The art of songwriting is an intriguing subject. Some people can write melodies but struggle with lyrics. For others, writing down wonderful lyrics comes effortlessly, but they simply cannot find a melody in their head for it. And there are many who claim to be able to do both but fail miserably at one or the other. The truth is that writing a hit song isn't easy. If it were, we'd all be doing it!
Luckily, there is no right and wrong when it comes to writing a song. There are, however, certain guidelines you can follow if you want to try your hand at writing a hit song. This "formula", so to speak, will put you in a better position to refine your craft as you work on creating your own sound.
Here are 10 tips that can make the process a little bit easier and guide you towards writing a hit song:
1. Writing Lyrics
When you write, remember that there is no right or wrong way of doing it. The important thing is that you get started and don’t give up.
However you decide to approach your song, remember to focus on one idea. If you have too many ideas, you’ll either confuse or lose your listener. It’s not like a movie where you have two hours to cover different topics. You only have three minutes to get your message across. So, make it count!
For many people, writing the lyrics is considered the easy part, but for some, it's the toughest part. Whichever side you find yourself on, here are a few tips to help you:
- Try and sum up your song in one sentence. This will help you to stay focused on one idea while writing your song.
- Borrow motifs and themes from songs that did well and inspired you, but don’t let it restrict you. To write a great song, you also need to think outside of the box. After all, art doesn’t exist just out of black and white.
- Although rhyming can be powerful if used right, rather try and avoid it. So, be careful of using simple rhyming schemes in your song because it can easily make it sound like a kids’ song.
- Try and write it like you would sing it. You can hum each line and see what vibe you’re getting. You’ll most likely start to get an idea of what can work and what won’t.
- To support powerful vocals, use words that end in vowels because it can be stretched while singing. Take Adele’s “Rolling in the deep” as an example. While singing, she stretches the ‘ee’ part in ‘deep’ to help show off her vocals.
- And lastly, a thesaurus will be the best songwriting partner! It will help you find alternative words to keep it interesting.
2. The Melody and Chords
Experimenting is the key when writing the melody of your song. And the easiest way for you to keep track of what you’re doing is a recorder. Recording yourself will enable you to listen back and to decide what works.
Once again, there is no specific step you should start with in creating your melody. You can either just try singing your lyrics first or start experimenting with some chords. Or you can mix it up by combining the melodies with some chords.
Playing around with these different ideas will help you find what you’re looking for in your melody.
If you’re struggling to find a melody, remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This means that there are many useful chord progressions that depend on only three to four chords.
Melodies and lyrics are copyrighted, but familiar chord progressions aren’t. Do research about chord progressions of famous songs and play around with it.
And if you decide to use one of those chord progressions in your song, just make sure you don’t use any of the melody or lyrics from that hit song you love so much.
3. Find Balance
Songwriting is all about finding the best balance between the different elements. This includes things like the structure, the verse and lyrics, key changes, and creativity.
And the good news is, with training and some dedicated practice, anyone can learn how to improve on these various aspects of songwriting.
4. Find a Subject
Coming up with a subject for your song is the first thing you should do before you start writing your song. The success of the song has a better chance if the listener has something they can relate to. Choosing a subject matter will help you to write the lyrics and you will also have a clear topic that you can base your research on. Yes, you have to do some research when you write a song.
If you are going to write about your own experiences, be sure that it's authentic or you may run the risk of coming across as "fake". In other words, try to write a song about an experience you have actually been through.
5. Find Inspiration
To write great music, you need to listen to music that inspires you. And there are thousands of songs of each genre that can help inspire and guide you.
Listening to great songs that really inspire you will guide you in understanding what makes a song great – a combination of storytelling, heartfelt lyrics, good music, and strong vocals.
To explore hit songs, go through lists like The Telegraph’s 100 Greatest Songs of All Time and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time to get an idea of songs that were really successful on the charts over the years.
6. Build On a Line
In a moment of inspiration, you may have written down a phrase.
Use it as a subject to create a whole song around. Whether it came to you in the shower or while you were watching the rain, something inside of you felt the need to tell the story about that one line.
Working with one line has proven to be one of the most effective methods to work with because you most likely have strong feelings about that particular idea and emotion surrounding it.
But, unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the words are going to flow from your pen.
You might find yourself staring at the line for hours on end without success, but don’t let it get you down!
When you feel stuck, use the internet, magazines, and any other form of inspiration you might find to help you build on that line.
You can Google your phrase and see what images pop up, or page through a magazine and see what gets your attention.
Or why not get out of town for the weekend? You never know what you might find; inspiration hides in many places!
7. Listen To a Beat
What comes first? The lyrics or the melody? This is the old chicken vs. egg conundrum of the music world. And the answer is…none of the above.
There are a lot of ways to write a song. So, whether you start with lyrics or the melody is completely up to you. But when you have a backtrack you like or a melody that you love playing on your instrument, it can always serve as your starting point or inspiration.
Sometimes that beat or melody will help the ideas to flow and steer you in the right direction; inspiring the subject of your new song.
8. The Song Structure
It’s important to remember that a song’s structure is considered a crucial aspect of songwriting. Think of it as a path that leads the listener through the story from the beginning to the end.
Most contemporary songs consist of the following:
The verse lyrics relay the information regarding your subject; making it possible for the listeners to understand the situation and the emotions of the song better. The verses in the song usually have the same melody to keep it familiar, but the lyrics are different.
The lyrics of the chorus usually sum up the heart of the song, which is why the song’s title almost always appears in the chorus.
We may hear the chorus three or more times during the song, while the melody and lyrics remain the same. Sometimes there will be minor changes, but it’s usually limited to a key change or the substitution of one or two words.
The bridge provides a break from the verse and the chorus, as it has different chord progressions, melody, and lyrics.
And the lyrics usually establish a revealing moment or insight – think of it as the side dish providing extra flavor to the meal.
When deciding on your song’s structure, keep in mind that listeners like some repetition to keep it familiar and a bit of variety to keep in interesting.
The most common song structure gives you something to work with and looks a lot like this: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, and finally chorus.
9. The Song’s Title
The title is usually the main hook or the repeated lyrics in the chorus, which helps in making it compelling and catchy. It also makes it easy relatable for the listener as they can easily make the link between the title and the song.
If you want to write a song with no chorus, use a descriptive term or phrase that sums up the song as a whole and makes a lasting impression.
10. Finishing Touches
Once you have written your song, you should always take a break and return to it after a few days. This will help you look at the song with fresh eyes and polish it with a memorable melody, emotional lyrics, and a steadfast structure. And don’t be afraid to ask someone’s advice! They might just give you that final nudge from good to great.
After your finishing touches, it’s time to record your demo and share it with the world. Then, why not enter it into a few songwriting contests that are worth checking out:
- America's Songwriting Contest
- The U.S.A Songwriting Competition
- The Global Songwriting Contest
- SongwriterUniverse‘s “Best Song of the Month” Contest
- The Great American Song Contest
- International Songwriting Competition
- American Songwriter Lyric Contest
- RedOne and Cody Simpson’s Singer-Songwriter Contest
- The John Lennon Songwriting Contest
- International Acoustic Music Awards
- SongDoor International Songwriting Competition
About the Author: Joseph Evans
My name is Joseph Evans and I am a guitar playing, freelance writing, online teaching music lover based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in a musical family naturally lead to obtaining my Bachelor of Music (BM) in Composition & Music Theory degree, after which I taught and traveled my way across Europe for 7 years before returning back home to settle in beautiful Seattle. On a typical day, you would find me playing my guitar, pottering around in the vegetable garden, going on long hikes, reading and/or writing.