For independent artists, music production can feel like an uphill battle. For many up-and-coming musicians, it’s the songwriting stage that proves to be the most challenging. For those who’ve never written a song before, melodies and rhyming patterns can seem like alien concepts. However, it’s the personal element that often makes songwriting such a daunting prospect. Committing your innermost thoughts to lyrics calls for a certain amount of emotional vulnerability. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s essential if you want to craft compelling and authentic music.
You can of course turn to others to write lyrics for or limit yourself to performing cover versions of other artist’s material. However, songwriting can be incredibly lucrative. Industry heavyweights like Paul McCartney and Andrew Lloyd Webber have amassed personal fortunes of $1.2 billion apiece. In 2023, singer-songwriter Justin Bieber sold his back catalog for a reported $200 million.
Starting to see the appeal of writing your own lyrics? Read on for some essential songwriting tips and how you can apply music theory to crafting killer lyrics.
The Foundations of Songwriting
You’ll never be successful at songwriting without some inspiration. For some people, getting into a creative mindset is easy enough. Others need a helping hand to get those creative juices flowing.
Rather than waiting for the muse to strike, be more proactive. One of the simplest ways of supercharging your songwriting efforts is to consume great music. If you’re keen to tap into current trends, scour the charts or see what tracks are currently making waves on social platforms like TikTok.
Beginner musicians who pride themselves on authenticity will want to take a different approach. It makes sense to stick to your favored genre, but don’t be afraid to dip into other ones. Classical music has long influenced chorus structure, while many rock artists look to this genre for chord structure inspiration.
As well as experimenting with different genres, delve back into the music archives. Genres are constantly in flux, with musical styles changing massively over the years. All of them are valuable and can inform the creative songwriting process.
Observation and Idea Generation
An insatiable appetite for music is rarely enough to kickstart the lyric writing process. Even the most prolific artists need a nudge in the right direction. When you’re stuck for ideas, there are a few useful exercises you can try.
Think about rewriting a favorite and see what ideas you can spin out from this. Struggling to settle on a topic for a track? Turn to the news for inspiration. If you want to create a more personal music composition, your lyrics should come from your own observations. Mindfulness exercises can be useful here.
You probably already have a treasure trove of material you can reference for ideas. Do you keep a journal? Dive back into the pages of your diary for inspiration. If it’s been a while since you’ve put pen to paper, you can even turn to text exchanges or social media messages for ideas.
Understanding Basic Music Theory
If you want to know how to write a song, you need to have a handle on music theory. It’s a fairly broad concept that seems daunting to the uninitiated. However, emerging musicians looking to start their career need to use it if they’re serious about crafting compelling tracks.
Once the core elements of music are scales. These are the foundation for melody creation. Scales are ordered sequences of notes, with different patterns producing wildly different results. This can dramatically alter the mood of a track and help shape the entire identity of a song.
Chords are another key pillar of music theory. A chord is any combination of two or more notes played simultaneously. However, most chords are consistent with three notes. The start note, better known as the root, forms the basis of everything. To the listener, chords aren’t immediately obvious, but they’re crucial for providing space for a song’s melody.
Chord or harmonic progressions are a succession of two or more chords. Every track should include at least one chord progression. However, most songs tend to include a minimum of two or three. The type of progressions you use ultimately depends on the style of music you’re looking to write and perform.
Crafting Engaging Lyrics
Authenticity is important when it comes to songwriting. If you want to spark an emotional connection with listeners, your lyrics need to tell a story. One of the easiest ways to craft a compelling narrative is to write from your own experience.
However, writing what you know doesn’t always yield great results. Many budding songwriters overthink lyrics. It’s tempting to get too poetic or include abstract language in an attempt to elevate a song. In many cases, it’s best to maintain a conversational style when crafting your lyrics. This is more likely to connect with listeners and engage them with relatable experiences.
Exploring Different Lyric Writing Techniques
If the casual and conversational approach isn’t working for you, there are other writing techniques you can try. Turn to a rhyme scheme to bring pattern and structure to your songs.
Four-line rhyme schemes are commonplace in music. It’s a tried and tested approach that you can use frequently, without your material sounding too repetitive. Start by experimenting with the AABB rhyme scheme. Here, the final word of the first and second and third, and fourth lines rhyme. Alternatively, try ABAB with the first and third, and second and fourth final words rhyming.
You can even explore the AAAA option. Better known as the monorhyme scheme, it’s a popular choice within rap genres but can be used to great effect in just about any genre.
Metaphors, Similes, and Imagery
If you prefer a more poetic approach to storytelling, you’ll need to master metaphors. With a high-impact metaphor, you can intensify your song lyrics and forge stronger emotional connections with listeners. However, you need to be wary when using them. If you’ve used a great metaphor to describe one in a particular verse, don’t confuse things by using a different one a few lines later.
Similes are another powerful tool for turning your lyrics into something really special. Using similes is pretty straightforward. You’re simply comparing one thing to another. The right pairing can make a real impact and result in lyrics that listeners are thinking about longer after a song ends. When choosing a simile, try and avoid the usual cliches. Writing a love song? Roses and sunshine have been done to death.
If you want to approach things with more subtlety, you can lean on imagery. It’s one of the most evocative tools lyricists have at their disposal. When crafting lyrics, aim to engage the listener with words that will trigger their senses.
Catchy Hooks and Captivating Choruses
If you want your song to be memorable, it needs a catchy hook. This can be as simple as a killer title for your track. If you’ve thought you’ve found the perfect hook, make sure it’s peppered throughout your lyrics. It should enjoy prominence throughout your track. Try and incorporate it into the opening and final lines of your song, as well as the chorus. The more the hook is repeated, the more meaning listeners will attach to it.
A good song also needs a great chorus. For many music lovers, it’s anticipation for a catchy chorus that encourages them to keep listening. The best choruses tend to be succinct and memorable. Even if a listener doesn’t know the rest of your lyrics by heart, they’ll probably be word-perfect when singing along to the chorus.
While choruses should be synergistic with the rest of your track, it’s a good idea to give them some individuality. Consider switching rhythm as you move from verse to chorus.
Developing Melodies and Harmonies
A melody is what makes your track memorable, with this sequence of notes cementing song structure. However, those new to songwriting can find melody creation a challenge. Most melodies are made up of at least one melodic phrase that’s repeated throughout a song. Melodies can be based on scales, with minor and major scales including at least seven notes. However, five-note scales are the standard in many pop songs.
Other artists base melodies on chord changes, while monorhyme patterns can also be used to create melodies for hip-hop and dance tracks. As with the larger song, a great melody needs to have a defined start, climatic point, and a clear conclusion. They also need to be snappy, with catchy hooks and repeated words.
Understanding Harmonic Progressions
If you’re providing your own instrumental, you can use chord progression to enhance melodies. Once you’ve decided on the notes you want to use, you can create a minor or major chord sequence. When in doubt, experiment with basic chord progressions.
Using harmonic tension and release can be an effective way to enhance your melodies. Tension creates anticipation that can trigger an emotional reaction in the listener, while release brings resolution and relief.
Even the most laid-back lyrics incorporate tension and release. Repetition is an easy way to achieve it, Using the same notes or chords creates a predictable pattern, while a chord change can break this rhythm repetition.
Dissonance is another way of bringing in harmonic tension. Here, you can use unlikely note pairings to create tension and raise the stakes. The release arrives when harmony is restored.
Structuring Your Songs
Understanding structure is a fundamental part of songwriting. Every song is made up of different sections, with most songs constructed of six individual elements.
Firstly, there’s the intro. This should include the hook of your song. Generally speaking, intros are delivered in low-key and are slower than the rest of the song. However, they’re useful for establishing melody, rhythm, and tempo.
Verses are the real meat of your song. Here you tell your story. Subsequent verses build on the story, although it’s not uncommon for later verses to subvert expectations.
The chorus is the key selling feature of any song. It should reinforce the meaning of your track. Most choruses tend to refer back to the hook or title of a song. It’s also typically the catchiest element. Some songs also include a pre-chorus. These can be handy for creating a smoother transition from verse to chorus. They’re also useful for building anticipation.
The bridge comes into play later on. Usually, it’s introduced somewhere after the second chorus. The bridge alters the pace of a track, marking a change in lyrics and melody.
Finally, there’s the outro. Here, you need to signify to the listener that a song is coming to its conclusion. Some lyricists choose to refer back to the intro. Others might opt to slow things down and build toward a cold ending. Others might choose to cap things off with a final chorus and build toward a fade-out.
Popular Song Structures
If you need some guidance on structuring a song, take your inspiration from what’s topping the charts today. Most pop music uses a verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure. However, this approach is pretty rudimentary. If you want to add some variance and avoid repetition, consider a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure.
Sometimes, minor changes can make a massive impact. If your song isn’t quite making the impression you’d hoped, experiment with pre-choruses. A verse/pre-chorus/chorus/verse/pre-chorus/chorus structure can be very effective if you’re looking to up the tension.
Less common is the verse/verse/bridge/verse structure. Although this structure doesn’t incorporate a chorus, each verse does close off with a refrain. While this approach has fallen out of favor in recent years, it can still be fruitful. However, you’ll need to put a lot of effort into creating a captivating melody and avoiding repetition.
Crafting Cohesive Song Arrangements
Nailing lyrics is one thing, but arrangement is just as important if you want your final track to make the right impression. Dynamics can be useful here. Transitioning from a restrained verse to an energetic chorus can work incredibly well.
Furthermore, don’t be overly concerned with repetition. In fact, it can be leveraged to your advantage. In moderation, repetition can enhance a melody. However, it’s a balancing act. Play around with subtle variations or turn to different instruments to mix things up.
Polishing and Refining Your Songs
You’re now ready to enter the next phase of songwriting. Many artists have made bold claims about songs that have been written in mere minutes. However, most of us need to return to the drawing board before a song is ready to go.
How do those lyrics really land? If the lyrics in front of you aren’t cohesive or fail to capture your intended message, you’ll need to come at things from a different angle. Sometimes, the songwriting process produces an entirely different result from what you were planning. This can often deliver happy accidents and generate new ideas. Don’t be afraid to abandon your initial plans and pursue new avenues.
If your song is fairly tight, focus on punching it up instead. Are those metaphors as strong as they can be? Will your lyrics benefit from some more evocative similes? Now’s the time to polish those elements.
Ask For Feedback
Before you start rehearsing a song and performing it in front of a live audience, it’s a good idea to test the waters with someone you trust. Ask friends or family what they think of your material. If your song goes way over their heads, you'll probably need to retool some aspects.
If you’re after deeper insights, seek out the opinion of fellow musicians. They’ll be able to give you more valuable feedback on how to fine-tune lyrics, enhance melodies, or experiment with new arrangements. It’s also worth collaborating with other artists. If your songwriting has hit a brick wall, you might discover you work best as one half a writing partnership.
Promoting and Showcasing Your Songs
Now you’ve written and produced your music, it’s time to start sharing it with the world. To start building an audience, you need to ensure you have a strong online presence. An artist website is an absolute must. Not only will this serve as an introduction to you for listeners, it can be used as a calling card for industry professionals as your career takes shape. It’s also a key part of your branding as an artist. If you want to share the process behind your songwriting, it’s also worth investing time and effort into a blog.
In order to promote your music, you’ll also need to be active on social media platforms. Most independent musicians maintain at least two or three social channels. TikTok promotion is becoming increasingly important for emerging artists looking to go viral. However, you’ll also want to use Twitter for connecting with fans and YouTube for hosting video content.
Live performance is a key stepping stone in the career of any independent artist. It’s also the perfect environment for seeing how well an audience actually connects with your music.
You shouldn’t struggle to secure a spot at an open mic night. Most of the time, you’ll be limited to a tight setlist. However, this might work for emerging artists with relatively few tracks in their catalog. Talent shows can also bring instant exposure, but some are more credible than others.
Ultimately, your goal should be securing live gigging opportunities. Reach out to local live venues, booking agents, and pursue support opportunities with more established bands and artists.
Once you’ve secured a spot, make an effort to connect with your audience. This means engaging them with insights about you as an artist, your process, and what the songs you’re about to sing mean to you.
Start Writing Songs Today
Writer’s block is a temporary hindrance, not an impossible obstacle. If you’re struggling to get started with songwriting, listen to other artists, explore new genres, and investigate different eras of music. Try different idea generation exercises when you’re particularly stuck. Rewriting existing material can prove fruitful, while personal journals are ripe for the picking if you’re looking to craft lyrics that are as authentic as possible.
None of this matters if you don’t have a handle on music theory. This will inform all of your future songwriting efforts. An understanding of chords, melody creation, and harmonic progression will make it easier for you to shape stellar songs.
No matter how long you spend crafting a song, there’s always a chance you’ll need to head back to the drawing board. Don’t be delicate when it comes to reworking lyrics and playing around with arrangements. It’s also worth asking for feedback to expedite the process. For the best insights, turn to fellow musicians for songwriting tips.
When you’ve finally nailed those lyrics, you can start showcasing your song. Make sure you’re active on social media so you can start promoting your material online. However, you’ll get a real feel for how well a song is landing when performing it in front of a live audience.