The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Pop Song

How to write a pop song

This post helps you get your song started, but that’s only the beginning. My free ebook will take you step-by-step through the rest of the songwriting process–the same process I’ve used to write my Grammy Award winning hits.

Have you ever heard the latest, greatest pop hit and thought, “I wish I would have written that!”

It’s understandable.

Pop songs are catchy, they’re fun, and listeners can’t get enough of them.

Your favorite pop songs might seem to flow effortlessly, but what most listeners don’t see is all the work goes on behind the scenes to make them sound that way.

As songwriters, it’s our job to study what works — learning from both the classic greats and today’s hits — and figure out how to capture some of that magic in our own songs.

That means you have to put on your analysis hat.

There’s a lot to think about, but once you learn what kinds of things tend to make songs successful, it gets easier.

In this post, you’ll learn how to get started writing your next great pop song.

But first…

What is “Pop” or “Pop Music” Anyway?

As you’ve probably guessed, “pop” is short for “popular.”

The term applies broadly to anything that people are listening to now or songs that were popular in the past.

I like to call them songs for the masses. That includes radio songs, Top 40, the Billboard 100 and much more. Pop can be — and often is — a mishmash of different styles and genres.

There’s no strict single definition, and the genre evolves (like everything else in music).

The best way to think of pop is as a category of music which is distinct from classical, jazz, or folk. It’s typically focused on creating hit singles for teens or general audiences — as opposed to rock, which is more album-based and geared toward adults.

The term pop came out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, thanks to bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and ABBA.

“Rock” and “pop” used to be used interchangeably, but in the ‘60s, pop started to refer more to music that was more commercial and widely accepted.

What Does a Pop Song Sound Like?

Today’s pop songs are typically shorter in length (around three minutes), with repeating hooks and choruses. They often feature grooves, beats, and rhythms at tempos you can dance to.

They’re catchy and memorable — people want to hear them over and over again and sing along. Mostly, pop songs make listeners feel something they can’t wait to feel again.

Pop music tends to borrow heavily from other styles, including rock, dance, R&B, Latin, country and more.

In general, pop has three main characteristics:

  • It’s light entertainment
  • It appeals to listeners’ identities
  • It’s commercially viable

In other words, pop doesn’t have to embrace any of the deeper or heavier topics that folk, rap, rock, or country music might (although, at certain points in music history one of these genres might be considered “pop”). It doesn’t necessarily inspire social or political change. Instead, pop songs stick to non-controversial themes around love, relationships, living life, and having fun.

According to British musicologist Simon Frith, the main purpose of pop music is to create revenue (and that’s not a bad thing for us as songwriters, as pop hits can be quite lucrative.)

So, what do you need to know about writing pop songs?

Glad you asked!

Let’s start with a review of the parts of a song and song structure.

How to write a pop punk song

Parts of a Song and Pop Song Structure

Music structure is really hardwired into our brains, whether we realize it or not.

We’ve all learned to recognize patterns that tell us we’re listening to songs and not just a bunch of noise. Like stories, songs and even instrumentals have defined beginnings, middles and ends.

Music that doesn’t follow these recognizable patterns is confusing to listeners — and if your audience can’t figure out what they’re listening to within the first few seconds, they’re likely to get frustrated and tune out.

As songwriters, we want to avoid that.

We can start with understanding the parts of a song.

The Parts of a Song

There are several main parts of songs that you need to know. You could run across others, or you might hear different terms for the same parts.

Don’t worry about using every part in every song. Instead, listen to each song as you write it and see what it needs. You can experiment with the bare bones or be creative and try writing sections you might not typically use.

Either way, you’ll grow as a songwriter and start to get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Intro: Start your songs by warming up your listeners. Grab their interest and prepare them for what’s to come. Above all, keep this section short.

Verse: Your verses tell your story, move the song along, and lead listeners on a journey into the big energy of your chorus.

Pre-chorus: Also known as the build, channel, lift, or rise, this is often a four-bar section, but it could be longer. Its job is to build energy and anticipation going into the chorus. Pre-courses are currently popular in radio hits.

Chorus: The catchiest, highest energy, and most distinctive and memorable part of your song. It should be easy to sing along with after hearing it only a couple of times. Your chorus will include your song’s theme and or hook. You can and should repeat it several times.

Note: These days, it’s important to get to the chorus in less than a minute if your goal is radio airplay.

Bridge: A transition section that contains surprising lyrics or a story twist. It will also be a musical break for listeners’ ears, to keep them on their toes and prevent them from tuning out because the song has become predictable. The bridge is usually a shorter section, sometimes called the Middle Eight. Bridges aren’t used as frequently in today’s popular music. Only add one if the song really needs it.

Instrumental/break/solo: Another optional section. You can use it to add interest and variety, or to change the energy of a song before going into the next section (often a final chorus).

Drop: Another optional section where the bass, drum or other instrument parts “drop out,” temporarily in order to build energy going into a final chorus.

Outro: Your song’s ending. It might repeat the chorus or a part of the chorus several times, or repeat another hook. Always go back to the emotion you want to leave your listeners with. Do you want to fade the song out (best for radio), end abruptly, or leave listeners on a high note? Try a few possibilities.

Hook: This term is sometimes confusing because it’s frequently used to refer to your chorus (or a line in your chorus) that’s repeated frequently throughout the song. It could also be the same as your song’s title.

A true hook is anything distinctive about a song that’s memorable, grabs listeners, and delivers an emotional payoff. A hook could be a vocal or musical phrase, riff, beat, or rhythm — anything that sets your song apart. Every song should have at least one hook, but it could have more.

From the parts of a song, we can look at song structures.

Commonly Used Pop Song Structures

Song structure (or format) refers to the patterns, order, or arrangement of different parts of songs.

Listeners won’t necessarily know or care about the mechanics, but as songwriters, we need to pay attention.

Here are some of the structures used in hit songs:

  • Verse—chorus—verse—chorus—bridge—chorus
  • Verse—pre-chorus—chorus—verse—pre-chorus—chorus—bridge—chorus
  • Verse—chorus—verse—chorus—instrumental or solo—chorus
  • Verse—chorus—verse—chorus—verse—chorus (also known as A/B)
  • Chorus (or part of a chorus)—verse—chorus—verse—chorus—bridge—chorus

Check out some of your favorite pop songs and see if you can figure out what structures they’re using. Then ask yourself how you can use them in your own songwriting.

For beginners, I recommend you start with this structure. It will help you build skills writing pop music.

  • Verse 1
  • Pre-chorus
  • Verse 2
  • Pre-chorus
  • Chorus
  • Solo or instrumental section
  • Final chorus

Next up, you’ll build your melody and chord progressions. You might come up with one or the other first, or you might build them at the same time.

Writing Pop Song Melodies

Great melodies can make your songs unforgettable.

Always decide on your song’s theme or main concept first — it’s the glue that will hold your song together.

Then make sure that your melody reinforces or at least works well with your theme. When your melody fits the song, listeners can get a good idea what it’s about even if they can’t hear all the lyrics.

For example, not every song about heartbreak has to sound like a funeral dirge. You can use upbeat music and juxtapose it with your lyrics. But if you do this, do this intentionally. Think: my heart is broken but I’ll be okay.

A few tips for writing melodies:

  • Take listeners on a journey. Be aware of the energy in your verses and in your choruses. Use more skips and leaps in the chorus for example, and build toward a big climax at the end of your song.
  • Write conversationally and match the natural rhythm of your lyrics. You can check yourself this way: If you wouldn’t say something in an informal conversation with friends, in general, avoid saying it in your song. Otherwise, your lyrics could seem stilted or awkward.
  • Choose a key that people can easily sing along with.
  • Mix things up — don’t be afraid to play with rhythm, the length of your notes between verses and courses, or timing.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat the cool parts! If you’ve got a great melody, lean into it. People will want to hear it — and sing it — over and over again.

And if you want to deep diver into melody writing, check out How To Write A Melody.

Pop Song Chord Progressions

You don’t need a degree in music in order to write great chord progressions. But you do need to learn at least some of the basics of music theory.

Again, check back with your theme. Know what emotions you want to evoke and then study the chord progressions that create those emotions.

This helps keep your songs interesting and gives them that emotional punch listeners want. It also helps to make sure all your songs don’t sound the same.

Some of the most popular chord progressions in pop music include:

  • I-V-vi-IV — “Someone Like You” by Adele, “When I Come Around” by Green Day
  • I-vi-IV-V — “All the Ways” by Meghan Trainor, “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers
  • I-IV-vi-V — “Home” by Daughtry, “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers
  • I-IV-V — “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, “Funky Cold Medina” by Tone Loc
  • I-V-IV-V — “Take On Me” by A-ha, “My Heart Will Go On” by Céline Dion
  • ii-V-I — “Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake, “Memories” by David Guetta
  • vi-V-IV-V — “In the End” by Linkin Park, “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye
  • The 12-Bar Blues — “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Led Zeppelin

Next up, writing your lyrics.

How to Write Pop Song Lyrics

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m again going to point you back to your theme.

It’s much easier, and a lot more fun, to write lyrics when you start with a great theme or concept. So make sure yours is solid before you start writing.

A great concept sparks great ideas. One thing you’ll hear Nashville songwriters say over and over is, “Write to the hook.”

What they mean by that is to make sure that all your lyrics lead into the main theme of your song. Many times, that main hook is your song’s title or the first or last line of your chorus.

All your verses should move your story forward, toward the big pay off in your choruses and the big climax at the end of your song.

It’s often helpful to ask yourself, “Where does the story want to go next?” Or, “What’s the best line to go into this chorus?”

Also, craft your lyrics so they match the energy of the song. In other words, if you’re using a driving dance beat, use punchy, powerful phrases.

Next, be sure to study rhymes and rhyme schemes. Few things will make all your songs sound the same as using the same simple rhyme schemes over and over.

Experiment — not just between songs but also within a song. You don’t have to use the same rhyme scheme for your verses as you do for your choruses, for example.

You can get loads of examples in 15 Essential Rhyme Schemes for Songwriters.

And as always, listen to your favorite songs as well as today’s hits and collect inspiration from what they do.

How to write a pop song lyrics

7 Steps to Write a Pop Song

I’ve gone into detail on all these steps in my post How to Write a Song, but here they are again as a quick review.

Remember that you don’t have to do these steps exactly in order. If you come up with lyrics first, you can build the rest of your song around them. If you’re inspired by a riff, start there. And don’t worry if you have to come back and tweak something later — it’s all part of the process!

Step 1: Grab your songwriting tools

You’ll need an instrument, some central place to store all your ideas, and a basic recording device. Your phone will work well to help you capture inspiration, no matter when or where it comes to you.

Be bold. Don’t be afraid to switch things up and try an instrument you don’t know very well, or change up your environment or your writing approach. Inspiration truly comes from anywhere!

You’ll need a computer and a DAW if you plan to record your own demos.

Step 2: Pick a strong theme

Your theme or concept is your single main, unifying idea. Your concept can be your song’s title, it can be a story, it can be inspiration from something that you observed in real life.

Don’t make the mistake of simply choosing a topic, like dancing. Instead, answer the question: so what about it? Maybe your theme could be, “I don’t feel like dancing tonight.”

If your topic is relationships, you could ask, “How did I get into this mess?” The key is to come up with a great idea that will inspire you to finish the full song — and it really does make writing easier.

Keep all your inspiration handy and in one place, so that you don’t have to search through Post-It notes on your desk or napkins in your car whenever you’re ready to sit down and write a song. These days, you can find songwriting software tools that you can access on your phone, tablet, or desktop.

Step 3: Choose your song structure

Pay attention to what’s popular in pop today. That’s not to say that you can’t ever break out of the mold, but if you want to write for the masses, you should know what’s working right now.

Then you can choose when to go along with the trends or stretch the rules a bit.

You can always tweak your structure midstream, but it helps if you have an idea of your goal before you get started.

Again, here’s the structure that I recommend beginners start with:

  • Verse one
  • Pre-chorus
  • Verse two
  • Chorus
  • Solo or instrumental
  • Final chorus

Step 4: Write your pop song lyrics

Pop songs lyrics tend to be simple and repetitive. Not saying that’s a rule, but this type of lyric writing really lends itself to the pop format. Your storytelling might be more conceptual than specific and that’s okay too. Let your audience fill in their own interpretations.

Know your rhyming options but don’t let a rhyme scheme lock you in. If you’re really struggling to make a particular rhyme scheme work, change it to fit your lyrics instead of the other way around.

Step 5: Build your melody

I always recommend you keep your melodies simple. This is especially true in pop songs.

Listeners should only have to hear your chorus once or twice before they’re able to sing along. Keep it nursery-rhyme simple.

Be willing to tweak your melody to fit your lyrics and vice versa. Songwriting is a creative process and you’ll definitely have some back-and-forth before you settle on your final version.

Step 6: Choose your chord progressions

Songwriters often use different chord progressions in verses, choruses, and bridges. This builds interest and gives listeners’ ears a break.

You can keep the same chord progression throughout an entire song as long as you vary the melody, rhythm, dynamics, and other aspects enough to keep people engaged. For example, it should be clear where your verses end and where your choruses begin.

We can go deep into music theory when talking about layering chord progressions and melodies. But the best way to get started is to play around with some of the progressions that I’ve listed above and see what fits best.

Finally, don’t feel intimidated if you’re not a theory expert. Many songwriters write good melodies intuitively. Don’t try to talk yourself out of a melody that works well simply because it doesn’t fit all the theory rules.

Step 7: Record your demo

Congrats, you made it! It’s time to record your demo.

There’s no right or wrong way to do this. You can capture your song as you write it or finish it first and then record your final version.

Don’t worry about making your recording fancy or perfect. It should sound professional, but you don’t necessarily need the full band treatment. Keyboard or guitar and vocals are fine.

If you plan to pitch your song to an artist or publisher or share with other musicians, you can add more instrumentation.

Either way, set your recording aside for a day or two after you’ve finished it so that you can come back and listen with fresh ears. You may catch some lyrics that don’t quite make sense or notice where the song might be dragging. You may also be inspired to add a cool riff or harmony.

How to Write a Hit Pop Song

And there you have it.

Everything you need to write your first — or next — pop song.

If you’ve ever dreamed of hearing your songs played on the radio, in a football stadium, or at a local dance club, you owe it to yourself to give pop songwriting a try.

You can tap into so many different musical styles and really stretch yourself as a songwriter.

And who knows? One of your songs may be the next one on the Jumbotron!

If you want more tips, tricks, and advice, grab my e-book on How to Write a Song.

Have fun! I can’t wait to hear what you come up with.