Many people I’ve talked to think of songwriting as a dark art practiced only by people with the magical ability to conjure fully formed songs from thin air. There’s a lot that’s mistaken about this, but for now I want to focus on one simple point: most people can write a song. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s (relatively) easy.
“Songwriting isn’t easy,” you might think as you sit making random noise on the guitar or piano, “It’s impossible.”
Well, riding a bike is easy, but that doesn’t mean you can just hop on and ride. It takes practice and it takes concentration. But most people can do it. They just need to follow some simple steps.
Today I’m going to lay out two very simple methods for writing songs. Think of these as your training wheels. If you rely on them for the time being, you’ll be riding on two wheels before you know it. But in the meantime, you’ll get to enjoy the experience and build a foundation from which you can continue to develop ideas.
FIRST METHOD: A SIMPLE PROGRESSION
The first method I’m going to suggest might strike you as cheating. It might strike you that you’re not writing at all. But I assure you you’d be mistaken. Not only will this method get you writing songs, it will start you off on a very promising foundation, demonstrating that writing songs is anything but creating new material from thin air. Here goes:
First, play the following chords over and over: C–F–G-C. Listen carefully as you play them and try varying the time you spend on each chord. But don’t stop repeating the sequence.
Second, once you get a feel for the progression, start humming or singing whatever notes come to mind. Take your time. Try out new ideas until you land on something you kind of like. Don’t wait for a masterpiece, just something that sounds right.
Third, sing some nonsense lyrics to the melody you’ve come up with. Or sing about heartbreak. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re fitting words to melody.
Congratulations. You just wrote a song!
“Wait a minute,” you reply, “I just stole your song!”.
Actually, you just used a set of chords heard countless times in songs from every genre of popular music. And then you came up with an original melody over those chords, just like professional songwriters have done time and again. Reusing chord progressions isn’t stealing; it’s what musicians do.
SECOND METHOD: A LITTLE MORE VARIETY
The three chords you just used form a progression called the “I-IV-V”. If you’re interested in how chord progressions work and what these Roman numerals mean, take a look at my Practical Chord Progressions series. If you just want to write a song, then all you need to know is that this is one of the cornerstone progressions in a wide variety of musical styles. Once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be ready to kick away the training wheels and explore a richer musical landscape.
The first method was just to play these chords through and write a melody over them. But this only gave you a single musical part. Don’t most songs have at least two parts?
Most do (though it isn’t absolutely necessary). So let’s add a second part:
First, play and sing your song from above a few times until you really internalize it. Maintain the C-F-G-C sequence.
Second, go through your part and stop on the last C chord. Now, instead of starting again, move to either F or G. Then, if you moved to F, move to G. Or, if you moved to G, move to F. Play those two chords over and over.
Third, hum or sing notes over those two chords until you find something that sounds right. Now sing some words to that melody.
Presto! You have a chorus. Now you can return to the C-F-G-C, singing your original part. That’s your verse. Alternate between these two parts, and you’ve got a regular verse-chorus tune.
Try this exercise a number of times, coming up with a variety of songs. Once you get a handle on it, it’s time to mix things up. Feel free to try these three chords in any order you please. Experiment. Have fun. Throw in an Am if you really want to change it up.
Hopefully this exercise gets you excited about the possibilities. If so, check out my series of songwriting exercises that’s aimed at gradually building your songwriting knowledge, step by step.