How to Write a Song

You ever wonder how to write a song?

As a guy who has written over 1000 songs I might have a few tips. However, I’ll start off by saying that there is no right way to write a song. There are some ways that are more common than others, but that doesn’t make them right.

The biggest question I’m asked about songwriting is this, “which comes first, the words or the music?” And the most common answer for that question is “neither.” In my own experience, and with the majority of songwriters I’ve worked with, the words and music come at the same time. In other words, you sit down at the piano and start playing. Then an idea and a melody start to develop. You work through it until you have a song.

But hold on, the process is not always so perfect. Sometimes it might take me an hour to write a song. Other times it might take three sessions over two weeks to complete the piece. I know songwriters who can spend months or years on a single song. To add to the confusion, you don’t always have to write the words and music together.

In my early years of songwriting I didn’t play an instrument. So, I’d often write lyrics and then bring them to my older brother to set to music. This form of songwriting stuck with me and has especially returned in the past decade. There are some advantages to writing words first.

  1. You can edit and re-edit, even deconstruct and reconstruct the lyric. You can really spend time crafting the lyric into exactly what you want to say.
  2. You have the freedom to apply several, even dozens of chord progressions and musical ideas to the lyric before you settle on the one you think is best.

I’m currently working on a project using the words-first method. I’m spending a few months working on lyrics. This winter I’ll be turning the best of 30 lyrics into an album of songs. Look for more about the new project tentatively titled Waterboro Town Hall in the coming months.

Less often I’ve written music first. To me this is the most difficult way to write a song. There are songwriters who excel using the music-first format, but it’s not my strongest skill. I often feel locked into using a specific melodic structure and struggle to complete lyrics using this format.

Finally, let’s talk about making songs make sense. Beginning to intermediate songwriters often write songs that are weak because they don’t always make sense. One must carefully consider theme, storyline, and context. Pronouns are also important. Sometimes a cool line doesn’t work. Throw it out. Sorry.

On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want a song to tell a story and make perfect sense. In my current project, rather than writing solid story songs, I’m writing songs using related ideas, imagery, and metaphor to weave something together that has a universal meaning but is not a simple beginning-to-end story.

I’m not sure I’ve answered the question on how to write a song. Why? Because there is no right way to write a song. Good songwriters will try many ways of writing songs. Mixing up your process will only increase your skills and creativity. – dse

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Author: Dan Steven Erickson

Dan Steven Erickson is a great undiscovered American songwriter.