Songwriting is a craft anyone can learn. Everyone starts out as a non-songwriter before they become one.
So for those of you who have never tried this before, here’s how to write a song in 5 simple steps.
Step #1: Listen to the masters
Ask any songwriter who the master songwriters are and you’ll hear names like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Get familiar with these names and their music.
Actively listen to how they structure their songs, how the chorus is different from the verses, and what imagery they use in their lyrics.
The greats have a lot of experience and knowledge that we all can learn from.
Step #2: Pick a song structure
How a song is structured is crucial to its strength. This would be figuring out the intro, verses, chorus, and bridge. If you’re just starting as a songwriting, your best bet is to start with two verses and a chorus.
The chorus is the most important part of the song; it holds the most memorable melody as well as the whole idea of the song. If your song has a manifesto, it’s going to be in the chorus. You should spend the most time writing a fantastic chorus.
The verses support the chorus — lyrically they hint at the chorus’ idea, and melodically they don’t overpower the chorus meldoy. Usually, the verses give us the “why” or “how” in the song.
Take, for example, Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.”
The chorus is just one line, repeated twice: “She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love.”
And the verses support that idea of a person giving you crazy love. Verse one says:
I can hear her heartbeat for a thousand miles
And the heavens open every time she smiles
And when I come to her that’s where I belong
Yet I’m running to her like a river’s song
Also, notice how he rhymes “miles” and “smiles,” and “belong” and “song.” Rhyming makes the melody and lyrics stick in people’s heads.
Step #3: Start writing
There are two common ways songwriters start a song: music first or lyrics first.
A lot of songwriters start with the music and melody before writing the lyrics, often coming up with gibberish lyrics in order to find the structure of the melody.
For example, Paul McCartney woke up one day with a melody in his head. He came up with nonsense lyrics so that he could remember the melody and get the phrasing just right.
“Scrambled eggs, oh you’ve got such lovely legs,” he sang. This became one of the most covered songs in recent history, the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
On the other hand, when you start with the lyrics, make sure they have a repeating rhythm and words that sound good together and rhyme. Think of it like writing poetry.
Step #4: Edit the song and play it
This is the fun part. Sing the melody over and over, smooth over the awkward phrasings, work out the kinks, and give your lyrics more focus.
If you’re a new songwriter, make sure the melody is in a range that works for your voice. As you get the hang of songwriting, you can start writing melodies that stretch your vocal range, getting you to inch out of your comfort zone. That’s how you get better!
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Step #5: Get trusted feedback on your song
This is not when you post your song online; you’ll get so many different criticisms that you won’t know which to listen to.
What you should do first is go to someone who has a good musical ear and will be upfront with you. This could be an honest friend or a fellow musician (not your mom!).
Now, stop imagining yourself as a songwriter and just start writing.
A version of this article was originally published in iSing Magazine