Music, they say, is the only universal language, and songs are its words and alphabets. We’ve been writing songs since our ancestors first learned to speak and tap rhythmically on blocks of wood. Singing comes naturally to us as barking to a dog or meowing to a cat.
Writing a good song, however, isn’t easy. You have to create lyrics, melodies, and harmonies. But with the right training and enough practice, anyone can be a songwriter. Try taking this college-grade course on writing songs with great lyrics, melody and form to get started.
In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the five things you need to know to write good songs:
1. Listen to Good Songs
I’m going to lay it straight: if your iTunes playlist is filled with Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (no offense to their fans), you’re going to have a hard time writing good songs. To write great music, you must listen to great music.
Here’s a helpful guide to starting your musical education, sorted by genre:
“Hotel California”, The Eagles
“Stairway to Heaven”, Led Zeppelin
“Born to Run”, Bruce Springsteen
“Sweet Home Alabama”, Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Like a Rolling Stone”, Bob Dylan
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, The Rolling Stones
“Johnny Be Good”, Chuck Berry
“Hey Jude”, The Beatles
“We Are the Champions”, Queen
“Billy Jean”, Michael Jackson
“Superstition”, Stevie Wonder
“I Want to Hold Your Hand”, The Beatles
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, B.J. Thomas
“Imagine”, John Lennon
“Good Vibrations”, The Beach Boys
“Heartbreak Hotel”, Elvis Presley
“Let’s Get it On”, Marvin Gaye
“Tiny Dancer”, Elton John
“Rolling in the Deep”, Adele
Blues and R&B
“(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay”, Otis Redding
“Respect”, Aretha Franklin
“Feeling Good”, Nina Simone
“What I’d Say”, Ray Charles
“The Thrill is Gone”, B.B. King
“What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, The Temptations
“Mannish Boy”, Muddy Waters
“People Get Ready”, The Impressions
“I’ll Make Love to You”, Boyz II Men
“99 Problems”, Jay-Z
“Hail Mary”, Tupac
“Straight Outta Compton”, N.W.A
“Juicy”, Notorious B.I.G.
“Fight the Power”, Public Enemy
“Nuthin’ But a ‘G’Thang”, Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg
“Rapper’s Delight”, Sugarhill Gang
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, Geto Boys
There are hundreds of other songs from different many, many different genres. But these forty should give you a good idea of what makes a song great – a combination of profound lyrics, storytelling, solid music and powerful vocals.
2. Learn a Musical Instrument
To write lyrics, you need a pen and a paper. To write songs, you need a musical instrument.
The piano or electric keyboard and the guitar are two instruments favored by songwriters. They’re relatively easy to pick-up and can accommodate a wide range of styles and genres. The electric keyboard is better than its acoustic counterpart as it can create drum loops and complex harmonies from a single instrument.
Some tips for learning a musical instrument:
Focus on Chords: Both guitars and pianos are powerful solo instruments, but for the purpose of songwriting, you only need to know a few basic chords. Practice a few common chord progressions (see below) to create simple harmonies and songs.
Start Small: Don’t go ahead and splurge $1000 on a guitar. Start small with a beginner guitar/piano. The same goes for learning the instrument. Don’t inundate yourself with advanced theory. Focus on learning the absolute basics first – major chords, scales and songs. Try taking this free course to learn how to play guitar as an absolute beginner.
Practice Simple Songs: You’ll be surprised to know that many of your favorite songs are actually very easy to play. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”, Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”, and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” can all be played with some very basic chords.
3. Pick up Some Basic Music Theory
Music theory isn’t necessary to writing good songs – a lot of great songwriters started out without knowing their scales from their chords – but it will come in handy when you want to write more something more complicated. Of course, mastering music theory can take you years, but picking up the basics is relatively easy:
Learn the 12 Notes: The Western musical notation is made up of twelve notes. These are denoted by letters from A to G. There are also ‘sharps’ or ‘flats’ (written as # or b) in between some notes. Altogether, the 12 notes are – A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab. Every piece of music is made possible by a combination of these 12 notes.
Understand Scales: A scale is a harmonious progression of musical notes. Most scales are made up of 8 notes, called an ‘octave’ (with the 8th note repeating). There are hundreds of scales in Western music. As a beginner, you should try to learn the Major Scale in popular keys (tonal chords) like C, G and A.
Understand Chords: Chords are the bread and butter of any songwriter. A chord means playing several different notes simultaneously. Since there are seven basic notes in a scale, there are seven basic chords as well. Beginners must know how to play the popular chords – C, G, D, E, Am, F, B, and Am — at least.
Understand Chord Progressions: A chord progression is a harmonious movement of chords in a particular key. The most basic chord progression in popular music is I-IV-V – that is, the 1st, 4th and 5th chord played in succession. These are called primary chords. For example, in the C scale, the 1st, 4th and 5th chords are C, F, and G. These are also the chords used in songs like “La Bamba” and “Louie, Louie”.
Music theory is a vast subject. Start off by learning basic music concepts in this course.
4. Analyze Great Songs
When you become a student of songwriting, you’ll realize just how similar most songs are. Certain patterns, themes, motifs and chord structures are repeated across artists and genres. As a songwriter, analyzing songs should become a habit, a reaction as natural as pulling your finger away from a hot stove.
Most pop songs follow a simple structure: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus or similar variations.
Let’s take a look at the classic Backstreet Boys pop song, “I Want it That Way” as an example:
Try doing the same for other popular songs. You’ll soon realize how common such song structures really are.
Most pop and rock songs follow simple chord progressions. As mentioned above, I, IV, and V chords in any scale are called its primary chords. Combining these chords in various permutations is the basis of thousands of songs.
Let’s see some examples:
I-IV: Used in verse of “Imagine” by John Lennon,
I-IV-V-I: Used in “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt.
I-V-IV-I: “All the Small Things” by Blink-182
Throw in a minor chord – Vi – and you get the most popular chord progression in music (I-IV-V-Vi). This is often called the pop-punk progression and has been used in thousands of songs. In fact, it is so popular that there’s even a Wikipedia entry with a huge list of songs based on it. You’ll recognize some of these – “Not Afraid” by Eminem, “Someone Like You” by Adele, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, etc.
5. Writing Lyrics
For many people, writing lyrics is the easiest part of songwriting. For others, it is the hardest. Whichever side of the divide you may fall on, you can benefit from these lyric-writing tips:
Notice how Adele stretches the ‘ee’ part in ‘deep’ when singing “Rolling in the Deep”. That’s because words ending in vowels can be stretched while singing. Keep this in mind while writing your lyrics.
Write like you would sing. Hum each line while writing, preferably accompanied by a guitar or piano.
Being poetic doesn’t mean being profound. Sometimes the silliest of things can sound great when sung (“Let’s Do It” by Cole Porter is one example – who would’ve thought ‘even educated bees do it’ would fit into a song!).
Borrow motifs and themes commonly used in your genre, but don’t over-rely on them. To write truly great songs, you must break the mold and go beyond what’s comfortable.
‘Baby’ will be your staple filler for pop and rock songs.
Be judicious in your use of simple rhyming schemes. Newbies often make the mistake of rhyming all their lyrics. Rhyming can be extremely powerful when done right (“American Pie” by Don McLean is one example) but more often than not, it make your songs sound like something from a kindergarten textbook.
A thesaurus will be your best songwriting partner.
So there you have it – a complete guide to writing a good song. For homework, analyze your favorite songs and see what kind of chord progression and lyric structure they use. For more insight on songwriting, try taking this course on how to create a song in GarageBand in 1 hour.
What are your favorite songs and lyrics? Let us know in the comments below!