by Molly Tie
Ever listen to a song and think that it is so good, it must have been written by some witch with a magic spell or an alien with access to some technology us mere Earth-dwellers have never heard of? Well, here’s the thing: everyone that has ever written a song is a human – FACT. And do you know what that means? You can write one too! Yes – YOU, you glorious thing.
Songs can perform different functions. They can be upbeat and entertaining; silly and funny; confessional and heartfelt; rhetorical and hypothetical; political and observational. They can make you laugh, cry, dance, remember things, celebrate, commiserate, get angry, get motivated, feel seen.
With all these different options – all the different topics and sounds – you have a whole roadmap stretched out in front of you that you can slot your song into. You can write a dance banger or a weepy ballad. A punk anthem or an indie classic. Whichever you choose, hopefully this guide will inspire and empower you to get started.
What do I need to get started?
The great thing about songwriting is, in terms of equipment, you need very little.
When thinking about writing the lyrics for your song you can use good old-fashioned pen ‘n’ paper; maybe your laptop or computer, your phone, a Dictaphone, or something to record your voice.
I spoke to a lot of musicians while creating this guide, a lot of whom said that inspiration can hit us anywhere, so it is a good idea to keep a notebook or even your phone handy to capture those ideas.
I tend to come up with ideas for songs when I’m moving. I’ve written a lot of songs while swimming (at night at my local leisure centre, which has an outdoor pool – perfect for some leisurely backstroke, watching the bats overhead!). I also get ideas when driving – I’ve been known to pull over to quickly sing a few lines into my phone at the side of the road. (I’m cycling more these days which makes song writing on the road much harder!) I tend to have a vague idea for the kind of song I’d like to write in my head, and then let that develop over a few days. So, I’ll think “right, I want a song about what goes on in the ladies loo on a Big Night Out, and I want it to sound like the Shangri-Las with Joan Jett”. I’ll muse on that, and ideas will pop up while I’m going about my life.Cassie Fox (LOUD WOMEN’s founder and I, Doris noise maker)
Writing melody and music may require your instrument of choice. But if you don’t have an instrument of your own, or don’t have one to hand when inspiration strikes, you can search for an online simulator of pretty much any instrument. It can certainly help you sound out a melody and identify different notes and how to write them down so you don’t lose them. You can also use the record function on some of these websites to play back your composition ideas. Try these:
- Virtual guitar – Play guitar online | Musicca
- Virtual Piano – Online Piano Keyboard | OnlinePianist
- Virtual Drumming | Learn how to drum and music making games
What should I write about?
This is the best thing about songwriting: you can write about whatever you want to! Taylor Swift is known for writing about relationships and romance, drawing from her own experiences. Joni Mitchell wrote a lot about social and political issues. Grace Slick wrote a lot of fantastical, psychedelic songs. No topic is off limits.
Maybe make a list of topics that you really feel you would like to express your thoughts about. These can be personal things (my feelings towards my partner, my job, a particular event or cause) and then start to expand on those topics. What do you want to say about your job? Why do you feel strongly about that cause? What’s the story you want to tell?
NYC Riot Grrrl band Basic Bitches are all for looking for inspiration anywhere you can find it:
I know people say you should write what you know, but the endless array of dreary songs I wrote in my early 20s about people who didn’t want to go out with me suggests otherwise. We’ve written songs inspired by real events but also random internet headlines, books, and most recently an entire album about movies we’ve watched. I once wrote a song based on a misheard lyric from someone else’s song – I liked my version better! We recently wrote a song based entirely on a phrase I wrote down years ago – I just had a feeling there was something there.Basic Bitches
Be open to inspiration around you, and if it feels like you could make a song out if it then you probably can!
Alanis Morissette always has one eye on drumming up material for a song, even if it is not going to be used right away.
In the year or two between albums, I will have filled up two or three journals. When I’ve written something in my journal that might be an idea for a song, I put a star next to it. Then when I’m writing, I would flip through the pages in the journal, and find the passages with stars.Alanis Morissette
Still stuck for inspiration?
Writer and performer Helen McCookerybook has this great advice for beating writers’ block:
This is a way to develop a song idea when your mind is totally blank, and you have complete writer’s block. Look at the day’s newspaper headlines – the simpler, the better, so that’s the tabloids (ugh!). Headlines have already been chosen to be short, punchy and convey an idea in just a few words. Don’t choose anything too specific or complex; choose ‘Every month is madness month’ rather than ‘Solicitor decides to prosecute Sainsbury’s for negligence’, for instance.
Choose a few (maybe six?) different ones so you’ve got a selection, take them away from their original context and write them down. Read through them one by one and imagine a melody for each – or sing it out loud. Choose the most singable one.
That’s the seed of your song, and the song title. Have a break, then come back to the phrase, and forgetting about the original story, work it up to a two, three or four line chorus. You now have a summary of a song story, and that’s where your verses come in: one, the introduction, two the development, three (possibly) developing it more and a final concluding verse, with your chorus chiming in whenever you need it. In the cold light of the next day, you may think it’s rubbish – but at least you’ll have broken your block and had a creative day.Helen McCookerybook
How to structure a song
The most traditional structure for a song is using a combination of verse, chorus, and maybe a bridge.
- Verses: There are normally multiple verses in a song and the lyrics usually differ between them.
- Chorus: The chorus is the part of the song that is repeated most often and often contains the title of the song and/or has the biggest crescendo. They are also usually the catchiest part and the bit we all remember when we sing along!
- Bridge: Sometimes called a ‘pre-chorus’. Not all songs have bridges but if they do, they normally help build from the verse to the chorus (e.g. the “Oh, I see a man in the back as a matter of fact…” section of Ballroom Blitz by The Sweet)
- Coda: A final section to the song that leads us out on a different pattern (e.g. the end of Rebel Girl by Bikini Kill)
- The middle 8: A little extra something different over 8 bars – round about the middle of the song! (e.g. the ‘Greta Garbo and Monroe…’ section of Madonna’s Vogue)
You might see these song components referred to by certain letters: each part is designated one letter so that you can easily write the structure down. For example, the verse is referred to as A, the chorus is B, and the bridge is C. So ABABCB means: verse — chorus — verse — chorus —bridge — chorus. It might help to label different parts of your song, so it is easier to write down which order you want things in.
It is not necessary to stick to these structures, but they might provide a useful starting point when segmenting your song so that there are different patterns and melodies (i.e., it doesn’t sound the same all the way through).
Listening to some of your favourite songs will help you identify different types of song structure. Do they go: Verse-Bridge-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Chorus? Or do they do something different? Think about how different structures impact the overall sound.
This can be a bit daunting, especially when you get started. How do you pick up a guitar and just start playing the tune in your head? How do you write it down so your hard work is saved?
This is where listening to music can really help develop your ear. Listening to songs or isolated chord progressions online can help you get used to how different notes sound and how they sound together.
Basic Bitches agree that this can be useful:
Learn other people’s songs. Whether you’re looking up tabs, watching YouTube videos, or working things out by ear, learning other people’s songs is a great way to learn how songs can be structured, what chords sound good next to each other, how to play certain kinds of riffs etc. Don’t be afraid to look outside of your chosen genre. Covers are also a great way to get the juices flowing at a band practice, especially if you don’t know each other very well, just make sure you progress to writing your own songs, otherwise you’ll end up being a wedding band.Basic Bitches
You don’t need to be able to score sheet music in order to save your tune for posterity – but do ensure that you have some way of noting down how you hear the music. You can record yourself humming/singing it. If you are playing the tune on a guitar or bass or other instrument you can draw your finger movements (i.e. tabs) or video yourself playing! Someone might be able to help you annotate the notes further down the line.
Writing in a group
Of course, writing a song doesn’t need to just be all you doing the work – spread the load around with your mates! Many people find it much more productive, unpredictable, and fun to write with other people, especially in a band.
We asked Jon Langford of the legendary Mekons to share some secrets of their collaborative songwriting experience:
We tend to book a studio and then think about what we might do in terms of big picture ideas, sonic styles, abstract notions. Usually, we agree on the title for an album before we venture in… A song can be anything you want it to be – sometimes we have verse chorus structures, sometimes there’s not much structure at all. Words are usually cobbled together in the studio to fit tunes that somehow appear out of the sounds that get generated. Sometimes we like to send around mix tapes of tunes by other people. We used to make cassettes called ‘Mekons Bible’ prior to recording – just to set the tone, establish any area we all agree on. So, no polishing ideas and honing the songwriting chops for us. We like it best when we are scribbling in a frenzy and handing lyrics into the vocal booth while the tune is being mixed…Jon Langford – The Mekons
Just like any creative, you will find out the process that works for you. You may start with reams and reams of lyrics and then work to compose a melody and rhythm for them. Or you may be humming a kickass tune in the shower and set about getting it some word-friends. There’s no right or wrong answer! But in case you’re wondering how other people do it, we reached out to some of our musician mates on the LOUD WOMEN scene to see how they do it:
As a band we’ve learnt over the years to write in different ways, but most often write together. We mess around together until we have a song and find its energy and then Hanni goes off and writes the words! We record every step on our iPhone voice notes, so you can see how the song has developed and you never lose any of those little gems. Same is true with Hanni’s songwriting, whenever I get an idea, I record it into my phone so I don’t lose it. The most important step for me (Hanni) in songwriting is knowing that nothing is off the cards. In songwriting, songs can be as profound as mundane as you want; just write about what’s important to you!Hanni and Clara from ARXX
My top tip for song writing that I find really helpful is not to edit yourself whilst you’re writing. It can be so easy for our inner critic to take over. Allow yourself to be free and in the flow. Enjoy the process. Remember you can edit the song and make amendments once you’ve finished. Also, taking a few days away from the song can be helpful. This allows you to come back to it with fresh ears.MIRI
So, you’ve got some song ideas, you’ve got some melodies, you now want to refine the song and maybe get it out into the world. What next steps can you take? Do you want to record your songs? If you do, and you don’t know where to get started, we got you: check out: LOUD WOMEN DIY GUIDES #1: How to Record Music at Home
[Once I have written the song] I’ll demo it (playing guitar, bass, and keys into GarageBand, with vocals and backing vocals, over a simple drum machine track) share it with the band, and then so long as the Dorisses like it we’ll give it a go when we’re next in a practice room together. When all the band members add their own touch, that’s when the idea becomes a real, live song.Cassie Fox of I, Doris
Don’t fancy doing all this on your own but you’re currently minus a band? Well, if you’ve got access to the internet, then there are lots of great places to advertise for likeminded individuals:
- You can put a post in the LOUD WOMEN Facebook group about what kind of music you like to make and what other instrumentalists you are looking for.
- If you’re a musical newbie, you might find bandmates to learn the ropes alongside on First Timers.
- Young women and non-binary youths can join the Girls Rock School movements – there are city chapters around the world.
- You can try websites like Join My Band which is like a classified ads page for budding musicians. Please be mindful about your privacy and security when posting on any website at all. Don’t give out personal details to strangers, and make sure you can keep yourself safe and block/remove profile/report to moderators as you see fit.
- Don’t be shy about reaching out to your friends. It is a lot of fun if everyone is starting out together. Even if some of your friends may never have expressed an interest in getting all musical before, when they hear you are giving it a go, they might be inspired to join you. You could start a musical movement in your friend group alone!