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How You Can Write a Song

Updated on January 22, 2019
Leland Johnson profile image

Leland has written over 150 songs. In this article he shares his secrets, inspirations,methods for success, and a few original works.

Let's Start With A Song: "Never Too Old," An Original by the Author

The Story Behind "Never Too Old."

I was at a park with my son a couple years ago. He was climbing a tree and asked me to join him. My knee was particularly stiff that day and I had to decline. I thought to myself, "I wish I could climb that tree with you..." Then a rhyme emerged in my mind. "But wishing won't help me move like I used to." Then two more lines came, "I'll be content just watching you climb- I'm, I'm never too old for that." I had to work with the placement of the lyrics. You'll note that if you listened to the song. The lyrics in verse1 are reversed because after playing it and listening to it, the words seemed to fit better when rearranged. Like putting a puzzle together, I had the borders, the rest of the song seemed to fall into place.

I Am Music!

"I am music and I write the songs!" so go the lyrics of Barry Manilow's classic "I Write The Songs." (Written by Bruce Johnston, popularized by Manilow in 1975) The statement is true. Music does tend to write itself. That sounds strange, doesn't it? "I am music...and I write the songs." Strange as it may be, the music is out there in the ether as well as in your heart, waiting to find expression, and it can only find it through a writer.

John Denver made an interesting comment in his autobiography "Take Me Home." He was talking about the way inspiration found him on a ski-lift after an argument with his wife, Ann. Perched upon the frozen lift he wrote his most popular ballad "Annie's Song." He said,

"When I got home I taught it to myself on the guitar."

He heard the song in his mind, then he went home and transmitted it to a stringed instrument, committed it to paper, practiced and perfected it, and finally recorded it.

Song Writing Tips In Bullet Points

  • Keep writing materials with you at all times to jot down ideas.
  • Keep pen and paper on your night stand for "middle of the night" inspiration.
  • Don't put off writing down a good idea for a lyric thinking "I'll remember it later." Chances are, you won't.
  • Sing or hum a new song idea into a recording device so you don't lose the tune you heard in your head.
  • Writing is re-writing. Don't be discouraged if the words don't fall together right away. Most songs take effort. A pet peeve of mine is when people boast about having written a song "in 10 minutes." I usually think, "Yes, that's why it sounds amateur."
  • Collaborate. Find people who can help you polish your song. If you don't like their contribution or ideas you can discard them. Ultimately, it's your song.
  • Ideas are precious commodities that present themselves at the most awkward times and rarely can you conjure one into being. Be ready when they present themselves. Capture them, keep them, develop them.

How Many: A Song Of Realization

In the video below I play and sing a song I wrote called "How Many." The inspiration came simply as a thought. I was thinking about how quickly our children grow up and I wondered, "how many more summers will we have at the beach? How many more winters will my children ride with me in the same sled before they are too big?" I realized a song was forming. I sat down at my keyboard and what emerged was a composition that was very meaningful to me and meaningful to many others.

Do I Need To Be A Musician To Write A Song?

No, but it helps. Being able to play an instrument makes notation easier, but you don't have to play an instrument. However, depending on what you want to do with your song, you will eventually need to know someone who can. This shouldn't pose a problem. Everybody knows someone who plays guitar or piano, and as a general rule, musicians enjoy helping people compose. It's one of the reasons they became a musician. The help of a musician will improve your song- most of the time. I've had a couple experiences in a studio setting where the owner had one of his musicians add accompaniment that I didn't like, but that isn't the norm. Usually engineers have an ear and a knack for improving your work. Most of the time I have liked one of my songs better after another musician/artist/engineer has had a crack at improving and polishing it.

For You, For Me: A Love Song For My Wife

I wrote this song for my beautiful wife, Sondra. She is always so verbally supportive and complimentary to me, more so than I deserve. She was saying something kind to me, something she likes about me and I said, "You know sweetheart, I feel the same for you as you feel for me." Again, the way the words flowed instantly told me there is a song in there somewhere. Part of songwriting is capturing pithy, interesting phrases that please the ear. The end result culminated in a song I am proud of and one my wife appreciates.

Constructing The Song

Though the title appears at the top of the page it is actually the nucleus of the song. As you know, the title is often the same as a phrase from the song's chorus. I think of such Beatles songs as Imagine, Yesterday, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and She Loves You. The title reflects the theme, or motif of the song. How do you get the title? It's a subjective question and it differs from person to person. I would also mention that the title isn't exclusive to the chorus. The chorus to Eleanor Rigby doesn't mention Eleanor Rigby, but laments "ah, look at all the lonely people." So as you are writing do not allow yourself to be encumbered by a litany of rules. Songwriting is the stuff of creativity, not rigid legality.

I often get the chorus first then construct the rest of the song around it. The chorus of the song in the above video came to me as

"So let me hold you and never let you go - I know you won't ask me to - by the way you let me know - that you love me so - and you feel the same for I feel for you."

Once I had the chorus I began exploring my feelings for my wife, reminding myself of our life together, what we like to do, what we mean to each other, etc. Once the inspiration comes it flows until it is spent and only you can know when that moment is.

Why YOU Can Write A Song

Author John Eldridge wrote in his book on masculinity, "Wild At Heart,"

"If you have something you want to do, a dream in your heart, it is there because you are able to do it, to make it a reality. It is God's gift to you."

I believe there is a group within the HubPages community that will benefit from this article, because writers do not limit their creative affinity. It is something that possesses them, not something they possess. There are poets in this group and what is a song, but poetry put to music?

As the saying goes, "a writer writes," and if there is something in you compelling you to put your pen to paper in the creation of a verse, then do it because you can. It isn't a whim or a crazy idea. There may be a song trying, even begging, to get out into the world. Remember what I said before, the song will try to write itself. It is as if it is alive. Aren't all ideas that way? A song gives expression to your joy, your pain, your sorrow, your insight, your experience, even your opinion. Share it.

A Writer Writes!

Co-Writing And Collaboration

It took a long time for me to learn the value of this lesson. To write a song can be an intensely personal project. It is difficult, but sometimes necessary, to open yourself to the scrutiny of an outsider. You may be unable to keep the song moving forward and a second set of eyes may be just the thing you need to get it going. For me, I hold a covetous, even selfish hand on my pen. I don't like the thought of sharing the credit with someone else for a song that had its genesis in my mind. The way to think of it is like a house builder. No one builds a house by himself. He can draw up the blue prints, but sooner or later he'll need help with the foundation, the dry wall, etc. You might need help constructing your song as well. Just look at the top of most sheet music and you will usually see credit going to more than one person. I enjoy reading about the collaborative efforts of musical greats such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin. These two wrote virtually every song Elton ever sang, but they did it completely apart. Bernie wrote lyrics and sent them to Elton, Elton put the lyrics to music. The mercurial Brian Wilson was the creative genius behind The Beach Boys, but Mike Love possessed the necessary discipline to organize Wilson's musical ideas. It was Mike Love who coined the term "the hook" of a song, referring to that element that compels you to listen. Then there is the most successful pop duo of all time, Daryl Hall and John Oates. They wrote some songs together, some alone, but they each tweaked the others work. One humorous article said of the duo, "Daryl would sing a few words and melodies into a tape recorder and bring it into the studio, while John, when he had an idea for a song, would bring in music and lyrics, chord structure and musical directions written out."

Daryl Hall And John Oates

Daryl Hall and John Oates are the most successful duo in musical history.  Together they wrote a compendium of top ten songs over 4 decades of collaborative efforts.
Daryl Hall and John Oates are the most successful duo in musical history. Together they wrote a compendium of top ten songs over 4 decades of collaborative efforts.

Find Your Method

So you see even the great artists have no set of guidelines to shepherd them through the song writing process. The song writer creates his own process. Hall did it by singing into a hand held device. Most smart phones have such a device as an app. I use mine all the time. It was exciting to learn that I had the same method as Daryl Hall. I also have scraps of paper and napkins littering my book bags, full of half jotted thoughts. Something else I do- If I get a tune in my head that has a similar chording sound found in another song, I draw a small picture of an ear by that section of lyric. The ear indicates "sounds like." This helps me remember the sound if I am unable to remember the exact notes/chords used. Then later, I return and figure out the musical notation. Find your method. It's waiting to be found.

Writing music begins like a drip from a faucet. Every song you compose turns the spigot releasing more from the nozzle until there is a gushing fountain of songs springs from the heart and mind of the writer.

Sing Your Songs

Play Solo
Play Solo
Play With Your Tribe
Play With Your Tribe

"If you have something you want to do, a dream in your heart, it is there because you are able to do it, to make it a reality. It is God's gift to you."

— John Eldridge- Wild At Heart

Blank Music Ledger

A blank ledger allows you to both get your lyrics written down as Well as providing space for musical notation.
A blank ledger allows you to both get your lyrics written down as Well as providing space for musical notation.

Inside View Of Music Ledger

I retain notes and ideas I've jotted down earlier in the day then transfer them to my ledger.  I found this one for $5.
I retain notes and ideas I've jotted down earlier in the day then transfer them to my ledger. I found this one for $5.

Sources Of Inspiration

What Inspires You To Write?

See results


I hope these songwriting tips were helpful to you. Songwriting, like writing itself, can be a wonderful cathartic allowing you to express the creativity and experiences that make you, you. If you have a song on your heart but aren't sure how to put it to music, contact me and I'll see if I can help or at least give you some ideas and direction.

Remember, the music is inside just waiting to be released. "I am music and I write the songs!"

© 2018 Leland Johnson


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