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How to Write a Song

Updated on February 28, 2009
A guitar can be a great starting point for writing a song. (Photo by Nicole Holte)
A guitar can be a great starting point for writing a song. (Photo by Nicole Holte)

Each summer for two weeks, I teach small classes of kids how to write, produce, and record a song. They're ages 12-17, and many of them come up with some excellent stuff.

This hub will hopefully pass on some of the knowledge I've gained as a songwriter that I try to impart to the kids I teach. (This means it's aimed at those of you who have never written a song ever before! But you veterans are welcome to read, too.)

The First Rule

I probably say this 100 times a day (though it's easier said than done), but: Do not censor yourself before you start.

I know it's hard. Often I'll reread a line or two I've just written and want to scribble it out or burn it or something because it sounds so stupid. You have to remember that no one has to ever read this, not even you if you truly hate it later, so you can be true on the paper. The more open you are, the easier it will be, and the less likely you are to get stuck with writer's block.

The Different Ways

As far as I can tell, there are three main ways to write a song.

  1. Write the music first.
  2. Write the lyrics first.
  3. Write everything as you go along.

The way you go about this will greatly depend on what you feel is your strongest talent and how your creative process works.

For example.

If you're a writer, you might feel more comfortable getting something down on paper first, but you also might rather start with some idea of a melody so you don't get stuck with just a poem.

And if you're a musician, you might gravitate towards writing some chords or a "hook" first, but it also might be easier for you to jot down some words or ideas so you know what type of sound to produce.

Of course, you don't have to work in just one way; after your first few songs it'll become more natural, and you'll figure out the best way for you, personally, to work.

But until then, here's a quick step-by-step, and we'll take the lyrics first (if you want to write music first, just switch the steps around... it'll still work, I swear).

A View of the Process, by Amanda Lee

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Just Follow the Steps!

  1. Listen to something that inspires you, anything that moves something within you.
  2. Jump off from there, and jot down some phrases about anything: your feelings, fears, wants, or even just tell a story. Remember not to stop yourself before you start! Let it flow; you can burn it later.
  3. Either leave them jumbled or rearrange them to make sense to you, but then piece the phrases you have written into a song structure (the easiest is probably verse, chorus, verse, chorus). A chorus can be as simple as a word or two!
  4. Do you hear any music in these words? If you do, great! If not, don't worry. There's an easy starting point for every song: a chord. Each song has to start on a chord (pretty much), so get thee to an instrument (if at all possible, otherwise just do this in your head)!
  5. Play one chord and sing the first few lines over that chord. Don't like the tune? Play the same chord and sing a different tune, elongating different words. When it sounds like it's time to change chords, do it! If you only know one chord, it might be helpful (but not necessary) to get one of your instrument-playing friends to help you.
  6. But you don't need an instrument! I've performed (and eventually written) several songs with just clapping and/or stomping (see Regina Spektor's "Flyin" or Jeff Buckley's "Be Your Husband"). It can be very effective, and you don't have to deal with those pesky "chords" we were talking about.
  7. You're almost done! Continue writing the melody, and remember that a song can definitely have only two chords and be incredibly interesting, so don't worry if you're not very musically competent. Once you have a melody for both your chorus and your verse, you're done!
  8. Now all you have to do is tweak the lyrics to your liking (and throw out what you hate), make sure the chords and chord changes fit (or the clapping/stomping), and rehearse!

Congratulations! You just wrote a song.

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    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Really good advice for getting past writer's block! Especially when it's cold out and you have a fireplace at hand. Just toss in what you wound up hating, strike a match, and toast a marshmallow over the flames...sort of a variation on eating your words. :)

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 9 years ago from Manhattan

      Sally, that's hilarious! A delicious way to eat your words. I also love ripping the paper up really violently when I hate what I've written. It's quite satisfying.

    • profile image

      jade 8 years ago

      im struggling to write a song ive thought of a title its called "a dream on the edge" but i cant think what to write. ive always dreamed of being a song writer and ive worte a few lyrics before but it never seems to make sense and i seem to give up too easy. can any one help me?

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

      Hi Jade, thanks for reading! That sounds like a great title and idea to work with, but it also sounds like you're getting stuck censoring yourself before you even start.

      Try writing down stupid stuff on the paper. Forget about the final product of the song, and just write about "a dream on the edge" and what that means. You can describe what it feels like, sounds like, looks like, etc, and don't worry about it making sense; it doesn't have to. The words don't come out of the pen as a song... you have to mold them into one.

      Don't give up, even if you have to walk away from the song for a few days or a month. And when you can, pour every idea you have onto the paper so that you can sift through to find the jewels.

    • profile image

      FGAEGAF 8 years ago

      YOU ROCK AMANDA LEE IWISH I COULD SING LIKE YOU

    • profile image

      Amanda Lee 8 years ago

      hey helenathegreat!

      thanks for using my "How to write a song" video in your article!

      -Amanda Lee

    • profile image

      captinmike 8 years ago from UK

      Good advice, thanks

    • nvsongwriter profile image

      nvsongwriter 8 years ago from Charlottesville VA

      Helena,

      I very much enjoyed you Hub. My name is Joe. Earlier in my life I lived in Nashville for 12 years, played a lot but what I am most grateful for is that after much pain and heartach I learned to write songs the Nashville way and before I left got quite a few published there. I don't think I'm any kind of a big shot or anything, I'm just here because I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others.

      I think it's great you are teaching kids. Lord knows they need something to hold onto at that age. "Which comes first" was great advice. I find I write differently depending on which I do first. The "hook" is so important. New writers tend to "wander" and have a hard time understanding the hook, but without it your song is very forgettable.

      The only thing I would like to throw in is this. When you spoke of writing about what they feel, first yes, the feeling of the story, the emotion is very, very important. It's what the listener feels. For new writers writing their first songs, writing about personal experiences is fine if it's merely for learning purposes. On the professional side, if you are trying to make money with your song, the idea should be to look at the lives of other people and write about things average people in middle America go through. Those same people buy your CDs and they want songs that speak of things they can relate to, they have no interest in the writer's personal experiences.

      If you are interested I just published a new Hub Page called Songwriting-Nashville Style.It will be much like a blog in that I will always be adding to it. (at least until I run out og things to say)lol

      Again, great job here Good luck and I will look for more of your hub pages.

      Joe Russ

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for writing! You're definitely right that, for commercial songs, you need to seriously consider your listener. But that doesn't need to be your first step in writing; in fact, it might even force you to censor yourself and prevent you from getting started in a constructive way.

      Thank you so much for your input, and I will certainly check out your hubs!

    • profile image

      Mark Willey Jr. 8 years ago

      i really want to learn how to write songs. U helped me a lot. thx here is a song i have started writning. It is called Alone.

      Lying thinking,last night, How to find my soul,where water is not thirsty, and bread is not stone i came up with one thing, and i dont belive i am wrong That nobody but nobody Can make it out here alone

      Thatsthe begging. Do u think u could help me out?

    • profile image

      Chelsea 8 years ago

      Really great singing i thought u were amazing more than amazing u have inspired me to put more effort to my singing i have wrote a couple of siging if u can give me ur address i will mail it to u r u can give ur emai address and i hope u like it

    • EcoAsh profile image

      EcoAsh 8 years ago from Hemet

      those are great tips for writing songs. i do just about the same when i write songs.

    • profile image

      PParker 8 years ago

      Thats the best advice I could find me and my 2 friends might start a band. I'm not the singer but I still think its good to helpo write some lyrics. I'm a guitar player. I completed my first song and I already am working on the cords so Ya this really helped thanks...

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I like a singing, and playing music instrument. Sometimes I create a song, just for my self.nice tips.thanks sharing your experience.

    • midnightbliss profile image

      Haydee Anderson 8 years ago from Hermosa Beach

      thanks for sharing those advice, I can only write poems if i feel bad, maybe next time it will be a song. LOL

    • profile image

      Laura D. 8 years ago

      here is a pre chorus and chorus to a song my friend wrote

      Pre Chorus: Today is the day when we will take a stand. We will take a stand!

      Chorus: We will fight; we will fall till the angels sing there song. Pray for those who have been departed always remembered never forgotten. A must see for all Christians I really like this guy. The Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ! (repeat 2x)

    • profile image

      Abby 8 years ago

      hi my name is Abby and i want to write a song but a song that know one has heard before and when i write it i want it to be the most coolest song ever well i only want that because i loveto sing and i can sing allday

    • Tom Cornett profile image

      Tom Cornett 7 years ago from Ohio

      This was cool...nice job! :)

    • profile image

      fof 7 years ago

      its hard to write a song. HELP!

    • stephstephenson profile image

      stephstephenson 7 years ago

      This is great, well done :)

    • profile image

      xxMusicLove12xx 7 years ago

      Thanks helenathegreat! I'm really good at writing stories but I can't for the life of me write 1 good song! :(

    • profile image

      Joe 7 years ago

      Hey, great lesson You and your voice are soo beautiful.Soo beautiful. Not bad with the guitar either.

    • profile image

      chris 7 years ago

      im still having trouble with getting past the pre chorous. any suggestions?

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 7 years ago from Manhattan

      Chris, when you're stuck, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away from it and come back to it. Or, do the opposite, and just write EVERYTHING, even if it's terrible. That way you can get down to the good stuff. :) Good luck!

    • profile image

      Tabitha 7 years ago

      Thanks for the steps I,m big on writting songs. Hey, can anybodt tell me if they know somewere, were i can get music paper to write songs on?

    • profile image

      Tabitha 7 years ago

      Sorry about the miss spelling anybodt is realy antbodt

    • profile image

      Tabitha 7 years ago

      Sorry agin i ment to sat antbodt is real anybody

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 7 years ago from Manhattan

      Hi Tabitha, thanks for the comment. If you have a printer, just Google "blank staff paper" and you'll find lots of websites that have it for free for you to download and print!

    • profile image

      justin bieber 7 years ago

      hi i dud a song am on show now is justin bieber i like your song i dot wot you 2 push me

    • profile image

      James 7 years ago

      Wow. this is realy good stuff! I loce to write and sing songs! I have writen one sone and I am working on 2 songs. I am almoast done with the second one, but i'm not fealing it with the third one. The first song I wrote is claaed Thirsday Night. Second: The Boy in the Croud, and the third: Their I was. I sang Thirsday night to a girl I had a crush on and I asked her if I sing as good as her, but she said I need some improvement. On the bright side, she LOVED the song. She thought it was sweet that I sang to her. Any way, thank's for the song writing advice! I'll use it every time I write a song. The only thing I need is a piano! I use to have one untell I moved. Thank's again!

    • profile image

      unknown 7 years ago

      hi. i try writing songs but i always end up using tunes that have already got lyrics to them! can u help me?

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 7 years ago from Manhattan

      Hi unknown. That can be hard if you find yourself getting stuck with songs that already exist. But you can use parts of tunes that have other lyrics to them and then make slight changes to the tune. Then when you add your own words, it's a whole new song!

    • profile image

      Songlost 7 years ago

      This helped me write another song. I can't find the ones I wrote before... What if Someone steals the song!? :( GREAT article!

    • profile image

      KaTT 7 years ago

      i want to write a song but i am only 9!i love writing but i cant find out how to write one! please help me!!!!?

    • profile image

      jen 6 years ago

      like songs lond ago now i like all of the songs

    • profile image

      Bethany 6 years ago

      Great advice for writing a song I've been looking for an article like this for awhile, but I just recently taught myself piano and I still haven't learned chords yet. Can anyone tell me what the basics are? Because I'm kind of lost on that part.

    • profile image

      Ashley 6 years ago

      Thanks for the advise i recently learned how to play the piano, but i am still working on it. I just wrote all these songs and i need words to go with it so i searched up and i found this. And i can now start thinking of songs.

    • profile image

      magics02 6 years ago from Florida

      Amanda I just joined this site and am looking to put my poem to a voice and song. I would love to talk to you. You have a very beautiful voice. Magics Please connect

    • profile image

      Help 6 years ago

      Hello!!!

      I really need a tune for a song pleas help me. P.S I'm 10 and trying 2 write a song music class. Although this helped I CAN'T GET ANYWHERE I'VE GOT all the lyrics they just don't match ANY tune. I've tried randomly singing it, but it DOES NOT work. PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME!!! BIG THANKS 4 ALL THOSE WHO READ.

    • profile image

      Harmony 6 years ago

      Hi everyone! First, I just wanna say this: the article was AMAZING and REALLY helpful. I guess I never rlly noticed tht b4 I had read this, I was always thinking tht my song ideas were awful. Now I try to just let myself be me. I tend to always automatically think my ideas r stupid, even wen there not.

    • profile image

      Adarsh 6 years ago

      I have been writing a lot of songs and of various types.The song seems amazing at first but after you look at it after some days passed it doesnt feel as apealing.Also i tend to write about similar things sometimes and that perceives me about how i am lacking on the ideas and inspirations and extensions on subjects.

      I have also written country songs. I am writing a new song named "volatile". its a rap rock and it tell you about how something that was lost cannot be found and how we want to escape from the fates that is upside down.

      I dont think i am gonna get here often. I would really be helped if you contacted me through facebook at zipper_zeal@yahoo.com

    • profile image

      Adarsh 6 years ago

      also i am planning to record the song this march

      i have a rapper and i am the vocalist. we are searching for the guitarists and hope to find them soon

    • profile image

      aquila 6 years ago

      i like writeing songs

    • profile image

      aquila  6 years ago

      i would want to write a song because i think i is my plane as i get older i will get better

    • profile image

      Ariana 6 years ago

      Hi I'm Ariana and I'm 10 I came from the Philippines and I love singing and I'm looking forward to write a song since I was only 6 years old so I really need your help because I want to be a singer-songwriter when I grow up

      I hope you read this because I really need your help!!!

    • profile image

      Betty 6 years ago

      i took all your advice and wrote a song. it sounds really depressing. so every time i feel sad i hum the song, and that makes me happy again, thanks

    • profile image

      ffion 5 years ago

      hi im ffion and im 9 and i took your advice and now iv wrote a sond and its awsome

    • profile image

      Emma :) 5 years ago

      BEST ADVICE!

      seriously i have been writing songs since i was 13, and this is exacally how i started! songs come from within, singing about how you feel is a great way to get started! music is my life ?

      but yes again, GREAT ADVICE :)

    • profile image

      sahe 5 years ago

      that was really good girl keep it up

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