Songwriter U: Songwriting for Beginners

Written by Katie Sanakai for Guitar Tricks and 30-Day Singer

Let’s say you’d like to explore songwriting and maybe you have some lyrical ideas. What is the next step? Here are the things you need to know to get your songwriting started.

1. A reference instrument

Perhaps you are an instrumentalist who already plays and would like to work on writing original songs. If so, you have a good base to start writing a vocal melody. If you’ve never played an instrument but want to get serious about songwriting, I recommend learning the basics of guitar, piano, ukulele, or any other instrument you can play. the chord progressions that are the basis of your song. Online guitar lessons are a simple, effective, and convenient way to get started.

Why use an instrument? The foundation of most music lies in its harmonic structure. Even a song without instruments playing (like a cappella music or a solo singer) is still informed by harmony. Harmony is how we put chords together, and a progression is a sequence of chords, whether via piano chords or guitar chords. If that sounds intimidating, don’t be scared off. Great songs can be written with just a few chords.

2. An understanding of song form

The next important thing you will need when you start writing songs is a knowledge of song form. You can think of it as the anatomy of a song and you can compare it to a paragraph or a stanza of a poem. Popular music is generally constructed from the following elements:

Verse – a section that usually begins the song and moves the story forward. The verse melody will return later in the song with new lyrics

Chorus—the section of the song that will be used repeatedly with the same set of lyrics. It can also be considered the “hook” of the song. Because we hear the chorus many times throughout a song, it’s usually the part we memorize first and can easily sing along to.

Pre-chorus – an introduction to the chorus, usually shorter than the chorus. The lyrics often stay the same.

Intro or outro – a section (usually instrumental only) that may start or end the song before the singer enters or after they have finished. The intro starts the song and the outro ends it. The intro and outro can be the same.

Bridge – a contrasting mid-section to the song, often involving a more drastic change in feel, harmony, style, or accompaniment. Bridges are generally not played more than once in a song.

Let’s do a quick analysis of two Imagine Dragon songs to demonstrate the song’s form. Imagine Dragons is excellent for writing catchy choruses – whether or not you listen to this genre, you can probably easily recall and remember these choruses.

“Thunder” by Imagine Dragons

Intro: sampled environmental sounds

Verse 1 – “Just a young gun”

“Thunder” spoken before the chorus with vocal distortion

Chorus – “Thunder, feel the thunder”

Verse 2 – “The Children Laughed”

“Thunder” spoken before the chorus with vocal distortion

Chorus – “Thunder, feel the thunder”

Bridge – guitar solo only (this could also be considered a solo break, but provides contrast)

Chorus – “Thunder, feel the thunder”

Outro – Guitar Riffs/Drums/Electronic Sounds All the Way

“Natural by Imagine Dragons

Intro: humming

Verse 1 – “Will you hold the line”

Pre-Chorus – “It’s the Price You Pay”

Chorus – “Because you’re a natural”

Verse 2 – “Will Someone Let Me See the Light”

Pre-Chorus – “It’s the Price You Pay”

Chorus – “Because you’re a natural”

Bridge – “Deep Inside I’m Going Black”

Chorus – “Natural”

Outro-instrumental that mimics the hum from the start

3. An understanding of chords

To build a chord you need to stack 3 notes vertically in a major or minor chord
(2 notes can also be used to create a chord, for example a guitar power chord. You can use an online chord finder to help you learn more chords). However, most piano or guitar chords would have at least 3 different notes, and then those notes would be doubled. When you learn the guitar or the ukulele, you learn the chords you will need to build a song as well as the name of the chord. Try using a guitar chord chart to learn chords faster.

When you learn the piano, the chords are not always so explicit. For example, you may learn to read sheet music before you realize you are playing C chords and F chords. There are also many more variations that can occur on a piano – the 88 keys and many octaves give you a variations on how these chords can be played. But to write songs, you will need to be able to form chords by stacking 3 notes on top of each other. This can be done simply with one hand using your thumb, middle finger and little finger to play the stack.

4. Progress

Once you can form chords on your chosen instrument (or app), the next thing you need is a progression for singing. Remember that a progression is a sequence of chords. In terms of the song form above, there is usually a progression that will last the entire section. For example, you might have a four-chord progression for the verse and another four-chord sequence for the chorus. However, some songs use the same progression throughout.

On the chosen instrument, try alternating the chosen chords in your progression. If you don’t know how to do this, try looking for an instructional video on YouTube that can show you how to put these progressions together. Keep in mind that musicians use Roman numerals to label chords. There are only 7 chords to choose from in any given key, and that is how they are notated.

1 = I, 2 = II, 3 = III, 4 = IV, 5 = V, 6 = VI and 7 = VII.

The VII chord is very rarely used and the III is also less well used. So that leaves us with I, II, IV, V, and VI as the best building blocks for your song. Let’s try a progression in the key of C:

Here are some examples:

A two-chord progression:
I-IV (CF)
IV (CG)

A three-chord progression:
I-IV-vi (C, F, am)
V-IV-I (G, F, C)

ii, IV, I (dm, F, C)

A four-chord progression:
I, ii, IV, V (C, dm, F, G)

I, vi, V, IV (C, am, F, G)

Photo: Gettyimages.com

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