Five Steps for Writing Great Songs

For those who need a bit of help, here are some simple and effective solutions.

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Five Steps for Writing Great Songs

Have you ever wrote music for a song, but been unable to complement it with lyrics? What have you done with that perfect chord progression? What is the best way to write lyrics that will really work with it?

When people are first getting into songwriting, this seems to be the most prominent issue they face. I, along with many of my students, also had to overcome this issue when I was first learning how to write music myself. In fact, it's perfectly normal if you've found yourself stuck in this situation. This is extremely common, and there are many ways to solve it.

If you're going through this like I did, then there could be plenty of recorded melodies hidden away on your laptop, or even written down on boards and in notebooks. From time to time, you might take a look back and see just how good they actually are, although you're still not able to finish the song, and might even be feeling frustration. And this certainly isn't because you aren't finding inspiration - it just doesn't seem to last long enough to make it into song.

If you're having trouble getting over this hump, the good news is that there are simple measures that can be taken. How would it feel to be able to go back and finally complete a few of those gems stored in the recesses of your hard drive or gathering dust on your bookshelves? For those who need a bit of help, here are some simple and effective solutions.

Step One: Ask the Right Questions

Take a step back from your work to get a step ahead. Just take a moment to examine the work you've created. Is there an idea behind the work? Does it possess an emotional quality? And lastly, what do you want the listener to get when they hear it?

Now that you've asked these questions, the hardest part of this entire process will begin. Do you think you're ready? Let's go.

Step Two: The Most Important and Avoided Step

Grab a sheet of paper and jot down your answers.

Okay, it doesn't seem all that complicated, but it's the most difficult because people just don't seem to do it. So it must be difficult, because when I show people the reason to do it, they often stop before getting to it. I've ever handed students a pencil and a sheet of paper, only to hear that it isn't necessary - it's actually kind of funny when these adults up in arms because they don't want to scribble down some quick answers.

The thing is, you need to write these answers down on paper to finish an elusive song. Believe me, this is more effective than you think, but only if you commit to it. And really, if it doesn't what did you lose? No more than a couple minutes and some paper.

Step Three: Break It Down

Now that you've answered the questions on the sheet of paper in front of you, it's time to break them down. The best possible outcome is to end up with a single sentence describing the theme of your song. Make it as simple as you can.

This theme will be your lighthouse beacon guiding your song to shore — so it's worth taking some extra time fine tuning it so it can cut through the fog. if you're not sure what to do, then look to what others have done before you (even if it doesn't have words) and break their song down into a single-sentence summary.

Here's a couple examples: "Me and Your Momma" off Childish Gambino's R&B album "Awaken, My Love!" is about the torment felt when trying to get closer to a forbidden love; Michael Rault wrote a song called "Too All My Friends," about his unconditional love for everyone who keeps him going on a tough tour schedule; and "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You Then I Will" by Pup is about the disdain and patience for band mates lost when in close quarters for long periods of time. Now it's your turn!

Step Four: Start Exploring

The next step is to think about ways which you can turn that thesis into an expressive song. What sounds and instruments can you build it with? How will you develop a rhythm? Does it need to be fast, slow, loud, quiet, aggressive, or melancholic?

If you need lyrics, how will you use language to express the thesis? And from what angle will you tell the story?

Once you've figured it out, write it down. Honestly, keeping these thoughts in your head will hold you back from creating new ones. So get it on paper so your brain can keep doing the heavy lifting! Don't pick up that guitar at this point — keep focusing on what you're doing.

Step Five: Start Making a Composition

Now that you've got all of this down on paper, it's time to get started.

Try to make this idea into music in any form. A chorus, a verse, or even an entire song. If you lose your train of thought, go back to that main line, and compare what you're writing to that original thought, and if you need to make any changes to bring it closer to the original. Keep working at this.

Although this part of the process might not seem like a big deal, once you put it into practice you'll see just how valuable it is. Once you start doing it, you'll begin to notice just how simple it is to write a completely cohesive song. Don't knock it until you try it!

Why Not Just Write What Comes Naturally?

That's certainly one way to do it! There are certainly those who don't need this, or more commonly, those who have gone through this process so much that it becomes instinctive. But if that sounds like you, then why are you still reading this?

Now to Finish Those Unfinished Songs

Now that you've come this far, there is a simple process to get those done efficiently:

Begin with Step 3, breaking down some of your favourite songs on paper. It doesn't sound important, but trust me, you'll learn a lot more than you anticipated when you've actually done it.

Go back and do all five of the steps, and write down your answers. After you've done that, see if you can get a cohesive song written today. And really, if you can get through those first four steps in half an hour, you'll be able to write a song before an hour has passed. And that length of time will only get shorter when you keep doing this.

Unpack those unfinished songs and go through these steps again. You will be some that you don't finish, but you'll have major strides to writing the music for your debut album!

A wise man named Larry Niven once said "No technique works if it isn't used." So get writing today!

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and composer with a passion for teaching songwriting

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very thorough! I feel like you should have included something on writing stuff down. Write down everything,and I mean EVERYTHING. Every line, every little blurb that pops into your head, even if you don't particularly like it. Keep a little notebook or your phone handy, or even write on yourself. I've come home many a time with lyrics scrawled on my forearm. The important part is to have them to go back to. It reinforces the concept of patterning and writing in your brain. AND NEVER THROW ANYTHING OUT. EVER. May not work for all, but that's just my two cents.
    I often will use the voice recorder on my phone to record lyrics that I think of on the fly. Also, I will hum or sing parts for a song I am working on. The important point as, you stated is, GET IT WRITTEN DOWN so you can go back to it!!
    great tips. I would just sugest a lesson about writing good vocal melodies. this is such an ignored topic that many struggle, including myself. thanks!
    But what if I lost my phone with all my best riffs on it ?
    Step Five!!!  Could use emphasis. Since that's the meat of actually creating So simple to make one. Tricky to make one that's really really good.
    For all beginners, my suggestion is: write as many bad songs as you can. You WILL stumble on a gem... and you will also gain the experience to write better and better songs reliably. 
    I don't think songwriting is a thing that can be taught, nor that anyone's approach is better than another's. Also, I don't mean to be rude but I don't see what makes you qualified. You're known around here for your technical skill and knowledge of music theory, and on those fronts I certainly wouldn't dismiss your advice, but you have no discography to speak of, or at least none that a quick Google search turned up.
    Everything that can be learned can be taught by a competent teacher who does not stop at the first difficulty   It's true that there are many methods. A good teacher will know many of them, and will also know what methods apply to every student.  The method above, for instance, applies to people who find a challenge to finish their songs. Is it the only one? Nope. But "there are other methods" is not reason alone to dismiss it.
    I don't know about the author's songwriting skills, but you'd be damn wrong to think that one has to be a professional songwriter to be able to write good songs. Just because your girlfriend is good at sex doesn't mean she should be a prostitute, or shag all of your friends. Just because you write good songs doesn't mean you need to get pro, or have a Youtube channel with thousands of follower, etc. I'm pretty sure Nashville is full of good songwriters nobody's ever heard about. Also, since Tommaso is a teacher, he must have been dealing with his students' problems AND solutions regarding songwriting. Also, just because you're a professional multi-million seller doesn't mean you ALWAYS know how to write a good song *cough*linkin park*cough*...
    Also, I don't mean to be rude but I don't see what makes you qualified.  You're known around here for your technical skill and knowledge of music  theory, and on those fronts I certainly wouldn't dismiss your advice,  but you have no discography to speak of, or at least none that a quick  Google search turned up.
    aaaand ZING!
    Any tips on how to stop procrastinating while attempting to make the perfect song, which often ends up not finishing the song at all? Nice article!
    Actually, trying to make the perfect song is what creates procrastination. You have to embrace the sad truth : the more songs you write, the better you'll be at it. It's like pancakes : the first ones are messed up, but if there aren't any first ones, there aren't pancakes at all. So you have to accept to write some shitty songs before you can write a "perfect" one. Also, "shitty" doesn't mean "not any good". It can be a 1-verse 1-chorus song you write for your girlfriend with some whistling at the end and it will be OK. BUT, once you're satisfied with it, you'll inevitably think that there is something missing, it could have been better. And so you write a second song, better, but still, you'll be satisfied at first, but will want to improve further. Those are your necessary shitty songs, before you get to the good ones, then the great ones, then the perfect ones. 
    Yes, I did not write my comment well. I meant to say that by wanting to create the perfect song we tend to procrastinate, and maybe someone has a tip or two on how to prevent this. I'm totally guilty of this! Is there any way to define which is the point when you say "this song is fine as it is now"?
    Well, you never finish a song, you just stop working on it There is ALWAYS something you can make better. The solutions are 1. focus on completion not perfection and 2. set a deadline. Like Bernstein allegedly said: "To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time."
    Sounds reasonable. That quote is indeed interesting, since "if the last minute were to be abolished, very little things would be done". Thanks, Tommaso!