Maybe you’re practicing piano one day, playing around with different chord progressions, or plucking a riff while tuning on your guitar, when suddenly you get that feeling. Perhaps the chord progression has pulled an image from your memory; or maybe a phrase that’s been stuck in your brain fits the riff you’re plucking. Either way, you’re sure it’s a breakthrough—this could be the beginning of an original song!
Many of our music students write original songs and they love how amazing it feels to create their own music and express themselves through lyrics, chords, and melodies. Knowing that there are lots of music students out there who are curious about how to get started writing their own songs, we wanted to share some tips about songwriting for beginners. One of our most prolific songwriting students, Heather Skinner, and her instructor, Sibvon Rose, agreed to help us with this article. Heather, age 12, started writing songs when she was 9 years old. She was 5 when she performed in her first musical and has been in 7 musicals total. She has played the lead role of young Anna in frozen, Pepper in 101 Dalmatians, and a few other guest starring roles. Aside from voice and ukulele lessons she has taken piano, guitar, and violin lessons.
Here is Heather talking about the songwriting process:
While there isn’t a surefire method to write a great song, there are many helpful hints to spark creativity, get out of ruts, or nudge us in the right direction. As we share our tips on how to write a song for beginners, feel free to skip around to different sections as you see fit. Find whatever gets you “into the flow” of your artistic self, and go from there! We hope you might better understand your own process, or how to write music, with the following songwriting tips.
Songwriting: Deciding where to startThe process of writing music is different for everyone. Some write the lyrics first, some the chord progression, and others a melody. Some might start with a title and build from there and others may start with an emotion or a personal event that they want to share through the art of song. All of these methods are perfect for writing songs.
Sometimes this is more of an organic discovery than a conscience decision, but figuring out the first piece of your song will help set you on your creative journey. Do you begin with a chord progression or a melody? Maybe you have lyrics already written that you’d like to set to music, or perhaps there’s a drum pattern you want to build a song around. Whatever the case may be, finding your starting point builds a solid creative foundation from which you can continue writing.
Take advantage of moments of inspirationHow many of us are fully prepared to record whenever we have a moment of creativity? Some of the best ideas come while we’re at work, sitting in traffic, or simply handling our day-to-day lives. It isn’t always convenient, but taking advantage of spurts of inspiration is crucial.
If you’re not at home and set up to record your ideas, grab your phone and hum that melody into a voice memo. Whether physical or digital, keep a notepad handy to jot down lyrics or any other ideas you can flesh out later--even a one-word title is worth writing down, so that you don’t forget what it was later on.
Of course, if you’re free to get in songwriting mode at home, don’t let fleeting moments of motivation pass!
Express yourself freelyThis is one of the hardest things for any artist to master. We’re inevitably our own worst critics, and battling self-doubt is one of the biggest hindrances to creativity and motivation.
It’s important to sit down with the intention of self-expression and intrinsic joy rather than the goal of writing a hit record.
Improvise, make mistakes, embarrass yourself, and you’ll surely find gold flecks within the raw expression. Most importantly, you’ll allow yourself to grow as a confident artist if you first allow yourself to fail.
Write what you knowWhen it comes time to write lyrics, personal experience is a fantastic place from which to draw. It sounds cliché, but it’s so obvious that it often eludes us altogether.
Some of the greatest timeless records were, of course, written about the artist’s own life. Heartbreak, loss, and moments of joy and triumph are universal experiences that inevitably lead to relatable, emotive lyrics.
Determine your song’s structureBy analyzing songs you enjoy, you can get an idea of some of the different structures that you can use. And as you learn to write songs, you can play around with different types of song structures until you find the best possible match.
If you’re not familiar with how song structure works, here is quick tutorial video:
Commit to creative choicesDon’t overthink it! When we’re lucky, songs seemingly write themselves. If it sounds good, trust your creative intuition and refrain from over-embellishing or heavily editing a section or part.
Committing to choices early in the process might even lead to great ideas you never would have considered otherwise.
How to write lyricsAs you begin to write song lyrics, keep in mind that there’s no right way to get started! You might already have a few words that you’ve written down, a story or message you want to get across, or perhaps even the full chorus figured out.
Wherever you start, it can be helpful at some point to describe the entire scope of your song in a single sentence at the top of your lyric writing page. This will help you stay focused. For “Ticket to Ride,” for example, the sentence could be “My girlfriend is moving away from me and I am sad, but she doesn’t care.”
A song is a “little movie,” a very short form of art, so it is essential to tie it together with just one idea. If you have too many ideas, break them apart and write a different song for each idea that you have instead of trying to pile too much into one song.
And remember: you don’t have to create an entire song in one sitting — you could just create one verse or one chorus and keep coming back to add more lyrics as you become inspired.
Work with other musiciansIn the era of bedroom producers, most of us are holed up in our project studios alone. We might hit a speed bump in a song and shelf it as a “bad” idea. Learning how to write a song from other musicians is a valuable asset. At North Main Music, we encourage our students to get involved with our variety of group programs, such as rock bands, themed rock shows, acapella, and musical theater, because it not only helps us build a strong and connected music community and motivation, but being in these groups helps musicians bounce ideas off of one another, which is arguably the best way to foster creativity and a productive songwriting session.
Take Breaks!Perhaps one of the best songwriting tips we can offer is that it’s okay to take a break! Whether it’s 15 minutes or even a couple of weeks, focusing on other activities and a life outside of music is so, so important.
Some of the most technically proficient players sometimes take a month or longer away from their instrument entirely. Sometimes we have to rekindle our love for something by forgetting how much we enjoy it in the first place!
Write Often!By far the most important thing you can do as a songwriter is to do it as often as possible. The only way to improve at anything is to dedicate yourself to it, ideally making it a habitual practice.
Try to set some time aside each day, or at least several times a week, to work on music.
You may not write an entire piece in a half-hour chunk of free time, but you can accumulate enough material from short sessions to stitch something together over time.
Simply doing it is the optimal way to learn how to a write a song!
Final StepsOnce you’ve finished your song, set it aside for a few days and don’t think about. When you come back to it with fresh eyes and ears, you’ll be able to identify lyrics that need tweaking, chords that need adjusting, or other small details to really make the song pop.
After that, consider testing your songs out live! Performing in front of others — whether at an open mic night or simply in front of your music teacher — can help you get the kinks out. At North Main Music, our music instructors *love* supporting their students’ creativity and are happy to both listen to their original songs and offer them constructive feedback on what works and what could use improvement.
Another great idea is to record your song. Options for recording range from booking a session in a recording studio, taking a stab at recording in a home studio with the equipment you have, or simply making a recording with your smartphone. With technology today, it’s easy to record your own songs with the right software and a quality microphone.
Not a singer or performer? There are still lots of options available to get your work produced. Check out Tunedly for example. The tool allows you to connect with professional musicians to create quality songs suitable for placement opportunities.
Having a recording of your song, even if it is just a demo, will open many doors, especially if you want to become a singer-songwriter. You can publish your song on YouTube, iTunes, or Soundcloud so potential fans, other artists, and established people in the music business can have access to your songs. (Stay tuned for a future blog post about how some of our North Main Music students are using social media to share their music with new audiences!)
Finally, if you’re really feeling confident with your song, consider entering a songwriting contest!
Good luck, and have fun!
Special thanks to our North Main Music instructor, Sibvon Rose, and student, Heather Skinner, for their contributions to this article!