Basics Of Songwriting

This is a simple lesson designed to introduce beginners to basics of songwriting, and to show how it is done in general.

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Ultimate Guitar
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You may think, that I've put this lesson in the wrong category, but before you start developing a negative mindset, allow me to explain myself. For a beginner, a simplified version of a lesson may sometimes more benefit than a regular one. That's why this lesson is put here. Anyway, enough chit-chat. Time to learn. In general, there are 2 ways in which people write songs.

No.1 "Lyrics first, music second"

This way lyrics get written beforehand, and the music (guitars, bass, drums, etc) only after. Often, people consider this as the safest/best/easiest way to write a song, because then, you don't necessarily have to stick to only one mood, and when you have the lyrics ready, you know what they are written about, and you already have at least one musical "mood" that would fit them 100%.

No.2 "Music first, lyrics second"

This way music gets written first, and lyrics get written later. Sometimes a riff (or any other musical motif) may come to your head without having any lyrics to it, and you may make a full song without any lyrics, and only then start thinking about what lyrics to add to it. A lot of musicians consider this way of songwriting harder, because then you (kinda)HAVE to write lyrics in an already chosen musical "mood", and sometimes your mind is going in the opposite direction (having a different mood, not wishing to write any lyrics, and so on), and you can't really write the lyrics. As you have noticed, these 2 ways deal with songs that have lyrics. But, there are also songs without lyrics (Or vice versa). Songs of this kind are called instrumentals (Or a-capella, if you are dealing with a song that consists only of lyrics). Despite some differences, these ways have some general things in common, which are the basics of songwriting. Those are:
  • The writing of lyrics;
  • Choice of scale (key) for the song (you may implement more than one in 1 song);
  • Composition of the music. Now, let's talk about how to do it. Whatever way you choose, there are some common steps you have to take: 1. Gather everything that is necessary (things like your instrument, paper, pen, recording stuff, maybe also a drink, or a snack) for you in a place where you feel you REALLY can do your work. It can be any place. 2. Make sure you don't get disturbed much. 3. Choose a genre for the song. You can choose more than one (Actually, by mixing genres, and experimenting with them, you may get an interesting result). 4. Decide, what you want to write about (unless an inspiration regarding some particular subject has already hit you). 5. Ask yourself: "What mood do I want to create?" You may do it the traditional way, when the mood fits the lyrics.There are tons of examples, I suggest you to start looking at all that from the 80's stuff, because it's great stuff. Great riffs, great solos, and the lyrics are good as well(even some of the cheesy ones) Or also, you can have sad/pessimistic lyrics, but choose a rather happy musical "mood". A fine example of that is "Hypnotize" by S.O.A.D. 6. While writing, make sure that the singer (be it you, or your bandmate) will be able to pronounce the lyrics while singing. 7. Think a little about approximately, how long would you like the song to be. Consider the number of parts for the song. Ya know, like how many verses, guitar/bass solos, bridges, and how long do you want them to be, where would you like to put each one of them... 8. Pick a chord progression for each part of the song. Often Verses, and choruses have different chord progressions/riffs, the rhythm guitar-riff for guitar solo may sometimes differ from the riff for the chorus ("Round And Round" by RATT is a good example). 9. Apart from writing your ideas down, it is a good idea to record them somewhere. So grab your microphone(any will do the trick, if it's in working condition), plug it in, and record your ideas (You will also need either a computer with a program for recording, either a multi-channel recorder). 10. If you have bandmates, show your work to them, see what they say about it, and talk about it with them. It needs to be done, because, they will have to play the song too. They may not like your work, but if it is unfinished, and they DO like it, then they probably will help you to finish it. NOTE! If you have a band, then you probably have already chosen a genre to play in, and if so, think twice about the genre of the song, because if you write the song in a completely different genre, then your work (even if it is really good) is more likely to be rejected by your bandmates. As always, I hope you have gained a lot from this lesson. KEEP ROCKIN'! Yours, Virtuosofreak.
  • 105 comments sorted by best / new / date

      vikkyvik
      Oftenly Often is already an adverb - you don't have to add the "ly" to it. OK, I'll go away now.
      TMoreau15
      Dear UG, Do you have any jobs available for Canadian residents? We educate our people on proper English. Sincerely Tyler Moreau
      11skidrow92
      I didn't realize this was a literature class as well.
      vikkyvik
      Well, ya know, gotta have your lyrics be grammatically correct! Nah, I was just being a dick. A grammatically-conscious dick.
      Jonagorn
      Looks like you need to take one with the way you spell "realise". Well, a grammar class.
      millarso
      Since you are probably blissfully unaware of your error, sir, I shall inform you that both realize and realise are acceptable forms of the word usually depending on where you hail from. Maybe he's an Aussie?
      FreakishGuitar
      That's actually the English/Aussie way of spelling "realise". Maybe if you were more worldly you would know that instead of being a typical troll.
      six6six6six6
      I think you men it's the American way. British English usually uses 's', while American English uses 'z'.
      wasamuel
      if noone tells him then he wouldn't know and would spend the rest of his life saying oftenly. the trick is pointing out things like this in a nice way like vikkyvik did
      Jacobrivers8
      I like this except for the "pick a genre" step. Songwriters should make their art and let others categorize it for them. Music is supposed to be honest expression, you can't force art.
      Kueller917
      Had a problem with that too. It's best to not stick with a genre if you're going to force it. Likewise though, you also shouldn't try to force yourself to make your music incredibly experimental and "different".
      Virtuosofreak
      Well,you see,if your band already has a genre,then you should at least try to stick to it.
      Kueller917
      I see that, but then like I said you shouldn't force yourself to be different. If it's the same band there should still be a distinct sound since it's the same people, but you can still have something like Animal Collective or Radiohead that have changed quite a bit throughout records but still maintaining sincerity to it. Can't really speak for full groups though. I do all the writing/recording myself cause no band.
      rockerwannabe
      it's funny how after reading the comments, I couldn't remember if the main article was about grammar or song writing. Who f'n cares if a person misspells a damn word? It's the idea that is being communicated, you fools. Lighten the F up!
      16esaurer
      I think this is a good lesson on getting started on trying to write songs. He is write you better record your ideas or you will forget them
      Virtuosofreak
      right not write
      Bair
      Didn't get the joke eh
      Virtuosofreak
      No,i did. I wrote it simply correct his mistake.
      Bair
      Wonderful.
      CannonsAhoy
      Looks like both of you got the joke wrong... Bair thought 12esaurer meant "He wrote", whereas Virtuosofreak understood it as "he is right" and then you proceeded to flame the hell out of each other.
      tjm91
      Somehow, I can't agree 100% with that lesson. I think you make it too simple to say that you write lyrics or music first. Have you never thought of a mix? Personally, I have the feeling that when I write a song, lyrics and music come almost at same time. Furthermore, the point "5. Ask yourself: "What mood do I want to create?" " sounds strage to me: don't decide, what mood you want to create! I tried that a few times, but it didn't worked out well. I think it's better to write the song in the mood you are in at the moment of songwriting itself. Because only then the song is authentic and I personally made the eperience that it's a lot easier than your way! Also, your review suggests that songwriting is a thing of not a matter of time, just like sitting down for an afternoon and at the end, you got a perfect song. I think good songs need time and you can't enforce it. I know it from myself and also from other people that when you say "I'm going to write a song right now!" it never worked out well (even if it possibly could). The best thing is to take time and if you can not concentrate anymore, stop it, take a break, rest for a day or a week and wait for inspiration. A few weeks ago, I finished a song for whom I wrote the first parts more than 2,5 years ago. I tried several times to write something but I wasn't pleased with it. And then someday I played the riff just for fun and suddenly new parts flew through my head (I know, this might sound weird :). I don't want to say that this lesson is bad, but I think for beginners who start with the basics of songwriting the things I pointed out could be helpful and they should know them before they get frustrated or disappointed when something won't work.
      Bair
      You gotta have a drink and snacks to write. It's just not possible without these tools.
      Virtuosofreak
      Well uhh.... It really is like that,because sometimes when the inspiration hits you,you may spend a lot of time writing,and you can't go on without food,or water for long.
      christianonbass
      Somebody seems too uptight to be a rocker. Is this still Ultimate-Guitar, or is "UG" for Upset over Grammar?
      knifeboy
      It was a joke.
      christianonbass
      No worries! I am so not tripping hehheh. I thought my sarcasm was obvious, but looking at it I see your concern. It is tough to show emotion in a typed comment. I should have used a smile or something
      NorCalLos
      I'm not going to nitpick this article, but I think it's really important to consider chord progression in your song. This is, to me, what the meat of a song. It's going to determine the overall melody, set the mood, and can be played on different instruments in addition to theo one(s) that the song is written on. If i wrote a songwriting instruction, I'd say: 1) noodle around until you find something you like. 2) Try to figure out what chord(s) the lick(s) is/are based on. 3) Insert this chord into different degress of a traditional progression like I IV V or ii V I or something. 4) Continue experimenting using this structure as a framework. 5) Write melody either playing by ear to this progression or using the notes in the key you're in. 6) Viola!
      Hadriewyn
      "No.2 "Music first, lyrics second" This way music gets written first, and lyrics get written later." Thank you Sherlock! I wouldn't have realized!
      Virtuosofreak
      Ya know,people are different,and I'm not someone who can predict exactly how many and what kind of people will come to read my article. For some,you just have to state eve the obvious. Nonetheless,you comment made smile,so it's a +1 from me.
      Bad Kharmel
      Good Lesson, but you missed song structuring, and transitioning between sections, which are arguably the most difficult (and rather essential parts) of songwriting
      ToXyN
      It's titled "songwriting basics" so i think it does a very good job in describing the basics. It also leaves room for another article to delve deeper.
      Virtuosofreak
      Shit,I really forgot about that a little... It's good that you mentioned it. But then again,some more advanced lessons with a deeper insight into songwriting will probably touch the subject of song structuring.
      skullandheart
      I got the lyrics but i just have the foggiest idea what and how to fit proper music into it!! :[(
      gu!tar_hero
      i find it better to carry a small note pad and pen everywhere i go and if a lyric pops into my head for whatever reason just write it down. better than sitting down and forcing them out i think.
      knifeboy
      Well, I'm torn. The English major in me wants to rail against the grammar, but the rocker in me doesn't care a bit! I think I will try to write something with lyrics first for a change, just to see what transpires.
      jmb_0
      Good article man. People who criticze grammar usually just troll websites because they're not professional musicians and have no life. If you're criticizing this article for being basic, stop reading beginner's articles, duh.
      Eclipse112358
      I think that when you decide to give a song lyrics is based on the person. I'm more of an instrumentalist so it's much easier to start with that first.
      JohnnyCNote
      I have lyrics that I have yet to put to music, music that lacks lyrics, and bits and pieces of songs in need of completion. A great deal of my music comes from jam sessions I've recorded over the years. Lyrics can come to me at any time in any place. If I'm somewhere where it's practical to write something down, then I'll do that. Otherwise, I have to hope I can remember it for later. I always figured if I didn't remember it, it wasn't that good to begin with. I can speak only for myself. I can't just sit down and "write lyrics" and expect them to be worth keeping. I find it very difficult to explain the creative process. Other people may have a different approach. None is better than the other. Different forms of writing demand different approaches. Novels and screenplays usually require that writers stick to a schedule and work a specific amount of time a day. Lyrics, on the other hand, may not lend themselves to readily to that approach. A lot depends on what the writer's goal is. If s/he wants to write songs for a Top 40 sort of band or audience, the process will probably differ from someone whose interests lie elsewhere. I once went to a Songwriter's Expo in LA. While I'm a guitar player and only write songs for my own band, I thought it would be useful to see how the industry works in this regard. For the most part, it was intended for people who write songs for established artists. Look through this list for typical examples: http://www.musicxray.com/artist/categori... . I heard over and over the mantra "lay down a groove, build up the hook" and wind up with a song like untold thousands of others, and try to get noticed. It was educational, I'll say that much . . .
      christianonbass
      I admit to being somewhat of a grammar Nazi. There is a time and place for everything I guess. But when somebody writes "Dam you guys is to stuped too bea riding letters on hear. Your awl idoits" I wander (haha J/K) wonder how we haven't been taken over by the Taliban or something like that
      D4CE
      I used to have a hard time with writing lyrics because I wrote the music and vocal melodies first. Result: the lyrics sounded very forced to a point that it was awkward. Writing lyrics first is a lot more natural.
      EricTall
      Good article for those who don't know where to start, like me. Looking forward to the next articles on the subject. The main reason to have correct spelling and grammar in your online work is so that the comments can be about content instead of grammar! Keep it up.
      Virtuosofreak
      Thanks!! I don't promise that i will coutinue making lessons about songwriting,but be sure,that I'll still post some good lessons!!
      christianonbass
      Do what you feel is right. I've been taught to judge to content not the delivery. If I keep my negativity out of the equation I always find that I learn SOMETHING, even if it may be as simple as how someone else does it. The ONLY people who find exactly what they are looking for are the fault-finders...and that goes for life in general, not only here.
      acefecoo
      LYRICS FIRST? WTF?
      colosalblack
      Not that strange. I find doing it that way makes the lyrics a lot better but the song might not be as catchy.
      millarso
      I always write like that. It makes the song more cohesive and natural, in my opinion. Just because you don't do it, doesn't mean it's crazy.
      TMoreau15
      This is atrocious, how can a person, (whose occupation is to write articles) spell words incorrectly. As well how can these writers have horrible grammar. If UG would hire a writer from outside the UK I would apply just so there would finally be a writer who consistently produces a product error free. I mean we have programmed tools in word processors to fix these things for you if you are unable to edit your own writings like a normal person. This is your job, stop writing like a god damn 4th grader.
      vikkyvik
      The one that pisses me off is, "but in this ever-changing world, in which we live in ."
      EricTall
      It used to bother me too, until I realized that it's "in which we're livin'." I think it's OK.
      davidbruel
      Of course some basic grammar know how is is necessary. You might also, and i'd advice you doing this makeing up your own words by taking 2 or more words and then slice of the esencesial parts of the words and putting them together in a sentence where the new fusionized word gives a better flow, mood, feeling or understanding of the song!
      polypterus
      Hmmm? I never write lyrics first. I cant do it. That's not to say my songs are particularly good but I always start with some sort of riff (usually something I found by accident messing around) or some melody that just comes to my head. Sometimes after the initial riff or melody the process is sort of simultaneous but I have never just written lyrics before any kind of music.
      sideslick
      My band usually finds it easier to find a cool riff and work from there, eventually matching it to some lyrics we might have lying around. We kind of do both at once. Write some lyrics, then file them away. Write a riff, file it away. Match them up at some point in the future. Not selling-out arenas just yet, but the songs sound alright. I am NOT the primary songwriter, FYI.
      BinaryInk
      ...but it's their job and that's what they're being paid for? Journalism has taken a turn for the worst in this century.