How to write a song
“The best songs are the ones where you feel like you've dialed into the cosmic radio and they're there already,” Ed Kopp tells me on Zeitgeist Radio.
Have you ever thought about writing a song? It can feel intimidating when you first think about it, but there are some guidelines you can follow until you get the hang of it.
TERMS TO KNOW
Song structure refers to the organization of different sections of a song. Most popular songs follow a basic structure, and if you’re just starting out I’d suggest you start here.
Before we get into this structure, here are some terms you should know:
Verse: A verse is a section of a song that typically features a unique melody and lyrics. Verses often tell a story or convey a specific message. In a typical song structure, a song will have multiple verses that share the same melody but have different lyrics.
Chorus: The chorus is a section of a song that typically features a memorable melody and lyrics that are repeated throughout the song. The chorus often provides the main message or “hook” of the song and is usually the most catchy and memorable part. Again, this section repeats through the whole song.
Bridge: The bridge is a section of a song that provides contrast to the verse and chorus sections. It typically features a different melody and may have different chords and lyrics. The bridge often serves as a transitional section that leads back to the chorus or verse.
Now that you know what the different sections are, let’s talk about how you can organize them!
The most common song structure is a "Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus" or "ABAB" structure.
In this structure, the song typically begins with a verse (which we’ll call section ‘A’) which introduces the main melody and lyrics of the song. The verse is usually followed by a chorus (which we’ll call section ‘B’)
After the first chorus, the song usually returns to another verse with new lyrics, but the same melody. This is often followed by another chorus, which may feature slight variations to keep it interesting (this is not required!)
Sometimes, a bridge is added after the second chorus. We’ll call this section ‘C.’ The bridge provides contrast to the verse and chorus sections and typically leads back into the final chorus.
So in this structure, your song will go ABABCB.
Another common structure is the "Verse-Verse-Bridge-Chorus" structure. In this structure, the song begins with a verse, followed by a second verse with new lyrics but the same melody. After the second verse, a bridge section is introduced, which provides contrast and leads into the final chorus.
So in this structure, your song will go AABCB.
The structure of a song helps to provide a sense of order and progression, and can keep the listener engaged.
WRITE A MELODY
If you’ve never written a song before, you will likely come up with a melody in conjunction with the song structure. Here are a few hints to help you along.
Find a range and starting note. Is this a low song or a high song? Where is it going to sit in your voice when you sing it? This will help you choose the notes of your melody. If you need help with the elements of sounding good while singing, check out my free course here.
Identify the mood: Think about the mood you want to convey in your song. Do you want it to be happy and upbeat, or more melancholic and introspective? This will help you choose the right notes and rhythms for your melody.
Create a rhythm: Start by creating a rhythm or groove for your melody. This can be a simple pattern that repeats throughout the song, or it can be more complex and varied.
Experiment with different intervals: Use your ear to experiment with different intervals, or the distance between two notes. Try moving up or down by a step or a leap to create different melodic shapes and contours.
Incorporate repetition and variation: Repetition is an important part of creating a memorable melody, so try repeating certain phrases or notes throughout the song. You can also incorporate variations to keep the melody interesting and fresh. You don’t need to get too complicated! Some of the best songs in history have had very simple melodies.
Consider the lyrics: If you're writing a song with lyrics, consider how the melody will interact with the lyrics. The melody should support and enhance the meaning and emotion of the lyrics.
Remember, melody writing can take time and practice, so don't be afraid to experiment and try different things. With practice, you'll develop your own unique style and sound.
If you don’t know how to play chords, that’s ok! Keep working on your melody and structure. You will likely eventually want to put chords to the song, but you don’t need to do it right away.
However, if you do know a little bit about chords, or have a friend who can help, here are some hints for filling in the “chord progression,” or where the music goes around the melody.
Determine the key of the song: The key of the song will determine which chords you can use. Once you know the key, you can use a chord chart or online resource to find the chords that are most commonly used in that key. Start by singing the first phrase of your melody and figuring out what the notes are. Then play different chords that includes those notes until it sounds like it is "home." That is likely your key!
Experiment with chord progressions: A chord progression is a sequence of chords that create a sense of harmony and movement in a song. Experiment with different progressions until you find one that sounds good and fits the mood of the song.
HINT: Use common chord progressions to start! There are many common chord progressions that have been used in popular music for decades. These progressions are often simple and easy to play, and can be a good starting point for writing a song.
Consider the melody: The melody of the song can also help to determine which chords to use. The chords should support and complement the melody, rather than clash with it.
If you’re advanced: Play around with inversions and voicings! Inversions and voicings are different ways of playing the same chord, and can add variety and interest to a song.
Use your ears: Ultimately, the best way to choose chords for a song is to trust your ears and use your intuition. Experiment with different chords and progressions until you find the ones that sound right to you.
If you’re really stuck and just need a place to start, one of the most common chord progressions is: C-G-a minor-F.
This progression can be moved around to start on notes other than C (“transposed”), but many of the most famous songs in the world use it… so I’d say you can’t go wrong starting here!
FIND YOUR RHYTHM
Now that you’ve got the structure, melody, and chords down, let’s lay down the last key element: rhythm!
Choosing a rhythm for a song can be a creative process that involves experimenting with different patterns and styles. Here are some general guidelines to help you choose the right rhythm for your song:
Consider the genre: Different genres of music have their own distinct rhythms and patterns. For example, a hip-hop song might have a steady, driving beat, while a ballad might have a slower, more emotive rhythm. Think about the genre of your song and listen to other songs in that genre to get a sense of the typical rhythms and patterns used.
Think about the lyrics: The rhythm of your song should support and enhance the lyrics. Consider the emotional tone of the lyrics and try to create a rhythm that matches that tone. For example, if the lyrics are upbeat and energetic, you might choose a fast, syncopated rhythm. If the lyrics are more introspective or emotional, a slower, more flowing rhythm might be more appropriate.
Experiment with different rhythms: Don't be afraid to experiment with different rhythms and patterns. Try starting with a basic rhythm and then adding or subtracting elements to create variations. You can also try combining different rhythms to create something unique and interesting.
Consider the melody: The rhythm and melody of a song are closely linked, so think about the melody you've created and how it might interact with the rhythm. You might need to adjust the rhythm to make sure it supports and enhances the melody.
Great job! You’re about done with your song! Now let’s look at a few refinements you can add to make it really pop.
Now that you have the base structure, melody, chords, and rhythm of your song, you can start adding some extra elements. These add emotion and make the song more interesting!
Harmony: This is a secondary line that supports the melody and helps to create the overall mood of the song. A harmony can be another voice singing at key parts of the chorus, or it can be a line that parallels the melody through the entire song. Play around with what you think would sound good!
Lyrics: These are the words that are sung or spoken in a song. They convey the message or story of the song and are often what listeners connect with emotionally. You may already have lyrics tied to the melody, but maybe not! Refine the words so they are exactly as you want.
Dynamics: This refers to the changes in volume and intensity throughout a song. It can help to create tension, build anticipation, and add interest to the music. For each section of your song, ask “do I want this loud or quiet? Do I want it to start soft and grow louder, or vice versa?” Playing with this can really bring out the emotion!
Instrumentation: This includes the different instruments used in a song, such as guitar, bass, piano, or drums. The choice of instruments can greatly affect the overall sound and mood of the song. You may not have these instruments now, but it’s great to think about for the future! And don’t limit yourself: maybe you can dream up a cool flute line, or a harp comes sweeping in during the bridge! At this stage your options are endless.
And voila! You have a song!
I know it’s a lot of work, but of course the goal is to have fun with it! It’s really great when you find elements that all work together to create a cohesive and memorable song that resonates with listeners.
Keep in mind that depending on how your brain works, these elements may tie together in different ways for you. For example, maybe you find you start with a cool rhythm, then add the melody, then the structure and chords. Or maybe you start with chords and a melody and fill in the rest.
You'll only know how you like to approach songwriting by actually DOING it. It can be messy, and different songs may come to you differently as well. When Ed talks about songwriting, he says "you don't know when and where it's going to happen." He describes doing mundane things like driving on the highway, and suddenly being hit by an inspiration.
If you’re having difficulty with the singing part of songwriting, you’ll love my course for beginning singers! It teaches you everything you need to know to sing your song well, including choosing the right starting notes and a key that will work for you!
Listen to Ed’s musical journey as a songwriter on Zeitgeist Radio.