How to Write a Song

#1 : The Secrets of Songwriting

First the bad news. I’ve been writing (mostly guitar orientated) songs for over 20 years now, and there are no secrets. No short-cuts I can share with you that’ll transform you into a hit-maker overnight. I can’t plant an idea into your head and I don’t even believe songwriting is something that can be taught. Inspiration, just sort of…. comes to you. It’s one of the mysterious of the universe. However, there are certain techniques and tools that I’ve picked up over the years that’ll hopefully help you along the way. Here’s my top 10.

Bon Jovi: Livin’ On A Prayer

R.E.M. : Crush With Eyeliner

Unfortunately, songwriting is not something you can force, inspiration either comes or it doesn’t. Sometimes I’ve written three completed songs in a week, sometimes I haven’t had “A visit from the song fairy” for over six months. However here’s a few tips to try and break out of the rut.

Create a relaxing, quiet environment – Ideally setup a spare room with everything close to hand and ready to go. This is important because if you’ve had nothing for weeks, any hint of distraction or discomfort will put you off. Try to create an atmosphere conducive to songwriting. Then set yourself aside some time, lock the door and make things happen.

Just Play! – Sometimes just going through the motions and running through a few old songs will bring something up. Re-analyse old ideas. Be persistent, something will come up, eventually. Learn a new song, listen to new bands, pick up ideas and incorporate them into your own songwriting.

Effects – Put the acoustic down for a bit and break out the electric and your effects pedals. Guitar effects can and will inspire ideas. Play some existing ideas using different effects. Some effects even form a main hook of a song, take the voice-box effect on Bon-Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” as classic example, or Peter Buck’s pulsing tremolo on R.E.M,’s Monster album. I wonder where U2 would be without the Edge’s trademark delay?

#2 : Capture every idea on tape

You never know when inspiration will strike. In the car, on the bus, walking to work, in the pub. Lately I’ve had a lot of songs and melodies come to me (don’t laugh) while dreaming. DON’T FORGET ANYTHING. Download a recorder app to your phone and capture it ASAP. Even if you just hum a melody into the mic. It’s suprising how quickly an idea can drift away and never come back.

Take That: Back For Good

#3: The Capo is your Friend

You can employ the capo in two ways, Firstly as an easy way to change the key of a song to suit your vocals, This saves you having to struggle with more difficult chord shapes and allows you to concentrate on your new song.

Secondly, you can employ the capo higher up the fretboard to experiment with different chord voicings that you previously wouldn’t have thought of, “Sometime World” by Wishbone Ash springs to mind here, or, from a more modern era, “Back for Good” by Take That (apologies to all you musos out there 🙂 ).

Adam Harkus: This is Who I am

#4: Merge separate parts together.

Ever come up with an interesting verse progression but could never think of a decent chorus to lift it? Ever come up with an instantly hummable chorus but couldn’t find a verse to suit? Well, it’s all your own work, so why not just merge the chorus and verse together to form your new song. Sure, if you had a theme worked out for each (see below) you’ll need to re-think the words, but sometimes the best ideas are formed from completely separate sources.

My own composition “This is Who I am” started life with a less than memorable chorus, it just wasn’t coming together. So I simply took a step back, raided my backlog of unused ideas, and unearthed something that fitted unexpectedly well.

#5: Put the Listener first

Not everyone wants to hear a 10 minute guitar solo over the same old chord progression, not everyone wants to listen to five verses of you drivelling on about lost love. A lesson I learned not that long ago was to constantly critical analyse my work. Does it hold the audiences interest? is it too long? too short? Compare it with hit songs, what makes them a hit? What’s good about it? what’s good/bad about your idea in comparison?

Don’t leave this critical analysis till you come to record it, if a song is boring in it’s infancy it’ll always be boring. However you can turn a good song into a bad one if you record or arrange it badly.

Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit

#6: Add contrast to the Verse/Chorus

The verses should always contract with the choruses in general. There are many ways to achieve this; Use different chords, rhythms, moods, lyrics and/or arrangements. A well known ,very simple example is the ‘Nirvana’ trick, whereby the verses are quiet and the choruses are heavy, but the chords, in this case, stay the same.

Pink Floyd: The Wall

#7: Give the song a theme

Love, Religion, War, Peace, Politics, People, Family, pick any theme you like, but DO pick a theme, otherwise you’ll have nothing to write about and the song will be aimless.

It’s always a good idea to decide on the theme early on in the process, if not first, as the theme will drive the song and your lyrics. The more powerful the theme, the more powerful the message of the song becomes.

A song without a theme becomes a mechanical exercise of words fitted to music. The theme provides the passion, so pick a theme you can write passionately about, be it real-world personal experiences or concepts, ideas, people and stories from your wildest imagination. Both are valid and both just as powerful.

Look at Pink Floyd’s concept album, “The Wall” as an exercise of using related fictional/non-fictional themes to drive a whole album.

#8: Make the Chorus memorable.

A chorus should always be catchy, memorable, and stand-out from the more subdued verse. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules, but I’ve always tended to make the chorus progression simpler, with the more intricate chords in the verse.

Try to make the chorus the focal part of the song, Perhaps resolving the ‘Answers’ to the ‘Questions’ asked in the verse. Sometimes the chorus will be the first idea that came to you, that got you humming a melody in the first place.

In my opinion, The Beatles where the absolute masters of the catchy chorus, coming up with hit after memorable hit. Enough said.

R.E.M – Man On the Moon

Adam Harkus: Never Be the Same Again

#9: Experiment with chords voicings

Don’t just stick to the rules. Experiment with basic chord shapes and come up with chords of your own. Make use of passing notes to link chords together, don’t worry too much about theory. If it sounds good, it IS good.

A classic example is to take an open C Major chord and move it up 2 frets to result in a more interesting, extended sounding version of a D major chord. “Man on the Moon” by R.E.M. makes use of this, as does “This Is Who I Am”.

Another trick is to replace just one note, for example, start on an F major,then to a G chord by only repositioning your index finger on the bottom F to the G on the 1st string. This adds a nice bit of tension and release and is featured in a few Foo Fighters songs, as well as another of my own songs, “Never be the same again”.

Lastly, bring some ‘drone’ tones into play. For example, move through a chord progression whilst sounding a repeating drone note throughout. Classic examples of this are “All right Now” by Free and “Hammer to Fall” By Queen. Both droning on open A with interest being added by way of the relationship with the other notes.

#10: Learn Music Theory

When it comes to writing chord progressions however, a bit of music theory always comes in handy, even if it’s just determining which chords complement each other in a given key.

The simplest example is the notes contained within the key of C Major which are:


The corresponding key intervals are:

I (root) II (2nd) III (3rd) IV (4th) V (5th) VI (6th) VII (7th)

to start, I always think of the III and VI as minor and stay well clear of the VII chord. So these would be the chords I would start with…

C D Em F G Am

Of course you can take the theory further, subtituing the G (V) for a 7th Chord for example (G7). Then moving onto minor keys and more sophisticated chord substitution.

Learning a little music theory goes a long way, giving you more options and tools to construct your song after the initial idea. It’s well worth the time and effort.

Good Luck!

I hope you’ve found my “Songwriting Tips For Beginners” useful. Hopefully future articles will feature more details of the Songwriting and recording process, but for now thanks for reading and GOOD LUCK!

6 Responses

  1. some great advice, Adam

  2. Great insight on how to write music

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