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.

Ultimate Guitar
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

    comments policy
      Oftenly Often is already an adverb - you don't have to add the "ly" to it. OK, I'll go away now.
      Dear UG, Do you have any jobs available for Canadian residents? We educate our people on proper English. Sincerely Tyler Moreau
      I didn't realize this was a literature class as well.
      Well, ya know, gotta have your lyrics be grammatically correct! Nah, I was just being a dick. A grammatically-conscious dick.
      Looks like you need to take one with the way you spell "realise". Well, a grammar class.
      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?
      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.
      I think you men it's the American way. British English usually uses 's', while American English uses 'z'.
      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
      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.
      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".
      Well,you see,if your band already has a genre,then you should at least try to stick to it.
      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.
      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!
      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
      right not write
      Didn't get the joke eh
      No,i did. I wrote it simply correct his mistake.
      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.
      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.
      You gotta have a drink and snacks to write. It's just not possible without these tools.
      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.
      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!