The Easy Way to Write Your First Song

Today, I start a new series of posts on how to write your first song. A song has many components and there are lots of ways to approach songwriting. As a new songwriter, you may be overwhelmed and not know where to begin. Don’t worry, I felt the same way just a few months ago. I’ll share what I’ve learned so that you can start with confidence. This first post describes the major components you need to consider when writing a song, and then shows how to simplify the process so you can focus on the lyrics. Subsequent posts in this series will dig deeper into how to approach each component of the songwriting process.

Just start

I hope you’re here because I inspired you with my post “10 Reasons You Should Have a Songwriting Journal (even if you’re not a musician)”. Or, maybe you want to write a song for a school talent show, or perhaps you’re thinking about a career in music. No matter what your motivations, the best advice I can give is “just start“.
But I don’t know how to begin. Just start.
But I don’t have any skills! Just start.
But I don’t know what I’m doing! Just start.

Yes, you’re confused, unskilled and not ready. If you’re like me, your instinct is to learn just a little more before you put pen to paper. Although research-to-death-before-starting is my modus operandi, I advocate not approaching songwriting that way. Quantity is your friend in the arts. Although we all strive for quality, what will get us there is quantity. Whatever you are striving to achieve, knitting, beer brewing, screenwriting, singing, pottery, etc, your first attempt will be the hardest. But with each pot you throw, song you write, batch you brew, your skills and confidence will grow. So go ahead, write a song. Give yourself the freedom for it to be bad. It may disappoint you. It may not be up to your standards. Pat yourself on the back for getting that one out of the way, and start another.

Components of a song

A songwriter must consider all the following components to write a complete song:

  • Structure: how many verses will there be? Is there a chorus or a bridge?
  • Chord progression: which chords the song contains and when.
  • Lyrics: the words that tell the story.
  • Melody: the main musical theme of the piece. It is the tune you hum as you’re walking the dog.
  • Harmony: additional vocals or instrumentation that round out the sound of the chords in the melody.
  • Instrumentation: which instruments perform the song. Will there be drums, guitars, pianos, strings, glockenspiel?
  • Arrangement: the notes for each each instrument and vocal part.
  • Production/Mixing: how the song is recorded to create a pleasing mix for the listener.

The songwriter needs to make decisions on each of these components, in roughly the order that they are listed above. You can approach this process in many ways. In his book, “How Music Works”, David Byrne said Talking Heads would lay down rhythm tracks in the studio. Afterwards, he would write lyrics to those tracks. Other songwriters like to write the lyrics first, and then set them to music. The movie “Rocketman” showed Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, working together this way. If this is your first song and don’t have a songwriting team, then likely you’re going to be doing all the work yourself.

If you’re intimidated by all the elements you need to consider, you can simplify! Use the following method to focus on the lyrics and “borrow” music for your first song. You can learn more elements of songwriting as your interests grow.

It works for Elton John

Perhaps the method I’m about to suggest is obvious: Take a song you enjoy and rewrite the lyrics.

You may poo-poo this method and declare, “that is not what I meant when I said I wanted to write a song!” There was a time that I would have agreed with you. However, I’m now going to declare that songs written this way are “real” songs. There is actually a name for this technique, “contrafactum“, which means “the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music”.

Songs have been written via contrafactum for centuries. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” was written in 1831 and sung to the tune of the British royal anthem, “God Save The Queen”. The Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?”, was set to the tune of the traditional folk song, “Greensleeves”, in 1871. In the 1980’s, Weird Al Yankovic’s career took off with his clever parodies of popular songs. He made me laugh by substituting “Eat it” in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. After Princess Diana’s death in 1997, Elton John/Bernie Taupin wrote new lyrics to their 1973 hit, “Candle in the Wind”. The new song became “Candle In The Wind 1997” (also known as “Goodbye England’s Rose”). John performed the song as a tribute at Diana’s funeral.

Before casting this method aside, recall why you are writing the song. Is it for a journal? In which case, the main point is expressing yourself through metered words and rhyme. It’s about processing your feelings and boosting your creativity. Using ready-made music will work perfectly for this case. Are you writing a song for a project for work or school, such as a spoof or a skit? Using a catchy song that the audience already knows will pre-dispose them to like your song as well. They will enjoy how you cleverly repurposed the music for your own message.

There’s no shame in using “found” music for your song. Traditional folk tunes are fair game for you to repurpose in any way you want, even to record them and sell them. With modern music, you will have to be careful you don’t run afoul of copyright laws if you are trying to publish work derived from another artists.

Finding a song to borrow

Back in my college days, each pledge class in my sorority would make up their own class song. Usually, the class would pick a popular or iconic song that was frequently played at bars or parties. This would give us sisters a chance to sing our song together when the DJ started spinning our special song. Think about your needs for a song. What kind of mood are you looking for? Is there a song that already has meaning for you? What songs can you sing easily? Make sure the vocals doesn’t go too high or too low for you to sing it yourself.

If you want to perform your song, you have better options than we did in my sorority days before digital music, back when MTV still played music videos. In those days we just played the song on a boom box and sang louder than the original vocalist. To get your music today, go on YouTube and search for a karaoke version of your selected song. Sing your lyrics to the karaoke track and you don’t have to compete with the original artist. Perfect solution.

If you have musical background, Google for the chords to your chosen song. You’ll find a lyric sheet with the chord changes. Play the chords to your song along with your new lyrics.

This method sounds so simple! It is… and it isn’t.

How to write lyrics

By using ready-made, professionally produced music, you’ve greatly simplified your songwriting task. Once you’ve chosen the music and have the backing track, its time to write the lyrics. This can be so simple that even a group of senior citizens with mild dementia can write a verse a few minutes. Or, it can be hard and you may struggle with it for days.

This morning, I took my mom, who has Alzheimer’s, to an eldercare respite group for seniors with dementia. Eventually, I’ll be able to drop her off at the group and I then enjoy 4 hours to myself, free of caregiving duties. However, as this was Mom’s first time attending this program, I stayed to make sure Mom was comfortable. There were games, singing and dancing, and also… songwriting! The music therapist leading the activity first sang “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. She then asked the participants to recall things that made them happy. Playing with puppies, warm towels from the drier, walks on the beach, children, the song “You are My Sunshine”, ice cream, and coffee were all mentioned as things that brought the group joy. The leader then sang “My Favorite Things” again, this time using the group’s favorite things. It worked quite well and the group enjoyed making their own song and documenting their favorite things. This is a perfect example of what I mean by journaling through songwriting. No stress. No agenda. Just recalling feelings to mind and documenting them in song.

Mapping your song

As you set out to replace the lyrics of your chosen song with words that are more meaningful to you, the first step is to map out the structure of the original song. Write the original lyrics down and examine how the song is organized. A common structure is:

  • Verse 1
  • Chorus
  • Verse 2
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

Knowing the structure will help you understand how many different patterns you need in your lyrics. The “verse” sections usually contain the same number of lines, number of syllables and rhyme scheme. All the “chorus” sections are usually exactly the same. The “bridge” might be similar in length and rhyme scheme as the verse, but with a different melody. Map out the number of lines and rhyme scheme in each section. Write your new lyrics according to that map. Pay attention to the number of syllables in each line. Your lyrics have the best chance of sounding good with your pre-recorded music if you use the same number of syllables as the original.

What to write about

A list song like “My Favorite Things” is fairly easy to fill in with your favorite things. Coming up with a unique theme for your song is harder. Try one of these prompts: write about problems you are facing, tell the story of a difficult situation in your life, write about what makes you angry, write about joy, or write to your loved ones. Songs can be about anything.

Just write what your heart says.

OK, I just gagged on all the cheese in that statement. However, in my songwriting journaling experience, I do not usually end up writing about my intended topic. As I listen to the music and free associate rhymes, the words and phrases come to me. As I collect enough words and phrases, the song starts to take shape. Sometimes, I don’t even feel like it is coming from me. Is that crazy? Tell me in the comments.

Next steps

Once you’ve written your lyrics, play the track and sing your lyrics along with the original melody. Do you have any spots that feel awkward? I tend to stuff too many words in a line. I can often fix it by ignoring proper grammar and removing words. If you have too few words, add in a new word, a pause, or stretch a word to cover multiple beats.

The contrafactum songwriting method may seem simplistic, but it deserves a spot in your toolkit, especially for new songwriters. Lyric writing is an art form in itself. There is a lot you can learn by listening closely and analyzing the original song.

When you get hooked on songwriting, I’ll bet you’ll become curious about making your own music for your lyrics. I’ll cover that in upcoming blog posts.

2 responses to “The Easy Way to Write Your First Song”

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