I want to touch on a question that seems to come up a lot in conversation with other musicians, songwriters, and bands that are just starting out. That question is, “what do I need to do to write a good song?” But everyone will have a different answer to this question because we all listen to music in a different way, and for different reasons. So, I usually follow this with my own question: “What do you think makes a song sound good in the first place?”
Music can make us feel things that nothing else can, a song can instantly change your mood or lighten a dull day, it can give you a rush of excitement or even a feeling of fear that causes you to shiver from head to toe making every hair stand on end. What makes a song great in my opinion, is the way it makes you feel, the way it plays with your emotions and the way it gets your mind ticking, thinking back to old times, memories or experiences that really meant something in your life.
Writing a song that really pulls on the heartstrings and changes the way we feel is not an easy task, but something that can also come naturally with a little bit of effort and practice. There are a lot of different elements to a great song and it’s sometimes hard to narrow down what’s making the song do what it’s doing. It’s not just one thing, but at the same time, it can be.
Let me explain.
If we were sitting in a room with an iPod linked up to some speakers and we started playing through our favorite songs, I can almost guarantee every song will have a different element that makes it do what it does to us. In some songs, it will be the chords or the chord changes, but then in others, the chord progression could be very simple and it’s the melody that sits over the top that’s doing the business for us.
For me, personally, the lyrics are one of the most powerful elements to a great song because they give me something to relate to. But then, having said that, I have found that sometimes music without any lyrics at all, just a strong melody or an emotively melodic string section over the top of a simple chord structure, can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, have me thinking deeply, or get me choked up. So, you don’t always need lyrics to make this chain reaction of feelings and emotions occur.
Look at movie scores, for instance. If you were to remove the music in a touching scene and rewatch it back, I guarantee you that the power of the scene wouldn’t hit you half as hard as the same scene with some haunting music; something that really fits the bill. Music is such a powerful element in a movie, it reaches out and speaks to you. It is a universal language we all understand. No matter where we are from, we can listen to a piece of music and know whether it’s sad, happy or something in between.
I have listed below some pieces to the songwriting puzzle that I feel, when put together, create a very powerful and effective picture ..or, in this case, song.
Inspiration is key to mapping out the kind of song you are going to write, I know some people will argue that songs sometimes just come from nowhere without any inspiration at all, but I don’t think that’s correct. You can’t create something out of nothing. The idea, the feeling, the lyrics for a song will have come from something that you may have seen, experienced, read or felt, even if it’s deep down in your subconscious, beyond your awareness, it has to come from somewhere.
Although I write in a huge variety of styles for many different people, I am one of those writers that get really inspired when I am feeling down, low, or generally fed up. As I have mentioned previously, I use songwriting as a kind of therapy session, I am not great when it comes to talking about my own feelings and emotions and tend to lock things away. Yes, I understand that this isn’t the healthiest way of dealing with them, but it’s who I am and the only way I know how to operate. I do find though that it helps me write more meaningful, emotive songs. Somehow, all that well-up emotion balls up and bursts forth in the form of a song, because I am finally laying everything on the line and getting it off my chest.
If you are like me and bottle everything up inside, then I couldn’t urge you more to give this a go. I think It will really help you let go of the problems or obstacles in your life that are bothering you, or at least make them a little easier to deal with and process. You also have the benefit and peace of mind that come from knowing your writing could potentially help someone else who may be going through a similar situation to you.
For me, personally, the lyrics are the most important part of a good song, because that’s what I relate to most; it reaches out to me on a personal level. Writing lyrics is one of the hardest elements of songwriting in the beginning because it’s just so complex. The English language has over a million words and if Nicki Minaj has taught us nothing else, there isn’t really any wrong or right way of doing it; everyone has their own unique style when it comes to putting the pen to paper.
Although lyric-writing is one of the hardest parts of songwriting, I believe that, over time and with quality practice, you will develop your own unique lyrical writing style. Once you get to that stage, you develop a habit of lyrical flow during your writing sessions, making the whole writing process feel much more natural and free.
Going back to finding inspiration for a moment, you want to have a general idea or feeling that you’re trying to capture planned for the song when you first sit down to write. That way, even if you don’t know exactly what you want the song to be about (sad, happy, etc) you have a direction to point yourself in. This sense of direction will naturally give you certain words or phrases that pop up as you brainstorm, giving you a foundation to build on. Even if you’re whole is just trying to describe a single feeling, you need to tell a story through your music, so lay everything on the line; emotions, feels, tears, you name it, just let it all go.
The lyrics are such a huge part of why we think the songs we listen to are good because they resonate with the listener, reaching out to them on a personal level, making them feel connected to you in a truly intimate way. I’ve had countless personal experiences with bands and artists I have worked with, even looking through YouTube comments when listening to music, hearing and reading so many people say, “this is my going-out-with-the-girls song”, “this song got me through a break-up”, “this song reminds me of my dad”, or even “this song literally saved my life”. Music is incredibly powerful, but it’s the lyrics that make it a personal experience for each and every one of us.
Take Regular Breaks
Whether you are recording ideas, writing lyrics, or experimenting with chord progressions and melodies, be sure to take breaks to clear both your ears and your head. To the great dismay of any creative professional, sometimes during the creative process you can get caught in a rut for hours without any answers, or find yourself having gone in the absolute wrong direction for the project because you have gotten too close to it, too bogged down in finer details. This quickly becomes counterproductive and really bad for business.
I have found when I take regular breaks and give myself a change of scenery, fresh sights and sounds to cleanse the mental palette, that the ideas flow faster and more smoothly than if I am just sitting there trying at dead-ends.
I know it’s hard, especially if you’re on a deadline, and obviously I’m not saying take a break when you’re in the flow of ideas. What I am saying is: if you find yourself banging your head against a brick wall with no answers, whether that be finding the right rhyme, melodic hook or chord progression to fill the hole in the heart of your song, it’s better to take breaks and come back to it feeling refreshed.
If a song starts to really become frustrating, sometime its best to just make a quick demo recording of whatever you have come up with so far, write all the chords and lyrical ideas down and come back to it in a few days or weeks when you’re ready for it. Don’t be in too much of a rush. If this song isn’t ready to be written, write something else instead. You want a song that will be strong, complete, whole. Sometimes it’s taken me months to finish a song because I just got too close to it and couldn’t find a way out, but then after leaving it and coming back with clear ears and fresh inspirations it almost became effortless to finish.
While there is a lot of flexibility available in terms of song structure, and you can literally structure a song any way you want to, structure plays a big role, statistically, on the success, impact and reach of a song. Consequently, building songs with a solid structure is incredibly important.
I love writing pop, folk and electronic music and I tend to use the same structure every time because it is one that just works so well. My go-to structure is (Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outtro.) If you are writing (or want to write) in the same genres, stick with this structure and you won’t go far wrong. Maybe you repeat the last chorus, maybe you throw an extra verse in before the first chorus, or swap the outtro for an intro or both. It doesn’t have to be rigid, but marketability and popularity tend to go hand in hand, so if pop music isn’t your thing, then my suggestion would be to sit down with a pen and paper and listen to your favorite bands, songs/music and write down the song structure they are using. Try experimenting with different song structures in different genres you may stumble across something very unique and different without even meaning to. Mix and match, be experimental and don’t be afraid to be different. And when you find your groove, something that really works for you, don’t be afraid to keep using it.
The hook is a vital ingredient to a great song, especially in pop music. It’s the memorable part that you keep singing or whistling. Even if you don’t like the song, it still manages to install itself deep within your mind. This is the power of music. This is why you find, when you are concentrating or doing different things throughout the day, you start to whistle or hum the songs that have now somehow embedded itself in your subconscious. We’ve all have that one friend who keeps whistling the same thing over and over or singing a phrase on repeat without realising what they are doing, only to find a few hours later that we have now started whistling the exact same thing. It’s infectious, funny and, yes, more than a little bit annoying.
Try and listen to lots of your favorite songs and study the hook. Dig deep and figure out what makes it so memorable. Is it the melody? Is it the lyrics? Is it the delivery of the vocals? Every hook is different and unique in its own way. Try and work on your own hooks. Listen, study, try and replicate what you have heard and you will soon learn how to craft them in your own way, because you will know what works and what doesn’t. But once you have nailed it, you will have the power to make every listener immediately lock in with what they are hearing whether they like it or not, leaving them coming back for more.
I hope you have found this post enjoyable, interesting and helpful. It’s all down to you now. If you start by working on the five elements above, you will see a huge change in the way you write songs, but moreover, the quality of those songs will really start to shine through. You don’t have to do it all at once, but practice and learn from your mistakes as you go. It’s all about trial and error. I promise if you focus and practice you will see a huge change for the better.