Writing a song may seem like a daunting task when you first sit down to do it but it’s a bit easier than you think. A song is basically a story and humans are drawn to stories. We’ve spent our whole lives being inundated with stories, in the form of books, jokes, movies, television and, yes, even songs. Most music, be it instrumental or lyrical base, has a tale to tell. From the old Delta Blues to Rock N Roll and Pop and all the way up through Rap, all good songs tell a story. Some artists are better at hiding it but it’s all stories.
Now, how is this done? Well, you need a melody (the chords) and a hook (generally the chorus—a bad chorus can kill a song but a good chorus can uplift an otherwise mundane song). Learn these chords: G C D. Literally hundreds of hit songs have been been written with these simple chords. Sure, an Em or an Am is tossed in from time to time, but for the most part you can never go wrong with G C D.
Don’t believe me? Give a listen to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, ZZ Top’s Tush, Sweet Home Alabama (hidden because of single note picking, but the base chords are G C D), Man on the Moon by REM, Let Her Cry by Hootie and the Blowfish, and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire all use this progression. It’s an unstoppable combination.
Now, you can either construct a song with the lyrics first and then adding the music, or come up with a nice melody and add lyrics later. I use the latter option because I’m a guitar player but either way is valid. You just have to find a way that works for you.
Some like to start with the hook (the chorus) and that’s a pretty nice starting point. Focusing on just the three chords above (say them with me, G C D) start playing them using different rhythms. Start with a simple 4/4 time and play the chords using whole notes. Then switch it up a bit and go for half notes and then quarter notes. Mix them together, half to quarter to whole back to half then to whole again. Keep this up until you find a pleasing mix of chords and rhythm. Hum along as you play to give yourself an idea of what the chorus will sound like with vocals.
And the best thing about starting with the hook? You are actually starting at the beginning of the story (there’s that word again) since musically the chorus is a mirror image of the intro to the song in popular music. So, once you get your hook down half the song is already written. Neat, huh?
The main verses are generally a stripped down model of the hook, using mainly the same progression. sometimes even dropping one of the chords for the sake of simplicity. You may also want to alternate the rhythm during the verse phase, that way when you get to the chorus it appears bigger and more important.
Look at how Jim Steinman (Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart AND Holding Out For Hero) structures a song. That part at the beginning of this article about telling a story? Steinman doesn’t hide it at in the least. He wears it proudly and displays it for all to see. His verses are the meat of the story, telling the listener what is going on, and they build to these HUGE choruses that are chock full of angst and emotion. All of his songs use a basic three act structure, like movies and stage plays. And they all tell a story, even the music.
Lyrically, you can go in a couple different directions. Some writers like to use a poetry format (Jim Morrison) with lots of imagery and entendre. Others like to go straightforward and weave a tale (Jim Steinman), where there is little doubt what the song means. The point is, it doesn’t matter because they all do the same thing: tell a story. And that’s where your lyrics can really shine.
Worried about coming up with words that rhyme? Don’t. You can use words that sounds similar but actually sound alike. Instead of constantly trying for things like “sun” and “none”, go for “sun” and “come”. It gives your lyrics a better flow and doesn’t sound like you sat around with a thesaurus looking for synonyms that rhyme perfectly. And we’ve all heard songs like that and they are usually flat, with no sense of surprise or drama.
How do you come up with lyrics? That’s entirely personal. Want to write a song that describes how it feels to be in love? Well, brainstorm on a sheet of paper and put yourself in that mindset. Who is it? Why do you like them and how do they make you feel? And you can go straight forward and explain through the verses how the object of your desire makes your heart skip a beat or your can use your words to tell one story which can also be applied to something else. A great example of this is Deep Purple’s Highway Star. On the surface it sounds like a song about a car but the subtext is that he is also talking about a girl. It’s a great little trick that can be used to describe an unrequited love, a day at the beach, anything really. It’s all up to you.
Now, add all these elements together (hook, rhythm, chorus,and lyrics) and you have a song. It really is that simple. Play around with those three chords (G C D), tell a story of some kind lyrically, and you’re ready to hit any party with your keyboard or guitar and entertain the masses. Most important, though, is to have fun with it.