Before you get too excited, you should know that this post is not going to outline a step-by-step process for actually sitting down to write a song. Truth be told, as an experienced songwriter, I can confidently say that the process is different for everyone. In fact, in many cases for me, it’s a different process every time I do it.
Sometimes, I come up with the melody first.
Sometimes, I come up with a chord progression first, and then I get a melody from that.
Sometimes, I write lyrics and it’s months before those lyrics get put to music.
And sometimes, I can write a whole song—lyrics, melody, and chords—in one 30-minute sitting. (It’s rare, but it has happened.)
My point is, just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup, there’s no wrong way to write a song. And there’s no one single way to write one either. It really all depends on several factors, such as where your inspiration comes from, when it comes to you, how it comes to you, what your motive is for writing, and what instrument(s) you have to aid you in the process. All of these factors add up to influence a person’s songwriting process in a different way each time.
That said, I can sum up my songwriting process pretty easily. Even though it is different every time – there is one core thing that acts as the common thread between the various elements that come into play. I’ll put it the way another songwriter once put it to me and helped me begin my songwriting journey many years ago:
Writing a song is no different than writing an essay or a story.
Yes, that sounds simple, but it was hugely impactful for me, mainly because I was a college student at the time, and I was majoring in English. So I had plenty of experience writing essays and stories (mostly essays.)
You can break it down just like any high school student would break it down. An essay is usually made up of an introduction, a conclusion, and a number of supporting paragraphs (3 if it’s the standard “5-paragraph essay” that I was taught to write as a teenager.) Each supporting paragraph is made up of a single topic sentence along with examples to support that topic sentence. And each supporting paragraph should be written to support the essay’s main idea or thesis, which is usually presented at the end of the introduction.
In the same way, a song is simply a poetic “essay” of sorts. You have one main idea, and you support that idea with verses, a chorus, and possibly a bridge. Not all of these elements is required every time, but most popular songs are made up of verses, choruses, and a bridge, and many of my songs follow this structure.
So, how do you write a song? First, you come up with a main idea. You may wish to communicate that idea through your chorus, since that is the “hook” of most songs. Then, you come up with several supporting verses to describe or exemplify that main idea. It really is a lot like writing an essay.
It really doesn’t matter if you write the music first or the lyrics first. I’ve done it both ways. In many cases, I’ll try to coordinate the style of the music to fit the overall “feel” that the lyrics produce when read. If the lyrics are meant to provoke thought, then the music will be written to elicit a thoughtful emotional response. If the lyrics are sappy and meant to draw tears, the music will usually be written with that in mind. Sometimes, if I have a main idea and overall “feel” in mind, I’ll write the music first, and then add lyrics. In those cases, the music almost always gets altered as the lyrics progress.
Sorry this wasn’t a step-by-step how-to. You can find lots of those online, but I feel as though they can be extremely limiting, because, as I said before, there truly is no wrong way to write a song. If you’re interested, we did another post a while back on the basics of songwriting that you can check out here.