Intro to Songwriting: How to Write a Song for Beginners

How to Write a Song for Beginners

Looking for information about how to write a song? If you’ve already tried your hand at songwriting, you probably know how amazing it feels to create your own music and express yourself through lyrics, chords, and melodies!

As you learn how to write songs, you may notice that every tutorial is a bit different. That’s normal, as the process of writing music is different for everyone! Some write the lyrics first, some the chord progression, and others a melody. Some might start with a title and build from there and others may start with an emotion or a personal event that they want to share through the art of song. All of these methods are perfect for writing songs.

As we share our tips on how to write a song for beginners, feel free to skip around to different sections as you see fit. Find whatever gets you “into the flow” of your artistic self, and go from there!

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  • Find Your Inspiration

    Set up your surroundings, gather your materials and songwriting tools, and make sure your recorder is handy!

  • Think About Your Song’s Structure

    Analyze the structures of your favorite songs, and determine which structure you’d like for your own song.

  • Write Your Lyrics

    Think about your theme or the message you want to get across, and start writing!

  • Write the Melody and Chords

    Grab your recorder and experiment with different melodies, chords, and chord progressions, until one feels right.

  • Write Your Song’s Title

    Consider using the “hook” or repeated words as the title, or simply a description of the song as a whole.

  • Finishing Touches

    Set it aside, refine it, perform it, record it!

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Finding Inspiration to Write a Song

First things first: set your surroundings up for songwriting, since ideas can come to you at any time!

You’ll want to get those ideas committed to paper, a computer, or voice recorder as soon as possible, so keep good quality pens in your home, work environment, and car.

Know how to get to your phone’s recorder quickly — you can sing a melodic idea or say your lyrical idea and save it for a later time. And always have blank notebooks or journals around — even a one-word title is worth writing down, so that you don’t forget what it was later on.

You’ll also want:

  • A dictionary — this will give you the precise meaning of any word you use. You’ll want to choose your words carefully to get the emotional response that you feel for your song.
  • A rhyming dictionary — this will help you think of possible rhymes to use with any word. Many songs use rhymes at the ends of the even lines of the verses.
  • A thesaurus — this will help you find alternate words to use, particularly to substitute a more interesting word for words that are too common, like “pretty,” “sad,” or “nice.”

Exercise for writing songs

It’s time to get inspired! No one in music is an island. Everyone is influenced by different singers, songwriters, guitarists, composers, instrumentalists, and so on. To find your own inspiration, make a list of some of the musicians and songs that have meaning for you. It can be any style!

If you have a CD player or MP3 player in your car, keep a playlist of inspirational tunes to keep yourself continually inspired. Work out with your favorite songs at the gym. Buy an alarm clock that wakes you up with your favorite music!

Play music as you begin your daily routine of making coffee, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed. Drift off to music as you go to sleep. And definitely blast some great songs as you wash dishes, fold laundry, or do other mundane chores!

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Determine Your Song’s Structure

By analyzing songs you enjoy, you can get an idea of some of the different structures that you can use. And as you learn to write songs, you can play around with different types of song structures until you find the best possible match.

Song Structure – Example One

The simplest structure is that in which there is only one type of lyric, the verse (we call it “A”).

The classic Gershwin tune “Summertime” has an A-A structure, with only two verses (although some singers repeat either the first verse or both verses).

Check out the video to the right to listen to the Norah Jones/Marian McPartland version.

Song Structure – Example Two

Songs with both verses and choruses have two types of lyrics — we call the verse “A” and the chorus “B.”

The famous Bob Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” has this type of structure – A-B-A-B-A-B.

Watch Peter, Paul, and Mary performing the tune below.

Song Structure – Example Three

Other songs are more complex. They may have verses, choruses, and a bridge (which we call “C”).

The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” is one of these songs — its structure is A-B-A-B-C-A-B.

Listen to it here:

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How to Write Lyrics

As you write your lyrics, keep in mind that there’s no right way to get started! You might already have a few words that you’ve written down, a story or message you want to get across, or perhaps even the full chorus figured out.

Wherever you start, it can be helpful at some point to describe the entire scope of your song in a single sentence at the top of your lyric writing page. This will help you stay focused. For “Ticket to Ride,” for example, the sentence could be “My girlfriend is moving away from me and I am sad, but she doesn’t care.”

A song is a very short form of art, so it is essential to tie it together with just one idea. If you have too many ideas, break them apart and write a different song for each idea that you have instead of trying to pile too much into one song.

And remember: you don’t have to create an entire song in one sitting — you could just create one verse or one chorus and keep coming back to add more lyrics as you become inspired.

Check out the articles linked below and to the right for more tips about how to write lyrics.

Feeling stuck? Take a look at these 25 prompts for songwriting!

» LEARN HOW TO WRITE A SONG: a step-by-step guide via Songwriting Tips & Inspiration with Robin Frederick

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Writing the Melody and Chords

As you experiment with different melodies and chords, this is a perfect time to use some sort of recorder on your phone or on your computer. Try simply singing your lyrics in different ways at least three times, then listen back to your recording and see if you have any keepers.

You could also start with some chords instead. Play some chord progressions on guitar or piano and record those. Then try out some melodies against those chords using your lyrics, if you have those ready.

Or you could try both chords and melodies at the same time. Again, it’s a great idea to record your experiments so you can really fine-tune which melodies and chords are working and which ones could be tweaked to your satisfaction.

Exercise for writing songs

If you are having trouble coming up with a chord progression, you could always “borrow” one from another song. Choose a song in a similar style and tempo to yours and combine the chords with your own lyrics.

For an example, if you are writing a folk song, you can “borrow” the chords to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which has a chorus of Bb – C- F – Dm.

You can use any portion of these chords that works for you. Just make sure that you don’t copy the actual melody of your borrowed tune. Song melodies are protected by copyright law, but chord progressions are not, so you can borrow chord progressions any time you like.

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Writing Your Song’s Title

Of course, your song needs a great title! Many songwriters use the “hook” or repeated words from the chorus as the title of the song. That is true in both “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ticket to Ride.”

With “Summertime,” there is no chorus, but the word “summertime” is the first thing you hear in the song and it makes a lasting impression as the title.

Other songs use a descriptive term as the title that is not contained in the lyrics at all. The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is an example of this type of title.

Check out the video to the right and really listen to the lyrics to see why that song title was chosen.

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How to Write a Song for Beginners: Final Steps

Once you’ve finished your song, set it aside for a few days and don’t think about. When you come back to it with fresh eyes and ears, you’ll be able to identify lyrics that need tweaking, chords that need adjusting, or other small details to really make the song pop.

After that, consider testing your songs out live! Performing in front of others — whether at an open mic night or simply in front of your music teacher — can help you get the kinks out. (Feeling nervous about that? You’re not alone. Check out our guide to overcoming stage fright for tips!)

Another great idea is to record your song. To do this, you’ll first need to decide if you want to book a session in a recording studio or take a stab at recording in a home studio with the equipment you have. With technology today, it’s easy to record your own songs with the right software and a quality microphone.

Not a singer or performer? There are still lots of options available to get your work produced. Check out Tunedly for example. The tool allows you to connect with professional musicians to create quality songs suitable for placement opportunities.

Having a recording of your song, even if it is just a demo, will open many doors, especially if you want to become a singer-songwriter. You can publish your song on YouTube, iTunes, or Soundcloud so potential fans, other artists, and established people in the music business can have access to your songs.

Finally, if you’re really feeling confident with your song, consider entering a songwriting contest! There are tons of options — we’ve rounded up several below. Good luck, and have fun!

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Songwriting and Singer-Songwriter Contests

John Lennon Songwriting Contest

  • Prize: $20,000 cash + other incentives for first place winner, with prizes for runners-up as well.
  • Details: Open to amateur and professional songwriters who submit entries in any one of 12 categories. Entry requires the following elements: one song 5 minutes or less, lyrics sheet, $30 payment, completed application.

International Acoustic Music Awards

  • Prize: $11,000 worth of merchandise for Grand Prize Winner, with first place winners in each category winning $900 worth of merchandise and services. Runner-up prizes in all categories receive $600 worth of merchandise and services. All first prizes and runner-up winners will receive a track on IAMA compilation CD, which goes out to radio stations.
  • Details: Open to all amateur and professional musicians/songwriters. Each entry must include a completed entry form, CD containing one song, lyric sheet, and $35 payment.

International Songwriting Competition

  • Prize: 68 winners (one in each category) will share in the cash and prizes totaling over $150,000.
  • Details: Amateur and professional songwriters and musicians are invited to participate, with a $35 payment required to enter . You can enter as many times as you want.

The Great American Song Contest

  • Prize: The Grand Prize Winner receives $1000 in cash, along with a many other extra incentives. A total of 50 awards will be given to the top five in each of the 10 categories. All participating songwriters also receive written evaluations of their songs from the contest judges.
  • Details: An entry fee of $30 is required for each entered song. After the first two entries, the entry fee drops to $25 for each additional song. This annual event is designed for amateur and semi-pro songwriters only. Individuals who earn over $10,000 annually from song publishing royalties are not eligible.

American Songwriter Lyric Contest

  • Prize: The first place winner receives a Gibson SJ-100 Walnut guitar and a Shure SM58 microphone. Three runners-up and 10 honorable mentions will be published in an issue of American Songwriter.
  • Details: The contest is open to any amateur songwriter. American Songwriter defines an amateur as a songwriter who has not earned more than $5000 from songwriting related royalties, advances, or works for hire. You may enter as many entries as you like but each entry requires a $15 fee.

West Coast Songwriters

  • Prize: Prizes include a grand prize of an acoustic/electric guitar, conference pass, and hotel accommodations
  • Details: Entry requires a CD with one song only, 5 minutes or less in length, along with a lyric sheet, and $20 entry fee

Chris Austin Songwriting Contest

  • Prize: The first place winner receives $500, a performance on the Cabin Stage at Merlefest, and a few other prizes. Second and third place winners receive similar prizes with lower value.
  • Details: The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is open to those whose primary source of income (50% or more) is not derived from songwriting or publishing. The entry fee is $30.

America’s Songwriting Contest

  • Prize: Over $25,000 in prizes will be awarded to winners; see website for more details.
  • Details: Entry fee starts at $25 and increases by $10 every few months. You may also choose to enter into more than one category for an additional fee of $10 per category.

The Search for the Next Great American Songwriter

  • Prize: The Grand Prize winner will receive $25,000 in cash, a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and other incentives. Five finalists will win a trip to Los Angeles, including airfare, hotel, transportation, and a cash stipend in order to perform live in the city. 
  • Details: Participants must be at least 16 years old and live in the U.S. Entries must be submitted via video.

Global Songwriting Contest

  • Prize: The Grand Prize winner receives $10,000 in cash and a publication of the winning song in Promo Buzz Media Base for one year. The second and third place winners receive the same prize but with lower cash values.
  • Details: Participants need a lyric sheet, MP3 recording, and $25 entry fee to enter. This competition is open to all amateur and professional songwriters of all ages.

Songdoor International Songwriting Competition

  • Prize: The Grand Prize Winner receives a single-song publishing contract, an Alvarez acoustic guitar with gig bag, a SongU membership, and many others incentives. Six category winners also receive prizes. You’ll receive three free songwriting tools (worth $220) just for entering.
  • Details: This contest is open to amateurs and professionals, ages 16+. The entry fee is $10.

SongwriterUniverse “Best Song of the Month” Contest

  • Prize: An interview and feature article in the SongwriterUniverse online magazine, along with additional shout-outs
  • Details: Submit your song via MP3 or send in your CD via mail.

The USA Songwriting Competition

  • Prize: Grand prize of $50,000 in cash and merchandise
  • Details: Submissions require a CD or audio cassette containing one song, 5 minutes or less, lyric sheet, and $35 entry fee.

*Details about these songwriting contests were gathered from the contests’ official websites as of November 2015. Check their websites for more up-to-date information!

Post Contributor

GfirePost Author: Gfire M.
Gfire teaches music theory, opera voice, piano, singing, and songwriting in Austin, TX. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Music from University of Maryland, as well as her Master of the Science of Singing from Ernest George White Society. Learn more about Gfire here!