5 Songwriting Tips for Beginners

I want to start this video on songwriting tips by saying I’m not some authority on songwriting. I’m just sharing tips with you from the perspective of someone who has been writing songs since I was a small child (probably 5 or younger).

My main songwriting focus has always been vocals and lyrics, with piano being secondary accompaniment to that. I haven’t written more than a handful of piano-only songs, and that would have been years ago – nothing I remember anymore.

Giant writing bin

Just to give you some perspective on how much I enjoy writing, this bin is full of binders and notebooks from childhood, my teenage years, and my twenties. It’s not all music, though probably 50% of it is. Which readily brings me to my first, most boring but most important songwriting tip:

  1. Practice, practice, practice.

I was lucky in that I started songwriting as a kid, so I got a lot of those embarrassing growing pains out of the way before I hit adulthood. But if you’re learning how to song write as an adult, the first thing you need to accept is that you’re probably not going to be very good at first.

Your chords and your words (if you write them) will be too obvious, the melody will be clumsy, and it’ll sound like your influences, not like you.

Songwriting tip: learn from your influences

That said, there’s plenty to learn from your influences. When I was 12 or 13, I invented a “game” where I took the lyrical template of a song and wrote it out. So I wrote how many lines in the verse, how many syllables in each line, and what the rhyming scheme was. I would use a pre-existing song as a template.

Then, I would write my own words within that template. This was incredibly useful – it’s not that I wrote any great songs this way, but it was a good way to learn – I was both exercising creativity and sticking to tried-and-true guidelines from someone far better than me.

So that’s number 2:

  1. Pick a piece of music you really like, break it apart to its smallest components, and then write your own song based on those components.

Instrumental music variations

If you’re doing this with instrumental music, you’ll need some understanding of chords and harmonies. You could do this in a variety of ways:

-by verbatim copying the harmonies but changing the melody
-changing the structure of the harmony (if the original is broken chords, experiment with solid chords)
-copying some but not all of the chords, leaving room for your own choices

Those are just a few ideas. Following chords like this is a good way to get “inside” a piece and figure out which chords work well together, and which don’t.

As for creating a melody, I’ve actually done videos on that topic – it’s too much to get into here. Do check it out if you want further compositional tips.

Songwriting tip: Don’t notate

Another thing you’ll notice about my songwriting scribbles is that it’s not notated. I virtually never notate, at least not at first. Personally I just find it too slow, and too set in stone.

The way I usually write first drafts is by simply writing the letters of the notes I’m playing. No, this doesn’t give me a sense of rhythm, but once the part is more solidified I might go in and notate the rhythm later. But the idea phase, the first draft phase, tends to be so quick and fleeting that I find it’s all about capturing the essence of the idea as fast as I can.

Songwriting tip: Record your ideas

If I’m worried about forgetting something, since I don’t have the detail of notation written down, I record it. Every time I get a new phone I fill it up with a massive amount of audio recordings of random ideas. Listening to that recorded clip will get the rhythm and tune back in your head if you’re confused on a later day, looking at your page of scribbles.

So that’s basically the next tip:

  1. Record all of your ideas.

I don’t write best when I work on strictly one song, start to finish, at a time. I like having lots of ideas, and building them up slowly when the inspiration strikes.

If I’m sitting down to a songwriting session, the first thing I usually do is noodle around for 10 or 15 minutes to see if there are any new ideas lurking in my brain. Sometimes I get new ideas this way, and sometimes I don’t.

If I don’t get a new idea, I go to my trusty notebook (full of my most current scribbles) or my phone’s large selection of audio files, and listen through a few. The vast majority of the time I’ll stumble upon something that I think sounds kind of cool, and I’ll start working on developing that idea.

Having an endless stream of random ideas means that I almost always have access to inspiration.

Songwriting tip: Most of your ideas won’t be very good

The funny thing is that most of my ideas languish and are never really actualized. Most of my ideas are actually pretty bad! I’d say for every 10 ideas, I probably get 1 objectively decent one. And that’s totally fine with me, and it’s why I’m always mining for new ideas. The more ideas I have, the better chance I have of getting a good idea.

I know not everyone writes this way. Some people write very few ideas, and see them all through to the end. But that doesn’t work well for me because I don’t like all of my ideas.

Well that’s not true – I love all of my ideas when I first have them. But a day later, a week later, when I listen to them objectively – I quickly fall out of love with most of them.

Which is my next tip:

  1. Throw away more ideas than you keep.

Songwriting tip: Strive for objectivity

It’s hard to look at your own art objectively – they’re like your own little pets. It’s easy to form irrational love-bonds with your ideas, even if they’re no good. That puts you in a position where you’re snuggling your pet ideas, showing them to everyone, and they’re just smiling and nodding because they’re more objective than you – and they can see that the idea isn’t very good.

So try to maintain objectivity when you’re writing. Not to the point of self-destruction, obviously. But I write with the mind-frame that I will always have virtually unlimited ideas, and most of them aren’t very good. I appreciate each idea, but I’m able to chuck them if they’re no good, with minimal heartache. It’s a little ruthless, but necessary.

Songwriting tip: Immersion

This next tip is a lyric-specific one, but it can be modified for writing instrumental music.

The way I usually draft my first set of lyrics for a song is by playing the instrumental recording (usually some rough jam) over and over, while writing free-form in one of my notebooks. I just let the words go wherever they want to go, without directing them or giving them shape. I don’t try to rhyme, I don’t try to write verses or choruses, I simply write the things that come into my mind while I’m listening to the music.

From this process I usually get about 90% stream-of-consciousness gibberish, but it usually unlocks the song’s theme. I’ll notice themes, colors, or a story emerge from the chaos of those words. And from there I’ll make it more coherent and launch into a first draft.

So adapting this to an instrumental medium would be taking advice from the master songwriters – putting up a piece of art in front of you, contemplating it while you play around on your instrument.

Or maybe you’re out in nature – less easy if you’re a piano player – and you draw inspiration from your environment.

Or maybe you can vividly imagine something – either something made-up or from your own life, and use that as your guiding light for the music.

  1. Immerse yourself in whatever you’re writing. Don’t just write in a vacuum. Really get in the emotional zone.

5 Songwriting tips: review

So to review, these are my songwriting tips for you today:

  1. Practice (constantly)
  2. Pick a piece of music you really like, break it apart to its smallest components, and then write your own song based on those components.
  3. Record all of your ideas (on paper and/or electronically).
  4. Throw away more ideas than you keep.
  5. Immerse yourself in whatever you’re writing. Don’t just write in a vacuum. Really get in the emotional zone.

All of these tips are based on practical application, and it’s how I’ve been writing music for 20+ years. I feel like these five points are what I most consistently practice when writing, and have helped me the most.

Conclusion

Hopefully this gives you some guidance if you’re just getting into songwriting. Or perhaps you already use some of the same techniques! Let me know what’s worked for you in the comments.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

Leave a Reply