Writing a song is not as difficult as it may seem. It takes some practice to develop a method that works for you, but once you get it, you can write multiple songs in one day as I’ve done many times. Many people would question the quality of a song that was written in 10 minutes, but you’d be very surprised. You can come up with a very solid rough draft of how the final song is going to be very quickly. But of course there’s absolutely no right or wrong way to write a song, and I acknowledge that there are so many approaches.
The approach I usually see done is lyrics first, then music. I see a lot of people write poems and then try to later put music to it. More often than not, I also see that they fail to make a quality song. While the lyrics are obviously very important, I believe it’s more important to have some really good music; chord progressions that are so catchy or powerful that they really invoke emotions within you. In order to do this, you have to know how to play a musical instrument. If you have no idea how to play any instrument, it’s going to be a lot more difficult.
As a guitarist, I have the luxury of being able to lay around and strum some chords until something hits me the right way. And having a firm foundation of music theory knowledge also helps to “narrow down” what chords and progressions are going to sound good or bad.
Let’s be realistic: anyone can come up with lyrics. You can read and write. (At least I hope you can) Making the music is generally regarded as the “harder” part of the two. So doesn’t it make sense to make the music first, make sure you have good music, and rather than try to “mold” the music to the lyrics, “mold” the lyrics to the music. It’s a lot easier to cut a few syllables here and there if you have to than to try to write music to some vague lyric ideas. Trust me, I’ve done it both ways.
Step 1: Write you chord progression.
This can be easily accomplished if you know how to write dynamic songs. Usually a song will contain several pieces: (Verse, a pre-chorus, chorus) two times, a bridge (or breakdown) and then a final chorus (often repeated). That’s not to say that you necessarily have to have all of those pieces, can’t have more, or have to keep your formula in that order. That’s just a popular format. Again, there are no rules and there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Assuming you song will have these 4 unique parts, you can write 4 different chord progressions. (Usually a progression will use 2-6 different chords in a sequence)
I won’t get too technical here, but it helps to know your music theory when you’re writing a song. Knowing what key and scale you want to use will help you narrow down your selection of chords. All scales have their own unique sound; some happy, some sad, some more conventional, some less. Generally using the chords derived from the major scale is a safe bet. Specifically, we’ll use the chords from the G Major scale:
G Major, A Minor, B Minor, C Major, D Major, E Minor
Any combination of these 6 chords will go together because they’re made from notes of the same scale. You’ve now effectively narrowed your search down to six chords and you can honestly randomly pick combinations of these chords and it could work. Take some time to search around the many different sequences you can place these chords in, and learn how to play them if you don’t know how to already. Let’s write our music, shall we? I’ll just pick a nice order for a song:
Verse: G, D, Em, C
Pre-Chorus: Am, D, Bm, C
Chorus, Em, C, G, D
Bridge: Bm, G, D, C
Your song can be made up of many unique and completely different parts. If it works to convey whatever emotion you want to convey, then do it. A prechorus is meant to build up energy for the chorus, and a bridge (or breakdown) is meant to be a powerful reflection of the ideas in the song after the 2nd chorus that leads into the 3rd chorus.
Step 2: Write your lyrics
This song, depending on your strumming pattern, tempo, and timing (which is entirely up to you ) can be anything from a sad and reflective song to an upbeat happy song. What you have to do once you’ve found your chords and your tempo and strumming pattern (assuming you’re using a guitar) is to play a certain section over and over until the lyrics and ideas you’re trying to convey start to mold themselves to your music.
When you play music in this way, it’s almost automatic that your mind reacts with a certain feeling or emotion and tries to supply the music with lyrics. Hum along with your song. For me, it’s very easy. I hear a tune and I hum around for a minute or two and I have it. And I just write down the very first ideas that come to mind and go with the music, regardless of if they’re that great.
Once you establish a general idea, it’s so much easier to just go back and scratch out a few words and make substitutions. Don’t get stuck on a line for 2 hours. If you’re stuck in one part of the song, skip it and go back. You’re likely to think of it while filling in the next part. That’s all you’re doing is filling in the blanks with some lyrics and you KNOW that they’re going to be in proper time, rhythm, and syllables (or at least close) because you’re working your lyrics around that rhythm and music.
Don’t get too hung up on rhyming or syllables. If one line has 5 syllables and the next has 10, you can just sing the 10 syllables twice as fast to fit it to your music. And rhyming, especially in modern music, isn’t a rule at all. It’s often preferred to make pieces catchy, but not thinking of rhyming patterns tends to just daunt you and hold back the process of writing down some genuine lyrics to their music.
Write some lyrics now, focus on touching them up and adding more rhymes later. That’s not to say you shouldn’t rhyme. If you can think of a rhyme that doesn’t sound forced or cliched, by all means use it. But never try to force a rhyme.
This concludes my brief overview of my particular technique for writing songs. It may or may not work for you, and I’m sure it’s different from what many people do, but it’s proved very effective for me.