HOW TO WRITE A SONG: a step-by-step guide

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Ever wondered how to write a song? What comes first, the melody or the lyrics? How do you add chords? And maybe most importantly, how do you find inspiration? I’ve been asked these questions several times, and I’ve done my best to come up with some answers! I created a step-by-step guide for a video about a year ago, but I wanted to expand on some of the tips in written form. Because songwriting is, after all, writing. If you want to see the video as well, you can see exactly how I follow my own tips, and how I’m writing a song on camera following these steps! This is the video:

Keep in mind that this is only about the writing process itself. The song I’m writing is not “finished” in terms of arrangements or anything. Just thought I’d clear that up! You can listen to my more finished songs on Spotify if you want (no pressure). 

Ready to write a song? Let’s go!

FIND INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE.

First, you need to find your inspiration. You can find this everywhere. And yes, by “everywhere”, I mean EVERYWHERE. Always be on the lookout for little things that spark inspiration in you. It can be a sentence you read in a book or the newspaper, it can be a post on instagram or a thought you had while walking your dog. No matter what it is, pay close attention to it. Every time you feel a spark of inspiration, cherish that like a little baby bird. I myself find inspiration in the following (amongst other) things:

Books, running in nature, watching people on the subway, my favorite songwriters, and little snapshots from my life. I rarely write about actual events, but I collect little snapshots like a collage of inspiration.

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I sometimes find that very specific things that spark inspiration. For the song I’m writing in my video, it was something as strange as a news article about Donald Trump, and how many lies he had told in his presidency. In about 500 days as president of the United States, he had told more or less 3000 lies. That’s insane, I though. And then: That’s a song!

COLLECT EVERYTHING. ALWAYS.

Take notes, in a notebook or in the notes app on your phone. If you get an idea for a little melody snippet, record it. And take pictures. Take pictures of everything, and make screenshots left and right. I kid you not, you will need it later. You might think that you’ll remember, but most of the time you’ll be too busy worrying about the cryptic meaning of an email or what to do with your hair (or a certain presidency, or a global virus, but let’s not get into that).

I wait until I have collected enough ingredients before I sit down to write. The ingredients could be anything from a sentence to a title to a concept or a couple of chords. I collect the ingrediens in a big pot (aka my brain), stir it around, and I make a song soup. I always try to add some nice spices to the mix. Like some weird specific details or some cool imagery.

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In the song I was writing for my video, I had the following ingredients: A general concept, a title, conversation structure & direct speech (for the verses), counting elements (for the refrain), and a little melody snippet. I also had some imagery written down; shades of white and grey. Like white lies, grey areas, stuff like that.

KNOW YOUR WHY.

This should go without saying, but in order to write a song, you kind of need to have something to ..say. This should be something like your message, or a feeling you want to convey. When I’m writing songs, it’s not always super inspired and romantic. But the initial feeling that I got, the one that inspired me to write, that should be honest and real. I remember making a model for this in my video, but it can be quite easily explained. You take a real feeling, manufacturer that into a song, and hopefully a true feeling will come out in the listener at the other end. The work itself might not be very romantic. But hopefully you will convey a true feeling, if the initial feeling was true.

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THE WRITING ITSELF:

ONE: DRINK SOMETHING.

Not optional (although what you drink is up to you).

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SIT DOWN WITH YOUR THINGS.

Gather you notebook, pen, phone, instrument of choice, all the things.

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DECIDE ON A STRUCTURE FOR THE SONG.

It’s easier to begin if you have an idea about what your song is going to include. There are usually some verses involved, and a refrain of some sort. Maybe a pre-chorus, maybe a bridge. If you’re new to songwriting, maybe a couple of verses and a refrain is enough. I sometimes like to add a bridge later in the process to spice things up.

Now to the difficult part. By difficult, I mean difficult to explain. When I’m writing songs, I usually come up with the melody and the words at the same time. It’s like they’re already connected somewhere in my brain. Even if I don’t have all the words, I usually have a sound or a vague idea. And it’s kinda hard for me to write “words in rhythm” without hearing a melody in my head. I know this is not very helpful. But hopefully the other steps I have described will help you understand more of my process. By the time I have collected all of my ingredients and let them marinate in inspiration for a little while, I’m not starting from scratch with a blank page in my notebook. Maybe that’s why it’s easier for me to come up with words and melody simultaneously. 

Here are some methods that might help you if you don’t find that words and melodies come naturally to you:

  1. Write the words first. Decide on a structure (ex. verse, chorus verse), and write some lines like you’re writing a poem. Think about rhymes and how the words sound. Try and make the words sound “musical” by choosing words based on sound rather than meaning. Make sure that you can read your lines out loud with a set rhythm. If you do this, you should be able to read your words out melodically, and suddenly you have music! Make sure to record yourself when this happens, so you don’t forget.
  2. Write the melody first. Well, you don’t have to write it, unless you’re really good at writing sheet music. Find a room with good acoustics, and sing your heart out! And of course, record yourself. When you have a recording you like, you can try adding some words to the melody lines.
  3. Start with a chord structure. You can use one from a pop song or something, it’s not cheating. In fact, a lot of songs have the same chord structure. In the beginning, I would recommend using a simple structure with a maximum of four chords (C – G – Am – F has been known to work). Play the chords after one another, and try singing a melody over it. If you already have your written lines of rhythmical words, you can try singing those over your chords.
  4. Repeat you method of choice (or all of them) until the magic happens. 

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FILL IN THE WORDS.

When I’m writing, I like to think that the words (and the melody that goes with them) already exist, and all I need to do is fill in the blanks. But this is easier said than done. Sometimes the words can be hard to find, even if they seem like they’re on the tip of your tongue.

One tip is to look at a rhyme dictionary. Yes, this seems very technical. But sometimes just seeing a word can spark inspiration if you’re stuck. Even if you know what kinds of words rhymes with “you”, it can help to see all of them written out visually. And if you want to expand further, most rhyme dictionaries will let you look at near rhymes as well, which can be quite handy.

REPETITION IS COOL BUT ALSO BORING.

By this I mean that it’s good to have some things that people recognize, like a refrain. When the part we know returns, our listening brains will feel happy and connected to the familiar melody. But if your whole song sounds the same, the listener will get bored. The experience will be more interesting if you have some contrasting elements in the mix. That also makes it more satisfying when we recognize the repeated parts.

THE SAME CHORDS IN ALL THE PARTS?

This might be a bit technical again, but I think it’s helpful to be aware of these things. If you write songs with your instrument, like me, you can more or less shape the structure of the song by playing different chords. Let’s say that you decided on the familiar structure C – G – Am – F, like mentioned above. Should you use this for your whole song? Or should you have different chords for the verse and the refrain?

Like all other things, this is entirely up to you. It’s your party, etc. But it’s good to know that these decisions have different effects. If you want to add some contrasting elements to one part of your song, changing up the chords could be one way to do it. On the other side of the specter, using the same repeated chords for the entire song can add to the meaning of your message, like I did in my song “On The Road”. I wanted to convey a feeling of being “stuck in a hamster wheel”, and I think the repeated chords helped that feeling come across.

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That was all my steps. Congratulations, you are now a certified songwriter! Well, not quite. Alas, it takes a bit more. You might have guessed what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. My last tip is the tired and true “practice makes perfect”. It is, in the case of songwriting (as so many other things), very true. Don’t worry if your first couple of songs don’t sound like mega hits. Just keep collecting your inspiration, keep searching for melodies, and keep learning! The more you write, the better the writing will be. It’s not like you have a set number of songs in your brain, and once you’ve written those, all your inspiration will be spent. I like to think of it as a muscle that just gets stronger with use. So go out and use it! I hope these steps will help guide you on your way.

Now, I’ll leave you with the lyrics that I wrote in my video. Yes, the song about the lies. This is how it turned out:

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“3000 lies”

You said you wanted to know me
You said «I’ll give you a call»
I said “I like it” and you said you agreed
But it takes a bit more that a dream
You said your childhood was painful
You said you’d never pretend
You said you loved reading Wuthering Heights
But then you never talked of it again

Count your steps, white as snow
Know the truth, but let it go

One more time before I get it
One little piece that you forgot
One more lie, you can forget it
Please just don’t
Two steps closer to the edge now
Two eyes closed before the fall
Two hearts waiting for the curtain call
500 days and 3000 lies
Painted white

You said that you liked my writing
You said you’d talk honestly
You said “There’d never be anyone else”
And you said that you’d never leave
You said you’d take me to Paris
You said “It will be ok”
And I told you not to cut your hair
And you promised, but did anyway

Count your steps, white as snow
Know the truth, but let it go

One more time before I get it
One little piece that you forgot
One more lie, you can forget it
Please just don’t
Two steps closer to the edge now
Two eyes closed before the fall
Two hearts waiting for the curtain call
500 days and 3000 lies
Painted white

Shades of white and grey
Little words fade away
Footsteps in the snow
Freezing as we go
Wrap myself in the sound
Blankets all around
Covering all signs
Before I turn the tide

One more time before I get it
One little piece that you forgot
One more lie, you can forget it
Please just don’t
Two steps closer to the edge now
Two eyes closed before the fall
Two hearts waiting for the curtain call
500 days and 3000 lies
Painted white

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