Writing a Song: Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Guitar chord

Photo ©2015 Shanti Singleton

As a songwriter, I often get asked “How does one write a song?” In light of that, I thought I’d share a few of the ways I sometimes get started when it doesn’t just come to me. 

In all honestly, while there may not be as many ways as songwriters, some days it can certainly feel that way. A lot can depend on the kind of song you want to write, who your audience is, and the way you work best. 

So how do I write my songs? 

Quite often new songs sneak up behind me, all of one piece, and take me hostage until I get them pinned down. This has nearly gotten me fired from a day job before (but the song in question was totally worth it). Because of this I nearly always have something I can record and take notes with. Cellphones can be great for that. 

Sometimes I just get lyrics, rarely just a tune. For the longest time I thought I could only write when songs ambushed me, which meant sometimes years would pass with nothing new. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that I’m perfectly capable of setting out on safari and stalking and ambushing the songs in my head instead of the other way ’round. 

There are some simple exercises you can do to stretch your mind as far as lyrics go. 

Make lists of good song title ideas either as they come to you or challenge yourself to come up with say… ten in a week. Do the same thing with good first lines. Then when you’re stuck on what to write about, go through your lists and see if anything jumps out at you and gets you going. 

Find someone to collaborate with. If you’re looking to write a chart topper, guess what? They’re all collaborations. Seriously, go check and if I’m wrong, please do share! 

Save all your good snippets. Eventually you may write the rest, find out they slide into something else perfectly, or a handful may combine to make a whole song. 

Quantity. Be prolific and don’t be afraid to be terrible. You don’t have to share everything you create. Sometimes you’ll hate all but one line of something, but that line will be a jewel. Feel free to steal that and stick it in something better. You’re exercising your mind, learning how to build rhyming connections, a sense of meter, a feel for different rhythms. 

Rhyming dictionaries are your friend. They are not cheating. Professional songwriters use them all the time to help find more interesting and unusual rhymes and avoid the obvious over used ones (breath with death comes to mind). There are a few good online resources that show up with a basic search. 

If you can coax something resembling music out of more than one instrument and you have access, try playing around with different ones when you’re writing the music and see how that influences you. 

Whatever you try, give it a real chance. You’re unlikely to be instantly amazing at any technique, so give it time and be patient with yourself. At the same time, not every technique or exercise will match the way your brain works best. If something just doesn’t work, don’t beat yourself up over it. Move onto a different technique instead.  

Most importantly, have fun with it! You’re probably doing this because you want to, but if not… if you’re doing an assignment and you just want it over and done with? Find a way to use that frustration and work it into what you’re writing. There’s plenty of room in the world for satire. 😉 There’s always a way to turn a simple boring songwriting prompt on its ear, inside out, or upside down while still technically including all the elements you’re supposed to. 

Have a question about songwriting? I may not have all the answers, but you’re welcome to leave a comment and ask away! 

4 Comments on “Writing a Song: Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

  1. Hmmmm…. could you enable a “follow the site” ticky-box here in the comments? (If you don’t know how, I know people who do…)


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