Congratulations on making the choice that the legends that came before you once made. You’ve progressed from interest, to hobby, to artistry. You have ideas and passion driving your decisions and you want your songs to be understood clearly and received well. I’ve studied music my entire life. It’s what I built my collegiate and professional career around. I’ve picked up many great tips and ideas over the years, and I’m going to share them with you now. You have a journey ahead of you, but you are capable of greatness.
Laying Out Your Goals
First things first, what are you trying to accomplish? If you’ve typed “How to write a song” into your search engine, then it’s probably because you want to reach an audience. That’s great! How do we do that? How do we get enough people to listen and share so you can eventually get your record deal and tour the world? The first principle is a practical one. John Mayer once gave a master class to the music students of Berklee College of Music (the school from which he dropped out), and he said something that had an interesting effect on me. When asked how to make it in this business, he said, “Write really great songs.” Sounds simple, right? But really say it to yourself and let it sink in. If I want to make it, then I have to right really great songs. It may seem obvious, and that may even be why you found this article, but it’s an important place to start. We’ll call this the omnipresent step. Always be working in the spirit of writing really great songs.
The next step is figuring out who you want to be, and whether you’re willing to compromise. I started writing pop music around middle and high school, and then I put it aside to study composition at my university (chamber, orchestral, and symphonic larger ensemble type writing). After college, I decided to get back into pop music. I wanted to go out and play at restaurants, festivals, and events. So, I had to ask myself who I wanted to be in the music world and immediately thought of my personal musical hero, John Mayer. I grabbed any record that I didn’t have, I watched YouTube videos of things that I missed while I was in college, and I surrounded myself in his music. I think this is an important first step. Listen to the songs that you could never delete off of your music player. Focus on the music that has stuck around all of these years, and surround yourself in it. Find out what inspires you, and that will help guide your musical identity. Some believe that you should find your own identity to ensure your music is unique. But I promise you, this musical path is a journey. All those that came before you had artists that they loved and emulated. The goal is not to rip off other artists and their songs; however, to quote my hero again, Mayer once said something to the effect of, “it’s trying to emulate your favorite artist and failing that you find your musical identity.” He loved Stevie Ray Vaughan. He became John Mayer.
After figuring out who you want to be and what you want to write, the next step is seeing what tools you have at your disposal. For me, I wanted to have that classic blues tone in my guitar mixed with pop/rock sensibilities. From here, I knew that my current selection of guitars wouldn’t accommodate me. All of my electrics had humbucking pickups. Those guitars were great when I was in high school and just wanted to ROCK!!! But I wanted something a little more expressive. Therefore, after much research, I set out to find a Fender American Stratocaster. I didn’t have a lot to spend at the time, so I knew this would be a challenge. However, I finally found myself a beautiful example of an American Fender in a 3-Tone Sunburst Stratocaster. Playing this guitar did so much for me musically. The songs instantly started to flow. It was everything that I wanted and needed. It was a gift to my musical inspiration. The point of all of this is to say, if what you have available to you isn’t inspiring you in the way that it needs to, you may consider upgrading that gear for something that will. It’s more important than you might think. There are times when we have to make do with what we have. But the point remains the same. The tools that we have at our disposal can make a major impact on the music that we write.
Another helpful tool that I use is thinking to myself, “What would I want to hear?” It’s all about programming your mind to think creatively and efficiently. It’s about getting yourself in the right mindset to write. Sometimes asking yourself simple questions gets you on a creative path. If you were to turn on the radio, what would you want to hear? What would your close friends want to hear? Getting a picture together in your mind’s ear? Good. Go write that song.
Finally, believe in yourself. Be your own inspiration. Tell yourself that you’re a songwriter and that you can do this. Turn on the radio. These are people just like you. Sometimes we build up musicians as being larger than life figures, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. They’re just like you; so, why not you? Tell yourself that you can do this. If nothing else, take comfort in knowing that there’s a columnist in New York who knows that you can do this.
We live in an age of constant distraction. It’s an ever present menace. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re reading this article on your phone with a music app playing in the background as your game is downloading. Believe me, I understand, and I’ve been there. But know this – procrastination is the enemy of productivity. I’ve heard many entrepreneurs say something to the effect of, people live like there’s no tomorrow when they should live like tomorrow is their last day. I’ll give you a personal example. The items that reign on top of my distraction list are video games, film, and television. I love entertainment, and it’s everywhere now. However, one day I decided that I was going to take a week off from all of my distractions and focus only on writing music. I didn’t play one game, I didn’t write for an hour and then retire somewhere with my tablet and watch Netflix. I woke up, went to work, came home, wrote music, went to bed, and repeated. And you know, I wrote 10 solid songs that week. If not completely fleshed out, they were at least solid ideas and jumping off points. You only get one life. There’s no reset button. You have to build your life with every second that’s available to you. Don’t waste it. Believe me, I know that you have to take time for yourself and enjoy the things in life that make you happy and inspire you. But you also have to work. It requires maintenance and attention. So, find a routine that works for you. You can start slow at first if need be, but find a groove, run the experiment and find out what works for you. Then stick with it. The second that it doesn’t work anymore, recalibrate, find the groove, and stick with that. Every force in this world is going to work against you. Overcome it, and don’t let it weigh you down. This is your life, no one else’s.
In my opinion, truth is the most important step in the songwriting process. It requires you to be vulnerable, but clever. What are you going to say in your music? What message are you going to send out to your listeners? If you look at the greatest songs of our time, you’ll often find that the reason they are so great is because they are rooted in truth. They’re about real problems, emotions, and feelings. They have depth. They have substance and content. There’s plenty of nothing out there. And sometimes nothing can be fun, but it rarely lasts. Like a saccharin pastry, it’s a delight to the taste, but it doesn’t nourish. You want your songs to nourish people and help them grow. You want your music to supplement the design of your listener’s being. You want your words and melodies to guide people through their lives and answer the questions that they are too afraid to ask. If you want to write a song like that, then you’re going to have to be honest. This process might make you a little more sensitive around those closest to you because you’re dredging up memories and feelings. Be prepared for it because it could happen; though, it’s a worthwhile step towards your greatness. So, try to embrace it without letting it control you.
But what does musical honesty look like? It’s finding a way to express your true feelings and perhaps those of your societal and personal surroundings in a clever way. What scares you more than anything? Is it the thought of not fulfilling your goals? Is it losing your loved ones? Write it down. What do you love more than anything? Is it the feeling of being free with no one around to stop you from being you? Is it a person in your life? Write it down. What makes you angry more than anything? Is it society? Is it the music industry? Write it down. What breaks your heart more than anything? Was it someone you loved? Was it a missed opportunity? Write it down.
Now take all of those personal feelings that you’ve written somewhere, and find a clever way to say them. Take your words and reinvent them. Sometimes it’s ok to put everything on front street and out in the open, but I find that the best songs find a more clandestine and cunning approach to the lyric writing. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like where I am, but I’m going to move forward”; it’s a different thing to say, “This place feels too familiar but I’m moving to higher ground”. ©DaveStutts – just kidding. All music is subjective, but in my opinion, the second line is better. Based on this evidence alone, I’d listen to the second song. You can be honest without saying everything clearly. You can shroud your honesty in clever word play. You can write the paradoxical honest deception. But your listeners will understand that it comes from a real place. This is a place that they will understand, appreciate, and hopefully come back to when they need more.
C’mon, I’m not going to be trapped in a musical box with some formula! Relax. This is just a place to start. You probably already know the formula, but let’s see what it actually looks like, and then you can decide how you want to revolutionize it (or stick with it). The most commonly used formula looks something like this:
Intro – Verse 1 – Hook – Chorus – Verse 2 – Hook – Chorus – Bridge (may include solo) – Hook – Big Chorus – Outro
The intro introduces your instrumentation or a musical theme. The verses tend to have 4-8 lines. Verse 2 tends to be half the length of Verse 1. The Hook is a shorter section to transition you from verse to chorus (4 lines or so). The Chorus is usually 4-8 lines. The Big Chorus can have a key change or add more instruments to make it sound larger than it did before. And then you calm things down with the outro. A final chord or a fade out will usually do.
There are variations to this, but I believe more or less that this is the tried and true songwriting template. There’s nothing wrong with it. People have built their unspeakable fortunes around it. It works. I’ve seen some great artists take this formula and change it up a bit. I’ve seen them do things like write 2 verses back to back before you ever hear the first chorus. Most record companies don’t like this approach. They want you to get to the chorus as soon as possible so that people can sing along and have the melody get stuck in their heads. So, maybe save that approach for track 8… on your second album. But at the end of the day, just write in a formula that’s not going to confuse your listeners. After all, don’t forget the omnipresent step that connects all of the other steps: write really great songs.
You have to practice if you want to improve. Your first few songs might not be perfect, but hang on to them. You can turn any bad idea into a good idea. If possible, write every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, a little writing is certainly miles ahead of no writing. Continually do research. Practice your instrument. Sing everywhere you go. If you are lacking in some aspect, don’t ignore it, overcome it. Face your music as practically as you do creatively. Play it for close friends. Get feedback. Adapt. Reevaluate. Keep writing.
Music is a journey. You’re going to grow and evolve the longer that you’re a part of it. Lay out a clear plan for yourself and have a few backups just in case. Find inspiration in the music that you love. Don’t procrastinate. Take comfort in the formulas, but bend them as you see fit. Practice every day, and be as honest as you can.