Now that you have studied chord progressions and music theory basics, it’s time to write a song! First, we will review some essential steps and helpful pointers and then work through a few examples. So, grab your guitar and something to take notes with, and let’s get started!
7 Steps to Writing a Song
Below are most of the major steps to take when you want to write a song. There really is no specific order and not all need to be followed. And of course, sometimes a song is written out of the blue. Remember that the guidelines are just helpful to use until the sparks fly!
Most readers here will likely be guitar players, so the step of playing an instrument is mostly taken care of. However, these rules apply to really any musician or singer. Regardless of your experience in any instrument, you can start following these steps in writing a song.
1. Key Signature
If you haven’t studied the Circle of Fifths yet, it should be on your musical to-do list. The most helpful aspect of keys is knowing which you sing best in. This can be done with a tuning app or just playing songs in different keys and experimenting while singing.
If you are writing for other people G, C, and D are the most commonly used key signatures. Luckily with a guitar, you can use a capo to quickly change keys. And there is nothing wrong with that at all, especially at a show when playing a song is easier on the fly.
2. Chord Progression
Chord progressions are very important when writing a song. They are the building blocks of western music and the best way to know what people want to hear. One of the easiest ways to write a song is to pick an appropriate progression and build on it. Knowing which chord sequence to use comes with practice.
While it is ok to use other songs as learning examples, we have to be careful using direct progressions from specific songs as that can stifle the creative process. To make sure you don’t get bogged down in sounding too familiar just pick a common chord progression and go with it.
3. Scales and Modes
The scales and modes are essential to help refine your chord progressions and make it stand out from other similar songs. If you don’t have a full grasp on scales yet that’s ok because you always have your ears to listen for which notes work.
If you want to write music using scales and melody that is fine, just be sure to use the right notes over the chord progression. Since the guitar is a chordophone it is generally easier to start jamming on chords and then refine our melody from there.
4. Rhythm and Meter
If a songwriter is stuck on a chord progression and it sounds too much like another song, a great way to change things up is the strum or time signature. Explore some different meters and look beyond the normal 4/4 time. Metal guitarists have a head start on this as that genre loves to explore interesting meters.
Rock n roll is made of 8th notes, funk 16th, and metal gets into some crazy 32nd insanity on the double bass drum! These are generalizations but they work. A little study in rhythm will vastly expand your songwriting abilities.
There is no doubt that genres really all blend together these days, but it is still important to study the basics. If you are writing polka you will need to know which time signatures and common chords are used. Knowing specific points of a genre won’t stop you from using it for other purposes either.
Some genres will be easily accessible to most intermediate guitar players like rock and punk. Gypsy jazz on the other hand is not something a newcomer just busts out on day one. Regardless of how well you play a style, just make sure you study them as you never know when a certain strum, lick, or riff may come in handy.
6. Song Structure
The main parts of your song are going to potentially be the intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, outro, and a few other terms you will occasionally use. Like a chord progression, there are specific song formats used over and over like AABA, ABAB, or ABABCB.
The important part is the verse, chorus, and bridge. Generally, you take care of those before any flourishes or solos. However, if you happen upon a quick and awesome riff, you may want to build the song that way.
Adding words to your song is usually important unless it is specifically an instrumental (even then it may help). Words do not have to mean anything; the important part is they help you remember where you are going in your melody or story if it is that type of song.
If you have no clue at all for lyrics, then make up random ideas like scat singing or nonsense words. Paul McCartney claims that “Yesterday” was originally “scrambled eggs” before he had the right words. Place markers are fine and to be blunt many songwriters will use blue material. Whatever helps you remember!
Helpful Songwriting tips
– Do not drag the song out, finish ASAP. There is always time to adjust and perfect it later. Anything you put aside to “finish later” often loses that initial spark. Immediately write down and compose what you can.
– Creativity can’t be forced; it needs to have a foundation to thrive on. The more you study your scales, intervals, and chord progressions the better your chance of creativity will be. Sometimes you may not feel creative, in the meantime follow the songwriting process and hope it comes.
– Need some lyric ideas? Go to any site that has a good random catalog, Wikipedia is the best. Click until something hits!
– Change your sound, not just other instruments but even other guitars. That doesn’t mean becoming a victim of GAS, just try others when you can. The best friend of creativity is always something new! Even trying different tunings is enough to make a guitar feel like a new instrument.
– When using your scales or voice to write the melody use steps and small skips. A step is just an interval and skips are where we move multiple steps. The average human voice isn’t capable of huge jumps so keep the skips small. Using arpeggios is a great way to find a melody
– As you play chords just ask yourself what does the next one wants to do? Remember to pay close attention to tension and resolution.
– Guitar pedals and modeling software are amazing for creativity. The software is sometimes the best as it gives you way more options than you could afford in real pedals!
– Be sure to move up the neck when using chord progressions. Play inversions and partial chords, don’t get boxed in with just beginner open chords.
Time to Compose!
Below are 5 song ideas and progressions that we will build into mostly full songs. Some of the decisions are up to you depending on the style you want to play. Let your own ideas come into the process, that is how the creative force begins to flow.
The commonly used I-IV-V is a great place to start, depending on the strum it can give us just about any genre we want. In the key of C, our verse will look like this.
Give each chord a measure at about 90 bpm with a simple “bum ditty” type strum. This is plucking the bass/root note downward, followed by two eighth notes down and up. Play the C chord and count 1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a, then follow with the same count for F, G, and then end on the C again with the same count.
That will give us 4 measures so far, we will repeat this again to get a full 8 measure verse and then jump into an 8-bar chorus that uses G-F-Am-G and followed by G-F-Am-G-C. Played like this; (G)1 and a 2 and a (F) 3 and a 4 and a (Am) 1 and a 2 and a (G) 3 and a 4 and a.
We play the chords faster as it picks up at the chorus, when we play this order again, we slightly hang on the G before going back to C with the G-F-Am-G-C. Don’t strum the Am-G-C up and down, instead play each one with one downstroke as the chorus ends. We then go back to the verse and chorus again giving us an ABAB song pattern.
Some simple folk or country songs just use ABABAB, but we can add a bridge in if we want ABABCB. This breaks our song up a little bit and gives us a chance to change the mood a little before we break back into a final chorus.
Let’s change it up by moving the bridge into the relative minor for 8 measures. Try Am for a measure and the Em back and forth three times, before ending on Am-G-C and going strong with the chorus until the end. Maybe even repeating the chorus again. The final structure will look like this.
G-F-Am-G-C (perhaps repeating)
Every two lines work out great for a rhyme scheme or you may be able to put two rhymes a piece per line. The point is to make the verse, chorus, and bridge stand out a little. You will want to change volumes, strums, and emphasis to make the song work.
After you have the chord progression down take the basic structure and experiment with different note orders and extended chords. Move up or down the fretboard, with potential inversions C/G-C/E-C fingered as XXX121312, XXX988, XXX553. And start small with extended chords like changing your G to G7. You’re not Frank Zappa, you don’t have to get crazy.
A different approach to these chords can provide an entirely new song. More emphasis on downstrokes and the removal of the minor bridge section will give a modern rock vibe. Or you can fingerpick and arpeggiate each chord for a slow ballad feel.
For this song, we will use I-iii-IV-V which often gives us a sort of epic or sad rock tune. We will pick the key of D giving us the progression D-F#m-G-A. To get start, just play each of these as a downstroke on the first beat, giving each chord a measure. We will attempt to fill these three beats of silence in later with single-picked notes or arpeggios.
The first eight measures are counted as (D) 1-2-3-4 (F#m) 1-2-3-4 (G) 1-2-3-4 (A) 1-2-3-4 twice. The single strum even sounds nice with a little muted string percussive effect, as this helps create how the song will feel. After the D-F#m-G-A (X2) we strum harder on Bm-D. Like the last song we will now have two chords per measure.
Bm-D will be played (Bm) 1-2 (D) 3-4 three times and then (F#m) 1 2 3 4 (G) 1 2 (A) 3 and (D). Now this can be our whole song and it will sound fine if we just repeat these sections. But if we want an epic piece, we need to add something more!
Modulate from D into the new key of A and a separate section of song. This has to have a different vibe by playing it with a faster strum. (A) 1 and a 2 and a (E) 3 and a (D) 4 and a (F#m) 1 and a 2 and a (C#m) 3 and a (F#m) 4 and a. Repeat this but on the second-round end on an A instead of the F#m. Here we have the whole song.
Now the key of A maybe a little too uplifting for your new section, you may wish to modulate to other keys. But stick with that concept of the major to minor contrast. And as mentioned there is space to add some bass or melody notes in the initial chords. Try basic Ionian scales initially but expand and experiment.
The changing of keys, tempos, and rhythms will give one song the feeling of having multiple parts. In some cases, many musicians actually take partially completed songs and patch them together like above.
This one is very simple with only the I-IV-V in the key of A. But this time we are going to use the 6/8-time signature. That groove will get a bit of an Irish traditional vibe going. We will be playing A-E-D most of the time except for some flourishes of different orders.
The difference between 3/4 and 6/8 time is that they are counted 1 2 3 1 2 3 and 1 2 3 4 5 6. Very similar except we don’t have an accented beat every 3 notes, the 4 is not strummed as hard as the 1. It’s nothing too much to fuss over as long as you keep a waltz-like time.
Pluck down on your A major chord hitting the bass hard then strike twice going up and repeat, counting 1 2 3 4 5 6. And just play two measures a piece as you swing through A-E-D and then back to A again, just 8 measures.
After a repeat of the A-E-D-A you can break it up by keeping the 6/8 time but playing from D-E, pausing, and then back to A-D before ending the line on A-E-D-A again. A verse or chorus looks like this.
And this song is a perfect place to add in a little solo, so just try the A major scale to start with. These basic notes are thrown in with some hammer-ons and pull-offs
A-A-A C# D C# E A
A-A-A C# D C# B
And back to A-E-D, as traditional tunes are usually very simple when it comes to chords.
Here is another song with a very simple progression, but in a way that might get the creativity going. We start by tuning a guitar to open G with the strings DGDGBG. Next, we find a slide and decide if we are going to play normally or flip the guitar over like a lap steel. No one can stop you if you want!
Either way the key is to hold the slide on all strings and mute a finger behind it (to dampen any unwanted string screeching). Or if you wish you can just use your finger and practice barring the chords. This open tuning is going to allow us to play our blues scales and chords in G.
Starting with the open G strummed we can slide and barre our way through the major chords. Move up and down the frets as you locate where each chord is. With one hard downward strum on each chord, you get an excellent vibe on some blues. Of course, without a slide, you may not be able to fret too far up.
A progression like I-bIII-IV would be G-Bb-C-G and makes a great opening. Because you can make chord changes faster it is easier to experiment. Try a measure where each beat the chord changes G-Bb-C-Bb, on the second measure just strum the G. After playing that a little move up to C-Eb-F-Eb before ending back on G-Bb-C-Bb.
After that movement, we can even jump to D-F-G-F before resolving to our G-Bb-C. What we have is a I-bIII-IV all within a larger I-IV-V (we moved from G-C-D). A progression within a progression!
This same movement can repeat across the song for a perfect blues jam. Or you can slow it down and spice it up with some arpeggios as it’s easy to know where to play single notes when barring the whole fret. Keith Richards played in this tuning a lot as it is perfect to write blues and rock in.
This is why it is so important to try new tunings, they suddenly create a space where some chord changes are easy. If you don’t like what we’ve done so far it is very easy to play around with different orders. If we spend more time on each chord and have an upbeat strum voila, we get a rockabilly vibe.
And to be sure you don’t just assume this has to be a “blues” song. Keep in mind that the New Age hit from the 90’s “Sail Away” chorus has many similar chords. Play G-F-C-G on that open-tuned guitar and you will see it fits that song.
This song is going to be a mix of jazz standards (ii-V-!) and pop, a nice little ditty to get you playing harder chords! It will be in AABA structure and while the chords may look hard, they are similar to other progressions, just extended. Notice we have a minor ii and diminished VII which are common “jazz chords.”
C Dm7 C Dm7
C Dm7 C Dm7
Dm7 G Dm7 G
Dm7 G F9 C
F9 Bdim Em7 Dm7
F9 Bdim Em7 Dm7
F9 Bdim Em7 Dm7
F9 Bdim Dm7 G (1234 back into verse)
In this case, the fingerings for the harder chords are F9 (XX3543) and Bdim (XX3131) and Em7 (X22030) and Dm7 (XX0211). A great strum is ¯¯¯¯ and it starts as (C) 1 2 3 and (Dm7) 4 and then strums a measure of Dm7 before going back to C. This pattern repeats and then jumps to the same strum but with Dm7-G.
But now we only play Dm7-G three times before ending on F9 to C. That F9 is played quickly before ending on the tonic. It is not an easy jump and might take practice. Since this is AABA we will repeat the verse one more time before moving to the unique bridge.
This bridge is tough so it may be best to play a chord on every other beat. Each measure will have two chords, giving us a total of 8 for the B section. The bridge ends on the fifth with G to get us moving back into a final verse. It is nice to leave a little counting space before jumping back into it one more time.
Using extended chords doesn’t have to be complicated, just build on similar chord progressions and song skeletons that you have. Here the diminished, minor 7th, and 9th chords have given us a jazzy vibe, maybe even a number fitting a musical.
Here are 5 more potential songs to help inspire your writing. In this case, they are just some ideas that will require you to fill in the blanks!
Try the ABABCB structure with the i-bIII-bVI-V verse having a driving four on the floor beat, like a dance or disco tune. Move into the chorus with a more bubblegum pop sound.
Bridge or end of the chorus
If you want to play punk, metal, and rock you will often be using I-IV-V progressions with bIII and bVII substitutions. But to give it the correct sound you need to get out of regular tuning (and some distortion helps). Try these progressions a half step down, in drop D, and in drop C tuning.
Or sometimes stick to tritones, drones, and chromatic movements for that genre. A great death metal song chord progression using tritones is C-Db-Eb-E-F#. Be sure to focus most of your playing on the bass strings.
Besides inversions don’t forget to use slash chords in your music. This makes for awesome descending or ascending bass lines in pop and country songs.
Since every artist uses the axis of awesome chord progression you might as well give it a try!
And a great ending to switch it up is Cm-Am-G. Remember to try adding in chords out of key to potentially make a song better.
Doo wop progressions are the best, especially when played in 12/8 time. Luckily 12/8 time is similar to counting 4/4 in triplets, so it isn’t too hard of a stretch. Try adding a C6/9 in place of C major and minor 7ths also help that genre.
Am Dm back and forth until G
And there you have 10 potential song ideas. If you want to learn more the best thing to do is simply study the songs, you love best. Songwriting requires a lot of study and practice, but it is all accessible to every musician and artist if they just listen and copy. Once you can excel at mimicry… that is when you put your own creative twist on it! Happy songwriting!