Table of contents
I promise — this will not be another Black Friday deal.
Instead, I wanted to share some insight about a frequently asked question on the r/songwriting Reddit sub: How to Write a Great Song and, as usual, the monthly favourites.
This month, I'm listening to Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. It's an incredibly detailed exploration of the Sackler family, the opioid crisis, and their connection to Purdue Pharma (the makers of OxyContin). It's an eye-opening take on the power of money and the tragedy it can produce. It reads like a gripping novel and is an important insight into a major scandal. A friend recommended this book, and I honestly can't put it down. I'm particularly interested in true stories and historical figures and the Sackler family is no exception. Fun fact, this book is the back story to the Sackler family depicted in the show Dopesick.
I've just gotten back from my trip to Hawaii and Tahiti and needed some solid audio tracks to go with my videos. I decided to use the following three tracks:
- Victony & Tempoe - Soweto
- L.A.X - Sempe
- I'm Good (Blue) Oliver Heldens Remix - David Guetta & Bebe Rexha
You can feel the island vibes, and when you explore further, you notice lots of rhythms are rooted in dancehall and afrobeat. We will be releasing a great chord pack for these styles soon, so stay tuned!
Recently, I finished Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman and summarized the book here. It's a book about how our human life spans, on average, four thousand weeks. It allows us to accept the finitude of time, understand that we can't do everything, and choose the things that actually matter. Further, it encourages us to live more in the present and enjoy the little moments.
Concussion - I love movies based on true stories because they are both informative and entertaining. This movie follows the story of a Nigerian doctor who discovers a severe brain disorder in American football players and attempts to prevent further cases. It stars Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, so you know it will be good! An absolute must-watch!
✍️ Quote of the week
If you have trouble getting music done, it’s worth looking at the workflows that other people advocate and giving them a try. — Dennis DeSantis
Resurfaced via Readwise
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Alright, let's get to it!
Songwriting is tough.
It's the most challenging part of making music.
The good news is that it can be made easy.
You'll need to start with an idea. Maybe some chords and melody. Once you get those elements down, you can move to the structure and arrangement.
It may sound like a lot of work, but it will become an enjoyable and rewarding process with practice.
Imagine how your music will be shared and heard around the world. You will become a source of inspiration to others when they listen to your music.
But how do you start? How do you become a great songwriter?
You will need to overcome some challenges to write songs consistently.
1. Start with an idea
If you want to write great music, you need to start with a great idea.
An idea is the foundation of any composition; if it's strong, the rest of the piece will follow. Without a good starting point (a good idea), your music will likely sound unfinished or unpolished.
How do you get to a good starting point?
Listening to music. Actively listening to each instrument, each segment, tone, timbres, flow, mood, you name it.
Take the time to develop a great concept before you start writing.
✏️ Write everything down
You can't just sit in front of a blank piece of paper or an empty project and expect to create something entirely new. Of course, it could happen, but the chance of completing that project or finding direction for your vision is close to impossible when you start. So if you want to write music, especially when starting, you need to document everything.
The ability to generate ideas comes through experiences. To overcome the first step in developing a great idea, you must have written things down and kept a journal of thoughts through playlists, bookmarks, notepads, and other storage systems for saving concepts you may have thought of throughout the day.
The goal here is never to hit writer's block.
⏲️ Set a time limit
If you don't set a time limit, chances are you'll never finish what you start. It's essential to be patient when writing music, but knowing when to move on is also essential. If you're having trouble finishing a piece, try setting a timer and see if that helps.
Once you set a time limit to generate your initial idea, stick to your timebox, and don't waste more time, you can always come back and refine. But if you never start, you will never finish.
😅 Be persistent
No matter how new or exciting an idea might be, there will always be frustrating moments during the creative process. Whether getting stuck on specific lyrical ideas or struggling to find the proper chord progression, many songwriters experience writer's block from time to time: don't give up.
Successful songwriters have always had to push through these moments of frustration, and the only way to do so is to keep writing. With enough practice, the process will become easier and more enjoyable. So don't give up – persist through the tough times, and you'll be rewarded with excellent results.
🎼 Listen, read and study the greats
If you want to write great music, you need to listen to great music.
Start with your favourite songs.
Not only will this help inspire you, but it will also teach you what makes a piece of music truly special. Pay attention to the melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and overall structure of the parts you listen to. Then try to incorporate some of these elements into your music.
You first need to learn how to sit down and deeply listen to music— active listening of the same track over and over until you have entirely dissected the track. Then, you can move to the next once you have taken the track apart and understood the musical ideas.
Try to point out what you think makes the song good and memorable — write them down in your journal.
2. Focus first on melodies, then song lyrics
But it's melodies that make a song memorable and exciting. Once you have a strong melody in place, you can start thinking about the lyrics.
Melodic notes are sequences that provide a sense of musical pleasure. Often a melody is part of a song you think is stuck in your brain.
Most songs, great songs have one thing in common — timeless catchy melody. In other words, a perfect melody that hits all the right senses.
For example, Eifel 65 “I Am Blue” song: "I'm blue da ba dee da ba da, da ba dee da ba, da ba dee da ba da."
It's an uplifting song — straightforward and repeatable.
Eiffel 65 — Jeffrey, Maury and Gabry explain how they wrote the hit track "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" in the 1990s, starting with a simple melodic arpeggiated progression of three different sets of lyrics.
They kept the entire song simple and wrote one of history's greatest songs.
So don't try to write both the melody and the lyrics at the same time.
Instead, start with the melody, and then once you're happy with that, start working on the lyrics.
🎹 Simple chord progressions
The song's main melody is easier to write when you first form a basic key chord progression. You don't need to be a seasoned musician to do this. Just grab a keyboard or a guitar, and start playing with something.
Start with single notes, and then build the chord.
If you're not sure what chords to use, try starting with the following progressions:
- C minor — Cmin (Vi) - Bb Maj (V) - Ab Maj (IV)
- C minor — Cmin (Vi) - Eb Maj (I) - Bb Maj (V) - Ab Maj (IV)
- A minor — Amin (i) - F (VI) - C (III) - Gi (VII)
You don't need to know much about music theory to be able to work with these chords. Hundreds of online resources can play or show you how to play these chords on your keyboard or guitar.
Draw them in your piano software or play them live on your favourite instrument. Then upload your recordings to your digital audio workstation (DAW) and start your production.
🖼️ Paint the picture but keep it simple
The best songs are usually the ones that are the simplest. You don't need to overcomplicate things. Just write what you feel, and paint the picture with your words.
If you're having trouble getting started, try thinking about a specific scene or moment that you want to describe in your theme. Once you have that in mind, start writing down some of the key details that come to mind.
Remember that the most famous songwriters in history have mastered the skill of writing great songs, and most often, they devoted themselves entirely to telling an excellent story.
🖊️ Write something else
Stop working on the current idea if you're stuck and write something else. Something utterly new until you get back a gist of motivation.
It can be easy to get stuck in a rut when working on the same project for a while.
You'll find yourself struggling to develop something original— take a break.
Work on something else.
You can give yourself a much-needed creative boost by shifting your focus to a new project section or even another idea. And if you're worried about losing track of your old ideas, simply jot them down before you forget. Then, with a fresh perspective and refreshed ideas, you'll be surprised at how quickly you can get unstuck.
3. Use strong lyrics
The best songs usually have strong, emotional lyrics. They're the ones that make you feel something — whether it's happiness, sadness, anger, or love.
And while there are no hard and fast rules for writing great lyrics, there are a few things you can do to help make your writing process more effective.
🧑🎤 Avoid using cliches
Cliches are phrases or ideas that have been used so often that they're no longer original or interesting.
For example, instead of saying, "I'm brokenhearted," you could say, "my heart is in pieces."
📌 Be specific
The more specific you are, the more relatable your lyrics will be.
For example, instead of saying, "I'm lonely," you could say, "I'm feeling so alone tonight."
💪 Use strong verbs
Verbs are the action words in a sentence, and they can be compelling when used correctly.
For example, instead of saying, "I need you," you could say, "I can't live without you."
🎨 Use imagery
Imagery uses words to describe a scene or an idea in a vivid and sensory way.
For example, instead of saying, "I'm feeling sad," you could say, "I'm feeling like a dark cloud is hanging over me."
⭐ Be honest
The best lyrics are usually the most honest and vulnerable ones.
So instead of trying to write what you think people want to hear, write what you actually feel.
📝 Write... and Rewrite
One of the best pieces of advice for writing songs is to start with the chorus. The chorus is usually the most memorable part of a song, so it's important to get it right. If the chorus is not right, write it again. And again. And again until it feels perfect.
The same goes for the verses. Don't be afraid to rewrite them repeatedly until they're just the way you want them.
Songwriting is a process.
Creating something great takes time, patience, and a lot of rewriting. So don't expect to write a masterpiece on your first try. Instead, just keep working at it, and eventually, you'll get there.
🍂 Be authentic
Finally, be authentic and don't be afraid to experiment.
There are no rules for writing lyrics, so feel free to experiment with different words, phrases, and ideas until you find something that feels right.
And if you're ever stuck, try looking at other songs for inspiration. There is no shortage of great songs, so take some time to explore and find the ones that speak to you. Then, see if you can find a way to incorporate some of those ideas into your own songs.
4. Find the right tempo
The tempo of a song is the speed at which it is played, and it can have a significant impact on the overall feel of the song.
📉 Slow Tempo
For example, a slow tempo can create a feeling of sadness or nostalgia. This is why some love songs use a slow tempo to emphasize the emotion of the lyrics and evoke the listener's feelings. The tempo range is around 60-80 bpm.
📈 Fast Tempo
On the other hand, a fast tempo can create a feeling of excitement and energy. This is why upbeat pop songs often have fast tempos to help you get up and dance. The tempo range is around 120-180 BPM.
When choosing the right tempo for your song, it's essential to consider the mood you're trying to create.
The key here is to experiment and see how it feels. Go with your feeling and build from there.
5. Know your instruments
Whether you're using a virtual or acoustic instrument for writing a song, it's important to know that instrument well. You want to know how it sounds and feels and how to play it correctly.
If you're using a virtual instrument, it can often be more complicated than acoustic instruments. They have a plethora of different settings, and you don't want to get into those at this stage of the process.
The better you know your instrument, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that fit well together.
For example, if you're writing a piano song, you'll want to make sure the melody is something that can be easily played on the piano.
The same goes for any other instrument — if you want your song to sound good on that instrument, you need to know how it works.
This doesn't mean you need to be a professional musician, but it does mean taking the time to learn about the basics of the instrument.
🎸 VST vs Live Instruments
I'm sure you've heard of VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology). They are digital instruments that allow you to create realistic-sounding music in your DAW.
Live Instruments, on the other hand, refer to physical instruments such as guitars, drums, and keyboards. These give you a unique sound and require actual playing skills.
So which is best?
The answer is both. VSTs can provide you with the convenience and lack of limits that you need to experiment and create something unique. Live Instruments, however, have their own sound and texture that can't be replicated by VSTs.
Ultimately, it all depends on what you're trying to create and what type of sound you're looking for. If you want a realistic-sounding track with lots of depth, then combining the two is the way to go!
6. Choose a song structure
The structure of a song is how the different parts of the song are arranged.
There are many different song structures, but the most common is verse-chorus-verse-chorus.
This structure consists of two verses followed by two choruses. The chorus is usually the most memorable part of the song, so it's often repeated multiple times.
Other common structures include verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus and verse-chorus-verse-pre-chorus-chorus.
The best way to determine which structure is suitable for your song is to experiment with different options and see what feels best.
🕺 Learn your genre
If you're writing a song in a specific genre, it's essential to learn the conventions of that genre.
For example, if you're writing a country song, you'll want to make sure your piece has a twangy guitar sound and includes themes of heartbreak and loss.
On the other hand, if you're writing a pop song, you'll want to make sure your piece has a catchy chorus and is about love or relationships.
The best way to learn the conventions of a genre is to listen to many songs in that genre and pay attention to the elements that make those songs successful.
🔢 Decide what comes first
Once you have the basic structure of your song down, it's time to start filling in the pieces.
You'll first need to decide what comes first — the verses or the chorus.
If you're not sure, try starting with the chorus. The chorus is usually the most memorable part of the song, so it can be an excellent way to grab the listener's attention.
Once you have the chorus, you can start filling in the verses. The verses should provide more information about the story or idea behind the song.
And finally, you'll need to choose an ending for your song. The end is usually either the chorus or the bridge.
The chorus is a good choice if you want the listener to remember the song's main idea.
The bridge is a good choice if you want to leave the listener with a different feeling than they started with.
Once you have all of these pieces, you'll have a complete song.
🪟 Write from another perspective
If you're stuck, try something else.
Try something completely different if you're having trouble arranging a song from a particular perspective.
For example, if you're struggling to arrange an EDM main room song, try arranging an acoustic guitar version instead.
This will help clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective on arranging your song.
You can also try writing from a different perspective altogether.
If you're having trouble writing from a first-person perspective, try writing from a third-person perspective.
And if you're having trouble writing from a personal perspective, try writing from an objective perspective. Draw from real-life events and life experiences.
The important thing is to keep trying new things until you find something that works.
Show, don't tell.
When you're writing a song, it's important to show, not tell.
This means that you should focus on describing the scene or feeling in detail rather than explaining it directly.
For example, if you want to describe a heartbreak, don't just say, "I'm feeling heartbroken."
Instead, try to describe the scene in detail. What does the room look like? What does the person look like? How do they sound?
7. Write with others
One of the best ways to improve your songwriting skills is to write with other people.
Collaborating can be a great way to get feedback on your songs and learn from other songwriters.
If you don't know any other songwriters, try joining a songwriting group or workshop.
These are typically run by experienced songwriters who can give you feedback and help you to improve your skills.
🤝 Nurture relationships with music industry professionals
If you want to be a professional songwriter, it's essential to nurture relationships with music industry professionals through your songwriting journey. These are the people who can help you to get your songs published and recorded.
The best way to do this is to attend music industry events and networking functions. This will allow you to meet and connect with music industry professionals.
It's also important to keep in touch with these contacts after you've met them. The best way to do this is to stay in touch via social media or email. You can also send them your latest songs or information about your songwriting progress.
Maintaining these relationships will make you more likely to get your songs published and recorded.
🧑💻 Stay productive, not busy
One of the biggest challenges of songwriting is staying productive.
It's easy to get caught up in the business of songwriting — sending emails, social media, and so on — and forget about the actual writing.
But if you want to be successful, you need to make sure you spend most of your time writing songs. You need to be deliberate about your time and make sure you're using it effectively.
One way to do this is to set specific writing times and stick to those times. For example, you might decide to write for two hours every day, from 9 am to 11 am. Turn off your email during those two hours, close your door, and focus solely on writing.
Another way to stay productive is to batch similar tasks together. For example, if you know you need to write three songs this week, sit down and write all three in one day. This will help you to focus and get into a writing groove.
The most important thing is to make sure you're spending more time writing than anything else.
The best way to become a better songwriter is to keep writing.
The more songs you write, the better you'll become at it.
So don't be discouraged if your first few songs aren't perfect.
One of the most important things to remember when trying to become a professional songwriter is never to give up. Keep writing, keep producing, keep networking, and keep pushing yourself to be better.
Songwriting is a challenging but ultimately rewarding process. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, you can improve your songwriting crafts and become a skilled songwriter.
- Start with an idea
- Write your melody, then lyrics
- Use strong lyrics
- Choose the right tempo
- Know your instruments
- Choose a song structure
- Write with others
Last but not least, when you're getting started, finished projects are much more important than great projects. In other words, don't think about writing a hit song, think about finishing your project. Great music is a byproduct of completed projects.
With a bit of practice, those masterpieces will make their way through.
Thanks for reading!