Thoughts on Writing Great Songs

Great audio productions all have one big thing in common.

They start with a great song.

Yes, production quality, instrumentation, and good performance is all important. But it’s all gotta start with a great song. Otherwise, you can spend a whole lot of effort on creating a great sounding song that people just don’t care enough to listen to.

Songwriting is difficult. It’s hard to create a song that you are proud of yourself, let alone one that you are willing to share with the world.

Today I want to share a couple of tips that help me write songs. I’m primarily a singer/songwriter, which means I typically write songs with lyrics. But most of what I’m talking about here applies to instrumental and electronic music as well.

Start with the music

There are people out there who can write lyrics and then put music to the lyrics later. If you’re one of those people, that’s awesome.

I’m not. And I suspect that most of us are not.

For me, it all starts with the music. I need to “feel” it. Feel the emotion of the music. Feel the chord progression. Feel the story start to unfold, even before any words have been written down.

The lyrics that I come up with have to match the emotion that is created by the music. Otherwise, it just doesn’t sit right, or sound right.

For me, I usually have a few chord progressions in my head that I come up with while just playing around. When I come up with an idea for a song, I pick one out that fits.

Write the chorus first

Whether writing lyrics or melodies, I like to start with the chorus. I find it easier, and it helps me to understand what the song is about.

Personally, I tend to have a hard time coming up with lyrics. However, if I have a general idea for a song, the chorus usually isn’t too hard to come up with.

The chorus should be a statement of the overall idea or message of the song. Start coming up with some words, and melodies to match. Change things if needed. The first chorus you come up with may not be the one you stick with.

For instrumental or electronic music, the same thing goes. If you’re doing a lot of programming, I would suggest coming up with melodies on an actual instrument. I find that I’m much better at coming up with catchy melodies when my hands are on a keyboard, rather than when I’m programming MIDI notes in the computer.

Remember that the chorus should be catchy and memorable. People will remember your song by its chorus.

Now for the verses

I find verses very hard to write.

For some reason, expressing the general idea or theme of the song in the chorus seems fairly easy to me. But the point of the verses is often to tell a story, typically in a poetic form. For me, this is more difficult.

My suggestion here is to just keep at it. Come up with words. Write them down. Come up with something better. Change what you had. Repeat. Keep going until you have something you’re proud of.

Things that have helped me

Songwriting is a very personal intimate experience. So anything that gets you into a mindset of reflection and creativity can be helpful.

Go for a walk. Get out your guitar and noodle around. Don’t just sit around staring at a blank sheet of paper and expect a masterpiece to jump out at you. Find out what makes your creative juices flow, and make it happen.

I’m a Christian, and for me, I often pray when I write songs. Reflection, solitude, silence, and being in nature can also be very helpful. Anything that is spiritually significant for you and helps your mind to get into that creative place. It will be different for everybody.

One way to get better at songwriting is to do more writing. As much and as often as you can. Write journals. Blog posts. Poetry. More songs. The more the better.

I’ve recently gotten into the habit of writing 750 words every day. It’s sort of like a journal. It helps with my writing skills, and it often produces ideas and inspiration as well.

The more you write, the better you get at writing.

Finally, make sure you always have some way to write down lyrics. Wherever you are.

This is important.

Sometimes, the perfect lyrics will just seem to pop out of the air at you. I’m not sure why, but it’s happened to me many times. Make sure you have a way to capture them.

More than once, I’ve been lying in bed going to sleep, when suddenly a part of a verse will come to me. So I write it down. Start to go to sleep again. And then, bam! There’s some more of it.

I don’t know what it is. But make sure you keep a notebook, or your phone, or something close by so you can capture the ideas as they come.

Record it!

When you come up with a chord progression, record it! When you come up with a chorus, record it! When you figure out that awesome guitar lick, record it!

It’s easy to write down words. But make sure you keep a record of the music and melodies you come up with too.

It doesn’t have to be a “good” recording. Just a recording on your phone will do. Just make sure you have a way to refresh and remember what you’ve come up with.

Well, that’s all I got for now! Get out there and write some songs! The more you write, the better you’ll get.

What are some tricks you use to get into the creative “zone”? How do you come up with music and lyrics? Leave a comment!

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing Great Songs

  1. For me. My largest inspirations come on my hour to hour 1/2 long drive to work and home. I am often listening to music and thinking about conversations I have had during the day, some work related some not. Or even something I read.. the music that fits my style that Im listening to often puts me in a mode and the ideas start to flow. I pull up the recorder on my cell and start recording Ideas. Once I am able to get back to it I have a start and it is easier for me to get back to the same feeling or emotional state I was in when I recorded the idea.

    With notes and with Ideas.. I always write down what I was doing or what song I was listening to when I came up with the idea.

    Just a couple of things that work for me now but I am always trying new things to get better at generating these ideas and completing a project with the most success.

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  2. Cool! It’s great that you’re able to record those ideas when they come to you. That’s key!

    I guess the important thing is to realize what works for you, and practice, practice, practice! The more you do it, the better you’ll get. That’s partly why I’ve been writing 750 words everyday. It helps with songwriting, and also with blogging.

    Good stuff! Keep it up! 🙂

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  3. I think I’m pretty good at writing, but when the words have to fit the music, that’s the hard part!

    And yeah, I keep my phone close 24-7, to write down or record any good idea that comes to mind. And it’s a good habit for sure. For my first EP, only one of the songs was 100% new. The other four were variations and “evolutions” of ideas I had years ago!

    Great post Alex, I’ll keep in mind your advices!

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    1. Hi Esli,

      Yeah, making it all fit to the music and sound good can definitely be a challenge! I’ve also had the experience of “revamping” or “evolving” an older idea into a song. That’s perfectly valid! Sometimes ideas need time to stew around and become more focused before we can use them 🙂

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