How to Write a Song in 5 Steps
So you want to write a song.
It might be for a party, a band you are in or a solo project on the internet. Regardless of the reason, you decided to write one and that is the first step.
Step 1: Start
A song is not some magical thing that descends from the heavens when it pleases and lands in your lap. It is in a sense work – you need to put what is in your head in a coherent order so that other people can listen to it.
A song starts as an idea. It might be a short guitar riff or a vocal melody, a simple string of notes or just a rhythm. The first piece of a song might come to mind in the form of any instrument. Whatever it is, you need to get it down on record as soon as possible. Never think that an idea is not good; you never know how good it might be until the idea is developed. Just get it down!
It is very difficult to remember an idea for very long, so your best option is to record that initial idea and work from it. If you are not at home and inspiration strikes, record it on your cell phone. It is better to have many song ideas to work from rather than none at all when you are sitting down and trying to write one.
Step 2: Build the foundation and four walls
Once you have an idea, you need to fill it out into a full song. This usually means it will need to follow some sort of verse-chorus structure. You will need to take your original idea and add pieces that relate to it but are different for the verses, choruses, intro, outro and any bridges or fills. Here is a great pdf written by the guys at Nashville song writers explaining a thing or two about song structure.
There are many different ways to flesh your idea out into a full song. Many song writers just sit with their acoustic guitar and play and write. Others write all their lyrics first and then make a song around the words. I prefer to write in front of my computer with my DAW open, a drum plugin loaded and my guitar on my lap. This allows me to write and record my song at the same time piece by piece. Then I write and add the vocals once the song is done.
The goal at this stage should be to work out all your melodies and rhythms. Essentially you need a fully functional guitar rhythm with a drum beat that has variations for chorus and verse, a chosen amount of repetitions and a beginning and ending.
Experiment with the order you choose to write your songs and find the way that works the best for you.
Step 3: Put on the roof, windows and other pretty bits
Now that your song is a resemblance of the final product, it is time to spruce it up. That means adding all the layers that are going to allow it to stand on its own as a song.
Yes, if you are playing solo acoustic then your job is almost done. All you need to do now is add some phrasing (very important) to your guitar playing and get the vocals written and ready to perform.
If your songs are intended for a full band, then you will need to get to work on the lead guitar, bass guitar and keyboard if you are using one. Get some harmonization going and add some interesting variation to your drum beats. This is where you really make your song sound unique.
Learn a bit about intervals and octaves so that you can easily harmonize with your original melody. If you are new to music theory, harmony can get a little bit complex because there are many notes that harmonize with each other. If you simply use your ear to compare the different possible harmonies, then you will quite easily be able to choose the one that is right for your song .
Harmony will also come in handy when writing your vocals. If you are writing your lyrics to the song, be very careful of sticking to the exact rhythm of the song. It is easy to do this by accident or laziness and will result in a boring monotonous song. The vocals are the icing on the cake; they have to be different but still complement the rest of the cake.
It is also your chance to really express yourself. You are not held back by having to stay sort of the same as the rest of the instruments – you can really let loose. Just make sure that you stay in pitch; other then that, you can do whatever you want similar to a guitar solo… oh ya!
Guitar Solo! I almost forgot about this timeless expression of awesomeness. If your song is going to have one, now is the time to write it. Same rules apply as vocals, go mad and only vaguely stick to what is happening in the rest of the song.
Step 4: House keeping
Now is the time to look over your song as a whole. Step into the shoes of a producer and start asking yourself questions like “Is the part long enough?”, “Should I repeat this part again?”, “Is that really the best the bridge can sound?”. Now is the time to change any of the macro aspects of your song and get the structure just right.
The song is almost done and you are just cleaning up any blemishes. If you have a trustworthy friend that can give you detailed musical opinions, then now might be the time to let them have a listen.
If you do receive some nonconstructive criticism, just remember that everyone has an individual taste and there are 7 billion people on the planet who haven’t heard your music yet.
Step 5: On to the market
Now that your song is done and it is completely yours, you need to decide what to do with it. My recommendation: record it as professionally as you can, shoot a quick music video for it and share it online for the world to see. 🙂