How to Write a Song

Posted 23 December 2013 in Musician's Toolkit (comments)

So, you can jam a few chords and you've got something to say. It's time to start writing. Here are our 'Meet and Jam' top ten tips on writing a song:

1. Soak up influences:

Listen intently to songs you like and how they are written. Try and work out what ‘gets you’ about them aiming to pin point why; but really, by listening carefully you are already benefiting. Listen to how the masters did it and how the new stars do it. Soak up the rhythms, the transitions and the feel. Every song is an influence and it’s important to have diverse genres whirring round in your subconscious when writing, even if you’re not aware they are there.

2. Just do it:

Pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano. Play two chords on repeat or start with three classic chords such as Em, D and C or Am, G and F and just start singing. You will get better and better so the sooner you start the better and never be embarrassed by what comes out. I seem to remember the first song I wrote when I was twelve mentioning a chemistry AND a physics book! Needless to say, no one ever heard it. But it was the first step.

3. Write the music first, then the lyrics:

OK, so any way it feels right is of course fine but I’d recommend writing the chords first, especially when you are starting out. A classic way is to find some chords and a singing melody you love and just start singing gibberish. You can write and fit in your actual lyrics in later once you’re happy. Often I’ll end up using the same rhymes or syllables as the gibberish I first sing and it really does work but don’t take my word for it,  ‘Scrambled eggs, you’ve got such lovely legs’ eventually became The Beatles’ - ‘Yesterday’ written by Paul McCartney.

4. Find a hook:

Every good song (within reason) needs a catchy melody or ‘a hook’. It’s often the simplest melody that it seems came too easy to be the killer line; but it’s normally the one that ‘just comes out’ without trying too hard. You can shape a whole song around a hook, or even better - find one for each section of your song which brings me nicely onto ‘Structure’.

5. Understand structure:

Typically a song is split into: intro, verse, bridge, chorus and middle 8. I personally view verses as telling the story, bridges as creating the lift or transition into the chorus, and the chorus to really hit home that catchy hook. Verse lyrics can be repeated but normally only either side of the chorus and really, it’s nice to have some varied verse lyrics. The middle 8 is called the ‘middle 8’ because it is typically eight bars that are different to all the other sections and it adds a huge amount. It usually comes before the final big chorus, ¾ of the way through the song, so not really the middle! Phew! That’s the boring (but crucial) ‘Structure’ part out of the way.

6. Use a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus website:

Once you’ve got your hooks, your chords and your gibberish ready, you need to say what you want to say. A rhyming dictionary website is great to have handy for achieving this. Not only does it let you know all the rhymes you have available for you to rhyme with that last great line; but it shows you ‘half rhymes’ too which are so important. Everyone has heard ‘fly high to the sky’ way too many times so don’t be afraid to play around. A thesaurus will show you other ways of saying what you want to say, but be careful, ‘heart’ will always sound better than ‘aortic pump’!

7. Use your smartphone:

Inspiration can strike at any time and that great hook you think of while walking home after a few drinks may well not be there in the morning!  Sing lines into your phone or make sure you record that guitar line as soon as you love it. It’s just so gutting to forget something you are sure was great, and if it turns out it’s really not, then no harm done!

8. Try things out:

Never be afraid to go down an unfamiliar writing avenue or try something that shouldn’t work. Sound is a weird and wonderful thing and sometimes you’ll be surprised where something ends up. It doesn’t matter if you revert back to what you had before, but without exception, it is always worth a go.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask opinions:

Let someone hear it when you are ready and ask their honest opinion. Bandmates are of course the perfect people if you have them. I was lucky enough to have band mates who were a) honest and b) had a far better grasp of theory than me. They could shape and change bits they weren’t too keen on to better structure the song. It’s easy to get too close to the song and forget how you’d feel if you heard it for the first time. Bandmates or a girlfriend / boyfriend who has heard you play far too many times can remind you!

10. Enjoy it:

Don’t stress about finding something good, you will stumble upon it at the most unexpected of times as long as you’re playing to enjoy it and experimenting. If nothing else it is incredibly therapeutic to write something down and get something out, even if no one ever hears it, so always make enjoyment your first reason for writing.

Nick Ford-Young


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