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Writing Song Lyrics & Melody:
Your Ten Step Guide
Where to from here?
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Warning: This is a “how-to” Article, and trying to teach an adult how-to write a song is kind of like trying to teach a 5-year old how-to ride a bicycle. While you can outline the process, show specific tips and techniques and add a generous dose of warnings about what not to do, a big part of the peddling is still “caught” rather than “taught”.
After writing songs for many years I have found though, that the catching becomes significantly easier when you have a manual! Hence the reason for this article.
While song writing is a fairly subjective process (and the tips below were written by a subjective person: Me (surprise!), it does help to have a step-by-step process and learn from the experience of others.
So grab your notebook, your singing voice and put on your most inspiring headgear, but don’t start just yet - be sure to read Step 1 (the preamble) first!
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody -
Step 1: To Fail To Plan...
Preparing and ensuring you understand the “tools” of song writing
For some reason that academics cannot yet fathom, artists are usually pretty impulsive. When a new idea pops into their creative minds during a party/picnic/office lunch, regular social interaction and normally acceptable public behavior give way to craziness, as one-hit wonders are composed on the back of napkins, mid-sentence, accompanied with pained expressions and random mutterings.
Maybe you’ve seen this kind of creative hallucination before, or even experienced it! If so, you might expect epiphanies like these to be the only true birthplace of great songs… but you’d be wrong. My experience has been that great songs contain a good mix of “inspiration” and “perspiration”, but that the process usually leans a little to the right (i.e. towards the hard work part).
Part of the “work” aspect of song writing, the perspiration bit, has to do with the technical aspects of music: You see, the desire to write is a truly beautiful dream, but if you don’t have the tools with which to build, it remains a hologram. So without further ado, here are the minimum entry requirements - if you have a basic understanding of these, you may proceed towards destiny!
(1) Chords: To write a song you do not necessarily have to be a instrumentalist, but it would help tremendously if you could play (on the guitar/piano/flute/sax/ didgeridoo) a few basic chords and have a fundamental understanding of music theory (such as which part of the guitar not to strum, or even, the difference between A and A minor, which has nothing to do with age).
If none of that makes sense and this requirement makes you angry enough to scream out a death metal tune, then you can safely ignore it. You can always just use your voice during composition, though instruments simplify the process and help with experimentation.
(2) Genre: BB King didn’t like Punk Rock and Pearl Jam was never big on Jazz, right? It’s not a trick question, the genre requirement simply states that you have to understand the difference between the main musical styles and have a pretty good idea of the style that you like, and want to write your song in.
The best indicator is the kind of music you usually listen to: If you listen to Iron Maiden and Pantera then don’t go writing love ballads (unless they’re very angry love ballads), and if Eminem is more your kind of thing, then for heaven’s sake stay away from Flamenco!
(3) Song Structure: This one’s pretty simple - and here’s what it looks like: VERSE / CHORUS / VERSE / CHORUS / BRIDGE / CHORUS. Tada! It’s a tried and tested formula and if this is your first song I recommend you stick to it, assuming of course, that you know the difference between the individual parts.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 2: Get a Life (or a theme)
Establishing a topic, idea or vision for your song
Before your song can take a life of its own, it needs to be born. The first (real) step of our song writing process is thus all about seed. It’s where you, the budding writer, need to go outside and start sowing. Start casting your seed to the ground and see what comes up - what little sprout could, with just a little bit of water and tremolo, become an oak of musical extravaganza.
I have found that this step (along with number 3 below) may often form the hardest part of the process. Like with many good things, getting started is tough. If you fall in the category of the napkin composer we briefly mentioned earlier, then you might want to sit around and wait for an idea to hit you from creative-lala-land, but be warned, it might be a long wait. While it’s true that many of the most famous hits throughout modern history was written in a flash (literally on a napkin!) with ideas that seemingly hit the artist out of nowhere, a great, great many (probably a large majority) of written music was born through exploration.
This means, practically, that you need to open up old photo albums, revisit old memories (pleasant and painful), think of recent movie encounters, go out for a new experience, read some forgotten poetry, visit a museum, or simply go and sit in a park with a notebook and pen (no digital devices allowed) for an extended period of time in order to brainstorm. The key question that you’re trying to answer is this: What could I write about with passion and ease? What topic, whether its love, forgiveness, bitterness or ecstasy, do I have enough emotional experience with that writing lyrics about it would not be a chore, but almost natural. From what avenue of life do I feel like I have something worth saying?
A word of advice: Nearly always, a great song idea will initially feel stupid. When, through your brainstorming and inner digging, you come upon an idea that’s close to you, you’ll be very tempted to discard, it thinking that you have nothing worth saying, but hang on. Dwell on it a bit more and start experimenting with ideas, thinking what you could possibly contribute (maybe a lyrical phrase will drop into your mind, write it down!) - let it simmer and as the emotional coloring disappears, it might start looking more and more attractive as an option to write about.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 3: One Bite & You're Hooked
Finding a Melody Hook through experimentation with lyrics and melody
Great music has a captivating element to it, usually a short melody line or engrossing lyric that grabs people’s attention. Like the liberally supplemented MSG’s in Potato Chips, it gets people to look up and their ears to perk up.
Here’s an example: The first time I, over the car-radio, heard a love ballad that soulfully and softly exclaim that “I can’t take my eeeeeyes off a you…”, I knew instantly that I wanted to hear it again. I went home and together, Google and I discovered that the song was called “The Blower’s Daughter” and that the artist was an Irish singer-songwriter called Damien Rice. I promptly proceeded to download the song!
All that, from just a single melody line and a captivating lyric over a car-stereo. That’s the kind of hook that you’re looking for in all of your music and there is simply no way you can expect your song to stand out from the thousands being produced every day, without it.
After coming up with a theme for your song - a valuable topic that’s close to you and that you could write about with ease - you now need to find a unique angle to say or play it from. You need to make sure that what you say, a specific part of the performance (usually in the chorus) will force itself into people’s brains, latch onto their memory, and stay there.
It can be either a ‘catchy’ tune or a well-put lyric that grabs listener’s attention, or a combination of both (like the example above). It needs to leave the audience wanting for more. Think of songs like ‘We are the Champions’ (Queen), ‘Barbie Girl’ (Aqua), ‘The Final Countdown’ (Europa) and ‘Living on a Prayer’ (Bon Jovi). You may not like the songs, but they have huge hooks and most grab hold of them!
Song Hooks are vital and they’re super important. I repeat, that without them, your music will be bland and uninspiring. The truth however, is that it can be hard to come up with something that fulfills this criteria. Once you’ve found it though, it simplifies the following steps since the hook often sets the stage for the rest of the song. To get started, as a tip, I’ve found that it’s usually simpler to focus primarily on the melody when looking for your hook (though I like to use a random lyrical phrase to work with).
So, practically you need to take up your instrument and start your musical noodling - play around with notes and chords - interject your key-phrase into melodies that you come up with. This can take a while and often feel frustrating, but I can tell you from personal experience, that when, after hours of playing around with chords you stumble upon a melody that has merit, it’s invigorating.
Another simple tip for finding melody hooks: Hooks usually follows a simple harmony, frequently with notes that are close to one another and involves a great amount of repetition. If you’re stuck with this part of the process then a good exercise would be to look at other famous song hooks, use them and modify them ever so slightly. Get a feel for the kind of thing that could work (remember it should be simple and repetitive - stay away from the fancy and technically proficient for this) and then let the new melody inspire you to come up with something similar.
There’s a great scene in the movie “Crazy Heart” where the down-and-out country singer (brilliantly portrayed by Jeff Bridges) is composing music when his lady friend thinks she recognizes the melody. He responds by saying that he just came up with the tune, but that the trademark of a good new song is that it always sounds familiar. That’s good advice for finding your own hook!
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 4: The Most Important Part Of Any Song
Writing the Lyrics for the Chorus part of your song
Think for a moment about any great song that you heard recently and try to recall the lyrics. Chances are that most of the words that you remember will come from the chorus - this is because the chorus is the most frequently repeated part of the song and therefore the most important!
Swedish duo Roxette once labelled their Greatest Hits Album “Don’t bore us… get to the chorus!” Well, at least we know now how they do things in Sweden…
Their descriptive album title rings true though: The chorus of your new song will be the most important part since many people will remember it over and above the verses and bridge.
It’ll be repeated 3-4 times throughout and needs to have vibrant and simple lyrics that are easy to recall for your listeners, months later, when they’re driving with the top down. Here are two tools to help with putting words to paper for your chorus:
(1) Rhyme. No it’s not old-fashioned, clichéd or limited to specific styles. Genres, as diverse as Jazz and Hip-Hop, employ rhyme - it’s incredibly effective. It helps with the hook factor for the lyrics; makes them easier to recall; and gives a surprising element to your words. Naturally, it’s good practice to not overdo it - the rain in Spain after all, does not fall mainly on the plain - so there’s nothing worse than twisting words and meaning to make them rhyme.
No, if all else fails, use ‘vowel rhyming’ (Ex. Love/enough can pass, even though love/dove would be a more accurate rhyme - but would probably lead to weird lyrics). To help with rhyming, especially if you have a limited vocabulary, get yourself a rhyming dictionary so that you can quickly discover a better alternative to beard/sheared (Persevered maybe? Commandeered? What about disappeared? - this might be turning into a James Bond soundtrack)
(2) Contrast. Contrast is another tool that proves effective in giving lyrics color and making them more memorable (even more so when you can combine contrast AND rhyme - ex. Hateful/Grateful, Cool/Fool, Bold/Cold). When you compare competing emotions, colors, thoughts and events, you help both to stand out and come alive in your song. Be careful, like with rhyme, not to overdo this, and unless you’re writing a screamo version of Where Do You Go To My Lovely (Peter Sarstedt), do not contrast everything and everyone in all of your verses. Also, as with all writing, the only way to use contrast and not have it appear forced, is through practice. You might need to use this technique, wait a few days and after reading your lyrics again (and asking grandma’s advice - see Step 10) adjust and change to make things seem more natural.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 5: Flesh it Out & Keep It Simple
Writing the Lyrics of the Verse part of your song
I taught English in Asia for a few years and once, while marking the winning essays from a recent competition, came upon an ingenuous student who wrote sentences that went a little like this: “The personages will consider the continuation of a total allocated incapacity annuity by analysis of whether, on the balance of probabilities, the adherent be employed for a fraction of the member's pre-absence salary”. Halfway through I could feel a mild stroke coming on and had to indulge in a protracted and penetrating physiological respite to avoid premature death by frustration!
Stephen King once said that any word you have to find in the thesaurus is the wrong one, and I say Amen to that! Always remember to KISS your lyrics (Keep It Simple Stupid) - it’s the best way to ensure that the large majority of your audience, who do not bring their dictionaries to your concerts, can stay involved.
So what does this have to do with Step 5? Well, step 5 is all about writing lyrics for the first verse of your song and it’s where folks, especially those individuals with little experience with writing, start getting way too fancy to be understood - hence my continual emphasis on simplicity.
There’s another extremely practical reason why I implore you to use everyday language in your verses: It’ll cause your lyrics to come up more frequently in everyday conversation. Think of, for example, when people use (around the water cooler at the office) phrases like “Who could it be now?”, “It’s been a while…”, and “Nothing else matters.” 70% of people in the room just started humming tunes from Men Down Under, Staind and Metallica. It’s a great way to keep your lyrics in the minds and mouths of people around you, and it also means your song becomes more notable.
The lyrics of your verses will have to be planned out in order to (1) tell a story or sketch a scenario and (2) build up expectation for the chorus. So you’re looking for continuity between the verses (especially the first verse) and the chorus. Remember to employ rhyme if possible (but don’t overdo it or twist the meanings).
One final thing to perhaps mention here: With these ten steps I’m assuming you’re writing the lyrics of your song before the full melody (though the hook part from Step 3 will give you a very general idea of the route the melody could eventually take). The danger with this method is that you could be penning lyrics that become nearly impossible to fit in a normal melody later. Keep in mind as you’re writing lyrics, that the different phrases will need later, to into pieces of song of similar length. This isn’t poetry!
A good way to help yourself stay on track, rhythmically, is to rap your lyrics, or employ them in a spoken-word style. That way, even without music, you’ll be able to spot words or phrases that are awkward, too long, too short, or simply won’t fit into a melody later.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 6: Putting Hemmingway To Shame
Employing imagery and metaphors in your lyrics
Step 6 is all about spicing up your words. After you’ve written the lyrics for your chorus (Step 4) and first verse (Step 5) we now want to add depth and emotion to them. We want lyrics to be evocative and though-provoking, to revolve around the central theme of your song in such a way that make them memorable and catchy. To help with this, we have a few literary devices at our disposal, such as simile, metaphors, synonyms and creative license.
A Simile is a direct comparison between two things (“Life is like a box of chocolates”) while a Metaphor, which is usually more effective in lyrics, equates to things to give the impression that they are similar (“It’s raining Men”).
Synonyms are also your friends, and while repetition is necessary to make lyrics memorable (especially in the chorus), be careful not to use the same word or phrase over and over to the point where they become a strain on the listener’s ears, and they wish you would’ve used delight, passion and fervor instead of just rambling on about love all the time. I would say that especially in your verses, you can employ synonyms to give your lyrics some variety - use Google, or ask your Grandma (Step 10) for this.
Creative license simply means that you, as a writer (this is true with books, plays and music) are allowed to break the rules of what is acceptable in normal English usage. Personally, with my songs I frequently enjoy taking existing words and changing them in a way that, while the meaning stays intact, the word sounds fresh and novel. In her famous cover, Toni Braxton keeps asking an ex-lover to “un-break” her heart. She could’ve used “mend”, but the former (which according to the dictionary doesn’t exist, but artists don’t care) is a powerful and fresh way to communicate and old concept. And it gets stuck in everyone’s head.
If you have zero experience with writing, you will need to hone your imagery skills to make them seem natural. Inexperienced lyricists might be tempted to keep using awkward metaphors and weird synonyms that don’t really advance the emotional momentum of the song. Feedback (step 10 below) is a good way to help you with this.
A word of warning: Have you ever seen a teenage guitarist with a new Wah-wah pedal? For some reason that surpasses understanding, a guy with a new toy is often set on using it all the time, in every type of song, and in every setting. Now if Beethoven was around, he would quickly inform us that a wavy Wah-wah effect best be left aside when one plays classical music (or Reggae, but Beethoven wouldn’t know about that). Our teenager doesn’t listen to silly old fools like Beethoven though - so, in his attempt to add to the song, he’s using the wah-wah pedal in his rock music, his Spanish pieces, and his Christmas Carols. And it’s definitely driving everyone crazy.
You’ve heard the old adage that “Less is more”? It’s absolutely true with lyrics as well. Avoid the temptation to use every literary tool at your disposal in an effort to ‘spice’ up your lyrics - it might just become so hot, that it start burning your listeners ears. They’ll promptly drench you with water. Instead, take a cue from the absolute best authors: They are the ones who use simple language in a “show, don’t tell” way that makes it captivating and engaging. They say things modestly, using just the right amount of metaphor, synonym and creative license to keep you engaged with their words.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 7: Sharpening your Hook (for a bigger catch)
Expanding on the hook melody of your song and establishing a Chorus Melody
With an established ‘hook’ for your song (Step 3), and the lyrics for the Chorus (Step 4) and First Verse (Step 5) penned, the bulk of the hard work is now behind you. From here on out the focus is on the melody. Before you start actually writing anything, I recommend you read Step 8 as well, where I talk about Chord Progressions that will provide a good framework for finding an attractive melody.
Using the lyrics for your chorus (or pre-chorus, i.e. the part at the end of your verses), you now need to mash together the words and the ‘hook’ melody line from earlier. How can you expand the hook, using your existing lyrics, to form a more complete melody for the entire chorus of your song? This takes experimentation. There’s not much more advice I can give on this, since it’s just a continuation of the process you started in Step 3. It should be easier though, as you now have more raw materials (lyrics) to work with.
My experience has taught that the earlier in the chorus you can use your hook, the better. Think of songs like Alive (Pearl Jam), Mmmbop (Hansen) and I wanna dance with somebody (Whitney Houston). These have incredibly catchy choruses with tell-tale melody hooks that grab its listener early on.
Also remember to stay in genre! You are, after all, writing in a musical setting which, after many hundreds of years, have evolved to a place where specific styles are kept apart for good reason. It’s true that some artists (like Justin Timberlake) sing musically complex pieces that often cross or bridge between genres, but this takes a whole lot of experience. If, for the time being, your first song is all about lost love and broken dreams, listen to other country artists and emulate. If you’re an electric guitarist who loves the sound of power chords more than a lover’s whisper, listen to classic and modern rock to get a feel for the kind of sound you’re going for. Then write similarly - stay in genre - and you’ll make it easier on yourself and your audience.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 8: Do Not Reinvent The Lightbulb
Using Chords Progressions to find a tried and tested melody line
Here’s a bit of good news for your song writing efforts: You do not have to invent a new melody from scratch. Musicians have, over the years, discovered which chords go together and drawn charts to show the rest of us dummies! They’re called Chord Progressions and they simply tell us which chords work well together, and which one’s don’t. You’re therefore not out to reinvent the wheel, but instead, as you’re standing on the shoulder of musical genius of ages past, you know that the C & B chords sound kinda strange when played in succession.
It’s called dissonance and for anyone who do not use fancy musical terms with Latin roots, the more common term will be ‘terrible’. That’s why you’ll never find C & B next to each other on any chord progression chart (except maybe for a-tonal classical or jazz music, but please, let’s not go there).
On the other hand, if you again play the C chord followed by an F or G chord, you’ll immediately discover that your ears are appeased with the familiar. The chords flow into each other and complement each other. Now, if you knew that C, F, G and Am formed the simplest of all chord progressions (in that key) you could use those four chords and mess around with them (Step 9 below) to find a melody that fits. It essentially provides a little musical box that helps you in your quest for melodic delight!
I have an entire section on chord progressions on my site, including a free downloadable chart that you can use as reference. Keep this on your screen (or print it out) and play around within the boundaries of specific progressions to help you formulate the melody for your chorus.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 9:
Experimenting In The Melody Lab
Writing the melody for your verses
It might sound like I’m being contradictory here in Step 9, because despite my repeated warnings to stay away from the fancy, weird and technically complex, I’m now going to encourage you, dear singer song-writer, to experiment! In order to help you as you finalize your melody for your verses, experimentation is key.
Here are a couple of areas you can try and experiment in, to see what you come up with:
- Instruments: The most important of all. If you’re a drummer, go sit down in front of the piano and play your tunes. If you’re an electric guitarist, pick up the acoustic to see what you can up with. Different instruments have different musical ‘textures’ and will often open up new ideas and possibilities.
- Rhythm: If you regularly play in 4/4 time, which is the standard time used by most pop/rock music today, try something different like 3/4 time (traditionally the ‘waltz’ tempo). Also use different forms of percussion or accents (by, for example, tapping on the guitar) to see what works and opens up new possibilities.
- Chords: If all your songs are in C, F, G and Am, then try something else - something totally different. I’ve found that Jazz Chords on the Guitar often sound so new and intriguing to my ears that they frequently lead down interesting avenues for composition.
- Chord Voicings: A barre-chord (on the guitar) sound very different from an open chord in the same key. Play chords differently on your instrument to see what catches your fancy and try to introduce different chord voicings in different parts of the song (writers frequently use this for the ‘bridge’ part of their compositions).
- Capo: This advice is for guitarists only, but using a capo high up on the neck is similar to using different chord voicings. Frequently, when I’m stuck in a rut regarding melody, I’ll grab my capo and start playing a melody at different frets across the neck. It usually brings perspective and sets new ideas in motion.
Writing Song Lyrics & Melody - Step 10:
What Do You Think Grandma?
Getting Constructive Feedback for improving your lyrics and melody
When asking for constructive criticism regarding any kind of literary or musical work, there are two extremes to keep in mind. These are important and you can use them to (1) filter out people who will not provide genuinely helpful feedback, and (2) steel yourself for when your masterpiece does not induce the same amount of unfiltered awe with your critics, as it obviously does with you.
The extremes that I’m referring to are, Firstly, other song writers and composers (especially unpublished ones). I once read a how-to manual for aspiring writers when the author warned of getting random feedback for your work.
She basically said (my paraphrase) that in the hearts of many young and aspiring writers lies the ability to tear to shreds the work of the competition.
Now that might sound extreme and leave you thinking that your song writing friends are different. And they might well be, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you need to be selective when choosing from whom you get feedback. Music is ultimately intensely personal so people will frequently discard your ideas, simply because it doesn’t appeal to them (personally). Their opinion is valid, but ultimately useless for the larger core of your audience.
Secondly, family and close friends are often well meaning, but give feedback than are largely positive, simply because they love you so much, that they can’t seem to find anything wrong with your sincere effort. You might have composed a horrible piece that’s out of tune, overtly complicated and doesn’t seem to carry any kind of an emotional message, but Grandma will still applaud you for it and start spreading the word of her soon-to-be-famous family member.
So, to avoid this kind of thing, I’m including four questions here, as an ending to this article, which might help provide genuine feedback, the kind that will certainly help you improve your music. You’ll note that these questions require listeners to really listen and think of your music, instead of just shrugging it off with ‘Yeah, I liked it.’
(1) Could you identify a hook in the song? In other words, was there a part of the melody, maybe in the chorus, that you thought was catchy enough that it made you want to hear the song again?
(2) Did the lyrics make sense to you? Were there words or phrases that seemed out of place or a little forced? [Listeners usually don’t pay great attention to your lyrics on the first play through, but this question will force them to].
(3) What was the overall emotion that the song evoked with you? [Compare their answer to what you had in mind when you wrote the song].
(4) What was your favorite part of the song? [The greater percentage of lyrics and melody lines your listeners can remember, the more it speaks to the catchiness of the song].
For more on the specifics of writing song lyrics and melody, I recommend you have a look at what I've written on Jamplay.
With dozens of video lessons on song writing, by professional teachers, I highly recommend their series.