mine, and we can just finish the song on a G-chord. Bam. Resolved. Done.

Now our song looks like this:

Verse: Em, C, Am, D x 4

Chorus: G, G, C, C, Am, Am, D, D x 2

Verse: Em, C, Am, D x 4

Chorus: G, G, C, C, Am, Am, D, D x 2

Bridge: C, C, Am, D x 4

Chorus: G, G, C, C, Am, Am, D, D x 2

If the chorus is really catchy, we might repeat the chorus twice at the end. Or, depending on the amount of lyrical content we end up with, we might throw an extra verse or two into the song. We could double the first verse, and then, either double the second as well, or add a whole third verse and chorus in before the bridge. Or maybe you decide you’re Leonard Cohen with the words and you want five or six verse-then-chorus repeats.

There’s a lot of different options. The important thing to keep in mind is that you have the flexibility during the songwriting process to change and adapt any of these things you decide upon, if you feel like the song is calling for it. It’s your song. It’s not set in stone until you decide it is.

3) Rhythm and timing changes.

This is something, as you may have realised, that we’ve been doing a bit of already. In fact, as you get better at this basic process, you’ll probably find yourself eventually doing all five of these steps simultaneously. But for the purposes of today’s training, we’re going to think about them in their most fundamental sequence.

Yes, a rhythmic idea or specific drumbeat might be a whole underlying inspiration for your song, like Beyoncé’s All The Single Ladies or Lin Manuel Miranda’s Wait For It, but more often than not, you’re going to want to use the rhythm to help your creative expression.

With this song we are working on, we’ve stipulated a half-time feel in the chorus for effect, but that’s all. We still need a time signature, tempo, particular feel and any rhythmic accents on which to build our accompaniment and melody.

Now, we could do a 3/4 time signature (3 beats per bar); it is a bit ballady, but hey, the feeling we’re going for is a bit ballady, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, we also want something catchy, with a bit of movement behind it; something people might want to dance to, not just slow-dance to. 4/4 is the default nowadays for anything that you might want to move your body to, and it gives us more rhythmic options to play around with so that’s what we’re going to pick for our time signature.

Tempo-wise, we did say we were wanting some movement, but we’re not going to be true to the feels if we actively push it up to EDM tempos, so we probably want something around the medium-fast to fast walking pace range, somewhere between 95 and 115 beats per minute. 115bpm is the average speed of a hip-hop song, thus making it a more marketable tempo, but ultimately, I’m going to choose a tempo I feel best works with that initial feeling that I’ve been building upon the whole time. I personally am quite liking the faster walking pace of 115bpm, because I’m beginning to imagine myself out on the streets, trudging along, so wrapped up in my thoughts, feelings and questions that I’m beginning to push myself physically, as though walking faster will lead me to a quicker resolution.

Now, do I want a straight feel or a swung feel? Easy. Straight. I’m walking a fast beat. Not skipping. Maybe if I’d wanted a slower tempo, the swung feel would have helped build that sort of wishy-washy, unresolved feeling; helped the inherent conflict and juxtaposition in the music, but no. The straight rhythmic feel is going to help me build momentum into and through the chorus.

As for the accents, accents, help determine potential strumming patterns and rhythms for the melody to build upon. Different genres and styles of music will feed off different regular accent-patterns. Because I’m really into the pace of the walk, I’m going to accent the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar. This creates a walking “feel” in the song, and then I can choose my strumming pattern accordingly. Something like this:

And then maybe, in the chorus, because we’re going for that half-time feel to really land on the resolution, we’re going to shift the accents to the 3rd beat of each bar, so it’s like we’ve halved our walking pace. And then maybe we’d pick a strumming pattern like this:

By tying the note over the bar when not changing chords and judiciously placing my longer notes either side of the 3rd beat in each bar, I emphasize it as an off-beat in the same way the 2nd and 4th beats function in the earlier pattern. I’m not going to dig into all the reasons I chose these particular strumming patterns. Part of it just boils down to a couple of decades of experience. But I will say: the more you learn about music in both theory and practice, the more intuitively all of this stuff will come.

Now, for my bridge. I’m really happy to revert back to something rhythmically identical or near identical to my verse. I want it to contrast with the chorus, because it’s smack dab in the middle of two of them.

Once I’ve firmly established my whole underlying harmony and rhythm for my song, I’m really into a particular groove now, and that naturally lends itself building lyrics and a melody on top. Guitar riffs and solos are just extra melodies, and generally, you want them to pay homage or deference to your vocal melody, not the other way around, so I would worry about those dead last. They don’t necessarily matter at this stage in the writing process.

4) Lyrics.

Now, those of you that are singers, and I mean real singers; those who’d choose singing over speaking for the rest of their life if they had to only choose one, those for whom every other instrument but their own voice is a shallow imitation of music designed only for accompaniment, those for whom the breath of life is not only on pitch but supported by a flat tongue and effortless diaphragm control; you will probably assume that the lyrics and melody are the most important and effective parts of the song, and therefore question why they are not the very first thing you do when writing a song.

Well, you can. You can really complete these fundamentals in any order you please. But most of the people writing the songs are instrumentalists first. They have a learned a sense for how music works, even if it’s only subconscious. And unless you really know your stuff with music theory and have a well-trained ear, beginning with a melody can spiral out of control. Having a framework first, even if you change it radically as you go, is what beginners actually need to get started.

Lyrics are a little different. Good lyrics inherently have their own rhythm, flow and inflection as spoken word. If you can place that over a chord or chord sequence, often a melody will reveal itself, and you begin to establish a pattern or framework on which to build a verse, and then a chorus. This is why we’re doing lyrics before melody, even though melody might seem like the naturally occurring next step in this creation we are building.

Now, as you build a verse, you want to play your verse chords over and over again for yourself. You want to get deep inside your own head. You’re moving along to your own backing track, your own movie music and it’s beginning to tell a story. Certain words and phrases, maybe particular, rhythmically-fitting ones, are bubbling up. It doesn’t necessarily need to rhyme. It doesn’t even have to make complete sense. Unless you’re a poet, or you have the degree of writing experience, it doesn’t need to be powerfully poetic. That takes time. It does need to begin to express, however, how you’re feeling. And maybe it doesn’t hit the nail on the head. That’s okay. You’re learning to express yourself. You’re in the process of it. You don’t need to be Shakespeare. You just need to find your voice.

A single line can build into a rhyme, and you can continue to extend upon and expand that idea again and again and again for as long as you want the song to last, verse after verse.

Paul Simon, in his Making of Graceland documentary actually takes about 5 minutes walking us through the word-association process he used to write the lyrics to You Can Call Me Al. It’s a fantastic resource as a songwriter because it relieves some of the pressure of thinking you need to be really poetic or even make complete sense. Something like a third to half of music enthusiasts don’t even particularly care what the lyrics are per se, they care more about how they sound with the rest of the song. It’s a crazy concept to me, as a lyricist, but the sound of the words, the syllables, the consonants, the alliteration, etc. They can be just as, if not more important than the words themselves.

I’ve talked elsewhere about lyric writing in depth. You can read my other articles on it, but ultimately, it’s really something you need to practice daily.

5) The melody.

The melody should build naturally out of the lyrics, but here are a few rules of thumb.

Melodies are built around chord notes. You can create extra conflict and confusion in your music by intentionally holding clashing, non-chord notes over chords to create harmonic dissonance, but most of the time, we as listeners don’t really want too much of that.

Melody shape is really important. You can repeat the same melody line again with different lyrics, or even repeat the same lyric with a different melody, but generally speaking, you want to create little melodic hills and valleys. You want some variation line to line, but not a lot. You really want each melody line to be an extension of the previous one. Again, building a song is a lot like building a structure. You go bottom-upwards.

And finally, unless you’re shooting for a knockout bridge, you probably want the highest-pitched, most powerful (least dissonant) and catchiest parts to be in your chorus. That’s generally the part that you want people to get stuck in their heads. You might also vary the melody a little chorus to chorus, to create some extra build to the final crescendo.

Final Thoughts

Anyway, short of sitting down with you one-on-one and writing a song with you, I don’t think I can get much more specific here. The long and the short of it is: once you know all the pieces you need to use, and have some sort of vague idea of what you’re trying to create, it’s really easy to bring everything together. And don’t stress if it takes some time. You’ve got this. Just be persistent and take some time each day to get creative.

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