Anyone can write a song. Really. Some people believe you have to know how to draw notes on a piece of paper or play an instrument, but the truth is, if you can hum a tune, you can write a song.
There are many techniques, of course, but for the sake of time and space, this article will focus on 5 basic steps for the beginning songwriter. And as you’ll see, playing an instrument and writing sheet music is nowhere on the list.
Step 1: Write a Working Title
Before you can write anything, you need to know what you’re writing about. A working title is a good way to help you stick with the topic, even if you decide to change the title later. To borrow one already written, suppose you were wanting to write a song like “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams, but you hadn’t yet come up with those exact words. You might start out with a working title such as “Life Blues” or “Bummed Out in Nashville.” Whatever it is, it could be an okay title, but something about it doesn’t stand out yet. It will come to you, but in the meantime, your working title will keep you focused on your subject, so you can continue writing.
Step 2: To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?
Grab your pen and paper, and get busy. We’ll assume for this article that you are familiar with how to write a typical 4 or 5-line verse and chorus, which is similar to writing a poem. The question for now will be, “Should you rhyme, or should you not rhyme?” The general rule here is, if you CAN rhyme, then you should. If you CAN’T rhyme, then you shouldn’t.
What this means is, if it will sound too forced to rhyme a lyric, don’t bother. Overall, you want the song to flow, so if rhyming the lyrics seems too obvious or causes a hangup in the song, move on. You can either come back to it later or simply don’t try to rhyme. Whichever way you choose, however, make sure you do the same on each verse. Others might not notice or care that you’ve switched formats from one verse to another, but other songwriters (and song publishers) will be blinded by it. It’s okay to break the rules now and again, but, as many have learned, you have to know what the rules are first before you can break them.
Another option for rhyming is to try near rhymes, rather than exact rhymes. For example, practice rhyming vowel sounds like “sound” and “brown,” rather than using exact rhymes like “blue” and “clue.” A lot of times, near rhymes sound more natural and less forced than going overboard with Nursery School rhymes, which tend to have a bit of an unprofessional feel to them.
So, rhyme or don’t rhyme, but whatever your preference, keep it consistent throughout the song.
Step 3: Sing It Into a Tape Recorder
It is possible as you have been writing your lyrics, you’ve also been humming a tune while penning it all down. If so, you’re almost done. If not, you’ll need to consider whether you want the song to be fast or slow (the lyrics themselves can usually give you a hint about this), and then try humming a few original bars until you find that right sound.
Once you’ve found it, this next step might sound like a frightful thought if you’re not a singer, but to keep a record (for yourself if no one else), you will need to sing it into a tape recorder. If you don’t do this, you’ll have to ask someone else to record it for you, or you’ll need to find someone to put it into sheet music form. Both of these are real options, although you’d still have to make a rough recording for anyone you’ve hired, but to stick with our topic here, you don’t have to qualify for American Idol to make this recording. For the most part, it’s for your ears only at the moment.
Go over the song in your mind or out loud, practice it a couple of times, then click Record and start singing. It doesn’t have to be perfect. For now, you’re merely wanting a copy of the song in order to remember it later. You may think you’ll be able to remember it forever and always, but trust me, it doesn’t work that way. All it takes is to hear the Oscar Mayer theme song while you’re flipping through the stations, and later you will be struggling to remember the tune you had in mind for your own song.
A note to the computer savvy: You can also sing your new song into a recorder on your computer, then burn it on CD. For this, a simple PC microphone will do the trick, or you can purchase a more expensive mic from a store like RadioShack.
Step 4: Let It Sit, Then Edit
This step might seem pointless to new songwriters, especially if you feel like you’ve already finished the song. Maybe you did, then again, maybe you didn’t. Some call this part a time of incubation, where you let your new song sit for a day or two, then listen to it again. If you think it still sounds as great as it did a couple days ago, you really are done. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’re more likely to notice a few kinks that need to be ironed out, so this is the time to do it.
Once you’ve made a few changes, repeat Steps 3 and 4 before moving on.
Step 5: Record Again and You’re Done!
Ready for your final draft? For this recording, you will want to be a little more precise, but it still doesn’t have to be the best of the best. The purpose of this recording is for two main reasons. One, to send a copy to the U.S. Copyright Office (you will need Form PA), and, two, to use as a rough draft if you should decide to have a professional demo recorded of the song, which is the only way it can be submitted to artists and record labels. FYI: Always send a copy, not the original.
It takes many hits and misses to write a good song, but if writing music truly means something to you, you’re bound to stumble across a few diamonds waiting to be discovered. And you never even have to pick up a guitar.