Songwriting Tips

Dos and Don’ts When Writing Songs

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Are you an aspiring composer or lyricist? Whichever kinds of music you want to create, there are some useful guidelines to follow.

Those who are successful in the music industry, know there are widely accepted dos and don’t when writing songs. While it’s an artistic and flexible process, there are some loose rules that can make all the difference in the quality of what you create. 

Read on to find out all the things you should and shouldn’t do, to make original tunes. 

Dos and don’ts when writing songs

So you want to write songs? Fantastic. Great new tracks are in demand and artists who perform their own music invariably do better than those who rely purely on covers. Write a hit and you can achieve fame and fortune. Write a decent tune and you can still make money by selling it to others, releasing it for download or getting it licensed for use on-screen or radio.  

Of course, writing a catchy, super number isn’t easy. Even the top writers will spend endless hours before getting anything even vaguely usable. But, you can learn from those who have gone before you and made the mistakes already. Which is why we’ve compiled the rookie errors, and ingredients for success, in this article. Let’s have a look where you should start if you’re new to this. 

How to write a song for beginners

Do write it all down and/or record it. You may think you’ll remember that amazing chord that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. You won’t. So get it down and don’t lose it. Additionally, if it’s written down or recorded, you automatically own the copyright to it. And if it takes off, that’ll be a small detail that turns out to be of huge importance. 

Do keep everything. It can be tempting and may feel cathartic to chuck out or delete the bits you’ve written that think are embarrassingly rubbish and unusable. However, these can come in handy later. It could just be a phrase, a beat or a single word that you need later down the line. 

Don’t plagiarise. This term refers to copying other people’s work. Yes, you might get away with it for a bit. But get anywhere with your song and it’ll be spotted. And watch out, there are many artists ready and willing to take legal action against those who nick their words or tunes. Marvin Gaye’s family successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams to the tune of $7.3 million. This was because of the similarities in the smash hit song Blurred Lines and Gaye’s Got To Give It Up. 

Do get your groove on. It may help to listen to some of your favourite tracks. Consider what kind of feel you want your song to have and how you want its listeners to be impacted when they hear it. Should it make them want to cry, to dance, to smile, to get angry, or something else? 

How to write a song on piano or guitar 

You’ll have noticed that many of your favourite singer-songwriters sing and play. 

Do learn how to play an instrument if you want to compose music. You don’t need to be an expert, but a few chords will make all the difference in enabling you to bring your tune to life straight away. 

Do write using an instrument if at all possible. That doesn’t mean you can’t jot down a few ideas on the bus. But being able to try them out immediately will speed up and enhance the process. 

Do learn the basics of music composition. This includes how songs are structured and basic chords.

When writing a song what do you start with?

There are essentially two choices when it comes to beginning your song: 

  1. Music
  2. Lyrics

Within those categories there are sub-categories. If you begin with the music, do start with a melody, a musical hook, a beat, or a chorus and go from there. If starting with the lyrics, it could be because you have a message and something specific you want to say, or you may have a story to tell or a particular lyrical hook that’s really fun.

Do begin with an idea or inspiration if you have it. Regardless of which of these categories it falls into. It’s likely that this will be the core ingredient that makes your song unique, special and original. 

Don’t judge what you’re writing at first. The thing that stops most writers getting going is perfectionism kicking in from the off. You need to get a flow and that won’t happen if you’re second-guessing your initial attempts. Newsflash – it won’t be great, to begin with. And that’s ok. But keep pushing past that, keep experimenting and trying new things and who knows what might arise. Just write anything to start with. 

Do make sure the song has a great hook and a catchy chorus. This may be how you begin, or it may be the last thing you add. But before you think about releasing your song, make sure these ingredients are in there. 

Writing a Song

How to write a song lyrics first

You might choose to write the tune, then design words that fit. Or the lyrics might come first. Either way, once you’re at this stage, here’s what you should do. 

Do make sure it all makes sense and hangs together as a whole. If you have a great hook, but then write an unconnected verse, it’ll sound pretty weird. And your song should point to your lyrical hook. It doesn’t have to be perfect poetry, but there does need to be some consistency.

Don’t overcomplicate it if you’re writing for pop, dance, indie or rock genres. Listen to pretty much any pop song ever and you’ll notice just how simple and repetitive the lyrics are. If you’re writing for rap, grime or hip-hop, your words will be more important, front and centre. 

Do consider working within someone else. Collabs are often the best way to go. One could write music and the other lyrics, or both work on both. Either way, having someone else as part of your team, can help you go further and achieve more. 

How to write a song from the heart

Do write your song from the heart when penning your lyrics. 

Many songwriters talk about their own experiences. This ranges from the violent recounting of drill artists’ lives on the streets, to pop stars’ ballads about heartbreak and unrequited love. Move the audience and you’re more than halfway to winning them over. 

Is there an issue you feel strongly about? Unleashing your passion for music can be a winning way to a great song. Artists like Stormzy, Lily Allen, Childish Gambino and Meghan Trainor frequently raise social, cultural and societal issues like poverty, inequality, sexism and politics. 

Don’t get too controversial though. Go too far and you could alienate listeners and create the wrong kind of publicity, which will have a negative effect on your fanbase. 

How do you write a song with your heart? 

Do things and go places that stir your inspiration. Getting into nature can bring up a lot of emotions. Or you may want to increase your exposure to exciting life experiences. George Ezra interrailed around Europe before and during the writing of his first hit album. Ezra’s biggest hit, Budapest, came about when he missed his train to Hungary’s capital, after a night partying in Sweden. 

Don’t be afraid to get really emotional with your song. If you’re writing a true story or exposing your own heartache, you can exaggerate for artistic effect too. Traditionally, love stories, relationships and break-ups are responsible for the vast majority of contemporary music lyrics. Although many artists branch out beyond that. 

How to write a song about someone

Do use a person as your inspiration. Lots of songwriters talk about exes or people they know. This is because the people in your life are likely to bring up strong emotions – which is always helpful for creating art. 

Don’t restrict yourself to past or current loves. Lily Allen wrote a funny and quirky song about her brother Alfie. Some singers even talk about famous or influential names, such as this song by Jain about Miriam Makeba. In this, she’s not only paying homage to another singer but raising issues around human rights. 

Don’t write anything you don’t want the whole world to hear and know. That doesn’t mean you can’t be brutally honest, the best songs often are. But just be aware that once it’s out there in the public domain, you can never ever get it back. You can always change names and details to protect anonymity. Again, you don’t want to end up getting slapped with legal action. 

More songwriting tips

Don’t procrastinate. This is your biggest enemy. While inspiration is great and there are ways to encourage it, don’t wait for it. Put pen to paper or hands to keys and get something written. You never know where it might lead. 

Do be objective when it comes to the editing stage. We’ve emphasised the need, not to self-edit or judge your own work and this is absolutely true in the early stages. It’ll hold you back. But once you have something you think is really good, that’s the time to be really honest with yourself. Evaluate it as much as you can.

Do get feedback from others. There are some online services you can use for this. Or forums where music lovers will offer some critique. Recording studios often offer development packages, which include feedback on your writing. Or you can ask other musicians for some peer feedback. But be careful of asking everyone you know. Too many views – especially from those who don’t know much about music – can be counter-productive. 

Don’t take it personally. Yes, you’ve put your heart and soul into your song and it gets criticised and torn apart. This is tough. But try to keep a businesslike head about it. Filter the opinions and identify which ones are relevant and knowledgeable, then if necessary, make some changes. 

Songwriting exercises

Songwriting Exercises

Do try some songwriting exercises if you get writer’s block or need help getting started. Lots of artists use this method to start the flow. 

Don’t procrastinate. This is your biggest enemy. While inspiration is great and there are ways to encourage it, don’t wait for it. Put pen to paper or hands to keys and get something written (even if it’s just the exercises above). You never know where it might lead. 

Now you know what you need to do, it’s time to do it. Or if you already have something written, check you’ve run it through the processes of these dos and don’ts when writing songs. Once you have your finished song, you can think about recording it. Post-production including mixing and mastering will add extra layers that’ll make it sound even better, so be sure to choose a good sound engineer and producer to work with.

Related Questions

Can anyone write a song?

Yes! Even small kids make up their own songs. The caveat is, not everyone can write a good song. Although, if you follow some songwriting formulas, learn a bit about how music works and pay attention to what works in others’ music, chances are you can produce something half decent. 

How can I write more songs?

Spend more time doing it. It’s as simple as that. The more you do something the more you produce and the better you get at it. Find things that inspire you. See if you can collaborate with someone else to help motivate you. If you’re working with another person you’ll be put under healthy pressure.

Why can’t I write songs?

You may be overthinking it, self-censoring or trying to write something good. At first, just write anything. This gets the juices flowing. Set a timer and force yourself to write for ten minutes without worrying about whether it’s any good. 

Are there any other dos and don’t when writing songs that you hold to? Have you written any great tunes or lyrics? Let us know and add links to them in the comments below.