I like to write songs. Some of them are okay. Most of them are terrible. A few might even be good. But it occurs to me that people could be interested in how songwriting works, since music is this weird ephemeral thing that we sort of pull out of the air and create out of nothingness, and most people, I guess, don’t write songs. I’m sure that, like any other creative art form, there are many different ways that one might go about writing a song, but this is the way I do it.
STEP ONE: Let a Melody Enter Your Brain
If you are going to write a song that has words, then you either have to start with a melody, or start with those words. Many people set previously written poems to music, and many people write lyrics first and then put them to music. I have found, personally, that it is much easier to figure out what words fit with a melody than to figure out what melody fits with some words, so I try to get a sense of the music first. The way to think of a melody is just to experiment and improvise. Hum on the subway. Sing in the shower. Do-wop your way down the street. Just start putting notes together until you get a sequence that you can’t get out of your head.
STEP TWO: Figure Out Where You Have Heard it Before
Chances are, if there is a catchy melody floating around in your brain, then someone else has already written it and you are subconsciously recalling it. Don’t worry! That’s okay! There are only twelve notes, which means that there are a fairly small number of ways to put them together in a melodic line, and even fewer ways that sound decent. Half of the songs out there sound the same anyway! Just hum your song to a few people and ask, “What song is that?” They will let you know what song your song sounds like. You only have to make sure that you are not ripping someone off exactly. If you are, just change one or two of the notes and you should be fine. Don’t believe me? Watch this video.
STEP THREE: Make Up Some Words
The words and the music do go hand in hand, so you will probably start thinking up words before all of the music is written, and those words may inform where you go with the song. This is a good thing. But if you don’t know what your song is going to be about yet, it’s okay to use filler words too. But be careful that you don’t become too attached to them, or your song will end up with terrible lyrics that seem totally fine to you, because you’ve been singing them for so long. Do not be fooled by this.
STEP FOUR: Repeat the First Three Steps Until Your Song is Long Enough
Perhaps you have a verse that will be repeated, but you still need a chorus or a bridge. Maybe your structure is more free-form and there are no repeating parts. You’re just creating more work for yourself if this is the case but hey, whatever floats your boat. The point is, you can’t drag 8 seconds of music out for 3-4 minutes unless you are planning to be a rap artist, in which case you should just use a song somebody else wrote and then yell a lot of things over the top of it. If you are not a rap artist, you should write more notes, and then words to go with them.
STEP FIVE: Get Feedback
This is the scary part. If you want to know if your song is good, then you need to ask somebody else. You are not objective. You are too close to the project. So ask someone. Actually, ask several people. Art is subjective. Getting one opinion is not really going to help, even if it is your composition teacher, or your spouse, or your best friend who totally knew someone in Whitesnake. Get several opinions. Ask for specifics. Chances are, your song is not very good. Ask them why that is. “Keep your day job,” is not constructive. “It’s boring,” is slightly better. “I don’t understand why you are singing about bobcats,” is something you can use when you go rewrite the dang thing.
STEP SIX: Rewrite the Dang Thing
Now that you know which parts of your song people are responding to, and which parts are universally hated, you can go back and fix stuff. Or don’t. It’s your song, and screw those Philistines that don’t understand your artistic vision. You can record the song on your computer and then sit back and listen to it on repeat, all by yourself in your room with headphones on. Or you can tweak it so that other people may want to listen to it without trying to Van Gogh themselves. Totally your choice.
STEP SEVEN: There is No Step Seven
That’s it. You wrote a song. I mean, depending on how complicated you want to get, you could write out harmonies for it, or a piano part, or score the thing for a sixty piece orchestra plus children’s choir, but if you’ve got words and a tune, then you have written a song. Even if you never share it with anyone and you just sing it to yourself every morning in the bathroom, you can still know in your heart that you are a songwriter.
Now, once the song is written, maybe you want to publish it, and release it on iTunes and top the Billboard charts and make millions of dollars. I’m sure there is a step-by-step process for doing that too. But if I knew what that was, I would not be sitting here writing this right now; I would be on tour. So I can’t help you with that. Sorry. But good luck with the songwriting part!