Songwriting Tips – 4 Ways To Become a Better Songwriter
I’m a big fan of songs and songwriting; but, there are so many elements that make up a song: verses, choruses, bridges, ramps, intros, outros, hooks, titles, lyrics, etc. Making it difficult for aspiring songwriters to know where and how to begin.
In this series of articles (4 to be exact), we’re gonna talk about songwriting and I’ll share with you some ideas on how to begin writing your own songs.
We’ll also talk about the creative process which is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a musician. So, whether or not you aspire to be a songwriter, your musicianship can only get better by understanding music from the inside out.
That being said, becoming a songwriter or improving your songwriting is not the easiest endeavor even for the musically inclined. It’s a journey into your soul and an expression of who you are.
Let’s get started.
Part 1: The Anatomy of the Song
Songwriting can be intimidating challenge for many; however, there are some people that have an easier time developing the discipline that comes with tapping into the creativity that it takes for writing songs. Some of the problems that we encounter are:
What to write about?
How do I get past writer's block?
How can I turn this chord progression or riff into a song?
I’ve heard many creative people say that inspiration is a luxury. Maybe it is, but I believe that the creative process is a discipline. Sometimes we need to invite inspiration; by that I mean: develop a routine and dedicate yourself to the process until the the artistic expression begins to kick in. This happens all the time—so, if you want to write songs—put your butt in the chair and get to it.
In Part 1, we’re gonna take a look at all of the elements that make up a song. Once we begin by forensically taking songs apart, we’ll see that many of the same structural forms occur over and over.
All songs begin with an intro by definition. Whatever it is, if it is at the beginning, it is the intro. The intro is the opening section of a piece and it creates suspense or tension.
For example, in the Beatles “Hard Day’s Night,” the opening chord is the intro. Isn’t that rather clever? The intro is one chord.
Vocals usually come in on the first verse. Sometimes it might not be the verse when you first hear the singer, but often it is. The verse is the stanza, or section of poetry, that tells the story. Each verse should have the same music but different lyrics each time it's repeated. This is the part that relates the narrative or describes the feeling.
The pre-chorus or the ramp is sometimes called the build or transitional bridge and usually occurs after the verse. The pre-chorus is used to connect the verse with the chorus (hence it’s name).
The chorus is the big part of the song, the climax where the main point of the song is being presented. This section usually contains a different melody, rhythm, and harmony than the verse. There's usually a higher level of dynamics and can contain the addition of other instruments, more vocal harmonies, etc.
The word chorus typically means that there is more than one person singing (which musically helps drive that point home), but in the case of the solo singer-songwriter, it can also be thought of as the section where everyone just wants to sing along.
The bridge is the departure or new perspective section—a songwriting device and sometimes called the Middle 8 (because it’s commonly an 8-bar section in the middle of the song). It is used to connect two parts of the song (similar to the pre-chorus).
The bridge has different chords than the verse and chorus but doesn't necessarily need to have lyrics like the pre-chorus and can also delay an expected chorus. The bridge is usually a small section of the song that may consist of only music, or both lyrics and music. It generally occurs only once in the song and usually occurs after the second chorus (or after the halfway point).
The outro is the opposite of the intro. Whatever we hear last is the outro. It could be a strong musical period or exclamation point, or perhaps a fade into silence. Regardless of what it is, the outro brings the song to its end and was formally known as the coda or tag.
The title is the name of the song, and it psychologically leads the listener into the song because, in many cases, we know the song’s title before having heard the first note. The song title should never be overlooked or downplayed—it is the handle that people will use to communicate your song and often is the focus of the chorus.
Ultimately, a song is just words and music. Lyrics are the words, whether it is poetic or descriptive.
The hook is the most memorable and touching part of the song. Whether it is a rock, pop or country, a song needs strong hooks to be marketable, remembered and increase the chances of being commercialized.
The hook is found in the song’s chorus and it is highly recommended to put this in the chorus because it will be repeated and increase chances of being remembered or emphasized.
Chords, by definition, are three or more notes played together—and, as guitar players, we’ve certainly spent enough time learning and playing them. However, altering chords and making them tastier or simpler, or just playing them somewhere else on the fretboard adds character to the music.
The chord progression or the sequence of the chords is the most fundamental aspect in the song.
The melody is the tune that the lyrics follow—it’s the part that we hum when we forget the lyrics or the part that you whistle. Lyrics and music meet at the melody; they are supported by the chord progression and sometimes the parts are perfect and a song is born.
Rhythm and groove gives us the mood and feel of our song.
The solo is a section that highlights a musical instrument. It departs from the lyric, but often maintains the melodic idea. This section is designed to feature a guitarist, pianist or other instrumentalist to play over the verse, chorus, etc. or other section. It’s sometimes referred to as an interlude or break.
Related: 50 Easy Guitar Solos
Song Anatomy Wrap-up
I remember my first arranging class at Berklee College of Music. The teacher, Jimmy Kachulis, made us analyze song structure and outline all of the parts of the song. We had to count each measure of each song part and forensically decipher the importance and function of each particular section.
I became a fan of arranging and orchestration that first day of college. I also came to love songwriting and developed an appreciation for the creative process. There is an indescribable feeling to nurturing a lyric, riff, melody, or whatever into a full-blown piece of art. It’s a challenging and rewarding journey.
Part 2: Song Form
Creating a song would be easy if it only involved pouring out our thoughts and feelings, resulting in the perfect aria. Unfortunately, this usually results in chaotic writing that only means something to the person who wrote it. And, the secret to songwriting is creating something personal that people can identify with. That’s why there are so many love songs. Because everyone’s felt love and the joy that comes when boy meets girl and the pain that follows when boy loses girl.
So, as much as you may not like the idea of rules, structure, framework, etc. You can’t build a house without a foundation, walls, windows and doors. And, that’s where song form comes in.
Common Song Forms
The Strophe, or Folk, Form (A)
The oldest song form is called the strophe (or folk) form. It comes from the Greek poetic form. This form has no chorus, or any other part, for that matter. Verses are always labeled as an A section. So, in describing a folk-song form, or any song that has only verses, the song form is AAAA. For example: Church hymns, folk songs and ballads.
“Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix, the spiritual “Amazing Grace” and lots of Bob Dylan songs are good examples of this form.
The 32-Bar Form (AABA)
Sometimes called the AABA form and each section is 8 bars.
This form was introduced during the Tin Pan Alley days of NYC (1885–1940s). “I Got Rhythm” by Gershwin and “Meet the Flintstones” are prime examples of this song form. The A section is usually an 8-bar verse that’s repeated, followed by an 8-bar bridge (or middle 8), ending with another 8-bar verse. The entire 32-bar form is commonly referred to as a chorus (not to be confused with the chorus section of a song).
The Verse/Chorus Form (AB)
A lot of songs these days follow this song form, which includes a chorus. The chorus is labeled B, so a verse, chorus, verse, chorus type of song is ABAB.
This song structure is sometimes called the AB form. The AB form is commonly used in pop music and has been predominant in rock since the ’60s. Examples of this form are “Penny Lane” by the Beatles, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, & “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix.
The Verse/Chorus/Bridge Form (ABC)
Now we come to song forms that include a bridge, which is labeled “C”. So, here’s a simple form with a bridge: AABABCB. This form includes:
Examples of this song form are rock classics like “Long Live Rock” by The Who and modern-day hits like “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele.
Many pop songs use this method. They use a bridge to combine the verse-chorus form with the 32-bar form and create a compound form; for example, ABA plus a bridge plus the AABA form equals a compound form. “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin are examples of this.
The Blues Form
Blues music is the foundation for rock, jazz, and pop music making it one of the most favored chord progressions (I–IV–V) and song forms in popular music.
Once you begin to analyze songs you’ll come across this form in some unexpected places. The most popular of the blues forms is the 12-bar form. It consists of three four-bar phrases and the lyrics create a call-and-response effect during the first two phrases with a conclusion during the third phrase. This is what differs it from the strophe form.
Song Form Wrap-up
You’ll find that there are many variations of these forms. For instance, some songs start with the chorus, some have more than one bridge, etc. If you analyze songs by some of your favorite artists, you’ll uncover all kinds of variations. But most songwriters don’t start writing by coming up with a song form first—this usually reveals itself as the song is being written. It is, however, a quick and easy form of expression to use when discussing the process with other writers and musicians.
Lastly, understanding song form is a fundamental way to further your comprehension of the songwriting craft while improving your musicianship. If you sit down and experiment with different song forms, you may discover all kinds of possibilities that you didn’t know existed before. If you’re stuck in a songwriting rut or, even more importantly, if you’re looking for fresh ideas, then changing song forms can be a way to find some ever-evading inspiration.
Part 3: Lyrics - Painting With Words
When it comes to lyric writing it’s important that the lyrics match the song's mood and feel. In addition, effective lyric writing requires working from a main idea or theme plus knowledge of songwriting structure—which is why we spoke about song forms in the previous article. Also, the theme is usually relevant to the title. Unfortunately, many beginning songwriters ignore these basic principles and wonder why their songs don’t get recognized.
Lyric writing is a huge topic that could take a lifetime to cover. To give you an idea about just how deep this concept is, here are a few topics:
Coming up with a song title
Writing the song lyrics from that title
Symmetrical rhyme schemes
Asymmetrical line schemes
Not only are there many more topics; but, there are writing exercises to go along with all of these. That’s why I’m gonna take you through a quick and painless guide to lyric writing. These are a few writing techniques that can help you keep your writing on track or break writer’s block.
What to Write About
It’s hard to induce inspiration when you don’t know where to start. But here’s the thing: Inspiration can’t do everything for you. You have to get out of bed and put pen to paper.
I struggle with writer’s block just like everybody else but there are a few things that I’ve learned over the years to help me get started. First, I ask myself, “What do I want to write about?” And, if nothing is coming to me then I use these three exercises:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these concepts.
Write about something, an object: a car, a plane, a black leather jacket, whatever. Be as descriptive as you can. The car and the plane tell you nothing, but the jacket is black (rebellious) and leather (cool) or whatever a black leather jacket means to you. The point is that I’m aiming to paint a picture in your head.
Write about a place, an island, home, a hotel (Hotel California), a brothel (House of the Rising Sun), you get the idea. And, again, be as descriptive as you can. A dark, deserted highway and a cool breeze blowing through your hair. The description takes you someplace and makes you feel something. Cool wind can describe anything from a relaxing feeling to freedom. The lyric is so powerful that is can mean one thing to the writer and another thing to the listener.
Feelings! We all have them. But feelings and emotions are meant to be felt not described. That’s why it’s so difficult to describe them. Hey, it’s even difficult to feel them sometimes especially when they’re sad, like a broken heart or loneliness. And, if you can be fearless and examine your own feelings and learn how to describe them in a song... That’s what we, as songwriters, are chasing and listeners are yearning for. Not to mention the gratifying feeling of being able to say something that everybody has a hard time feeling let alone describing.
Descriptions, you need to become an adjective ninja. Let’s take a look at some descriptions of cars, some of these I’m making up and others are actually from real songs:
slick black cadillac
gleaming alloy air car
she’s got hubcap, diamond-starred halos
little red corvette
Alright, none of them were made up. They all come from songs and half of them are the song’s title. So, work on those adjectives. They help paint pictures in the listener’s head so that they see what you see.
Verbs are the action, they describe what’s going on. Let’s look at some examples again:
Walk: wander, stroll, march, step, strut, shuffle
Put: lay, set, store, place, plant, fix
Say: utter, breathe, blurt, pronounce, stammer, stutter, mouth, jabber, muffle
Shine: glint, glare, sparkle, radiate, shimmer, flash, blaze, beam, flicker
Realize: discover, find, determine, unravel, interpret, unearth, disclose, recognize
Try to find as many different ways of saying or describing the same thing—and, download a dictionary/thesaurus app.
Ask yourself specific questions:
What are you standing or sitting on?
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What around you is moving?
What do you hear?
What clothes, jewelry, and hairstyle are you wearing?
What are you feeling?
These are great questions for breaking writer’s block.
Generics vs. Specifics
Compare your verbs, nouns, and adjectives. If you find duplicates, you may not be getting specific enough. You also want to make sure that you’re not getting too specific where you’re losing the listener in the minute details.
External vs. Internal
External details are words and phrases that describe what is going on around your main character. Internal details are words and phrases that describe what is going on within the heart and mind of your character.
Bruce Springsteen recalled in an interview that, as a teenager, he was at a party and stole away into an upstairs bedroom with his notebook to work on a verse until the sun came up. That’s being dedicated to your craft. In that same interview, he also mentions a lyric from a Chuck Berry song, “Nadine”. He then remarks that he’d never actually set his eyes on a coffee-colored cadillac, but, knew exactly what it looked like.
Lyrics speak to us in different ways and there’s a certain magic that’s attached to the creator of a few choice words and phrases. There is no shortcut to developing the craft of lyric writing. Some are born with an innate ability to weave words and phrases together while others struggle to create a simple rhyming scheme (let alone have it mean something). In either case, they still have to work at it just like Bruce
I hope that this article has shed some insight and offered a different perspective on the lyrics to your favorite songs. I now leave you with a favorite lyric of mine that always leaves me somewhat bewildered: “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care…”
Part 4: Using Chords To Write Songs
Sometimes just strumming a few chords together will inspire some great song ideas. You may find a chord progression that inspires a melody, then add a few lyrics and a song is born. Yes, it still may need some attention and care to get it to the point where it’s finished, but at least you’re off to a running start.
Now, let’s say that you know a bunch of chords and want to try your hand at writing songs. In this article, we’re gonna take a look at a few chord progressions that could serve a springboard for your next song idea. And, that’s the goal, to get a song started. Once the idea is born, take your time and let it develop. Songs have a way of letting you know which direction it is that they want to go and when they’re done.
Here are 15 chord progressions that will give you much to think about as you come up with different ideas for songs. I’ve written them mostly in the key of G, but I encourage you to transpose them to different keys—especially for those of you that are comfortable singing.
Try different tempos
Use variations on strumming patterns
Cycle through the progression a few times and letting it wash over you
Create your own arpeggio patterns
Use your fingers instead of a pick
There are no rules, do whatever you feel
And, don’t forget that this is suppose to be fun
Ex. 1 I-V-vi-IV (G-D-Em-C) Progression
Ex. 2 I-vi-ii-V (G-Em-Am-D) Progression
Ex. 3 IV-iii-ii-I (C-Bm-Am-G) Progression
Ex. 4 ii-V-I-IV (Am-D-G-C) Progression
Ex. 5 I-Imaj7-I7-IV (G-Gmaj7-G7-C) Progression
Ex. 6 iii-vi-ii-V (Bm-Em-Am-D) Progression
Ex. 7 I-vi-iii-IV (G-Em-Bm-C) Progression
Ex. 8 I-IV-V-I (G-C-D-G) Progression
Ex. 9 I-ii-iii-IV (G-Am-Bm-C) Progression
Ex. 10 vi-V-VI (Em-D-C) Progression
Ex. 11 i-bVII-bVI-V (Am-G-F-E) Progression
Ex. 12 I-iii-IV-V (G-Bm-C-D) Progression
Ex. 13 vi-ii-V-I-IV-iv-I (Em-Am-D-G-C-Cm-G) Progression
Ex. 14 I-II-V-I (G-A-D-G) Progression
Ex. 15 I-bVII-IV (G-F-C) Progression
Some songwriters begin with a melody while others begin with a lyric. I’ve found that many guitar players prefer strumming a few chords to get their inspiration and creativity flowing. Some of these progressions will inspire full songs while others will be useful for a section that will help keep the song moving or provide the missing piece.
As you chord vocabulary increases, so will your song ideas. I encourage you to enjoy the journey of discovering your own voice while you create your own music.