Here’s your ‘Songwriting Where to Start Guide’ so you can get started right away without getting overwhelmed. Music is a great way to express yourself and make a statement. You don’t need to be Mozart to write your first songs – here we go!
Listen to songs you like and pay attention to what you like about them
Music has inspired you in some way… But not everybody is the same.
There must be something special that has gotten your interest in music.
I suggest keeping an open mind and asking yourself, “Why am I interested in writing a song?”
It could just be that you’re curious about music!
Is it the way they make you feel?
Do you like the intensity or the energy that it creates?
Are you attracted to how music moves people closer together?
The reason doesn’t have to be complicated, but I’ve found it’s helpful to have an idea of this because it will help you get the most out of your journey as a musician and a songwriter.
Learn the different parts of a song
Songs are made up of different sections such as the Verse, Chorus, and Bridge. (You can see a complete explanation of all the parts here.)
Pay attention to the different sections of songs that you like.
In particular, listen for when each section changes and goes into a new section.
You’ll also notice that much of the music repeats during each section with only small changes throughout.
For example, during the Chorus the lyrics (words in the song) and music are usually the same all throughout the song.
However, during the Verse the music might stay the same but the lyrics will change.
Listen to the different instruments
When you decide you want to write a song it might surprise you just how many instrumental parts make up a song.
Most people who are fans of music only listen to the main melody and singer.
There are many more parts than you might realize.
For example, these are parts in a typical pop or rock song:
- Lead singer who sings the verses and chorus
- Harmonies are vocal parts that are sung at the same time and support the melody
- Rhythm guitar that plays the main chords
- Lead guitar that plays solo parts and “licks”
- Bass guitar that forms the musical foundation of all the other instruments
- Piano or keyboards fill out the sound, or may replace the bass guitar
- Drum set which plays most of the rhythm and keeps the beat
- Electronic drums or samples that do the same thing as the drum set
- Other effects that create atmosphere and mood like reverb, autotune, echo, delay
- Samples which are short clips of other songs or sounds
These are just the most common parts of a song.
Train your ear to pick out as many different parts and instruments of a song.
This will show you how to write a song that takes advantage of all of these different possibilities in your own music.
The most important parts to recognize are the drums, bass, guitar (or piano), singer, and harmonies.
Harmonies are usually sung by the same singer so they can be difficult to hear because of how well the voices blend together.
The way you can notice a harmony is if it somehow sounds “bigger” than if just one person was singing the part.
There are many kinds of harmony but the most important thing is to simply recognize the effect that it has in adding to the mood and feel.
Writing Your First Song
Believe it or not, now you are ready to write your first song.
The most important part of songwriting is to have a strong desire to express something.
Your song can be very simple and still be interesting to listen to.
For instance, some of the most enduring music is folk music.
Most folks songs only have one musical part, repeated over and over with different lyrics for each verse.
However, to help you out here’s a basic template you can use:
Verse (same lyrics or different)
This is the song structure of most pop and rock songs today, with some small differences for each.
Should I Write the Music or Lyrics First?
Many songwriters often get stuck or confused when it comes to starting their song.
How does the process work, should you write the music or the lyrics first?
My answer is that it doesn’t matter… Go with your inspiration!
Sometimes the lyrical idea will pop into your mind and you can use that to flesh out the rest of the song.
Other times, you may be playing something on the guitar or piano and start humming a melody to the chords.
Follow whichever path is more exciting and fun for you. I’ve found my best songs are written when I’m having fun.
Other people most usually enjoy the songs I write when I’m amused and interested in the musical idea of the song as I’m writing it.
What to do when you’re not inspired
I’d be misleading you if I only said to “follow your inspiration” when it comes to songwriting.
Truth is, there are many times when you might not feel very inspired but still want to write a song.
This is especially true if you haven’t written very many songs and aren’t sure what “inspiration” is supposed to feel like.
Here are a few tricks you can use to get inspired at will:
Play a few chords on your instrument of choice and see what melodies or thoughts come to mind.
Follow up with those initial ideas and expand them into a complete Verse or Chorus.
If you’re not sure what chords to play, use a common chord progression in a key that is easy for you to play.
Here are some “ready made” chord progressions you can try:
The “Happy” Pop Song Chord Progression (I – IV – V)
C Major – F Major – G Major
F Major – B♭ Major – C Major
G Major – C Major – D Major
“La Bamba” by Richie Valens uses this same chord progression (C – F – G) in the Key of C Major:
The “Sad” Chord Progression (i – VI – VII)
E minor – C Major – D Major
A minor – F Major – G Major
B minor – G Major – A Major
How to Know the Chords to Play when you only have a Melody
A common problem that comes up is when you only have a single line or melody and don’t know what chords to play with it.
To solve this problem, find out what notes are in the melody. Once you know all of the notes you can see which musical keys contain the same notes.
The first note you sing is usually going to be the key that you’re in. Since most pop music is in a major key, it’s likely that you’ll be singing in a major key as well.
(The kind of music we listen to influences the music we write, whether we like it or not.)
You can use a piano or guitar and sing each note one at a time until you have the main notes of the melody.
Chords that have the same notes as the melody are what will naturally sound “good.”
Since this is your first song, I suggest simply playing chords that are in the same key as your melody.