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How to Write a Song – Part One – Methods & Formula

The Nuts & Bolts of Songwriting

How to write a song - the basics of how to get started - Part One.

A song can be broken down into four constituent elements.

  1. Words – or Lyrics – which are sung along to a:
  2. Melody – which is the part of a tune you hum to yourself because you can’t get it out of your head. Melody is overlaid with:
  3. Harmony – and harmony consists of chords. A chord is three or more notes (sometimes only two) which are played simultaneously to create harmony. All of these are played over:
  4. Rhythm – rhythm is a beat using drums, bass, or other percussion instruments, played at a specific tempo.

The importance delegated to each of these elements is relative to the style or genre of music you’re playing.

For example, in dance music, melody and harmony take a back seat to rhythm.

Rap emphasizes lyric.

Rock music often stresses rhythm as well, but not necessarily to the detriment of the other elements.

What’s the big secret to songwriting?

There’s no magic recipe to writing a song!

No set formula exists for writing the perfect song. The biggest stumbling block is often where to begin. Where you start might depend on your own foundation as a musician.

If your a guitar player like me, you might strum a few chords to create a melody, which will then evoke a mood, which might then inspire a few lyrics.

The great thing about the guitar, is that it’s relatively easy to learn a few chords. And chords fulfill the function of harmony in a song. With a little effort, a person can learn to strum a few chords in a matter of weeks, and then sing along to them.

Keyboards serve the same function for an aspiring songwriter.

What's the secret to writing a good song? How do you know if your song is good? What's the songwriting formula?

Here are a few methods for constructing a song:

Start with Harmony – Start by experimenting with interesting or evocative chord progressions to establish the mood or vibe of the piece. Establish a catchy or compelling sound, then try to freestyle some lyrics over the chords. The drawback of this approach is that melody can often get lost or submersed in the harmony, and the song will then suffer from a narrow or constricted range of melodic pitch.

Start with a Lyric, then put music to it. The benefit here is that the song will develop organically from the subject matter of the lyrics. You don’t need an entire song, only a verse and a chorus. Once you’ve managed to put music to those, ideally, it should inspire the remaining structure of a second or third verse, and then, if needed, a bridge.

Start with Melody – then harmonize over it. Create, play, or sing an interesting tune that will sound good without accompaniment. Then create a harmony around it by developing a chord progression which harmonizes the underlying scale tones of your melody.

Start with a Rhythm Track – find a catchy sample or loop on your drum machine, then construct a bass groove around that. The bass line will inspire harmony, which will suggest the mood and then the theme of the song. This approach works really well for rock and rhythm and blues.

Do what the pros do – Emulate (i.e. Copy) – Pick a favorite group or song, then change a little here, and a little there. Insert your own ideas here and there, and voila. You’ve got (ideally) a new (or somewhat new) creation. All the greats have done it. Why not you? You might be surprised at how old ideas uncover a wellspring of new ideas hidden away in your own subconscious.

Happy songwriting!