Without some kind of methodology, it's easy to get completely overwhelmed when you sit down to start writing a song. That's where a list of songwriting tips comes in handy. It's all about getting the gears in your head turning.
"What key should I play in? What about the chord progressions? Should I have those before or after I come up with the melody? And what about the lyrics and theme? ARGHHHH!"
Everyone finds themselves stuck at the beginning before you start setting some parameters around the song. The question is how do you go about doing that? That's what these songwriting techniques are all about. Let's jump right into it.
19 Songwriting Tips
Some of these are going to be about finding inspiration. Some are about experimenting with music theory until you find a path forward. Others are about communicating the emotions and message you're writing about. Since it's all useful, there's no particular order. It's a random grab bag of songwriting help goodness!
1) Build a Basic Chord Progression Template
A songwriting method I use constantly is to create an extremely basic chord progression on the MIDI piano roll in Logic Pro. I don't worry about rhythm or chord inversions or anything fancy other than plinking out simple 3 or 4 note chords. If you're unsure which chords follow each other, check out Chord Maps.
You can easily build out the parts of your song structure. From there it's a piece of cake to choose inversions, which then write the core melody of the bass line for you. After that you can work out a melody and rhythm instrumentation without much trouble.
2) Start By Creating a Remix
If you know of a song that has the feel you're going for, you can get your creative juices flowing by starting a remix of that song. Even if you don't have a current emotion or energy you're targeting, simply pick a song you enjoy.
This will lock you into a key and a chord progression. As you start building your bass lines and melodies more ideas will come and you can dump the vocal acapella, change the tempo, switch the chords around, and now you have an original track and creative momentum to guide you to completion.
3) Force Yourself Learn Some Music Theory While You're At It
There's no better way to learn music theory than to actively use the lessons in your work. For instance, maybe you have a key in mind for your song, so you decide to learn about musical modes like Aeolian or Phrygian.
You'll add another tool in your chest and end up with a song that sounds far more sophisticated than the others you've written thus far. Once you're distracted by the technicality, your mind will operate more freely as you experiment with the new techniques in order to learn them more deeply.
4) Choose an Emotion & Start From There
Maybe you have melancholy feelings today. That's a great place to start. The question becomes, which musical key has those characteristics and which chord progressions or modes can help emphasize it?
Once you dial in the general emotion, it'll be easy to finish it off with the melody and lyrics. Choose the right song arrangement based on supportive instrumentation and you'll have no problems. After that, let the mixing engineer (or yourself) choose effects that amplify the feeling and you have a winning song on your hands.
5) World Building & Storyline Exploration
You don't have to be a prog rock artist to use world building or to create concept albums or songs. One of the great songwriting methods is to tell a story, and to do that you have to dive into your imagination.
Think up a location, then populate it with people and sounds. What are those people and animals doing? Why are they there and what events led them to that place? What's in store for them next? What are they feeling? As you answer these questions, a song will emerge.
It doesn't have to be like a movie script either. Listen to some Joni Mitchell and see how she'll write about people and events from an observer's standpoint. The bonus of this tip is it'll make you seem insightful and poetic.
6) Write From Your Own Experiences
This is probably the most obvious of the tips for songwriting but it should still be included. You can reminisce on important events, you can use it as a therapy session and work your way through strong emotions from traumatic moments, or you can celebrate times of your life, etc.
The reason this works so well is it's genuine and authentic, giving insight to the fans into the artist's life and mind. Most importantly it shows you're vulnerable and relatable, which makes you and your music more attractive. Tons of people will share your feelings and experiences and will appreciate you expressing it in a way they can't.
7) Sell Fantasies To Your Listeners
Sometimes, you don't even have to write about your own experiences but those you wish you'd have or think your listeners would like to have. That's what the entire pop country music scene is about as well as the modern rap industry. They glorify, pretend to be, and then sell fantasies to their listeners.
You don't have to do this in a dishonest fashion or live a lie. You can write songs in the third person and create characters, like the classic "Pancho and Lefty" song that offers up both the outlaw and policeman fantasies.
8) Go Back to an Old Song or DAW Project
We all get stuck, have half-developed ideas, lose inspiration, or get distracted while writing songs. That means we all have a folder full of sub-folders of DAW projects or paper notebooks of pieces of music that have the full potential of being great songs.
Spontaneity is a huge source of inspiration. You can return to a half-completed song out of the blue (choose at random!) and wrap it up with a new blast of creativity with zero struggles, even though you couldn't get over the initial hurdle of even starting a new song. Songwriter's block can't exist if the project has already started. Take advantage of this!
9) CHange From Analog to Digital & Vice Versa
What I mean here is that if you're a singer-songwriter who sits down with their acoustic guitar when it's time to write, then instead you can open up your digital audio workstation software and open up the piano roll instead. You can make digital drum loops, use samples, play with synthesizers, etc.
Think about bands like Radiohead where Tom Yorke did this kind of thing, until their albums became nearly completely digital for a while. Whatever keeps your momentum moving and keeps you interested is what you should do.
Like 50 Cent apparently told Kanye West, "50 told me go ahead and switch your style up, and if they hate then let them hate and watch the money pile up." Some fans will love it, others will complain, and either way you get extra promotion. Or you can create acoustic versions of your digital songs, if you're scared...
10) Always Keep One Eye & Ear Open for Inspiration
No matter what you're doing, always keep one thread of thought open in your mind, which is "what am I seeing or hearing that moves me." You could be walking your dog, at an art museum, seeing a commercial while stuffing your face in front of the couch, reading a book, etc.
Inspiration comes from the smallest things. "I found a nickel on the ground, tails down," can be enough to start writing about how luck exists but superstition clouds it (I don't know, I'm making this up as I go). "I saw a grasshopper eating a mite," can lead to a song about how even the smallest among us can have a significant impact, like Frodo Baggins.
11) Start With the Melody Instead
Some people are "idea people." They can come up with an amazing melody without needing any backing tracks first. If that's you, then record the melody immediately on your smart phone so you don't lose it, and then you can transcribe it.
Since you know music theory, you know how to reverse the process and harmonize the melody with chords, which leads to a progression and reveals the bass line. Play to your strengths, and if that means writing off of a melody then so be it. Tons of #1 hits are created this way.
12) Write Your Song From the Middle Out
You don't have to write in the same order the listener will hear it. If you have an idea for a chorus or are just particularly good with choruses, then start there. Perhaps you always get stuck with choruses and need the verses to be constructed first so that the chorus reveals itself later, then do that.
The only thing that matters is the end result. Nobody will know that you wrote the outro first and then the bridge (or care, or ask). If you have an idea for a part, develop it. It will open up your mind and the other parts will logically follow with less need for creativity.
13) Write the Simplest Version Possible First
Don't get overwhelmed by the monumental task of every note that comes with every instrument. Get the outline written first. Once this framework is down on paper, then you can add some meat to the bones.
Many of the most complex songs ever began with someone humming a melody while strumming simple "four on the floor" chords on a guitar. Complex songs are often stripped down to acoustic versions, and in the same way can be built out to full orchestral performances. Keep it simple at first.
14) Randomize Your Lyrics, Literally
If you're having songwriter's block when it comes to the lyrics of your song, then there's something really fun you can do. I'm sure you're like me and have reams of notebooks full of pieces of lyrics: little phrases here, a stanza there, a couplet here, an few words there.
Write them all out again onto a clean sheet of paper and then cut that paper up and fold up each piece. Then you can literally toss them into a hat and draw them out randomly. Commit to the order they come out and figure out how to piece the puzzle together.
15) Write a Purposefully Bad, Low-Effort Song
Everyone gets caught up trying to make each song a masterpiece, or even their first song ever. That's not how any of this works. You need to have a massive output of material. Write 100's of songs and even fail on purpose. Nobody has to hear them, but you'll learn and get better each time.
There's zero question that if you were to speed-write 100 songs in a month, that you'd have at least 10 that are worth massaging into something better. And the other 90 will have an element here or there that you can re-purpose for the winners. Lots of experience is how you get better, and that happens through iterations.
16) Write a Song in a Completely Different Genre
Sometimes all you need is a new perspective, and in music that often means switching genres. If you always write folk songs, then try creating an electronic dance track. If you always create hip hop beats, then try writing for a small symphonic orchestra.
Stretching the boundaries of what you usually do will open you up to a lot of techniques and methods you were otherwise ignoring. Musical skills are generalizable and horizontally applicable. You never know what convention from another genre can revolutionize your songwriting.
17) Collaborate With Another Musician or Non-Musician
If you're stuck, try either bringing on another songwriter or trade half-finished projects with them. You can likely finish up each other's songs, and even if you have to share credits that's better than not having the song finished at all.
Another trick is to find someone who has zero clue about how to write a song, and let them give you feedback as you tinker around. They can probably provide a melody or tell you where they expect a song to go, in terms of progression.
18) Trap Yourself to Open Up Creativity
My favorite trick, because it's always fun and you end up producing the most absurd but good songs, is to create a set of restrictive rules around yourself. For example, I once challenged myself to create an EP album from FL Studio's stock sounds (back when it was Fruity Loops), and it had to be a children's album that was in the World genre.
Not only was it fun, I learned a lot and had to figure out how to make it interesting, entertaining, and musically correct. I also had to make bad, generic sound fonts sound good. We still listen to it and laugh because it's honestly pretty good. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like being boxed in and having to find a solution.
19) Don't Get Worked Up Over It
The main thing is to not start stressing out and treating this like work. Art has to remain art, even if your income depends on it, or you'll get nowhere. You can't force it and it won't come if you're getting frustrated or anxious. Just relax and have fun with it and keep what works. Try everything and toss the bad and keep the good! That's all there is to it.
Songwriting Tips Aren't Rules!
There are as many songwriting methods out there as there are songwriters, and there's no wrong or right way to get it done. The best tips for songwriting are the ones that work for you and help you move along in your craft and career.
There's a lot of trash out there involving this topic, so I hope our carefully chosen list of songwriting tips helps you out. These are actual, real life examples from real musicians with actual published albums out there.
All you need is one to get you going. My main tip for you would be to not be too hard on yourself. Relax, be flexible, and treat it like play rather than work, and you'll be well on your way.