Catchy hooks, moving lyrics, and melodies that get stuck in your head – a good pop song can undeniably reel you in from start to finish. It may seem impossible to write that one-of-a-kind song that people want to play on repeat – but by using your knowledge of songwriting basics and tools, you can write your next great song.
With this songwriting guide, you can gather all the knowledge you need to tackle songwriting from start-to-finish.
1. Press record
This may sound silly, but it’s often an easily forgotten step in the songwriting process – before you do ANYTHING, pull out your phone (or use your DAW of choice) and start recording your songwriting session.
Don’t wait to record when your song is “perfect.” Even if you think you’re not coming up with anything exciting, you’ll regret it when you suddenly can’t remember that golden nugget of songwriting that you just came up with but forgot to record. You may have to sift through a 20-minute voice memo later to find that great idea, but it will be worth it!
Even some of the most successful and famous songwriters still record ideas on voice memos. As a bonus track on her ‘1989’ album, Taylor Swift released a voice memo from the early songwriting stages of her hit, ‘Blank Space,’ where you can hear her playing the song on acoustic guitar with unfinished lyrics, as songwriters/producers Max Martin and Shellback shout out production ideas.
“We like to run a recording on our phones of everything we’re doing when we’re putting a song together just in case one of us blurts out a cool melody and we forget about it…we wanna go back and replay the tape so we can remind ourselves of exactly what we were saying.”
– Taylor Swift (From ‘Blank Space Voice Memo’ on ‘1989’)
2. Start with your inspiration
If you ask ten great songwriters how they start writing a song, each one of them will probably give you a different answer. Some start with melodies, some start with lyrics, some start with chords, some start with a track – it’s different every time.
“I’ll choose lyrical content from a list of concepts I have in my phone, and whenever I think of one, I write it down. I usually choose a word, one solid concept. So say I’m looking around and I see a chandelier, I think ‘oh, how can I use that?’ … There’s a lot of strategy that goes into it.”
– Sia Furler
There is no one way to write a song – that may seem intimidating, but it’s really the beauty of songwriting. There’s no wrong way to start a song, as long as it inspires you. Whether it’s a melodic hook you have in your head or a cool chord progression on your guitar, your inspiration is what will set your song on the right path.
3. Build on your inspiration
Here are some ways to build on your inspiration and start constructing your song:
Loop a chord progression.
There are plenty of apps you can download like Loop ON and Jam Looper to easily record and loop ideas. If you have a chord progression that inspires you, record it and loop it, and sing or play whatever ideas come to you (remember to have a voice memo recording going)! Maybe you’ll come up with a cool melody, or maybe while you’re solo-ing on your guitar you’ll come up with the perfect instrumental hook!
Sing with “mush mouth.”
If you have some great melodic inspiration but can’t come up with lyrics, try building on your melodies without lyrics! As you’re creating new melodies, sing them with “mush mouth” (basically nonsense syllables and words) to construct your rhythms and hooks without having to come up with all the lyrics at once. Sometimes keywords will jump out at you and help you figure out what the lyrics will be, and listening back to the syllables you sing will help you figure out which words will fit in with your melodies!
Make a bubble map with lyric ideas.
Although this method may seem like a throwback to elementary school days, it can actually be a helpful tool for building on a concept or lyrical idea. Let’s say you’re inspired by the concept of unrequited love. Put that in the center of your map and start jotting down words or ideas that relate to that concept, like “hurting,” “keeping feelings secret,” “bittersweet,” etc. They might not be complete lyrics, but they can help you flesh out your concept and give you key words that you can use to convey the emotion of the song.
4. Add structure and form
Here are some examples of song form that you can work with:
AB form is the most popular format for pop songwriting (and has been for decades). It follows the verse-chorus format and places the biggest emphasis on the chorus. AB songs usually contain two to three verses and the verses and choruses are usually an even number of bars such as four, eight, or twelve bars.
ABC form is basically the same as AB form, but with the addition of the bridge (verse-chorus-bridge). The bridge adds a new and musically different section to the song and usually serves as a necessary shift or development to give the listener something new. Many of today’s pop songs have bridges that are only instrumental or contain a lyric-less melodic hook, and some pop bridges are simply one line repeated for a section.
AABA Form (also known as 32-bar form) has mainly been used in jazz and musical theater standards, but is also used in some contemporary songs (such as Norah Jones’ ‘Don’t Know Why’). It consists of two verses (or A sections), followed by a bridge (B section), and then another verse.
5. Fine-tune your song
Now that you’ve got your basic concept and structure figured out and you’ve laid out your verses, choruses, and (maybe) your bridge, it’s time to start fine-tuning your song and making it the best it can be.
Use a “listing” format for your lyrics.
This method may sound strange, but it can be found in countless pop hits. Songs are all about painting a picture of a feeling, experience, person, place, or wherever inspiration comes from – and the best way to paint that picture is to describe it in an illustrative way.
Take Katy Perry’s pop hit ‘California Gurls’ as an example. Almost all of the verses and choruses list things that describe what “California girls” are like or what it’s like to be one of them.
Here are the lyrics in the first verse:
I know a place where the grass is really greener
Warm, wet and wild, there must be something in the water
Sippin’ gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees
The boys break their necks trying to creep a little sneak peek at us
And here are the lyrics in the chorus:
California girls, we’re unforgettable
Daisy dukes, bikinis on top
Sun-kissed skin, so hot we’ll melt your popsicle
California girls, we’re undeniable
Fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock
West Coast, represent, now put your hands up
The verse lists different aspects of what it’s like to be a California girl or live in California – the green grass, the warm weather, drinking under the palm trees, getting checked out by guys.
The chorus lists different things about what California girls are like – unforgettable, undeniable, wearing daisy dukes and bikinis, sun-kissed skin, etc.
These lyrics are written in such a way that it doesn’t even sound like you’re listening to a list. It just sounds like you’re listening to someone paint a picture. This is a great method to practice when you’re trying to illustrate your theme or concept.
Find ways to be fresh and unique.
Take Christina Perri’s hit song ‘Jar of Hearts’ as an example. The song is all about refusing to return to a harmful ex-lover – a story that has been found in countless songs, but is told in a beautifully unique way by Perri’s lyrics.
In her second verse, instead of saying something like, “I’m not coming back to you,” she says, “I have grown too strong to ever fall back in your arms.”
This lyric conveys a similar message but conveys much more emotion, and it also uses a unique near-rhyme (rhyming strong with arms). This is a great way to strengthen the emotional message of your lyrics – and today’s great songwriters are proof of that.
Start adding production elements.
“Attention to detail makes the difference between a good song and a great song. And I meticulously try to put the right sound in the right place, even sounds that you would only notice if I left them out. Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting. And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds.”
Some of the most iconic parts of the pop songs we love today are production elements added on during or after the songwriting has been completed.
Think of what Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’ would be without that iconic horn line, or what Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ would sound like without all of the perfectly stacked verse harmonies, or what Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ would be without that melodic violin hook.
Production elements help make a song that is already great even greater. While you’re writing or after you’re done writing, try thinking of fun ideas to add on to your song – maybe you can add some gorgeous harmonies, layer catchy hooks on top of one another, or play with some cool effects on your guitar or synth.
And, if you’re having trouble thinking of ideas on your own, it’s always a great idea to collaborate.
Bring in collaborators!
Whether it’s with a producer, fellow songwriter, or a teacher – collaboration can always lead to new and exciting developments in the songwriting process.
Co-writing is a great exercise for any songwriter at any skill level, and can help you see things from a new perspective and write in styles or concepts you’ve never tackled before.
6. Finish your song and take it out into the world!
Once you’ve finished writing your song, it’s time to take it to the stage or the studio and take your song to the next level!
Recording your song
Get in the studio or record yourself at home – there are plenty of great tools at your disposal, such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, and even GarageBand.
Once you have your song recorded, you can upload it to SoundCloud or your website, make it a part of your next album, and send it to others for feedback!
Performing your song
It’s always great to get out there and play your songs at local open mics and songwriter nights where you can get a feel for how an audience connects to a song and see what people think of it.
7. Get your song mastered
When you finally finish writing and recording the song need to make sure the track you finished is properly mastered, otherwise it’ll sound dull and lifeless. You can do this either by 1) paying a mastering engineer to do it (which can be quite expensive), 2) using plugins like Izotope Ozone to do it (which can be very difficult to use properly), or 3) use a service like eMastered to get it mastered for you.
8. Don’t stop writing
Most creatives are never satisfied with their own work. Even if you don’t like the song you wrote, don’t be discouraged! The more you write, the better you’ll get. Continue to collaborate with others, and continue to challenge yourself by branching out to different instruments, styles, and song structures.
Keep writing, and you will be surprised with how much you will grow!
“I write every day, even when I’m on a plane, in the tub or on the bus. It burns in me. Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts. Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about.”
– Dolly Parton
Kira Morrison is an LA-based vocalist, songwriter, and arranger