How to write a song

I’ve written six songs within the last week or so, keeping a full-time job and living an otherwise fairly normal life. I don’t claim they are any good, only that they were surprisingly easy to make. In this article I give you a blow by blow account of how this happened, the tools I used, and the process I followed. Maybe you’ll find something that will uncork your own creativity.

It all began with a vague feeling of, for lack of a better term, “mental pregnancy.” Like there’s something inside that wants to come out and meet the world. Never having been physically pregnant, I’m likely way off, but you get the idea. Call it self-expression, essential need, creative pressure, whatever.

I Googled a number of terms such as “songwriting,” “composition,” and so forth, read a few articles and watched a few videos. I was surprised to see how little agreement there was on the best process to write a song. Many said that it was best to start with the title, so that’s more or less what I did. Then do the lyrics, then melody and chords, but there was much disagreement on this. Everyone agreed that full musical arrangement was the last thing. Here’s the order I ended up following, with a number of exceptions:

  1. Title: the reason for this is that the title will bring in the emotions (very important), and the words (less important, but not by much) conveyed by the song. Of course, if you already have them, you can go ahead and summarize them into a title just as easily. This happened with my (so far) next-to-last song, which didn’t have a title until the end.
  2. Lyrics: then write about it. Load it with emotion; this is a song, after all, and there’s not going to be a lot of words. Be poetic if you can, but remember that songs must rhyme, whereas modern poetry mostly doesn’t. The reason for doing the lyrics before the music is that words have their own rhythm, which can be used to build music on. But I haven’t been consistent with this, either: three of the songs began with the music, and then I added words to match. This is the time to decide what structure to follow. Today most songs alternate a chorus, which does not change, with verses that change, plus perhaps a “bridge” to let listeners know that the grand finale is near. Learn about song structure here or, if you have a lot of time, read the Wikipedia article on this.
  3. Melody: the best one is the one that comes from the words. I sat by an electronic keyboard and moved my fingers around until I found a jingle that seemed to fit the words. Usually this will consist of a main motif for the first verse, which repeats with some variation in the other verses. Chorus and verses use different melodies: save the punchier one for the chorus. If there’s going to be a bridge, that’s a third melody, which should be even more different.
  4. Chords: I’m basically done with the song in the previous step, so now I grab my guitar/ukulele/whatever and feel what chords fit and where. Few chords for a faster song, more for a slow one, since the chords serve to give color to the whole thing. Chords go on the score as simple text labels. No complex instrumental arrangement here.

The tools:

  • I like writing the score on a computer. I found that MuseScore, which is open-source and free, does a good job. It will also play what you wrote so you can check that it is right.
  • But sometimes I just can’t tell what should be the right length for each note, and how to place it relative to the bars. Since I have a Mac, I use GarageBand (or perhaps any MIDI-based program), with the keyboard plugged in so I can record what I’m playing. Then look at the resulting “piano roll,” adjust it a bit, and play it back. The note lengths should be plain to see. No need to record the whole song; it’s enough to just do the parts that give you trouble with the tempo.
  • You’ll need a rhyme dictionary for the lyrics. I found to be great.
  • And you’ll need a thesaurus as well, since often a word you wrote at first doesn’t fit well with the melody. The one built into Word is just fine.
  • Needless to say, you need an instrument for figuring out the chords, and perhaps the melody as well. I use a simple electronic keyboard with MIDI output and a ukulele.

The order described above is not rigid. You will need to modify the lyrics so they fit the melody, and modify the melody so it fits the chords. You may need to transpose the whole thing up or down so you can actually sing it. This is really easy to do in MuseScore. Often you won’t know you need to transpose until you try to sing it in front of people, although the way the score looks can give you some early warning.

Here are last week’s compositions (click the link for PDF):

  1. I Don’t Feel Poetic” began by trying to be poetic. The process ended up being exactly as outlined above. Sounded awful first time I performed it with some friends, but the only real adjustment needed was to switch to an instrument with less volume.
  2. You” also began as lyrics, with standard process. Very different kind of song that didn’t sound so good on the first performance, either. Still a work in progress.
  3. The Weather Song” started from the melody, which is a well-known Spanish children’s tune. English words were added to it, trying to be more or less faithful to the original. The important thing was to retain the rhythm.
  4. I Hate What You Do” took its origin in an idea for a definitely un-PC topic that few have the courage to address. The lyrics almost wrote themselves, but then the melody I made from those ended up sounding too happy and didn’t match the words very well. I saved the melody for a later project and focused on the chords instead. And, what do you know, a melody emerged from those chords as I said the words over them. Weird.
  5. It Can’t Be Beat” has the melody originally composed for “I Hate What You Do.” I had to do something with it, so I decided to think of some happy words. Once the general idea of someone saying how great life can be set in, writing was fairly painless.
  6. Mama, Buy Me a (Censored)” is an old Spanish song that would be considered extremely un-PC today because of its frequent inclusion of the word “Negro.” Never was meant to be offensive, but people today have zero sense of humor. So I thought of using the same melody (and chords, which I had previously figured out for the original) with a fairly faithful English translation. I also censored the offensive word whenever appropriate, just in case. You be the judge of whether the end result is funny or still likely to cause fainting spells.

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