Writing Simple Songs

This is a brief account of how I write songs, simple but it works for me. Practice this and you'll soon be writing catchy punk, rock and acoustic songs.

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Hey, my name's Dave and I'm the singer and guitarist of my band The Undersnails, and I thought I'd write an article because on glancing through the other articles on songwriting, they didn't really say anything to do with the actual practicalities of writing songs. My band has written a handful of songs, and after a couple of fairly uninspiring numbers we're writing some more catchy stuff now.

Its easiest if you have someone else to jam with, your drummer is the best guy to write with as you don't have to worry about anything but your chords and rhythm. Hope this advice is useful, the most important thing to remember is to listen to what you're playing, and let your guitar instinct guide you. If it sounds good, use it. Keep practising and it will get easier to write what you want.

Starting Out

Its possible to write according to a formula in which you pick a key and the select four notes from which you arrange a progression. However this can often lead to you having chords that don't fit to what you want to sound like. I suggest that you keep it simple and just strum out either some power chords if you want a pop-rock or punk sound, or you can use an acoustic style chords, (like Open string Am or C chords for example) and try to find a progression. It really helps if you know your root notes and chords here, as you can switch the chords to get a different sound. Personally, I like the bright sound of chords using more than the bottom four strings, play around with barre chords and open acoustic chords for this sound. Small variances in the way you play chords can make a big difference to the mood of your songs, and add complexity that will greatly enhance the quality of the sound. Here's a few examples:

  • Variations of G: e|--------------3---3--| B|-------------3---3---| G|--------4---0---4---| D|---5---5---0---5---| A|---5---5---2--------| E|---3---3---3--------|
  • Variations Of D: e|-------------2---1---| B|--------7---3---3---| G|---7---7---2---2---| D|---7---7---0---0---| A|---5---5-------------| E|----------------------|

    Rhythm

    From your intimate knowledge of how to play your favourite bands' music, you can now figure out what type of strumming you want to use, to achieve your sound. Just play your Progression over and over and try different strumming and mutings etc. Its here that you're drummer becomes useful, as whilst you jam together you'll be able to find a beat and rhythm that sounds good, and obviously the more you play with your band members, the tighter you'll become as a band, and the better you'll sound.

    Writing Lyrics and Melody

    Its much easier to write funny song or one that tells a story, than a song that makes a serious point, as writing really poetic, deep lyrics requires you to be poetic and deep. However it helps if you have something that you feel strongly about. I find the best lyrics (bands like Against Me!) are subtle and somewhat cryptic but the ideas are meaningful and passionately expressed. Writing funny lyrics is easiest with someone else, me and my drummer have written some of our best in a particularly dull classical studies period.

    If you don't take yourself seriously and write self deprecating lyrics then people will find you more likeable than if you knock Limp Bizkit or something for a cheap laugh. Our first song 50% of all People are below Average was written for a band competition in my region here in New Zealand, and it was really stupid, and we were pretty bad (having written the song the day before we played it) but people still liked us, the sound of 300 or so people clapping and giving you Propz is really gratifying. An example of some stupid but likeable lyrics:

    Writing songs that rhyme, Is meant to be real hard, But once we tried it for ourselves, We found its not that hard.

    Rhyming 'hard' with 'hard' doesn't actually count as rhyme, or even half rhyme. Don't feel that you have to obey common conventions like this one, especially if it makes your performance more entertaining. Music is about expression in my eyes, so have fun with your writing.

    I find its easier to write lots of verses or lines of phrases you want to include, then try sing them to your chords to get a melody. Try and make your chorus a climax, you may want to rearrange the chord sequence or add chords to your chorus, don't be afraid to try things. It can help to have tape recorder around so if you try different ways of singing lyrics you can look back on them, and end up with your best writing in the song.

    Solos and Lead Breaks

    I write solos with my other guitarist playing the verse or chorus chord sequence, using notes from a chosen scale. If your chord sequence ends with the chord C, the C Major Pentatonic Scale might be a good place to try first (this is not always correct however). Knowing a number of scales helps when writing solos and breaks. Using short lead breaks in several places within a song can add a new dimension and make it much more interesting, especially if your song long gaps between climatic points. Resist the temptation as a guitarist however, to put solos in every song, as some songs will just not suit it, and your other band members may get frustrated with this.

    Writing a good song requires a degree of compactness, so shortish solos building to a climax, either followed by a diminishing end or going straight back into vocals is often positive. I just say this because writing good solos that aren't repetitive as a beginner is hard to do. However being predominantly a punk and acoustic fan my opinion may differ, so if you want a long solo, go for it, its your song.

    Well, that's about it I think. Hope this has been useful to you, its probably not the most efficient way to write a song but I think its about the simplest. I'm no expert, and I may be stating the obvious, but doing things by ear is the easiest way to get something that sounds good, and hopefully I saved some starting bands some time so they don't have to figure everything out for themselves, so you can get playing sooner. Have fun and be creative!

  • 77 comments sorted by best / new / date

      musk
      nice article dude, been playing for aboot 6 months and just starting to mess around with writing my own simple tunes on my steel string... 4 stars!
      new_decade
      decent article...only thing is being mostly punk-ish like you say you are, that might not work for people who do other styles...but more importantly theres a limit to how good songs made this way can get
      zosored44
      this article is ok, but the point behind it is just plain stupid....writing simple songs....yeah some songs are simple and good but if you set out to write simple little powerchord songs they are gonna sound like everything else....and that is the problem with rock today....everybody wants to be famous so they all write simple powerchords...and all you kids out there that go and say that you listen to rock and say your favorite bands are LAMB OF GOD and ATREYU....you r deeply mistaken.....maroon 5 and Los Lonely Boys are more rock than that
      ArtOfSuffocatin
      I've been writing lyrics for about a year and a half. And for me it went from: Decent lyrics, Good lyrics, horrible horrible lyrics, can't finish anything, now it's starting to get good agian. I hit a slump but everything is starting again. My band mates don't really like all my songs tho cause I write them about personal matters or how I really feel. Also, someone said something about staying up late writing your songs. I'd say that is the best time to write a song. All my really good songs have been written around 30am to 50am. As far as writing intrumentals, i'd say I'm at my best for that right now. Anyways, good article 4*
      foolofasinger
      hey im just a really bad lyrics writer if u can help me im the singer in my band and i cant write a line without it sounding korny and getting laughed at lol but if u want to email me to help me that wuld b swell my address is gummywormprince@cs.com peace out
      4ThoseAbout2Roc
      good article, and i found it is actaully easier to write songs whith my drummer...yes anyways deffinatly some dependable stuff in there.
      greasy_fingers
      Good article. I think Frank Zappa is one of the best songwriters of all time. His lyrics are just priceless.
      gmsje
      Actually, Neil Young uses a Dm with a D in Sugar Mountain.
      n0selfesteem
      I liked the article. Besides the Dm part, and knowing most of the stuff, this is a GREAT article for people new to the whole writing process. I also loved your writing style, it kept me captivated. 5 stars, but I wish I could give 4.5.
      lost_it_again
      pretty useful, 2 stars, i'm a bassist though so i don't know this crazy chord related stuff, simple riffs is all you'll get out of me
      Stevethegreat
      The best written lyrics are those that can be interpreted a million differnet ways by differnet people. Well, they're either good lyrics or the artist has no idea what the *** he's writing.
      EV0L
      why does this article refer to solos and lead breaks when talking about writing SIMPLE songs!?
      tearjerkerrhcp
      I been reading all your comments and Im seeing that none of u know weather to write instrumental or lyrics frist the answere is nether u can come up with lyrics and then add instumental or u could do it the other way
      popomitohren
      Not terrible, but not great. Could've gone more into the actual theory behind song writing. Your stuff will usually sound better (and more like your favorite artist, in most cases) if your chord progressions follow a key signature for the most part. Minor key for sad stuff, major for happy, solo following key (no major scale solos in minor keys), I could go on and on. For those of you who think theory is not neccesary, consider this: Even songwriters who claim to know no theory (like Kurt Cobain) still use it. Smells Like Teen Spirit is a textbook example of F minor, even the solo (except for the occasional F#5 chord, but that's why they invented accidentals). I'm not saying you have to pick a key and stick to it 100%, but it should dictate a lot of the chords you use and whatnot. Also, you should point out that if you suck at writing lyrics, kinda like me , you can use a guitar for your melody, or even a saxophone if it's appropriate to the stlye of your song. I give it two stars, but you could've easily gotten more from me with a little more work.
      smelly
      oh god, sorry that was rude!this lesson was very good,respect x
      smelly
      i'd love to read a lesson about how to write melodies, i suck!
      popomitohren
      By the way, I don't mean to say that major ALWAYS sounds happy and minor ALWAYS sad, you can get other feels with both, but unless you're a musical genius, don't try to write a sad song in a major key. I know I'd be stuck there. Minor also sounds dark. Most metal is in a minor key, classic rock could go either way... you get my point. I didn't want to be flammed for that.
      Under_Snails457
      Hey this is Dave, thanks for all your nice comments :{D, made my day. I'll try to answer your questions, though I'm not that vastly experienced, especially when it comes to writing serious lyrics. I normally have a draft of my lyrics done when I start arranging chords, especially if I'm trying to write something serious, as the lyrics carry the message of the song, so the chords should fit the mood of the lyrics. I wrote the best lyrics of my life last night between 12:30 to 1:30, I think its pivotal to have some kind of feeling or inspiration to draw on, and to be relaxed and calm. However its extremely difficult to express your feelings subtly, a book on poetry might help you if you want to write deep lyrics, as its quite an involved subject. Also looking at how your favourite bands express their message in their songs can be useful. Sorry if this seems like a lame answer, but writing lyrics is very personal and I don't really feel I'm experienced enough to talk about it in depth. As for the other questions, no, my band does not have a website, and I don't live in Christchurch I'm from Auckland. Good Luck with your songs!
      mr creed
      bs5538: negative nancy isnt my style, but this seems like it doesnt show much for creativity. But hey, could be way worse. he isn't telling you what to write about so there is still plenty of room for creativity. great article 5 stars
      Blade1096
      I think you did a good job with this article. You kept it simple just like the title implies. The band i'm currently in has written 4 originals in the past 3 weeks and we are due to record them very soon. Although I used more sophisticated chord variations, the formula was pretty much the same as what you laid out. Anyone who knocks you for this article is way off base...nice job.
      bs5538
      negative nancy isnt my style, but this seems like it doesnt show much for creativity. But hey, could be way worse.
      lessTHANjake
      A Perfect Cirlce { a favourite band of mine } has great lyrics with a very strong meaning. good article
      holyschemp
      this dudes the shit...enough said . Good, to the point article for good, to the point rock n roll.
      jez_hybrid
      I found that i sucked at writing music at first... but then i learned the piano as well and now i can write actual good sounding songs. I also write the song first and then put lyrics in... i have a bunch of songs i put aside and then when i think of lyrics i put them in the song that sounds like it would fit best
      emanx418
      dude great article just make sure u know that d minor is not a variation of d major and that u spell things right
      bassmonkey16
      other than being firtst, this was an ok article, lots of it of course knew, but n00bs to guitar probly will find this article great, 4 stars man rock on \m/
      atm_sk8er
      good article, but i know how to write music already, it comes easy for me. my problem is writing lyrics. whenever i write some, they end up being crap. can you write an actually helpful article on writing lyrics? more specificly writing deep lyrics.
      diego224
      Jerry Monkey: good article, i'm just starting on trying to write some own stuff so this helped me on some points. PS: what do u make up first ? instrumental part or lyrics ? same question i have
      Jerry Monkey
      good article, i'm just starting on trying to write some own stuff so this helped me on some points. PS: what do u make up first ? instrumental part or lyrics ?
      screen21
      Helpful article! It's always hard for me and my band to write songs. This is very reliable!
      Slashfan#1
      I have written over 100 half songs I can never seem to finish one I always get pissed. Writing music should be fun but some how I always feel like it is a job and I just give up.
      Screech
      good article, but i know how to write music already, it comes easy for me. my problem is writing lyrics. whenever i write some, they end up being crap. can you write an actually helpful article on writing lyrics? more specificly writing deep lyrics.
      i have the exact opposite problem. i write some good lyrics(imo) but cant write music to save my life. this article helped