If you’re new to songwriting, it can be tough to know where to start when considering how to write a song.
You might jot down or record some ideas but then leave them unfinished, sitting in a notebook or app, where they stay for weeks or months simply because you’re not sure what to do next.
You’re not alone. Every songwriter’s been there.
But those ideas aren’t doing anyone any good if they’re locked away behind a password on your iPhone. You’re not touching audiences or building a catalog.
So what should you do instead?
Learn the step-by-step songwriting process that the pros use. Learn how to craft and polish your ideas and inspiration into finished songs you can proudly share.
Just follow these seven simple steps and you’ll be on your way.
Note that you don’t have to follow this process exactly. Sometimes the steps overlap.
You might start with one or two, skip ahead, maybe backtrack, and then revisit. That’s okay. As long as you hit all seven of these steps at some point.
Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
Step 1: Gather Your Songwriting Tools
The first thing you’ll want to do is collect your songwriting tools. Keep them handy and accessible so that you can work out your ideas and capture inspiration whenever it comes.
Play to Your Strengths
The beauty of songwriting is that there’s no one way to do it. Typically, people are good at either writing melody or lyrics, writing to tracks, or production.
Don’t worry if you aren’t strong in every area — most of us aren’t. Embrace your strengths.
For example, my strengths are melody and production. I work hardest on the lyrics side of things. So know those one or two main advantages that you bring to the table.
Choose Your Instrument
As far as how to write songs using instruments, guitar and piano are a couple of your most popular options. But if you don’t play at all (or if you want to break out of your routine) you can also use tracks.
For example, you can come up with a beat in Logic, Pro Tools, or even free tools like GarageBand. Play around.
You can find all sorts of different percussion samples, bass grooves, keyboard sounds, and more. The possibilities are really endless.
You can also grab an instrument you don’t usually play, like a mandolin or ukulele, mess around and see what happens.
The best instrument for you to use is anything that inspires you to write a song.
Keep Your Ideas in One Place
Don’t forget to have your phone, tablet, a notebook, or any other recording device handy at all times. Then centralize and organize everything as much as possible.
Keep all your ideas in one place so you’re not chasing down napkins, the backs of envelopes, or sticky notes before sitting down by yourself or with others to write.
You’ll save yourself loads of headaches and disappointment.
Step 2: Pick a Theme
A theme or concept in songwriting is a main, unifying idea. For example, you can write about love, relationships, heartbreak, dancing, partying, or traveling.
But (you might be wondering), aren’t those themes overdone? Sure. But people keep writing and singing those songs because they’re popular.
Audiences love them because they relate to them. As a songwriter, your job is to make old themes new, to make them your own by bringing in your unique perspective and by adding your own surprising twists.
Your theme becomes the foundation of the song. You can have catchy melodies and you can even have some good lyrics. But if the concept isn’t exciting or gripping, it’s not going to get anybody’s attention.
And that’s the point — it’s why we do this.
I like to start with a concept. A concept can be a title, it can be a story, it can be an idea that you got from some experience that you’ve had. But I think the best songs start with great concepts or great titles.
Songwriters are always listening and observing. The best titles I’ve gotten have been from something I’ve heard someone say.
For example, the concept for “Tequila” by Dan and Shay came when one of my buddies said, “When I taste tequila…” That phrase grabbed me and I immediately wrote it down on my phone.
So typically, day in and day out, I’ll capture those conversational snippets on my phone. And they might seem sloppy or even terrible at first glance.
But I can come back to those ideas weeks or months later and have a concept for a song based on that title. So it’s a great way to start.
When it comes to preparation, everyone approaches the writing room differently.
One of my good songwriting buddies, Rodney Clawson, says that he never prepares ideas before going into the room. He might have titles in mind but he never tries to develop them more before he meets with other writers.
Other songwriters I know are very diligent about having their ideas organized and ready to go before they go into a room. They might have lyrics fleshed out, or cool riffs or chord progressions already in mind.
It’s really about what works for you, but figure out what that process is and repeat that each time you go into the room
Step 3: Choose a Song Structure
Your song structure is really your plan. You can think of it like the frame you hang the walls of your house on. But before you write any songs, get clear on your songwriting goals.
Are you hoping for commercial success, for example, like hearing your songs on the radio or the streaming services? (I call this writing for the masses.)
Or are you writing songs for yourself, your friends, or for more of an indie crowd? Neither is better than the other. But having a clear goal will potentially radically change how the song is structured.
Mostly, I focus on writing for the masses. So I’ll speak to that.
Think of song structure as a proven program that we can build the song into. It makes listeners feel more comfortable, because it’s something they already know.
Song structure has developed over a long time based on how we respond best to songs.
Here’s an example of a standard song structure:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
- Solo or instrumental section
- Bridge (or another verse)
- Final chorus
These pieces are interchangeable. For example, on the second verse you might leave out the second pre-chorus and go straight into the second chorus.
Sometimes the first pre-chorus becomes the bridge — that’s been popular in Nashville in the last few years. There’s a lot of room for creativity. There aren’t a whole lot of rules.
But when you’re starting out, it’s best to keep things simple. I recommend a slightly abbreviated version of the above structure:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
- Solo or instrumental section
- Final chorus
Now you’re ready to move on to your lyrics.
Step 4: Start Drafting Lyrics
Strong song lyrics start with your theme or concept. I’m always most inspired to write lyrics when the concept is great. If the concept is weak, it’s tough to write lyrics.
A weak concept isn’t exciting and it won’t spark great ideas. So really dig for that concept to make sure that it’s awesome. You’ll be amazed how much easier the lyrics will come.
The process for developing the song lyrics will vary for each song, but typically, what you’ll hear over and over in Nashville songwriters’ rooms is, “Write to the hook.”
What they mean by that is to always point your lyrics back to the general theme of the song. Many times the hook is the last line of the chorus or your title — whatever your concept is.
Always make sure that the lyric you’re putting in is helping you get to that goal of the end line of the chorus. This comes up often in a second verse.
We’ll ask, “How did we end this last chorus?” And then we’ll read through the lyrics and ask, “Where does this story want to go next?”
Another great tip is to work backwards from the ends of your verses. It doesn’t always work this way, but definitely look at the last lines in the second verse and (many times) in the first pre-chorus.
Ask yourself, “What’s the best line to go into this chorus?” Frequently that’s the line that people remember best because it’s the last line before you start a new section.
So be intentional on how you are writing to the hook because that will always make the song stronger. It’ll make it feel cohesive.
Step 5: Build the Melody
Melody is how we use notes to sing certain lyrics and convey emotion. It’s what gives the audience something to sing back.
When it comes to writing songs for commercial success, songs that will appeal to a mass audience, I try to simplify as much as possible.
Keep it Nursery Rhyme Simple
For example, there’s a reason everyone knows “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It’s a nursery rhyme. It’s such an easy melody to pick up. You can hear a melody like that one time and immediately sing it back.
So in the writing room, I’ll often ask: “How do we make this more like a nursery rhyme?”
Meaning, how do we make it more singable so that you remember it after the first time you hear it, whether you’re listening live or driving in your car? What’s going to make this melody simple and easy to pick up?
Now, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be rigid, as in “twin-kle, twin-kle lit-tle star…” But do be mindful that complicated melodies are typically harder to sing back.
This is a really simplified summary of this idea, but in general, try to make melodies that feel more like nursery rhymes, ones that are easy to sing back on first listen.
That’s one of my biggest tips when it comes to learning how to write music.
Get Into the Melodic Flow
It can be tough to know how to compose a song that flows well. When it comes to building the melody around your lyrics, I think it’s important to note that lyrics don’t always come first and melodies don’t always come first.
If you’ve written songs before, you know this. So in my opinion, what’s most important is saying the line out loud, noticing where you’re putting the emphasis, and then trying to sing it in a similar way.
Typically, you’ll notice if you sing a phrase and it doesn’t quite feel right. There’s probably a reason for that. And most likely, it’s because that’s not how you would say that phrase in real life.
Now there are examples of being able to use a word differently, as in putting emphasis on the wrong syllable.
Katy Perry’s song Unconditional is a good example. We don’t say “uncondi-TION-al”, we say “uncon-DI-tional.”
But the writers use it as a device to catch your attention in that song. And it works in that situation. Most of the time, though, you need to find ways to sing lyrics the way that you would say them.
Step 6: Develop Chord Progressions
Next up: how to compose music. You can think of the chords in your song as a foundation, a bed or a base layer that the melody dances on top of.
You might come up with a melody first, or you might choose your chord progression first. Either way is fine. If you come in with a melody, you can always build the chords underneath that.
We’ll start with few common chord progressions, using the Nashville Number System. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s an abbreviated explanation:
Pick any note and sing its major scale using “Do Re Mi.” To find a note’s corresponding Nashville Number, assign the first note, Do, a 1. That makes Re a 2, Mi a 3, and so on.
In the key of A, the major scale is — A B C# D E F# G#.
So if you’re writing a song in the key of A using the Nashville Number System, A=1 and G# = 7.
A I-IV-V blues progression (or A, D and E in the key of A) is written as 1-4-5 in the Nashville Number system. (We’ll dive deeper into this in future posts but for now, you get the idea.)
One popular chord progression, and a good place to start is 1 – 4 – 6m – 5.
You can use any combination of those chords — 4 to 1 to 6m to 5, 4 to 1 to 5 to 6m (that’s the progression we used for “Tequila”), or any iteration of that.
The only chords we didn’t use in that progression are the 2m and 3m. Those are a little more stylized and used in specific situations.
Next, let’s talk about layering chords and melody.
I have a background in classical violin. My brain works by understanding the theory behind what notes sing well over which chords. But you don’t need to be classically trained.
Songwriters who don’t know anything about music theory work based on feeling. I typically try to balance theory with feeling.
I don’t want to get stuck in my head about what theoretically works over this chord, because I might be missing out on an amazing melody, one that still works, even though theoretically it’s not “correct.”
The point is, there are lots of incredible, very successful songwriters who know nothing about music theory and who work purely based on feeling.
As you write, you’ll learn more about which chords and which melodies evoke which emotions. The faster you can gain access to that experience, the more you can play around in that space.
Typically, I know that over this one major chord, I can sing these melodies. But then I’ll try something different. And again, some people lean more toward melody than lyrics. If that’s you, melodies might come more easily.
If you’re more lyric driven, you might struggle more. It could be tough to make up something out of thin air.
If melodies don’t come easily to you, I suggest taking some time by yourself to try to sing melodies over chords — anything that comes to mind. Most times, you just need some confidence to be able to sing melodies in the room.
Practicing on your own helps build up that confidence you need to go in a room and throw out your own melodic ideas, because honestly, they might be way better than you think but you’re just too hesitant to share them.
I have several songwriter friends who say that they’re not great at melody because they don’t know what they’re doing theoretically.
But the truth is, they’re actually really great at it. So don’t assume you can’t come up with a great melody.
Step 7: Recording Your Song
I don’t think there is a good or bad way to record your song. One theme that will continue to pop up is that there’s often no right or wrong way to do anything.
Today’s music recording technology allows us to record a song as we’re writing it.
You can hop on a mic and sing it in, in the comfort of your own studio. Then you can play it back and make it sound pretty great, like a finished record.
You don’t have to approach every song the same way every single time. For example, you don’t have to write it on keyboard or on guitar, you don’t have to sing it in as you’re going.
Sometimes as we’re writing a song, we’ll write the verse and we’ll sing it in over the track, so we can listen back right away.
Sometimes we’ll write the entire song, and then sing that in, and sometimes we’ll write the entire song and sing it in a week later.
Whatever you do is fine. There are often benefits to singing in a song right away as you’re going. Especially if you’re the one singing it.
There’s something valuable about stepping back from the singing process, being able to completely turn that part off and experience the song as a listener.
You’ll catch things that may or may not make sense lyrically, things that you can only catch if you’re listening back. I think it’s a really great tool to have. But I don’t think it’s necessary to do it every single time.
I would definitely try this though, if you haven’t already. It’s definitely efficient.
Now the danger of singing in immediately can be trying to rush to get something finished. Once you’ve recorded the song, once somebody has done a lot of work to finish a demo, it’s harder to go back in and refine it or make sure it’s the best it can be.
If you want to change the song at that point, someone has to go back into the studio to sing another vocal or at least punch something in.
It’s not the end of the world, but at the same time you don’t want to make a habit of it.
But sometimes it’s okay, if you don’t feel like the song is quite there yet and everybody needs to leave for the day, to sing in what you have — knowing that you’re going to listen to it over the next week and keep refining the song.
Sometimes we’ll say we’re “too close to the song,” meaning we’ve just written the song and it’s hard to tell if everything makes perfect sense.
The longer you write songs, the less time you need away from a song to know if that’s the case.
I now know things that I didn’t know early in my songwriting career. There are many times I thought, “Oh, this definitely makes sense lyrically, the melodies are all great, etc.”
But then I’d come back to the song a few days later and realize, “I don’t even know what I’m saying in that verse!” It was because the verse wasn’t written to the hook.
Time away can really help you get a fresh perspective.
So it’s not 100% crucial to record songs as you’re going, but do use it as a tool to be able to refine your lyrics and melodies.
How to Write Songs That Move People
If you’ve felt stuck, wondering how to turn your random collection of ideas into finished, polished songs, take heart.
Now have a proven process, including loads of tips as well as the seven essential steps for writing songs that people instantly remember and sing back.
You know how to choose a great theme, write to your hook, structure a popular song, and how to record and refine it. You know how to make music, instead of simply hoarding away ideas for someday.
And believe me, as you make these steps a regular part of your songwriting routine, you’ll have the foundation in place to consistently write better songs, faster.
So dust off one of your amazing themes today. Follow these steps and see the results. Your ideas deserve to be heard!
Next up, even more great songwriting inspiration. Learn more about connecting emotionally with listeners using popular chord progressions.