How to Write Songs in 5 Steps or Less

Last year I took the February Album Writing Month (FAWM) challenge to write songs with a couple of friends. Within a few desparate weeks, we had recorded our first EP as 5% Savvy. We made a lot of good memories – evenings packing a wobbly electric drum set into a Chevy Impala, an exhausting Saturday in the studio, a sweaty car ride filming a music video – but one of the things I most value from the experience was being forced to do the research and develop a songwriting method. If you’ve always wanted to write songs, or if you’re thinking of being a part of FAWM this year, this method is for you.

I think creativity, and therefore songwriting, is an ongoing process. To that end, this method won’t tell you how to write a song start to finish as a discrete, finite process.  Rather, it will show you the habits you need to build to write songs regularly.

Step 1: Freewriting

The raw material of songwriting is moments written down as snatches of prose or phrases of melody. Steve Moakler said in a 2010 documentary, “It’s like there’s three and a half minutes for every moment that you really felt alive.” To paraphrase Robert Herrick, gather ye wool while ye may. Here’s how to freewrite for songwriting:

  • Make a habitat. Get somewhere to put your thoughts down, whether it’s your phone’s drafts folder or a composition book. Keep it readily acessible, and return to it often.
  • Write down the phrases, stories, ideas, and experiences that strike you throughout your life. Don’t worry about condensing your ideas or making them rhyme at this point. These are just sketches you’ll ink and color later.
  • Spend time with each idea. Set a timer for five minutes or an hour, whatever you can manage, but hold yourself to it – don’t stop when you feel “finished” or out of ideas. Past the point of comfort lies a well of material only attainable by focused effort.
  • Don’t erase. Keep everything you’ve written, even the awkward, uncomfortable, or painfully bad things. Especially those things. To borrow advice from a novelist, you can always improve what you’ve written, but “you can’t fix it until the words are down.”
  • Write both lyrics and music. Music also comes in phrases, and musical ideas gathered in this same way can grow into songs of their own or a home for the lyrics you’re writing.

Step 2: Diamonds in the rough

Effective freewriting will give you more material than a single song needs, so the next step is to pick out the valuable pieces that could create a song on their own. Go back over the pages you’ve filled or recordings you’ve made in your freewriting and highlight the “diamonds in the rough.” Look for

  • repeated themes,
  • rhyming lines,
  • emotionally-charged moments, and
  • the “almost good” and the “not quite there.”

Step 3: First cut

It’s not until this step that your idea begins to resemble a song. Organize your “rough diamonds” into a loose structure. For lyric structure, you might find inspiration in

If you’ve begun with a melody, chord change, or other musical idea, you might follow Jonathan Coulton’s lyric method he discussed in a 2010 blog post:

You can hear the lyric technique I use at this point, which is to sing nonsense syllables as I’m figuring out the melody (and sometimes what the song is about).

Don’t cut and paste for this step; rewrite your song on a new sheet or document so that you’ll be forced to give those phrases and motifs another polish. This also protects your original inspiration in case you need to return to it later.

Step 4: Fill in the gaps

If you haven’t already, now is the time to build a musical structure to match your lyrics. By this point in the process you’ll know what feeling or mood your song evokes, and you can choose chords to match. From there you can fill in a melody, choosing tones within the chords and playing with rhythms until you’ve got something you like.

For 5% Savvy’s song “80-85,” I knew I needed grungy chords in a minor key with a driving rhythm that evoked highway speeds. I started with simple chords that appear in great classic rock songs like “House of the Rising Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and built the verse and chorus from there.

 

Now’s also the time to fill in those nonsense syllables with similar ideas or “the rest of the story.” My first draft of “80-85” left me with lyrics that were a little too long or a little too short for their lines, and I was missing a verse. I had to find shorter synonyms, move a few lines around, and adjust the lyrics to match the music that had taken shape around them.

At this stage you’re ready to set the song down in a lead sheet, or something else that will let you share it with any collaborators or people whose creative input you value. Talking with Luke and Seth helped me develop my ideas into a second verse for this arrangement:

Step 5: Polish

The draft you have at the end of step 4 shouldn’t be the draft you keep forever. Now that you have written a song, you can begin writing a good song. Here’s some places to start:

  • Do some copy editing. Check basic grammar like verb tenses and objects so that your song isn’t hamstrung by a simple misunderstanding.
  • Retouch the technical details. Maybe you should reharmonize that melody over different chords or modulate to a lower key; maybe you need rhymes with a bit more closure to finish your verses. The best resource I’ve found for this yet is Popular Lyric Writing by Andrea Stolpe; she devotes entire chapters to these minute details, and buying or borrowing a copy will really elevate your writing.
  • Get some feedback on what your lyrics evoke or suggest, and see if it’s what you thought they meant; are you happy with the difference?  Maybe your partners have ideas that better express what you were going for.

Leave a comment with your songwriting process or questions about how to write a song. Don’t forget to sign up here to get songwriting prompts for February Album Writing Month!

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