Learning and performing easy songs on guitar is one of the great joys of being a musician. But writing your own songs is a way of taking that joy to the next level!
If you’ve never approached songwriting before, then you might think that statement is a bit of an exaggeration.
But I’m here to tell you that songwriting isn’t just for veterans. With an understanding of the basics and a bit of practice, you can become a killer songwriter too!
In this step-by-step guide, we’ll delve into the art of songwriting and explore the creative process that transforms mere ideas into emotive compositions.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
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1. Have a Basic Understanding of Music Theory
While there’s a great temptation to pick up a guitar and start writing, I always recommend having a basic understanding of music theory before you start.
This will set you up with a strong foundation for songwriting and enable you to compose freely and creatively.
Below I’ve highlighted a couple of the basics that you need to brush up on first:
Chords are the chief building blocks that make up all songs.
To start, it’s important to know the three main types of chords: major, minor, and seventh. These are the core elements with which you’ll build your song.
Scales provide a structured set of notes that sound harmonious and can be used to create melodies, riffs, and chord progressions.
Focus on learning common scales like the major and minor scales. Practice them regularly, both ascending and descending, in different positions on the fretboard.
Additionally, pay attention to how these scales sound and feel, so you can begin to develop your musical ear.
Key signatures provide a framework for understanding the relationship between notes and chords within a specific key.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the key signatures of the most common keys, such as C major and G major. Practice playing chord progressions in these keys and experimenting with different melodies and solos over them.
2. Build a Creative Environment
Your surroundings play a strong role in just about everything you do, including your creative process.
You’ll probably find it hard to be creative in a loud, untidy place.
Create a space where you feel comfortable, inspired, and motivated. This can be somewhere outside in your garden, a private spot in your garage, or even a corner of your bedroom.
It doesn’t matter where exactly, as long as you have as few distractions as possible and whatever surrounds you resonates with your musical soul.
3. Brainstorm Ideas
Brainstorming is crucial for songwriting. It means that when it comes down to putting pen to paper, you’re not starting from scratch.
I often recommend keeping notes – on a notebook or your phone – of ideas for songwriting as and when they come to you.
Ideas – for songs or anything else for that matter – generally don’t come when you sit down specifically to write songs. They can pop into your head at any time.
As well as collecting ideas more long-term, start every session with a bit of brainstorming. This will allow you to unlock your current mood, think outside the box and fuel your imagination.
Go with whatever comes to you – be it melodies, chord progressions, lyrics… anything!
And if you’re new to brainstorming, the most important thing to remember is there are no bad ideas! Get them all down and then narrow them down at a later stage.
4. Choose a Key to Play In
This is the first decision you usually have to make when it comes to writing a song on guitar.
A key is the major or minor scale around which a piece of music is based. So a song in a major key is based on a major scale, while a song in a minor key is based on a minor scale.
Once you set your key, the rest will fall into place.
The key will determine the central pitch around which your chords, harmonies, and melodies will revolve.
To choose the key, you must first consider the mood you want to convey. Choose major keys for a happier song and minor keys for a sadder song.
5. Create a Chord Progression
Now that you’ve decided on a key, the chords and chord progression are next.
You can fall back on some of the tried and tested chord progressions, such as the I-IV-V progression or the I-V-vi-IV progression – both popular and relatively straightforward.
As soon as you feel more confident, try creating your own.
Chord progressions can really elevate the rest of your song – whether it’s a simple three-chord progression or something more complex.
When testing out a couple of options, try humming or even singing along to see what kind of melody will complement what you’re trying to express.
6. Write Some Lyrics
There are two kinds of songwriters – those that lead with lyrics first and those that lead with melody first.
I often have a couple of lyrics in mind by the time I’ve worked through the key and chords. But never complete lyrics, just words here or there.
Think about what you’re trying to say with this song – characters, a mood, a setting.
Take Neil Young for example, who is known for his simple lyrics but complex melodies:
There’s one more kid / That will never go to school / Never get to fall in love / Never get to be cool“Keep on Rockin in The Free World”
As soon as you have a core concept, flesh it out and try to extract a chorus and verses. Your chorus should ideally embody the central theme of your song.
To avoid overcomplicating your song, try leaving your lyrics incomplete until you’ve worked through the melody and refined the chord progressions.
7. Craft a Melody
Now that you have the chords set and the backbone of your lyrics, let’s look at the melody.
The melody is the series of notes you’ll sing over the chords, i.e., the notes in which you’ll sing your lyrics.
To get the melody juices flowing, I always like to play the main scale of the key for the song I’m writing.
There are so many melody options for every chord, so try lots out and hum or sing your lyrics over them. You’ll eventually land on one that sticks.
8. Refine and Revisit
Composing for guitar can be a lot of hard work. So before you refine, take a step away and do something different – tidy your home, go for a walk, take a run!
Once you’re ready to return to your song, you can fine-tune things. You’ll probably find that quite a few little things aren’t sounding quite right just yet.
If you find yourself in a rut, ask a friend to listen to what you’ve been working on. They might be able to spot something that doesn’t sound right that you can’t hear anymore.
What’s Next After Songwriting?
While writing your own song might feel like a musical climax, there are, of course, many other paths you can take.
If you want to master more useful techniques, check out my free workshop at Tony’s Acoustic Challenge.
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