Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, Sarah McLachlan, and Elton John — all amazing musicians who are known for playing the piano and writing heartfelt lyrics. Want to try your hand at it? Read on as Helendale, CA teacher Sylvia S. shares her tips for how to write a song on piano…
So you’ve learned to play piano and you’ve created some original sounds. Maybe you’d like to learn how to write a song on piano along with great lyrics, and you’re stumped. You’re not alone. Before one of the most famous songwriters of the 20th century came up with lyrics, one of his beautiful love songs was stuck with the abysmal rhyme “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs.”
Here are some tips to help you get started:
1) Don’t worry if your song doesn’t come together quickly, or even if some inane phrase is stuck in your head. See what you have to begin with. Is it a few chords? Perhaps a melody line? Or is there a nice rhythm you’d like to build upon? Maybe you have a story to tell about love or dancing or something you just want to sing about.
2) Take a good listen to what you like the most about your starting point, and what needs a little help. Notice those parts where words and music come together easily, even if it’s only a short phrase and melody. Jot it down on a piece of paper so you will remember later, and keep a pen and paper where you can reach it quickly at night. Often the perfect rhyme is in your subconscious dreams, so don’t be surprised if you wake up with the answer.
3) What if you have music and no ideas at all for words? Many successful songs are the result of two-person collaborations, where one person writes the music and the other writes the lyrics. Consider taking on a partner for this task, particularly if you know someone who’s good at writing poetry.
4) How about if you don’t have the music for a song yet, and you’re looking for poetry or other songs for inspiration to get things started? Unless the lyrics are in the public domain, it’s a good idea to get permission from the writer, even if you don’t plan to “go public” with your song.
5) On the other hand, public domain poetry is a marvelous and largely untapped resource to use for lyrics, usually with no permission required. I like Public Domain Poems, where I found this great potential song lyric from the poem “Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Shelley: The fountains mingle with the rivers, and the rivers with the oceans. The winds of heaven mix forever with a sweet emotion.
6) Decide what you want the style and speed of your song to be, and also the message you wish to deliver. Is it a love song played slowly atop beautiful harmonies? Or is it a fast-paced dance song, with punchy chords in the right and a deft riff in the left hand? Is your preference a simple country ballad combined with a surprising or humorous observation of life? Maybe you like hip-hop and strong rhythmic motifs shared between the bass and treble?
Whichever style and message you choose, create a diagram for your song. A typical diagram is A-B-A-B. This type of song has two parts:
- The A part, or the story line, is known as the verse. The words of the verse change each time the A-B pattern is repeated, usually as a rhyme that tells a story. The story continues and progresses throughout the song.
- The B part, or the message, is known as the chorus. The words of the chorus are usually easy to remember and stay the same with each A-B repetition. A “hook” is a combination of words and melody that gets stuck in your mind. In some songs, a chorus rhymes, and in other songs it will repeat a strong non-rhyming statement like “I Love You,” or a call to action (like “Celebrate” or “Dance”). Deciding whether or not to rhyme is called “poetic license.”
- In addition to parts A and B, some songs are more complicated, with a C part, or bridge, tossed in the song’s midst for interest.
Now that you have a few parts of your song working well, and you have a diagram to map out the road, it’s time to start writing the rest of the lyrics. Love songs and country ballads can generally have simpler rhymes and more complicated story lines or flowery descriptions. In contrast, dance songs and hip-hop often have complicated rhymes with a simple message. Whether you want to tell a story or show off poetic prowess, a rhyming dictionary is very helpful. I like RhymeZone.
Great songs are not always about interesting story lines or amazing rhymes. Sometimes the rhythm of the words, a simple message and melody, along with very basic rhymes can create a winning combination.
As for that unknown love song about breakfast food, it was magically transformed from mundane to memorable by these everyday words: “yesterday, faraway, here to stay, yesterday.”
Sylvia S. teaches singing, piano, theater acting, and more in Helendale, CA. She comes from a musical family of several generations, and her experience includes playing an electric keyboard and singing vocals in a professional, working band. Learn more about Sylvia here!
Photo by Jaybird