by Brenna Liebold
Songwriting transitions seamlessly from writing poetry. Poetic meter, or rhythm created by the natural emphasis of words and syllables in speech, easily translates into music. In the present article, I'll lay out precisely how to turn your thoughts into music. My approach requires no previous experience or musical training.
At the age of ten or twelve, I began writing songs and poems. The activity inspired a lifelong passion for singing and songwriting. In fact, I'll make a first-time confession here. Back in middle school, I sent a cassette tape recording of one of my songs to Virgin Records, the recording company of my favorite singer at that time. They included the address of the company on cassette tape jackets back then!
Although I didn't grow up to find fame or fortune as a professional songwriter, I do use the skill often as a music therapist and teacher. Seeing others write the songs that reflect their unique experiences, wisdom, thoughts, and emotions thrills me to no end. The relief they experience in subduing monkey-mind chatter (an endless thought cycle that leads nowhere while depleting energy and focus) also sends their confidence sky-high.
I intend to bust the long-standing myth that writing a song requires a certain level of musical experience. Songwriting for personal expression requires more self-awareness than training or talent. By the end of this article, you'll possess every tool and skill needed to write a song.
What you Gain from Songwriting
A song takes shape through a process of layering rhythm (poetry), pitch (melody), and your message. Despite the time commitment, it deserves attention as a stress management tool for
In teaching others to write songs, I've observed anecdotal rewards as well. Unfortunately, research struggles to measure them due to their subjective nature. Songwriting turns ugly emotions into beauty and makes uncomfortable situations tolerable.
When you sit with your emotions, you must acknowledge them. Saying, "Hey I see you there," marks the first step toward accepting feelings. Songwriting opens the door to the rest of the steps. Instead of pushing these feelings AWAY, songwriting pushes INTO them. Working with them alters your perception of their effects, granting you power over them. Given adequate time and constructive attention, acceptance transforms into resolution.
Songwriting also prompts a self-propelled shift toward positive emotions through the music itself. When thoughts begin to shift, the music you create shifts as well. This further fuels the gradual metamorphosis from heavier emotions to lighter ones. Hear this phenomenon, known as the iso principle, reproduced in the playlist below. Play the three songs in the order they appear to experience the mood change. Then, go back and listen to the first track again. Note the dramatic difference between the beginning and ending songs.
Lyrics or Music First?
Songwriting discussions often include the debate between writing lyrics versus music first. Which renders a better song? Well, differing perspectives on "quality" in music prevent a universal answer. That said, it ultimately depends on personal preference. Your talent will either lean toward writing lyrics or music, so lead with your strength. Each avenue brings its own set of advantages and weaknesses.
Writing lyrics first ensures better preservation of expressive speech characteristics such as phrasing, accents, and pauses. Lyrics that maintain a speech-like quality aid memorization and recall. The natural rhythm also makes them more fun to sing. As an example, guitarist Robby Krieger from The Doors wrote the lyrics for "Light My Fire" before the melody.
On the other hand, creating the melody first establishes rhythmic cues comparable to poetic meter that help write good lyrics. These songs most often receive praise for sounding "catchy." A good tune sticks with you ahead of well-written lyrics the first time you hear a song. Carly Simon wrote a noteworthy earworm, "You're So Vain," in which the melody preceded the lyrics.
Both approaches run into trouble when the melody and lyric rhythms fall out of sync with one another. It incites musical moments best described as awkward. In "You're So Vain," this occurs where the melody draws attention to words typically unstressed in speech including "as" and "with." It also stands out in the overemphasis of weak syllables such as the second syllable of "onto" and "apricot."
When writing lyrics first, they usually start off pairing well with the melody. As the song wears on, however, the lyrics fit more and more loosely as the melody gets recycled. Then, you end up in the same predicament as the music-first scenario. Check out R.E.M.'s song, "Man On the Moon," to see what I mean. Notice the strong rhythmic pairing of melody and lyrics starting to fade in the third verse. Drawn-out melody notes emphasize the final "-ing" syllables at the ends of the lines as well as "stop" in "truck stop."
Of course, you alone get to decide whether to keep or change the lyrics and melody in these instances. It didn't hurt the popularity of either the Carly Simon or R.E.M. song, right? Should you prefer to avoid or fix these rhythmic mismatches, though, I included solutions in the step-by-step guides below.
Complex lyrics may form the backbone of enduring classics, but first impressions rely on hooking a listener's attention with the music. Catchy melodies feature a lot of repetition, which the brain processes and recalls with little effort. Predictability creates an effect akin to coming home and sinking into the comfort of your favorite chair when you first hear a song like this.
Let's make some music already! I separated the songwriting process into three levels of difficulty. None of these step-by-step guides require any specialized skills, though. You'll observe your speech and draw some rough line sketches, but you won't need any musical training or experience.
I also listed the preferences best served by each process in its designated section. Let these preferences help you find the best starting point. For a quicker match-up with one of the songwriting approaches, use the interactive chart at the end of this article. From there, try any other methods that interest you. After tackling songwriting from start to finish, you might enjoy the simplified alternatives. For instance, you may need more inspiration to feel creative some days. On other days, you may want less of a challenge due to energy or time limitations.
The Easy Piggyback Songwriting Method
Start with this method if you've never written a song before. Also make this the first stop in your songwriting journey if you have no experience or interest in writing poetry or melodies from scratch. Sound like you? Welcome to the piggyback songwriting technique.
Piggybacking involves taking something already in existence and using it to create something new. In this case, you begin with an established melody and write new lyrics for it. It eases newcomers into songwriting with a quick and easy process with room for creative expression. Specifically, you spend less time and energy on the lyrics, because the pre-written melody establishes a rhythmic template for them.
Borrowing aspects of music from other creators dates back many centuries. Before copyrights, this occurred commonly as a gesture of respect and appreciation for an author's work. Since the early 1800s, for example, more than four dozen classical composers including Brahms, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff have written variations of Paganini's Caprice No. 24.
The practice appears in other genres as well. At least three children's songs including "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," "The Alphabet Song," and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" share the melody of an older French folksong from the 1700s. Hymns reuse melodies more often than any other genre. Over two dozen hymn texts use the same tune as "Crown Him with Many Crowns."
Nowadays, if you want to borrow from other songs to create your own, limit your scope to personal use only. Don’t perform the final piece in public, post it on YouTube or other social media platforms, or try to sell it. Copyright law protects song lyrics and melodies automatically upon completion, at least in the United States. The law applies regardless of whether the author registers with the U.S. Copyright Office or includes a copyright statement. Professionals typically take both of these steps to help defend infringement claims, though.
Interpreting copyright law gets complicated in certain instances. Generally speaking, however, a registered copyright lasts for 70 years after the author's death. At that point, the work enters the public domain for use by the general public with no restrictions or consequences. Although copyrights do not cover song titles, trademarks do. I'll leave that topic alone, as it ventures outside the realm of this discussion.
To write a piggyback song:
Intermediate Songwriting with a Call-and-Response Format
Regardless of whether you've ever written a song or not, consider starting your songwriting adventure with a call-and-response song. You'll enjoy it if you're comfortable with (or at least interested in) writing lyrics, or poetry in essence. With the specific template I provide, you don't need to come up with a melody unless you opt for that extra step. Do these prerequisites describe your comfort zone? Then I'll show you how to write a call-and-response song using an existing melody.
Call-and-response songs repeat themselves a lot. Traditionally, they consist of a line of lyrics made up on the spot, followed by a predetermined line that repeats each time. The former section is the "call" and the latter is the "response." Many African American spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and gospel songs like "Up Above My Head" use this format.
This singing tradition exists in many cultures around the world. "Deck the Halls," a song commonly heard around Christmastime, dates back to the Renaissance period in Europe. It thrived as a party game in which guests invented a line for the song on their turn. Then, the rest of the partygoers sang the "Fa-la-la" break. Participants who stumbled, froze, or otherwise failed to deliver unique lyrics were eliminated until a single winner remained.
Blues music also showcases plenty of call-and-response songs. One such example, "Hound Dog," hit the charts in the 1950s
The predictable accompaniment pattern laid out by the blues provides a convenient songwriting template for our purposes. Taking the call-and-response structure from the previous examples, write a blues song. Use the worksheet and backing track below to assist you. I supply the melody; you supply the lyrics. For a quick guide to writing poetry for your lyrics, go back to the second article in this series, "How to Claim Creative Writing for Your New Self-Care Superpower."
To write a blues call-and-response song:
Advanced DIY Songwriting from Start to Finish
Although this is a good starting point if you've written a song before, don't overlook this method if you're inexperienced. You only need a desire to learn lyric and melody creation. Enjoyment of do-it-yourself projects and trust in your innate abilities help, too. If you fit this description, let me walk you through how I write songs from start to finish.
Since I already presented two other ways of writing songs that begin with the melody, I'll start with the lyrics this time. As alluded to previously, I recommend treating lyrics like poetry. For an in-depth discussion on crafting poems, refer to the previous article in this series, "How to Claim Creative Writing for Your New Self-Care Superpower." With your poem in hand, get ready to set a melody to it.
One of the most common questions I hear regarding songwriting is, "How do you come up with the melody for a song?" If catchy tunes don't materialize at random for you, use the natural pitch patterns found in speech to inspire a melody. A breakdown of my personal process into the most basic steps follows. In the end, you will need a bit of creativity to fill in some gaps. Apart from that, this straightforward method eliminates the need for any musical training.
To create an original melody for a set of lyrics:
Must-Have Digital Tools for Songwriting
Even if your songs never make the billboard charts, preserve them along with each step and iteration that shaped them. Welcome technology as a partner in your songwriting efforts, and you'll breeze through the most tedious parts as well. While useful to musicians, I selected the following four digital tools with nonmusicians in mind.
Let's dive into my favorite convenience of the modern digital age. Free options for digital notebooks abound but with big differences in functionality. The best of those offer an autosave option, cloud storage, and save history to restore previous versions of your notebook. More importantly, look for the features below, so you end up with a single place to store and access all of your work as you write a song.
I consider voice recorders an indispensable tool for songwriting. Keep one on hand even if you don't think you'll use it. The right one will help you sketch speech contour faster and capture melodies that spring to mind. Look for the following features:
Online Piano Keyboards
Before you dismiss this tool, particularly if you never took piano lessons, let me tell you why you might want a keyboard. It provides one way to help write out a melody. Although time-consuming, you may want to put each note of your melody above the corresponding lyrics. At the least, a keyboard provides your starting note (or more, if needed) to stay within a comfortable singing range.
Randomly plunking out notes on a keyboard inspires great melodies. Let yourself play for no other purpose than your own amusement. Experiment with a keyboard that ensures you don't need to be a musician to understand and write down the music you create. These features will make using a keyboard accessible and enjoyable:
This technology records your singing or humming and turns it into written notes, or sheet music. Voice-to-notation apps turn a great resource, once accessible only by musicians, into a tool for nonmusicians, too!
Handing a notated song to a trained musician equates to communicating in the universal written language of music. This increases the chances of getting your musical intent across when sharing.
You also must consider sheet music if you wish to keep a technology-proof copy of a song. New technologies will replace mp3 players one day like they replaced CD's, cassettes, and 8-tracks. Use of standard notation will continue, as it has since about 1300AD.
The accuracy and usefulness of voice-to-notation apps continue to improve, but quality still varies. For the greatest benefit and least frustration, look for the following capabilities:
Go for It, and Make Today a Great Day!
Whatever your musical skills or interests, songwriting meets effort with gratifying art and mental health. Use the interactive chart below to find your starting point. Then go and write a song for good health!
I'm a music therapist, dog mom, nature enthusiast, business owner, sleep and stress management coach, and research lover. My mission is to help you remove stress as a barrier to better health, greater happiness, and more meaningful connections with the people and passions that make life exciting.
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