When thinking of country music, cowboys, banjos, and western imagery might come to mind. But there’s much more to country songs than the typical western tropes and writing a country song is a great way to widen your musical scope.
Country songs are often written with a guitar accompaniment, but you don’t have to be an instrumentalist to write a good piece of country music. If you have some country topics and country melodies up your sleeve, you’re ready to write a hit country song.
Country music might seem like an intimidating genre to write because it’s quite different from other styles of music. But country music follows a very similar songwriting process to other genres, it’s just about knowing how to add that classic country spin to your track.
What makes a song a country song?
Before you start writing your country song, it might be worth knowing what makes a song a country song.
By dictionary definition, country music is “a genre of largely string-accompanied American popular music having roots in the folk music of the Southeast, usually vocalized, generally simple in form and harmony, and typified by romantic or melancholy ballads.”
A Country song typically come in the form of ballads or dance tracks and often feature banjos, guitars, and/or harmonicas on the track. The best Country songs are usually written in a simple form with folk-inspired lyrics, but the genre’s defining characteristic is its focus on beautiful melodies and narrative-based lyrics.
Country song topics
One of the key features of country music is telling a story. Country songs are almost always based around a narrative – often the singer’s personal story or experience that they want to share with their audience.
As with most genres, country songs are often tales of love, heartbreak, or facing difficult times. But country music also features several recurring themes and topics that are a bit more exclusive to the genre:
- The seasons (especially summer)
- Country living
- The right way to live
- Relationships/situations that aren’t working out
- Double entendre
- Nostalgic reflections on the past
How do you begin to write a song?
Songwriting always starts with a planning and mind-mapping stage. A lot of songwriters choose a beat for their song before they start writing and play it in the background while they brainstorm ideas for their track for inspiration.
Pre-made backing beats can either be found for free online, or some artists choose to create their own instrumentals using guitar or sound equipment.
Picking a beat first can help you identify a rhythm and melody for your song and listening to your chosen instrumental will hopefully inspire some emotions and trails of thought to use in your piece.
Country song lyrics
During your initial mind-mapping stage, try to think of a topic, an experience to write about, and a message for your song. These will give you a baseline to write your song around, and you can always draw back to these for inspiration when it comes to writing your lyrics and melodies.
Knowing where to start can be the hardest part of songwriting, so don’t be disheartened if an idea doesn’t come to you straight away. Try starting simple; think of a message for your song and create a working title for your piece based on this. Think about what questions your title causes you to think about, and the emotions and experiences you can connect to this topic – each idea you come up with can be the basis for a verse.
When you start fleshing your ideas out into lyrics and verses, focus on showing, not telling. Use linear and literal lyrics to bring your listener into your story and focus on emotion and a strong narrative that’s typical country music.
How to write a country song on guitar
Guitar is the heart of country music. Unsurprisingly, a lot of a country songs are written with the guitar as an accompaniment.
Whether you’re an experienced guitarist or a beginner, writing a song on guitar is an attainable dream. All you need is a basic knowledge of guitar playing and these 4 steps:
Step 1: Think of a story and draft it out into verses
You don’t necessarily need lyrics to start composing music for your song, but a lot of songwriters find it helpful to have an idea for their song’s narrative to guide them.
To come up with a story for your song, brainstorm some topics, memories, or personal/universal experiences that strike a chord with you. Choose your favourite from your ideas and bullet point some questions, emotions, or thoughts that it triggers for you – these can then form the verses of your song.
Step 2: Choose a key to play your song in
What key you play your song in will depend on what type of story you want to tell. C, D, E, G, and A are commonly used on the guitar, but different keys evoke different emotions and tones, so you might want to experiment to see what suits the mood of your song best.
If your song is happy, major keys might suit your piece best because these will create a cheery, upbeat sound. If you want to create a sad, sombre, or sinister mood, lower keys are likely to compliment your track better.
Step 3: Introduce some chords
Now you’ve chosen the key you want to play in, you can turn your attention to chords. Work out what chords fall into the same degree as your chosen key; these will harmonise best with your key and are the best choice to use in your progressions.
You’ll also want to decide how many chords you want to play in your progression – you might want to use two as a beginner, but this can be quite limiting. A basic three-chord progression (such as I-V-IV or I-IV-V) is commonly used in hit songs.
You might want to start off using a basic three-chord progression for your intro and verses and then experiment with modified versions for your chorus.
Step 4: Find your melody
Having found your key, chords, and lyrics, all that’s left is to find your melody! You can do this by vocalising or humming your lyrics while you run through your chord progressions, to see what tune works best with your story and instrumental.
If an idea doesn’t come to you straight away, try playing your chord progression as chord tones instead to create an instant, simple melody to accompany your song.
If you want to create something a bit more complex, you can experiment and modify your chord tones to create something different, or even take the melodies of your favourite songs and use them as a building block to create something new.
How to write a country melody
The melody is perhaps the most important part of a country song. It’s what will tie your song together and accompanies your chorus – so it needs to be memorable and catchy. A good melody will hook your listener and make sure your song stays with them long after it stops playing.
Your melody and chorus are the first things you should write when it comes to songwriting. Whether you’re using a guitar or not, here are some tips for writing a country melody:
- Focus on meaning, not embellishment – when writing your melody and song lyrics, focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. Country music is more about storytelling than it is about heavily manipulated sounds and elaborate phrases.
- Find your money note– the most memorable melodies often have a “money note”; a really low, high, or long note that stands out and makes your song unique.
- Incorporate some elements of pop – the lines between music genres are often blurred and recently, country songs have started to integrate more pop songwriting techniques into their melodies. Don’t be afraid to use some rock electric guitars or a pop-style hook to accompany your melody.
How to write a song
Country music might seem totally different from other music genres, but really, the songwriting process isn’t all that different. As with a lot of songwriting, having a compelling narrative and story to tell is the trick to writing a good country song.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How do you write a country song in 5 minutes?
You might be setting yourself a hard target to write a country song in 5 minutes because songs often need to be drafted, edited, and revised. But if you’re short on time, try picking a country trope and freewriting everything that topic makes you think of. You can also search online for images related to country music and choose an interesting photo to use as inspiration to come up with a narrative/setting/scene to use as the basis for your song.
- What is the rhythm of country music?
Country songs are often written as ballads with acoustic guitars on the instrumental. This means a lot of country music has a slow to moderate tempo and has a simple structure with basic chord progressions.