As a songwriter myself (of sorts - for an example of my poor attempts at songwriting see Do What You Will) I thought this nodeshell was as good a place as any to put my thoughts on how to start writing songs. (This node assumes you know at least the basics of playing one instrument. If not, guitar is the easiest to learn). This node will concentrate on writing music, as I am not a particularly proficient lyricist - see How to write lyrics for better advice than I could give on that.

First, learn the very basics of music notation. Yes, we all know Paul McCartney cannot read or write sheet music - guess what? You're not Paul McCartney. No-one's saying you should do a degree course in music theory - though that certainly won't hurt - but learn the basics.

Once you've done this, get a few books of sheet music - doesn't have to be full scores, fake books are quite acceptable - of songwriters who are either your favourites or who are generally considered to be 'great' songwriters. The Beatles Complete is a good choice for a fake book, or, in areas where it's available (due to copyright restrictions sheet music can vary from area to area) The Concise Beach Boys. Note however that many fake books have horrendously oversimplified chords in them - Beach Boys ones are particularly bad for this, many replacing the 9th chord in California Girls with a 5th or 7th - so if possible play one or two songs in the music store to check they sound right.

Now, learn at least 30 songs, by at least four or five different writers, in different genres, that you think are great. Learn these so they become second nature, like riding a bike. The reason for this is the same as learning scales as a player - you want to be able to automatically move to chord changes that you can hear in your head, without having to think about it.

Next, a simple exercise. Look at the sheet music for your very favourite song, and try to pick out the hook. What the hook is can vary enormously from song to song, but generally in a good song (as opposed to merely a good record) it will be the point in which the song varies from a standard pattern - maybe a key change or a bar with a different number of beats.

An example would be a technique used in both The Beatles' Day Tripper and the Beach Boys' The Warmth Of The Sun (by John Lennon/Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson/Mike Love respectively). Both these songs start with an absolute standard set of changes (12-bar blues for Day Tripper, I-vi-ii-V7 for The Warmth Of The Sun) but then halfway through that pattern change key and start the pattern again, then halfway through changes back. To make this clearer, the standard pattern of changes for a I-vi-ii-V7 song such as Blue Moon or Heart And Soul is:

In C - C-Am-Dm-G7
In Eb - Eb-Cm-Fm-Bb7

Meanwhile, the chords for Warmth Of The Sun are:
C-Am-Eb-Cm-Dm-Dm(held for two bars)-G7-Gaug7

The equivalent of the change to Eb in the Beatles song is to the II7 chord on the line 'She was a DAY tripper'.

Anyway, find out where the hook is, and try using the idea of that hook in a new context. For example you might try using the idea of a key change in the middle of a well known sequence used above, but try it on a cliched I-IV-V-IV sequence (the Louie Louie/La Bamba/Hang On Sloopy/Twist & Shout/Wild Thing changes) rather than the changes for a doo-wop ballad or a blues rocker.

Of course, most well written songs will have several of these hooks in them, and you have to be able to come up with your own. The best way to do that is to have a large repertoire of chords at your disposal (I can't count the number of times Ddim7 has helped me through an awkward key change) and to be able to write a good strong melody over the top. Of course inspiration is the most important thing, but in songwriting as much as (possibly even more than) any other creative field, this has to be backed up with a good toolkit.

Obviously one writeup can't even scratch the surface of this subject - a beginning songwriter really needs a manual in order to learn (other than by experience). Luckily such a book does exist - Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb is a book I wish I'd read when I was starting to write songs. It's the only book I've ever read that explains the actual mechanical process of songwriting in such a way that a total beginner with no previous experience could sit down and write a good, interesting song, by just following his instructions.

Another good book on the subject is Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo. This doesn't describe the technical process very well, but by interviewing huge numbers of great songwriters (primarily American) he manages to explain the mindset of songwriters very well - this book resonates a lot with almost ever songwriter I've spoken to, and when I e-mailed Van Dyke Parks (one of the interviewees) asking for advice, his principal piece of advice was simply to read Songwriters On Songwriting.


arrogantsob's w/u is right on the nail too. My advice here is just showing the method I started from, but the method below works equally well, and is the method described in Tunesmith . My own technique is to write a song from a melody I hear in my head, but I can usually automatically harmonise that melody because I've built up my repertoire of chords over the years. YMMV

The above writeup has some very good information. As Stealth Munchkin states, the best way to start songwriting is to learn other people's music first, and to learn the basics of music theory. This gives you the instinct you need to get the really catchy melodies. Nevertheless, I thought it would be good to give a bit more practical advice. Using the following methods will give you some pretty mediocre music if you're just a beginner, but the point is to improve, which is something you will do, if you keep at it. Note that this advice works best for the guitar, although it can be adapted to other instruments.

When writing a song, you can start from one of two places: The chords or the melody. As a beginner, you'll find that starting from chords is a hell of a lot easier, but it also tends to make for sometimes uninspired music. The melody method makes for better music, but is also harder to pull off.

Starting from chords:

The first step is to understand which chords fit together in a given key. Others have already written extensively on this subject, so it is not something I will focus on. Click here for more information. I will assume you know what all the chords are from here on out.

For now, I'll just start with the key of G-major.

In this key, you have the following chords:

G Amin Bmin C D Emin F#dim

Or if you want to start with some more complex chords, you have:

Gmaj7 Amin7 Bmin7 Cmaj7 D7 Emin7 F#dim7

Now that you have these chords, mess around with them. Find some chord progression that seems nice to you. Don't go crazy, just get a couple measures that flow well, and are easily repeatable. Don't worry about rhythm yet, just play a chord once per beat (probably simple strumming on the guitar, but again, feel free to try on other instruments), or something equally simple.

Once you've got that down, start humming while you play this progression. You'll notice that you instinctively start humming notes from within the chords, and as you change chords, the notes you hum will probably change as well. That's it, you have your basic melody.

From here on out, it's just tweaking what you've got. Start messing around with odder rhythms, add some extra notes where you think they fit. Repeat these steps in the same key to get the standard verse and chorus combination.

Starting from a melody:

The first thing to do in this case is to start playing notes in a key, until you find a melody that you like. The alternative is to take a tune that you've already got (i.e. one that just came to you while you were walking), and transcribe it. Find out which notes you've been humming, and which key they're in.

Then write out the notes you've played, and below that, all the chords in that key along with all the notes that belong in a given chord. For example:

Again, say you're in the key of G, and have a melody that plays the following notes (Yes it's very simplistic. Write your own damned music.):

G A B C B A B G

Below that, each chord in the key of G:

   G        Amin       Bmin        C        D         Emin      F#dim
 G-B-D      A-C-E     B-D-F#     C-E-G    D-F#-A      E-G-B     F#-A-C

 Gmaj7      Amin7      Bmin7      Cmaj7     D7        Emin7     F#dim7
G-B-D-F#   A-C-E-G    B-D-F#-A   C-E-G-B  D-F#-A-C   E-G-B-A    F#-A-C-E

So we see that a G-chord has the notes G, B, and D, etc. Now just take the notes in your melody, and find out which chords they fit in. Ignore any notes that you sing quickly. These are passing tones that won't affect the overall harmony much. So in the example above, G and B fit in a G chord. And the A would simply make it a Gadd9 chord. (You did check out that link, right?) So try playing a G chord while singing those notes, and see how it sounds. Don't like it? Emin has the same notes G and B, try that one, see if its any better. Or Amin7 has the notes G and A, while Bmin7 has B and A. Try them all out until you find the chord that "fits". You'll know it when you hear it. Do the same for the rest of the notes, until you have your chord progression.

After that, it's just tweaking again. Find a rhythm that complements your melody. Spice things up a bit.

With time, these methods will become more and more like second nature. You'll find the note you're singing, and just intuitively try it with a few chords until you find the one you like, and often will guess the next chord before you even try it. Keep practicing. Like all of music (maybe all of everything?) the key to getting better at songwriting is to just keep plugging away, be it by playing other people's music or working to create your own.

Songwriting for Guitarists

First, I'd like to say that this is sort-of specific to rock guitarists, but could be applied elsewhere, I guess.

Ok, so you want to write a song? That's no simple task. The hardest part of having a band is writing your own music (or possibly finding time to practice). There should be strong correlation between music and lyrics for a song that sounds good and expresses your ideas.

I always start with music. This way you're not trying to write music to magically match your lyrics. I'll write a melody, then depending on the mood of the music, I'll find a lyrical topic that fits the feeling of the song. This way I also know how many sylables I want per line.

Let's go back for a second to music writing. Start with a simple melody, something that you think sounds good. If you want to you can add riffs to your melody. Riffs in rock songs are often written in regular minor or major scales or, (most popularly) major/minor pentatonic scales. For example the predominant riff in Layla by Cream is written using a C Major scale. Once you have a nice verse progression, add variations as you see fit, but don't overcomplicate. Next, figure out progressions in the same key (most likely) for the chorus, bridge, prechorus, intro, outro, or whatever else you want in your song. I would suggest getting familiar with pentatonic, blues, and other scales for the purpose of soloing. I won't go through how to solo here, but I'm sure someone has written upon it.

Ok. Now you've got some music, a complete song minus vocals/lyrics (and of course drums and bass). Let's say this song is fast, kinda poppy, and upbeat overall. So what are some things you might want to write about that produce feelings similar to those expressed by your (currently) instrumental song? Write down a list of ideas, and get to work! I can't even begin to tell you how to write lyrics (try Demeter's write-up). That's not something I feel I can teach.

I'm a guitarist primarily, but I sing lead vocals. This is not something I feel I'm especially good at. I'm not saying I have a bad voice, but figuring out how to sing something, what music you will sing the vocals to is a daunting task. I find that trial and error, though time consuming, gives me the best results. It's just a matter of finding something you're satisfied by. Hope this was helpful, and good luck.

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