Songwriter U: Songwriting For Beginners

Written By Katie Sanakai for Guitar Tricks and 30-Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

Let’s say that you would like to explore songwriting and maybe you have some ideas for lyrics. What is the next step? Here are the things you need to know in order to jumpstart your songwriting.

1. A reference instrument

You may be an instrumentalist who already plays and would like to work on writing original songs. If so, you have a great foundation to begin writing a vocal melody. If you never played an instrument but you want to get serious about songwriting, I recommend you learn the basics of guitar, piano, ukulele, or some other instrument that can play the chord progressions that are the foundation for your song. Online guitar lessons are an easy, efficient and convenient way to start. 

Why use an instrument? The foundation of most music is in its harmonic structure. Even a song with no instruments playing (like a cappella music or a solo singer) is still informed by harmony. Harmony is the way we put chords together, and a progression is a sequence of chords, whether this is via piano chords or guitar chords. If this sounds intimidating, don’t let it scare you. Great songs can be written with only a few chords. 

2. An understanding of song form

The next important thing you will need when you begin songwriting is a knowledge of song form. You can think of it like song anatomy and you can compare it to a paragraph or stanza of a poem. Popular music is generally built using the following parts: 

Verse—a section that usually begins the song and moves the story forward. The melody of the verse will return later in the song with new lyrics

Chorus—the section of the song that will be used repeatedly with the same set of lyrics. This can also be thought of as the “hook” to the song. Because we hear the chorus several times throughout a song, it is usually the part that we memorize first and can sing back easily. 

Pre-chorus— an introduction to the chorus, usually shorter in length than the chorus. The lyrics often stay the same. 

Intro or outro—a section (usually instrumental only) that can begin or end the song before the vocalist enters or after they finish. The intro starts the song and the outro ends it. The intro and outro can be the same. 

Bridge—a contrasting middle section to the song, often involving a more drastic change in feel, harmony, style, or accompaniment. Bridges typically are not played more than once in a song.

Let’s do a quick analysis of two Imagine Dragon songs to demonstrate song form. Imagine Dragons is great at writing catchy choruses—whether or not you listen to this genre, you can probably easily recall and remember these choruses. 

“Thunder” by Imagine Dragons

Intro: sampled environmental sounds

Verse 1- “Just a young gun”

Pre-chorus- spoken “Thunder” with vocal distortion

Chorus- “Thunder, feel the thunder”

Verse 2- “Kids were laughing” 

Pre-chorus- spoken “Thunder” with vocal distortion

Chorus- “Thunder, feel the thunder”

Bridge- guitar solo only (this could also just be considered a solo break, but it does provide contrast) 

Chorus- “Thunder, feel the thunder” 

Outro- Guitar riffs/percussion/electronic sounds to the end

“Natural by Imagine Dragons

Intro: humming

Verse 1- “Will you hold the line” 

Pre-chorus- “That’s the price you pay” 

Chorus- “Cause you’re a natural” 

Verse 2- “Will somebody let me see the light” 

Pre-chorus- “That’s the price you pay” 

Chorus- “Cause you’re a natural”

Bridge- “Deep inside, I’m fading to black” 

Chorus- “Natural” 

Outro- instrumental that mimics the humming from the beginning

3. An understanding of chords

To build a chord, you need to stack 3 notes vertically into a major or minor chord
(2 notes can be used to make a chord as well, for example, a power chord on guitar. You can use an online chord finder to help you learn more chords). However, most chords on piano or guitar would have at least 3 different notes, and then those notes would be doubled. When you learn guitar or ukulele, you are learning the chords that you will need to build a song as well as the chord’s name. Try using a guitar chord chart to learn chords more quickly.

When you learn piano, the chords are not always as explicit. For example, you can learn to read sheet music before you realize you are playing C chords and F chords. There is also a lot more variation that can happen on a piano—the 88 keys and many octaves give you lots of variation on how those chords can be played. But in order to songwrite, you will need to be able to form chords by stacking 3 notes on top of each other. This can be done simply with one hand by using your thumb, middle finger, and pinky to play the stack. 

4. A progression

After you can form chords on your chosen instrument (or app) the next thing you need is a progression to sing over. Remember a progression is a sequence of chords. In terms of the song form above, there is typically one progression that will last for the entire section. For example, you might have one four-chord progression for the verse, and a different four-chord sequence on the chorus. Some songs use the same progression throughout, however.

On your chosen instrument, try alternating between the chosen chords of your progression. If you are unsure how to do this, try doing a search for an instructional YouTube video that can show you how to put these progressions together. Keep in mind musicians use Roman numerals to label chords. There are only 7 chords to choose from in a given key, and this is how they are notated.

1=I, 2=II, 3=III, 4=IV, 5=V, 6=VI, and 7=VII.

Chord VII is very infrequently used and III is also less well-used. So that leaves us with I, II, IV, V and VI as the best building blocks for your song. Let’s try a progression in the key of C:

Here are some examples: 

A two-chord progression:
I-IV (C-F)
I-V (C-G)

A three-chord progression:
I-IV-vi (C, F, am)
V-IV-I (G, F, C)

ii, IV, I (dm, F, C)

A four-chord progression:
I, ii, IV, V (C, dm, F, G)

I, vi, V, IV (C, am, F, G) 


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