Learn how to write songs

Lyrics on paperThis guide to writing songs includes elements like the structure of the song, organizing the parts of a song, the verse and the lyrics, the chorus and key changes.

There are no absolute rights or wrongs when it comes to writing songs, what sounds good in music is to a high degree individual. There is also a search for some originality, and therefore you have to be creative and find your own methods to create. Nevertheless, there are some theoretical things to know about and other tips that can lead to improvement – that is the purpose of this guide to songwriting.

The structure

Every song has different parts that form a structure. The structure can differ, obviously, but there are many patterns that lots of songs have in common. The common parts in a song are here presented in short (some of them will be focused on more deeply later on):

Intro – The intro can be a soft piano or some finger picking on the guitar. Sometimes the intro is of great importance for establishing the atmosphere in the song, in other cases it can be a merely functional intro that moves hastily to the first verse.

Verse – This is an important part of the song that builds it up with both music and text. There are lots of ways to write a verse and arrange the music. We will look deeper into this soon.

Bridge – The function of the bridge is to launch the chorus. This tends to be an instrumental part in many songs.

Chorus – The chorus can be the difference between a hit and just another song. A song must not include a chorus, but it is very common and it is a way to shift tempo and deliver some intense quality. Tips on creating a chorus will follow.   

Solo – A solo can expand a song and give it an exciting instrumental break. A common practice is to place the solo after the second chorus.

Outro – The outro can vary in many ways. The simplistic way is to just let some last chords ring out. Another way is to use a so-called fade out. The fade out can for example be done when the chorus is repeated.

Organization of the song

There are of course many ways to organize these parts, just to give an example it could be something like this:

  • Intro
  • Verse 1
  • Verse 2
  • Bridge
  • Chorus
  • Verse 3
  • Verse 4
  • Bridge
  • Chorus
  • Solo
  • Verse 5
  • Chorus
  • Outro

By now, you know a bit about the structure of the song and we will move on to the verse and the lyrics.

The verse and the lyrics

The biggest part of the text in a song is normally placed in the verses. Besides how good the text sounds when it's being sung, it is also of great importance how the text corresponds with the chords. A great song can share chord progression with a poor song – it can therefore be declared that it isn’t the chord progression that makes the song. Both the text and the chords are important and what they assimilate.

The function of the verse, from a lyric point of view, is to tell the story of the song, in which the chorus becomes some kind of statement of.

Chords in the verse

An important part of the verse is the chord sequence. There's many ways to go and some will work better than others.

The chord sequence C F G C is perfectly well as an ending, this is a classic cadence, but to start a song by C F G C F G and so on is a kind of monotonic. Instead something like C Em F C G C F G will generate more movement forward in the song and a richer harmony. Listen on the chord combinations you play and try to find out how different orders fit in different part of the song. To find a melody that goes with the chords you try to whistle as you play.

Are the most chord progressions already used?

There are thousands of chords, but there are only twelve notes. This must logically lead to the fact that there will always be more chord progressions to discover, but also that some progressions with the most common chords will already be used. But one important thing to add is: it is not only the sequence of chords that make the song but how they are used together with strum patterns, expression and other elements. Therefore, you are allowed to use a common sequence like G – C – D when writing a song. You may want to check out some chord progression tips and maybe more important is this table showing the relationship of chords.

We shall look at two songs that both use only three or four chords: “Should I Go or Should I Stay?” by The Clash and ”Helpless” by Neil Young. In the first case the chord progression and its rhythm are very important for the songs and are used like a riff. In the latter case the chord progression repeats it’s self through the verses and also the chorus.

“Should I Stay or Should I Go” – verse analyzes

In “Should I Stay or Should I Go” the main riff goes D G D together with some muted strums plus a hammer-on. The song can be sorted out as a riff-driven song and the text isn’t very important per se. But we could put some attention on the relation of syllables.

Verse 1:
Darling you gotta let me know (8 syllables)
Should I stay or should I go? (7 syllables)
If you say that you are mine (7 syllables)
I'll be here 'til the end of time (8 syllables)
So you got to let me know (7 syllables)
Should I stay or should I go? (7 syllables)

Verse 2:
It's always tease tease tease (7 syllables)
You're happy when I'm on my knees (8 syllables)
One day is fine and next it's black (8 syllables)
So if you want me off your back (8 syllables)
Well come on and let me know (7 syllables)
Should I stay or should I go? (7 syllables)

There is a strong pattern between the lines in matters of syllables and this is a method you should be aware of while writing your own songs. By focus on the syllables you will get a better flow through the verses and the song will get a stable form.

“Helpless” – verse analyzes

The next song, “Helpless” by Neil Young is more of a text oriented song. In other words: how the singer tells a story and expresses the lyrics matters a lot.

The first verse with the placement of chords:

(D)There is a (A)town in north Ont(G)ario,
(D)With dream (A)comfort memory to sp(G)are,
(D)and in my (A)mind I st(G)ill need a place to go,
(D)All (A)my changes were th(G)ere

As we can see, only three chords are used and this is also the case in the chorus:

(D)Helpless, (A)helpless, help(G)less
(D)Baby (A)can you hear me (G)now?
(D)The chains (A)are locked and (G)tied across the door,
(D)Baby, (A)sing (G)with me some how.

The playing techniques here are all about strumming pattern and find the right feeling. From a songwriting perspective we can see that the song is based on solely three very common chords. This gives the conclusion that songwriting not necessary must be about finding new, unique chord progressions. Very often it is more about how the words are assimilated with its rhythm and timbre to the chords.

If we analyze the first verse we can notice how the last syllables are rhyming in the pattern of ABAB:

ario - go
are - ere

This is a non perfect rhyme, yet it constitutes more than enough to absorb the lines together.

Another important ingredient to make a song fit together, and mentioned already, is the relationship of syllables in the lines. In a comparison of the two verses (see the second verse below) in the song the syllables are as follows:

Verse 1: 10, 9, 11, 6
Verse 2: 8, 6, 8, 7

The number of syllables differs some, but there are also similarities: in both verses the first and third lines have most syllables while the second and fourth have the least syllables. This contributes to the form of the song. This contributes to the form of the song.

The third thing we are going to discuss is assonances. Assonances meaning that two or more words share vowel sounds in different words. Examples can be found in the second verse in “Helpless” (marked in bold letters):

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.

The use of assonances will affect the mood of the song:

Long vowel sounds will decrease the energy at that point in the poem and make the mood more serious. Higher vowel sounds will increase the energy and lighten the mood. (YourDictionary.com)

Using chords outside the key

For the two examples above, simple progressions with chords in the same keys was used. To create songs with harmonies that doesn’t sound all that familiar you should strive for progressions that includes chords outside the key. In The Beatles "Across the Universe" the sequence F#m - Em7 - Gm - D are creating a distinctive harmony. The sequence leads to D that is the key chord in the song, but includes also Gm that doesn't belong to the D major scale.

How to create interest and avoid sounding monotonous

The verses in a song are by nature repetitive and the risk is that they sound monotonous. A songwriter must do more than just create a chord progression and strum them trough the song. After a while it will tire the listener. Two fields that are important in this aspect of a song is rhythm and sometimes dynamics.

In the case of guitar, the rhythm is mostly about strum pattern including variations in accents on down and up-strokes. A skilled guitarist could create something unique only by strum patterns and this is also an important component of the expression in the song.

The changing in loudness in a song can sum up the dynamics. A guitar that plays trough a whole song in the same volume can feel monotonous and by increasing or decreasing the volume in some part of the song you can accomplish vitalizing effects.

The chorus and the hook

Chorus should not be thought of literary, that many sing simultaneously. It is just the term being used for the part of the song that is repeated between the verses. How often the chorus is repeated differs, but in many songs it will come after the second verse and when repeat maybe one, two or three times again. According to a study released in 2015 the success of a pop song is partly depending on how many times the chorus repeats and the chance for the song to became a hit is increased by 14.5% for every repetition. But everything is on the other hand not about making a hit song.

Different ways to make a chorus

In Bruce Springsteen's song "My Hometown" the verses ends with variations of this line:

(A)My hometown, my hometown, (D)my (A)home(E)town

Here is "my hometown" first singed twice on the same chord and when on the third time with higher frequency of chord changes in combination with a stretching of syllables. This is an easy and - right done - effective method to create a final line of a verse that lifts the song and serve as a hook.

The hook or chorus must, however, not wait for the verse, it can be the beginning of the song too. Like in The Beatles' “She Loves You”. The song is an example of how a successful chorus can stay away from sophistication and address the listener with simple but beautiful energy:

She (Em)loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She (A7)loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She (C)loves you, yeah, yeah, (G)yeah

One thing worth notice here is the simplicity of three almost exact same lines, but with an important difference in the subtle shifts that transform the harmony by the chords (Em, A7, C).

Another thing in a song that is important for the memorizing of it is the “hook”. The hook can be described as a repeated phrase (which also can be instrumental). It is often part of the chorus, but not necessary.

For example, in the Bryan Adams song “Sommer of ‘69” there is no distinguish chorus, but the line “Those were the best days of my life” are being repeated in the last of several verses and creates a vital feature of the song.

Key changes

The shift from verse to chorus sometimes involves a change of key. To change key before the chorus increase the contrast and gives new possibilities to chord progressions.

One way to change key is by modulation, which means the change doesn't happen abruptly but with smooth transition. Two examples can be shown here in which slightly different methods are used:

A - Am- F - C

Here we change key from A Major to C Major. To start the key change by shifting from major (A) to minor (Am) in the same chord is a common method. Notice that Am belongs in the key of C.

E - A - F#m - G - D

Here we use a transition of three chords when going from E Major to D major. Notice that A and F#m belongs to both keys.

More in-depth readings could be found in The Guitar Player's Songwriting Bible.

Record yourself

When you finally have written some songs you probably want to record them and listen to yourself. If you don't like the idea to handle a lot of equipment the easiest way is to use either a USB-microphone (you only need a computer) or a portable digital recorder (you don't need anything, but it can be connected to a computer). You can find USB-microphones for under $20 and portable digital recorders with studio-quality sound for just under $100. For example Behringer XM8500 Dynamic Cardioid Vocal Microphone or Zoom H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder.

Various questions concerning song writing

Here are some final questions and answers about writing songs.

How long does it take? It can shift from fifteen minutes to several months. Some songs could be born in an instant when others are taking form successively. Sometimes are the verses written, but the songwriter doesn't succeed in, or not trying to, create a chorus. The chorus may be added on a later occasion. Songwriters have often many different fragments of songs lying around and suddenly, perhaps two or more fragments seem to match into a great song.

How to get ideas for a song? A common method is to listen to music and be inspired. To make music is often indirectly a process building on existing music. Not in that way that another song is copied, but being a foundation for inspiration. The method could also be expanded to turn old song into new by modernizing. Many hits has been done this way, for example Elvis Presley's song "Love Me Tender" that was based on an old folk song, "Augie March".

What to do if you don't like your song? One way is to keep singing. Your voice will get better. Another more direct way is to try to change the key of the song or even change instrument. Perhaps your songs sound better over a steel guitar than a nylon or vice versa.

How to avoid getting stuck? If your first attempt to write a song didn’t really seems to work out gloriously, just start over with a new one. If you write ten songs instead of one the chance that you write one good one will obviously get bigger.

How many chords should be used in a song? There is absolutely no rule about this. Don't use too few, one or two chords will probably be too monotonous. Lots of chords are not a formula of better songs. Some great classic songs only include three or four chords. It can be too sprawling for the listeners ear when too many chords are in action.

How to find a melody? If it was an easy answer one this one, articles like this one wouldn't be needed in the first place. One thing you can try instead of singing the words is to whistle, it can sometimes be a shortcut to finding a melody.

The image on the top on the page with song lyrics on a paper is only a montage and not authentic.

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