by Scott Zimmerman

This article walks you through a process you can use to write your own songs. If you’d like to read our article about how to sing and play guitar at the same time, go here. You can also check out our courses.

We have been created to create! Songwriting is the ultimate expression of all of our creative faculties. We cannot help but respond to the aesthetic beauty of a song that moves our emotions and intellect. However, not only can we respond, we can also engage in the creative process ourselves. With a few pointers to guide us, we can create our own songs for our own edification, and maybe that of others. Let’s take a look at one way to write your own songs, in five steps.

So, how do you write your own song? First, create a “hook”, which includes a chord progression and vocal melody; then, create the verse and lastly a bridge. Lyrics may be written while creating the “hook” or added later.

Step 1: Create The “Hook”

Most popular songs are built around a “hook”. This is the part of the song that is most memorable; it is the part that you can sing or play and it will identify the song. When you have a good hook the rest of the song will fall into place; so, spend most of your creative time developing this part of the song. Let’s practice creating a hook.

First, create a repeating chord progression using three or four chords; make your progression two or four measures long. There are different ways you can create the chord progression:1) intuitively create a progression by playing around with chords and finding a combination that is pleasing, 2) use a more theoretical approach by selecting chords from a “bank” of chords, such as chords in the key of C, i.e. C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, 3) Use a chord progression from another song. 

Next, develop a melody to go along with the chords. Don’t worry too much about actual lyrics at this point, unless you already have them written; they can be worked out later and grafted to the music of the hook. A simple way to come up with melodic ideas is to “scat” sing over the chord progression, i.e. sing on nonsense syllables or some repeating combination of words. Work towards a melodic idea that inspires you and fits with the chords you are playing. When you develop a working hook with chord progression and “scat” melody, record the idea on your phone so that it is not forgotten. 

Now, you are ready to do some “wordsmithing”. (If you are not interested in writing your own lyrics, you can partner with a writer, poet, or singer.) You can approach writing lyrics in a couple ways: stream of consciousness, narrative, or universal themes. Stream of consciousness is when you let the words just “roll out”; the sounds of the syllables of the words become the creative focus. When you tell a story, you are writing in a narrative style. Lastly, there are the universal themes such as, love, jealousy, excitement, despair, fall and redemption, etc.

The lyrics of the hook will help to determine the lyrical content of the rest of the song. Once you have the hook completed, once again, make a demo recording to save your work.

How to write your own song

Step 2: The Verse

Simply put, the verse is something different than the hook, which we will now refer to as the chorus. Music operates using a predictable formula of unity and variety. By having a contrasting part, variety is created and will create a sense of unity when the chorus returns. 

There are many options for creating the contrasting part, which we will call the verse. A simple, yet effective method, is to keep the same chord progression as the chorus, but create a new melody for the lyrics of the verse. Another method is to take the chords from the chorus and create a new progression using those same chords, or the same chords with an additional chord or a subtraction of a chord. 

Once you have created the chord progression for the verse, or if you have decided to use the same one from the chorus, follow the same method as you did in the chorus to create the verse melody. Typically, the verse has more words because it is the story telling part of the song. Sometimes it is helpful to have one verse of lyrics written out while you are developing the melody. Most likely, in order to accommodate the extra words, there will be more repeated notes and less variety in the melody than the chorus.

Now that you have a complete chorus and first verse with melody and lyrics, the majority of your song is complete, save for finishing the lyrics for the second verse and possibly a third verse. Again, make sure to make a recording of the verse so that you won’t forget it. Go get a cup of coffee and work on the rest of the lyrics or collaborate with a co-writer.

Step 3: The Bridge

Sometimes, but not always, a new part will be added to the basic chorus/verse structure to create added variety. Typically, this occurs after the second chorus, at about the two-thirds point of the song. After the second chorus, there is established an overall unity between the repeating verse and chorus form, and the bridge will add additional variety against that established pattern. Usually, the final or outro chorus follows the bridge taking the song to its final conclusion. The bridge is also sometimes used for an instrument solo which creates a great deal of variety because the vocal drops out only to return at the final chorus. Some techniques to create even more variety are to use a new chord progression in the bridge, borrow chords from another key, or use the chords from the relative minor of the song’s key.

One of the most challenging aspects of the creative process is to know when the song is finished. There is always more that can be added or rearranged. Sometimes less is more. However, it all boils down to making decisions. One way to see if your song should have a bridge is to write a bridge and record it with and without the bridge. Listen to it, maybe get some outside feedback, and then decide which you prefer. There is no correct answer when you are writing your own songs. (Unless you are trying to sell your songs, and that is another story!)

Step 4: Catalogue Your Songs 

Keep some type of record of your songs:  the finished songs as well as the works in progress. Probably the easiest way to do this is to record a rough demo of each completed song and even parts of songs that are works in progress. If you are also writing the lyrics, create a lyric notebook for writing down ideas when you are inspired. You can also record “hook” ideas for later when you have time to work them out. 

Some songs will “write themselves” quickly and some will require “teasing” them out. Allow yourself to have multiple works in progress to maintain variety and inspiration. Once you have a couple songs written, you may want to “professionally” record them, either by yourself or work with someone who has a home recording studio. It is really an exciting experience to produce an original song and see it “come alive” with other musicians, instruments, and even a talented singer- if you are not singing them yourself.

Step 5: Imitate Songs That You Like

One of the best ways to learn the songwriting craft is to imitate music you like. Take a song that you enjoy and “deconstruct” it. What is the chord progression? How is the verse similar or different from the chorus? Is there a bridge? What makes the “hook” of this song really work? Then, use the chords and structure of the song; but, create your own lyrics and melody. Alternatively, take some lyrics that you really like and use them to create your own melody and chord progression. This technique allows you to work on different aspects of songwriting without having to create everything from scratch. It is similar to artists who copy the great works of art at a museum to learn their craft.

Conclusion

Songwriting is the ultimate creative endeavor, especially when you do it for the pure love of it, and not for ulterior motives like fame and fortune. It is an art and a science, combining all the faculties of our mind. Like anything, work at it a little bit at a time, record your progress, and enjoy exercising your creative spirit!

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.

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