10 Steps to Successful Songwriting
Once you have learned some chords and are getting comfortable on the guitar, it's quite natural to get the urge to start writing your own songs. Here are some pointers to get you started in the right direction.
1. Start with the Hook
The "hook" of the song is what the song is all about. It is usually the title, but not always. This is the the "meat" of the song so you may not want to invest a lot of time writing until you have a good solid hook to write about.
2. Check the Hook for Uniqueness
With all the songs that have been written over time it can be a challenge to come up with something new in the way of a hook. How many times has, "I Love You", or "I miss You" or "I'm Lonely" been said? These are all emotions that are still popular topics of songs, but the key is to say it in a new way that will get the listeners attention. One thing I do when I think I've come up with a fresh hook is to check it against the PRO's (Performance Rights Organizations) database and see how many titles there are by the same name. I usually check with BMI and ASCAP, and that gives me a pretty good idea if I've really come up with a good idea!
3. Write the Chorus First
The chorus is the part of the song that people will remember most. It is where the "hook" or title usually repeats and is usually the "big" part of the song. Starting with writing the chorus will give you a solid foundation for building the rest of the song.
4. Check Your Melody
In most cases with hit songs, the melody for the chorus will stand out and "soar" above the melody for the verses. The chorus is what stays with a listener initially so it's good to keep it "sticky" by have it stand out. Ther verse melody is usually lower in range and serves as a set up for the big payoff in the chorus. Writing "fresh" melodies can be as challenging as finding a "fresh" hook.
5. Focus the Lyrics
Most songs tell some sort of a story or depict a situation. Country music is very lyric driven, often focusing on "real life" situations about real life people. Rock and pop music tends to be more melody driven and there is not as big an emphasis placed on the lyrics. They do, however, usually convey a consistent message.
6. Know Your Song Structure
A solid knowledge of song structure will help your writing immensely. Many rock, pop and country songs use the VERSE - CHORUS - VERSE - CHORUS - BRIDGE - CHORUS formula, or a similar variation - but there are a number of other important song structures to be aware of. You can get a good feel for song structure by simply listening to the radio and noting how your favorite songs are put together.
7. Write the Verses
Once you have the chorus written then it's time to work on the verses. Lyrically, the verses will usually "tell the story", while the chorus "surmises" the overall emotion or idea. Melodically the verses should take a bit of a "back seat" to the chorus, and set it up smoothly.
8. Add a Bridge
A bridge is the section of the song where things change. Sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtlety. The bridge, melodically, serves to break up the pattern of the rest of the song thereby giving the listeners ears a break, which has the effect of adding some freshness to the final chorus. A bridge can often go someplace completely different musically and rhythmically, but usually transitions smoothly into the final chorus.
9. Add a Pre-Chorus
A pre-chorus is a short section immediately after the verse that changes musically to lead into the chorus. A pre-chorus is also known as a "lift" because it lifts the song from the verse to the chorus. These can be a very effective way of transitioning into the chorus and are used quite often. Play around with some ideas and see if your song could benefit by adding a pre-chorus.
10. Write to the Hook
Writing to the hook is a way of maintaining a continuity of message throughout the song. Making sure the lyrics in the verses support the message or emotion of the chorus, and, that the story stays on focus from beginning to end. One trick that songwriters use a lot is to "bounce" each line of lyric against the hook or title. In other words, say a line of lyric, then say the hook or title. Does every line of lyric "connect" with the hook? If not, it may not make sense to the listener as well.
11. Check Your Time
If you are writing for a commercial market, or just to play your songs in a band in front of an audience - you may want to pay attention to how long the song is running. Most commercial songs will not exceed 3 1/2 minutes. You could stretch it to 4 minutes, but much longer than that and you risk losing the listener.
12. Check for "Freshness"
It is inevitable that one song will sound like another. We are all a musical product of the music we have listened to and it is natural to write a song that "sounds" familiar. Sounding familiar can be a good thing but it is a good idea to check your song and make sure you have not written a melody that is "on top" of something else you have heard before. We have all done it before and it can be a challenge to write something that is totally "fresh".
13. Get Some Feedback
Play the song for "fresh ears" and get some opinions. While it's true that our friends and family will not always give us a "brutally" honest opinion, it's good to see their reaction and sometimes just playing it for someone else will help us hear our songs from a different perspective. If you have access to other musicians or band mates, let them hear it and get some solid feedback.
14. Try it Out
If you play in a band or are a solo artist, play your songs for an audience and watch for a reaction. You can't always go by the first time you play it so give it a few tries and see if you can get a feel for how it's going over. You might have a hit on your hands and don't even realize it!
15. Get Some Education
There are some fantastic resources out there for songwriters. Volumes of books have been written on the subject and it would behoove you to study up on the "craft" of songwriting. In addition there are a number of organizations that support songwriters with education, critiquing and pitching opportunities. Some really good ones that I have been involved in are SongU.com, NSAI and TAXI.
16. Know the Most Important Rule
The most important rule in songwriting, as with all music - is that there "are no rules"! There are, however, many guidelines and benchmarks that we can use to help steer us. Hit songs historically follow certain "patterns" and formulas that have been proven to work time and time again. The trick is to recognize them for what they are, while remaining true to ourselves. At the end of the day, your songs are your songs, and you can do what you like with them. Most hit writers will tell you that "writing from the heart" took them further than anything. Stay true to yourself!
As you can imagine, this is a short list that just briefly touches on a few important songwriting topics. You could spend years discussing each item on this list and more so we would highly recommend that you take some time to study the craft of songwriting if you aspire to pen your own music. It will be well worth the investment.
Good Luck with Your Writing!