How to Write an Amazing Song! Part 1

What exactly is a song? How do you write something that is amazing? Putting those together, what makes an amazing song?!

Ultimate Guitar
Unfortunately, when you put a word like "amazing" in front of ANYTHING; as a result, the fact becomes an opinion. For example, the end product (the song), will only be determined if it's "amazing" or not by you. There are too many variables on what you can like in a song and dislike another; lyrics and/or instruments, who's making the music, how well is the music written, and billions of other reasons. Good thing music has no right or wrong ways of doing things. AMAZING!!! The "amazing" song we're going to write is mildly music theory-based. (Some elements such as texture and note duration will be determined by the author/composer's discretion.) This song will be genre-less (meaning; you can take the end result and apply it to any music context.) Additional note: you're required to know basic music theory, and have FUN doing it! Being concerned about the end result is important, but the process of getting there is half the battle.

The Purpose

Before you start writing a song, you'll need to determine your reason for doing so. Is the song to impress the love of your life? Do you have a political message you're looking to get across? Are you looking to EXPRESS the angst of your teenage years? Or, is it just of pure boredom? Whatever the purpose you're doing it for; an amazing song, starts in the thoughts of your own mind, feelings follow, and the actions create the song. *For this song, no lyrics are going to be involved-the notes will express the emotions for the music.

Technical Know-how

Once your reason is picked. We'll pick what tempo, key signature, time signature, and emotions are needed. The time signature, key signature, tempo (technical aspects) don't matter to the listener than the emotions that come from the song. 3 Emotions: Joy, cheerfulness, happiness Key Signature: C Time Signature: 4/4 Tempo: 140 (The reason is left out because you should be able to fill in what makes you happy, joyful, and cheerful.)


Now that the core elements are picked out; it's time to choose what chords and scales will be used! Picking the scale can be hard-that's where the emotions come into play (bum-diss... *crickets*). Typically, a "major scale" resembles happiness, while "minor scale" is sad. For this we're going to stick with the happy, major scale. Using the key signature of C in a major scale; there's no sharp or flats. The notes that make up the C major scale are (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C). We're going to stick with a total of 3-5 chords in our progression for this song (C Major (C, E, G), F Major (F, A, C), G Major (G, B, D)). The major chord is built from...
  • first (root)
  • third (bass)
  • fifth (bass) ...note (1-3-5) in it's scale. You'll probably notice that the F Major and G Major chords have different root notes-those fit into the C Major scale, but, they're opening the chance to use chords that fit outside of the C Major. For example, the F major chord has opened the F Major scale (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F), allowing you to use the Bb Major chord AFTER the F Major chord; the Bb major chord doesn't belong in the C major scale but now it can be added in the original chord progression (C Major, F Major, Bb Major, and G Major). To save the confusion, we're not going to use such a method. Once the chord progression has been picked, this now is where we can get more creative! We can decide if the chord progression is used solely by a single instrument or several! Let's use a rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and bass guitar. (Drums do have note pitches, but typically in western music they only serve as the groove (rhythm)/metronome in a song.) We're going to assign the rhythm guitar to only play the chord progression, lead guitar will play melodies, and bass guitar will play the bass notes. All three instruments will play a homophonic (single) rhythm.

    Putting It Together

    In the time signature of 4/4 of 16 bars/measures, bars 1, 2, and 4 will play a single chord while the 3rd plays two chords (switching between the three chords): Illustration: "Rhythm Guitar" 1[C Major], 2[F Major], 3[C Major + G Major], 4[G Major], 5[C Major], 6[F Major], 7[C Major + F Major], 8[G Major], 9[C Major], 10[F Major], 11[F Major + G Major], 12[G Major], 13[C Major], 14[F Major], 15[F Major + C Major], 16[G Major] We'll be using quarter chords/notes for the groove (rhythm) with different accents on each beats to keep a fresh variation, and preventing any from repeating. The groove's beats will be as follows: bar 1 [Strong, weak, medium, weak], bar 2 [Strong, miss, medium, weak], bar 3 [(Chord 1)Strong, miss, (Chord 2)Strong, medium], bar 4 [medium, weak, medium, Strong], and repeat of this pattern for every 4 bars. "Bass Guitar" Sticking to the same chord progression and groove above: The bass guitar will play the third note of every chord on bars 1-8; switching to the fifth note of every chord on bars 9-16. "Lead Guitar" For most people this part can be the hardest, or easiest. We're going keep it simple-this doesn't imply it's easy, either; in fact, it's usually vice-versa. The melody can be composed of whole notes to 16th notes and fit into our quarter note rhythm. Everyone has different methods of writing the melody-today, we'll pick a melody from one of my two most common methods:

    Method 1: "Creating A Melody From A Scale"

    Our melody will consist of 8th notes (eight notes played in each bar), taken from the the C major scale. Our melody will look like this (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C)... Just kidding, that would be boring. Instead, we're going to match the groove and it's accents while shortening the variety of notes from the scale: bar 1 (C+C, G+G, E+E, G+G), bar 2 (F+F, miss, A+A, C+C), bar 3 (C+C, miss, G+G, G+D), bar 4 (B+B, D+D, B+B, G+G)... etc. Rinse and repeat this pattern, while mixing up the chords in bar 3 every time. *The "+" represents alternate picking.

    Method 2: "Changing An Already Existing Melody"

    Many people will look down upon this method, because you're "changing" an already existing melody and changing it up to fit your song. There's entire controversy about this in the music world... I'm letting you know the argument is stupid and it's perfectly ethical (the legal matter depends on your reason for doing it and using it, even the source of where you're getting the melody can be inaccurate). Musicians have been taking ideas from each other for centuries (look this up if you don't believe me); this is how we grow by "imitating, internalizing, and innovating". *(The legal-side of things can be a slippery-slope that is played in a mine-field with trouble in any spot). Anyways, the melody we're going to change is the riff from Kalmah's "They Will Return" off the album "They Will Return," at the start of the song. (We're going to transpose the notes into our key signature.) The riff/melody goes like this: bar 1 [C+C,C+C,E+E,C+C) bar 2 (C+C,C+C,G+G,C+C) bar 3 (C+C,E+E,C+C,G+G) bar 4 (E+E,C+C,F+F,G+G) ... This was the transposed melody of "They Will Return" - the original riff/melody was in a drop-tuning that's typically used in metal bands consisting of the root note being played open, while the third and fifth were accented on the snare drum up until the drum fill on bar 4. Notice this turned out slightly different from the melody of method 1, it manages to fit the 8th notes we've been talking about. We've just built the first and second verses to our song! Congratulations! Stay tuned for Part 2! *I do not encourage or discourage the use of personally enhancing one's own creativity through various means depending from, or within, certain techniques that can/cannot be judged by the context of situation and intended purpose of use. **This document, and everything within, is intended for educational purposes. About the Author: Matthew Delano is a musician, songwriter, and teaches guitar lessons in Syracuse, NY. His music is a boiling pot of folk music to death metal. Go check out Matthew's teaching site for more information about his teaching.
  • 41 comments sorted by best / new / date

      I understand that you're trying to show how to write a song by writing a song as an example, but this article comes across largely as you merely writing a (generic) song. "We're going to use C major" why? Why would you use something else? "We'll be doing this, we'll be doing that." Why? These are the questions that are important to answer in an instructional article.
      C major is the easiest scale as it has no sharps or flats and is therefore the obvious scale to use for explaining theory essentials to beginners, the rest is simply explaining how to TECHNICALLY write a song with a starting criteria/formula in mind such as emotions/tempo/structure/genre and whatever else. creating a song using scales and chord progressions rather than improvising and guessing can end up flowing better and sounding more interesting. but the opposite applies also it depends on how you write, but this is definitely a good tool for beginners and for people like myself who spent a good deal of time writing original stuff with little knowledge of theory.
      Because it's basic. That's why. It's generic for that reason; Part 1. Every UG lesson has to have a comment like this. Why this way, why that...because you have to start somewhere and it's easy this way.
      For an example dipshit
      All those examples are presented in a limiting way with insufficient explanation, despite some of the deeper details. Who's a ****ing dipshit now, you ****ing dupus!?
      @Rocknrolla35: Still you. This is an intro article to a series. Of course it's going to be very general and basic.
      Well, are not the majority of popular songs largely generic in their approach? Ha. For serious though it's an example. Some people's children...
      Here man, let me simplify this lesson a bit. 1. Smoke joint. 2. Press record ( really important! ) 3. Play guitar.
      It is true that John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Neil Young all owned the book, "How to write a great song." Nickelback claimed he never heard of the book
      This is just a single way of writing a song and nothing more. Write songs in any way you want. If you want to write it bar by bar in random order over 5 years, then do it that way. If you want to write it in a very uniform way like above, then do so. Just write it however it comes to you and don't worry if you try a certain way and it doesn't come - you'll be playing guitar at 3 o'clock in the morning one day and something will just come to you. Just play, play, play, play, play and try new things. The music is already there, you just have to find it.
      Scales are a nice starting point, but I've written some of my best tracks by just randomly noodling around on the keyboard and guitar. You don't have to analyze first and then write. You can also write first and then analyze!
      I can see what you are getting at, but this method implies a lot of generic theory. I used to use the theoretical side of music when I used to write music, I found coming up with things, just by playing about on your guitar much more useful, especially when you know how keys and scales work.
      Chris Zoupa
      I'm giving this a ten then reading it over and over again! Thanks for posting. PLEASE IGNORE THE HATERS!
      Using your ears would be the best advice. Good stuff comes from your head, not from your fingers and not from theory knowledge - theory can't really write songs (it just explains music), and while you sometimes come up with cool stuff by just noodling around, after some time you may notice that everything you write sounds the same because your fingers do the writing - your fingers only remember stuff that they have played before. By listening to the sounds in your head and trying to replicate them on an instrument is the best way to write songs. That rules out randomness in songwriting that noodling around has. And many times if you just analyze and decide that your song is going to use this scale, these chords, this tempo, this rhythm, blablabla, it may sound too "theoretical". I let the writing happen naturally. An idea starts ringing in my head and I write it down or record it. Then I may add more instruments and come up with another part that fits the song. I just listen to my idea and try to hear something that would fit it. That way the song structure isn't as predictable as if you decided it before you had written anything. Of course it may end up being a basic ABABB song but at least it comes naturally - that's what the song really needs. It has better flow when you hear which part should come next and don't just decide it before having written anything.
      I don't know...I'd worry if I just listened for melodies in my head, that it would all be some memory of something I heard before. When I noodle on guitar, I go out of my way to try different things, and when I find something that resonates with me so that I think (man, I like that and it does not sound like anything I've heard), then I start to develop it further. All the combination of notes are out there to be tried, and melodies are discovered (or more likely rediscovered) rather than invented. Noodling is a way of panning for gold, and I'm not sure sitting around waiting for a riff to pop into your head is not, itself, just a way of noodling through your subconscious.
      Yeah, of course I get inspired by sounds I hear, for example by noodling around guitar. But when I get inspired, I start hearing stuff in my head. By "writing by noodling around" I meant that you don't use your ears at all, you just let your fingers play stuff. And IMO that's not even writing music. For example you don't write books by writing random words on paper and hoping something good to come out. You know what you are after. You have the idea. When I noodle around, I know the sounds my guitar is going to make (at least approximately). I mean, I listen. I just don't move my fingers inside a scale. I haven't written a single song by just noodling around. A riff, melody or a beat has just started ringing in my head. Sometimes I noodle around and hit a cool note and after that I get lots of ideas, again the ideas are in my head. Using your ears is the best advice in everything music related. I think it's kind of taken for granted. But still there are lots of people who don't use their ears. If I play something and don't use my ears, it sounds like crap. If I have no idea of how it will sound like before I play something, it won't sound good. Music is all about sound, so when writing music, you want to know the sound.
      In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery's character told his protégé writer to just start typing some one else's novel until his own words came into his head, and then start typing those. I thought at the time that was a really stupid approach. However, when I started playing guitar and song writing, I started to see how it might apply very well. I will generally sit down to noodle on guitar, but I have a particular song in mind by another artist that I may have recently heard, and wanted to learn, so I work a bit of it out and play it, but then I think, "What if we went to a different chord here" or "What if we changed up this rhythm here," Or maybe I'll just kind of jam on my own, but with that other song as inspiration, I kind of come up with a groove that has a similar feel. The point is, the process is not waiting to hear the music before I play, but I do have a point of reference, which is often some one else's song. Going back to that movie, I'm thinking maybe a lot of successful writers use the work of others as inspiration or a starting point as well, like, "Gee, I love James Bond novels, but they are so sexist...what if the spy was a woman, how would that change the dynamic of everything?" I think creative artists build on one another and a little bit of plagiarism is nothing to be ashamed of. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
      Yeah, the main thing is that you know what you are after. It really doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you know what you want to do. Same as when you speak, you know what you want to say. We are always inspired by other musicians. I don't think you could write a good song if you had never heard any music. Sometimes taking straight influences from a song may lead to a great song. For example if you like the feeling of a song, why not analyze it and try to write a song with a similar feeling if it inspires you? You can't be completely original. Everything you write has been influenced by something else, even if you don't know what that something is. Some influences are of course a lot more obvious.
      I agree with you krm27. My songs would be boring as hell if I just waited and waited for melodies to pop in my head. It sometimes happens, but most of the time I come up with melodies by noodling on piano or guitar.
      good remark, man. Have you got any idea how to make the head produce killer riffs and amassing melodies?
      Yes. Get inspired by something (a song you listen to, a sound you play, a movie you watch, a book you read, whatever). And I usually write melodies after I have written the background part. They are pretty easy to come up with if you have already written lyrics. A good thing is also to improvise by singing. That way you will not have to think about scales or anything, it's just pure melody.
      This is a great article! Why? Because a difficult process...writing a song is simplified. You can do the same process for a nursery rhyme or the next new sensation.
      I really think this article is rated too low. Even just having a songwriter walk you through his process, and what elements he looks for, is interesting and valuable whether you adopt it or not. And I think it has some good ideas within it. In particular, I'd like some more info on this idea of varying the attack, essentially creating an attack pattern where each note can be from miss - low - medium to strong, and you repeat the pattern and sync it with the different instruments/voices. Is there more info I can find on that notion? I do a lot of midi music, and I tend to use a present "humanize' function to create some randomness in the notes or beats. I have also sometimes gone through emphasizing some notes or beats, de-emphasizing others, to help emphasize the beat. But I don't think that's quite the same thing. An article on creating a pattern for attack variation within a song, with all instruments/voices in sync to that pattern, might be useful.
      Well, unless any reader has followed the outlined steps, I don't think they can claim it will not result in an "amazing" song. I have not, so I'm not going to say one way or the other. I do find it interesting this "formula" has the bass line playing 3rd of chord for 8 bars, then 5th of chord for 8 bars, (never the actual root?), and there is detailed instruction on how to vary the force with which the notes are played by rhythm & bass guitar, more detail than I've ever worried about. And the formula includes varying the chords in the 3rd bar. I mean, it seems the focus is largely on making sure the song creates a well-defined groove, and also creating a certain amount of variety between versus. Perhaps the underlying theory is that if all instruments are enhancing the same groove, and there is some variety thrown in to keep things interesting, it'll sound good so long as the chord and note choices are simply in key and not too experimental? I don't know... if I knew a band that churned out hits with a simplistic formula like this, I might buy into the notion... Ramones, perhaps?
      the article shoul be much shorter having just 4 sentences: - choose the scale: major or minor - grab few chords from the chosen scale - compose any melody or if struggle just borrow the existing one so, the article supposed to be named "How to write a dumb song trying to write the amassing one".
      Good lesson, it definitely encourages learning some important parts of song writing. Obviously nobody is going to look at this, and step by step write a masterpiece from it. But there's a lot to take a way from it. Great read
      Understanding Music Theory and Scales doesn't automatically make you a great song writer or create your sound. Thats something that can't be taught. What do great bands/Songwriters all have alike in any genera of music? They have there unique sound and great timing and musical instinct. Even when they covering songs you know it's a certain band or person cause they put there own stamp on the song. So even when your just starting out learning songs. Try to make them your own develop your sounds. Hopefully whatever you put out there people just dig it. It's something that can't be taught you just have it. Understanding of music theory will always help you progress tho. Sadly some people have a great understanding of all that and can play anything. But cannot write a song or contribute to a song at all. They have bad timing and no instincts. Look at a hit song or one of your favorites it's probably not that complicated of a chord progression or riff. But these song writers have great timing and a unique sound. That goes for any genera of music. In one of my music books I bought for song writing while ago they recommend keeping a song simple cause most people don't have a real musical ear to appreciate a complicated complex riffs and chords progressions. Make sense if you think about hit songs are usually pretty simple melodies with a great hook.....