Do melodies float into your head? Do you think in bars? Do you see lyrics, not words? It’s time to start writing a song.
But there’s billions of ways to start writing songs. Where do you even start? And more importantly, how do you finish?
The best way to craft the perfect song is to know the songwriting basics—and know them well.
This step-by-step songwriting guide will give you everything you need to start—and finish—your songs right.
“Songwriting is the most important art in music. You can’t have a record without a song.”
-Bruce Roberts. Songwriter, Musician, Connector of Dots.
Already have some song inspiration? Perfect. Let’s get started with this step-by-step songwriting guide.
1. How to start a song
Before you start writing you need to loosely define what you’ll be making. I don’t mean setting up a strict script to follow.
But asking yourself these key questions before you start will help to guide you early on.
What are my songwriting tools?
I don’t mean pick every instrument right away. Good songwriting means being able to move between all instruments. But choosing one instrument to start with is a good idea.
Start with what you know best. Ideas come out easier on what you’re comfortable with. Know your songwriting tools first, and write a song second.
Will there be lyrics?
If there will be lyrics in your song, start with writing a few ideas out. It doesn’t have to be in song structure (we’ll get to that later).
But a few basic concepts will help get you started. A great tool for lyric ideas is a rhyme dictionary. It might sound simple, but when you’re just starting out they’re great for finding inspiration.
Write out your lyrics with the instrumentation in mind. Sitting by a piano or with a guitar can help you to understand your lyrics better.
If you ‘play your lyrics,’ parts of the whole song will start to emerge.
Lyrics will also give you a core idea for your song. Once you find the idea you’re going to riff on (literally) then the other parts will fall into place more easily.
All language is music. The best lyrics unlock the music in all spoken word.
Don’t stress about knowing how to write lyrics. The best way to write lyrics is whatever feels right for you.
What is my song topic?
A song should answer a question. Ask and answer it with the parts of your song.
Put your questions and answers right in you lyrics.
Or make it the answer to a question you ask yourself. Like “what does it sound like if I…” or “how can I make this idea into a sound?” are good places to start.
It might sound corny, but good songs need substance. That means emotion, mood, feeling, risk and experimentation.
So what makes you feel a certain way? What emotion will you get out through your song? Music is more engaging if your lyrics and sounds are genuine.
If you don’t feel anything from your own music, how is any one else suppose to feel something from it? So create something real.
All those daydreams and space outs you’ve been having are songs waiting to get out.
Ok great. Now you have an idea of where you want to go with your song. And you know what songwriting tools you’ll be using.
Let’s get started!
2. Make a rough draft
Knowing how to write a good song means finding a rough idea to build around. Don’t have something in mind right away? No worries.
Take your instrument of choice, hit record and start sketching. You’ll be surprised how quickly a song idea will pop up.
“Don’t edit your first idea. Make sure your first idea is always there.”
You don’t need to have a fully written song in your head before you start writing. Just make a small jam session, play it back and see what stands out.
Not sure where to start?
Hot tip: Stay away from writing ‘parts’ immediately. Once you have a sketch, it’s simple to go back and find the parts that sounded good.
3. Find your song idea
The hardest part of writing a song is getting started. Pulling ideas out of thin air is really difficult.
But It doesn’t have to be. Every song has a central topic. Starting with a main concept will make getting started a breeze.
Go back to the sketches you recorded or wrote down. Find the parts of a song that spoke to you the most. Songs are usually born from random ideas that you build around.
Your main song ideas can be anything:
- A lyric stanza
- A melody
- A chord progression
- A drum loop
- A hook
- A chorus
- A bass line
- Or whatever else made you pick up the pen or turn your gear on
Once you have your best song idea everything else will fall into place. Your main idea that you sketch out is the foundation that you build on.
So start sketching!
Parts of a song
Before you start building around your song idea you have to know the parts of a song.
They’re the building blocks you’ll be working with.
You don’t have to use all of them. And how you arrange them is up to you. But at the very least you need to know what they are.
Verse, Chorus and Bridge
There are 3 main parts of a song: The verse, The chorus and the bridge. They are the building blocks of song writing.
Here’s what each part is. Use them to craft your next masterpiece.
- What is a verse
The verse is the part of a song that propels your song idea forwards. If you think of a song like a story, the verse is the passage that builds the suspense and action.
Remember, you don’t need lyrics to tell a story. It can be a progression in your leads, creative drum layering, or any interesting combination of sounds.
Each verse typically changes each time it pops up in your song. The melody in your verse should ascend towards and lead seamlessly into your chorus.
- What Is a chorus
A chorus is a piece of a song that typically repeats a lyric, idea or passage in between each verse. It is sometimes called a refrain as well.
The chorus typically occurs after a verse. While verses vary in their structure, a chorus tends to repeat the same idea.
A good chorus is memorable and catchy. It also states the main idea of your song.
Because the verse builds up to the chorus and is normally repeated multiple times during a song, it is often the most recognizable part of a song.
That’s why it’s usually the chorus you sing or hum when a song gets stuck in your head.
- What is the bridge
In music, the bridge is the section of a song that contrasts the rest of the composition.
The bridge is a great way to move away from your central song idea. Choose a melody and chord progression that contrasts your verse and chorus.
The bridge typically sits between a chorus and verse. When the bridge is over, the original structure—either a verse or chorus—comes back in.
This will make the listener want that juicy hook or chorus back after the bridge. So give it to ’em!
The Pieces of Your Song Parts
The verse, chorus and bridge are the main parts of your song. But there’s a couple other parts you need to know before you start writing.
- What is key
Key is the group of notes that your song is made up of. The tonic or root of your key determines the scale of complimentary notes that you’ll use. Check out our guide to the circle of fifths if you need to brush up on your key signatures.
That means melodies, chords and even bass lines will all be made from that scale.
Knowing basic music theory is vital for success when it comes to song writing. So take some time and learn the fundamentals.
- What is melody
Melody is a sequence of single notes that make up your lead line. Think of it like the theme of your parts. It’s what defines the mood of your track.
Depending on what genre you’re working in, melody can take on many forms. But melody usually dictates the color or tone of a song section.
Melody most often refers to the top line of a song that is joined with background elements like percussion. Often it’s a vocal or lead instrument that carries it.
- What is a hook
A hook is the part you end up humming in the shower. It’s the ear worm that get’s stuck in your head.
Hooks can be a small melodic passage, part of a solo, lyrics from the chorus, a backing vocal or absolutely anything else from your song. The hook is what makes a song catchy.
Good songwriting always has good hooks. You should craft each part with a hook in mind.
Writing your first verse? there should be a hook there. Working on the chorus? There should be a hook there too.