Help! I’ve Never Written A Song Before…

…what do I do?? I see this question often on message boards and blogs all over the web.  If you’re one of those out there asking this question, then let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start ;-)).

First of all, you might want to begin with an instrument like a piano or guitar.  The majority of songs are written on either of these two instruments, so if you know a few chords, you’re already ahead of the game! Sit down and play around with a few progressions (a series of chords) and see what you can come up with.  Don’t worry about writing a WHOLE song, just see if you can find a nice chord progression that pleases your ear, and then try humming something on top of it.  Again, don’t worry about where it’s going to go or what it means or if it’s any good!  The most important thing is to start the process.  The “finessing” comes later.  I’ll get back to the music part in a minute.

Some songwriters like to begin by writing down some lyrics.   If you decide to start this way and then find yourself sitting there for an hour in front of a blank page, then don’t push it.  It’s more handy to keep a pad of paper and a pen with you wherever you go, and/or a digital voice recorder (even smart phones come equipped with audio recording capabilities these days!).  That way, when a line or phrase comes to you, you can write it down or record it for use later.  However, you might find yourself writing lyrics at your first sitting.  It’s REALLY important not to judge what you’re writing too much at the start, so if there is something there, let it flow out of you without editing yourself.  The editing comes later!

Another question that comes up all the time is “what should I write about?”.  The truth is you have a whole lifetime of experiences to write from, so that’s a good place to get some ideas.  I’ve written two articles that relate to songwriting topics, one called the Songwriting Topics Poll and another called Nothing To Write About?, which is a little exercise to help you come up with some ideas.

Ideas are everywhere if you’re looking for them.  You might hear a bit of conversation from someone, or read a line in a book that just jumps out at you.   You might have had a particularly interesting experience, or just want to express your own view of something. Once you start getting some ideas out, you might start thinking about different parts, like putting in a chorus or a bridge. I’ve got an article called Song Forms And Terms that is a quick study on what these are and what their purpose is.  In more in depth articles, I tell you more about the chorus in Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus and the verse in The Verse’s Purpose, and even about The Bridge.  Understanding the different parts of a song will help you to shape it and make it work.

If you are trying to create a melody for your song and struggling somewhat, I have an article on The Magic of Melody and  another article on Putting Music to Lyrics which might help you if you’ve written lyrics, but don’t know where to do from there. The fact is that there are many, many articles on this site, but just start with the ones I have given you, and later on you might find the need to read some others!

A lot of people find it easy to start a song but not so easy to finish it.  This is going to happen from time to time, so don’t worry if you lose steam part way through.  Put it away and look at it again later.  That is not to say that you can’t “finish” a song in one sitting, that happens too.  Maybe you’re just chomping at the bit to write something and it all comes spilling out in one session.  It’s exhilarating when this happens, so bask in the glow of your new found creative self!  Then walk away from it for awhile and come back to it again. That’s why I put quotations around the word “finish” because there is no such thing as a song coming out perfect the first time.  Unless you are Beethoven or some other musical genius (I know, I know…SURE you are :-)), the real work is going to come when you sit down and revisit and revise it.

Why would you bother?  Because this, my new songwriting friend, is the mark of a good songwriter!  A great painter doesn’t just slop some paint on a canvas and consider it done.  There are always little spots that need re-doing, little touch ups that have do be tended to.  So once you have complete song, teach yourself early to look for and fix the “bits” that don’t work.    And that is for another blog!

Good luck with your new songwriting venture 🙂 IJ

Songwriting Without An Instrument

Recently someone commented on one of my blogs that they would like to know how to write a song without an instrument.  You would think that because there is music involved, it would be next to impossible to write a song without any musical “ability”. If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true! Most guitar teachers can tell you that.

The Cmaj chord in guitar, with bass in G
Image via Wikipedia

Even if we are not singers, we can all hum.  And if you’ve been around music all of your life, as most of us have, you’ve probably found yourself humming along or singing along with your favourite songs.  If you already have some lyrics written, free yourself from your musical inhibitions by “singing” them in some sort of way that gives you a feel for the meter (rhythm) of them.  Don’t worry whether or not it is GOOD, just do it!  See if you can’t find some kind of melody that matches the meter and then just keep experimenting.  You might find that you “hear” certain melodies with certain lines and not with others.  That could mean that you just haven’t found it yet, or it could mean that the lines with no melodies just aren’t working.  So keep working at it, change the lines or mess around with another melody…just keep trying.  The more you liberate yourself from feeling like you CAN’T do it, the less inhibited you will become.

If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true!  Most people learn an adequate number of chords within a few weeks or months, for instance, to be able to play a good selection of songs that they like.  The fact is that many songs are rather simple in their chord progressions (a chord progression is a series of chords), and so they can be learned fairly easily.  So you can probably learn enough chords in a couple of months to start trying to match them to your lyrics.


As a songwriter, you don’t have to be a master of an instrument to adequately come up with some chords to your song.  So what I am advocating first is that you could pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and fool around with it by ear so that you can familiarize yourself with finding little melodies on it.  It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking, just a simple way of getting to know the instrument so that you can feel comfortable with it.  Then if you feel ready, you can find some resources to show you how to play some simple chords, and then take it from there.

Your other option is to find someone who CAN play, and who can help you find chords and melodies.  This might take some doing, but then again, there could be someone in your own backyard or circle of friends who already plays and might be willing to experiment with your lyrics.  You can either give the lyrics entirely up to them, or you can sit with them and try to come up with some ideas together.

A third option would be to invest in some kind of software like Band-In-A-Box which is a clever computer software program that you can create backing tracks (music) to your melodies or lyrics with little effort.  You can play with chords without knowing which chords go together, and you can pick styles and instruments, again, without knowing much about them, and still come up with a decent sounding “band” to sing your songs along with.

I was at a songwriting retreat once where one of the participants in my little group didn’t play an instrument at all.  Somehow she had found someone to come up with chords to her melodies, so when it was her turn to perform one of her songs, she just gave the chords to someone who could play guitar and she sang along with him.  I admired her for her dedication to songwriting even though she had never learned an instrument.  And you don’t have to be limited either!

Now I know that some of you out there reading this blog might have suggestions of your own, so if you do, please add them below!  Comments and replies always welcome :-).


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Million Dollar Baby, or Not?

The video below will play automatically, so hit the pause button on the video if you’d like to read the article before hearing the song!

“Never Is Forever” is Floyd Murray’s lottery ticket to a happy retirement, if he has his way.  He is offering the copyright to this song for auction on eBay for a million bucks.

When I read the CNN iReport it said that a search of “hit song copyright”, including quotes, would bring up the auction, which was reportedly to begin on March 26, 2010.  However, when I went to eBay and did the search, it did not come up.  Did he perhaps have second thoughts?  Here is an excerpt of his response when asked why he is selling the rights to the song:

“My age and my life situation (and the current industry and economy) dictates that I won’t be going on tour any time soon to promote and perform my music, and I haven’t actively pursued any publishing or licensing deals. I’ve been sitting on this song, and every time someone hears it, they tell me how great it is and ask why it’s not on the radio. So I’m just offering it up to someone who sees it on its merits and can take it and run with it. I guess I’m selling my pension plan. I’m creating my own economic stimulus package.”

I listened to the song and you can too on the video posted below.  While I appreciate that Mr. Murray may really only be hoping to create a little nest egg for his retirement, the fact that he has been sitting on it and not pitching it to publishers himself first, was a mistake.  What most songwriters with any experience will tell you is that you need decent and honest feedback from people who are objective and know what they’re talking about.  Your friends, family and acquaintances don’t count!  Some smaller publishers will respond within a few weeks as to whether or not they are interested in the song, and sometimes they will give some feedback in their response.

Why am I saying all of this?  Because as far as I can hear, the song has some glaring flaws.  First of all, it has the same chord progression throughout, the same three chords, so there is no contrast between verses and chorus (if, indeed, there was a chorus).  That alone wouldn’t necessarily spell disaster, except for the fact that it’s a county song and most country publishers or labels won’t even let you in the door without a big, splashy chorus.

Secondly, the word “never” is used ad nauseum.  Now I know that the song has “never” in the title and this is obviously the theme, but using it in almost every line is enough to put anyone to sleep.

Which is why I only made it through the first half of the song.  So he may have actually switched the chords up at the end of it, or used the word “never” less as it went along, but I wouldn’t have heard it.  And neither would most industry-types if they threw it on in its present state.  Which is the sad reality:  most songs sent to publishers or industry people aren’t listened to past the first verse and chorus (if there is one).  It doesn’t take long for them to decide that “this ain’t it.”

It could very well be that Floyd Murray is just trying to get a little attention for himself, but actually I think he is probably sincere and really thinks he has a hit on his hands.  Which kind of reminds me of that guy I wrote about a couple of months back who wants to sell a million CDs.  I wonder how he’s doing? [Update Nov/12…his video and website disappeared and now he has only a website with himself doing mostly cover songs. So much for the million sales!]

I wish them both luck.  This is the day and age when it takes a lot of creative thinking to come up with ways to draw attention to yourself and your songs.  But first, the songs have to be good.


The Use of Contrast in Songwriting

Contrast, as defined in the dictionary, is: To set in opposition in order to show or emphasize differences. Black and white are two contrasting “shades” (they’re not colours!) and can be used as a visual way to describe contrast in songwriting.

Black and White "Model" Cupcakes
Image by clevercupcakes via Flickr

When you’re first writing a song (and I ALWAYS emphasize this!), you are not thinking about technique or creating dynamics, tension or contrast…you are simply expressing something in its raw form. Many songwriters never get beyond this raw state, never develop their writing or learn to polish their songs, and the lack of contrast is often a result. If absolutely everything in a room was white, how boring would that be? This is what songwriters who are just starting out don’t necessarily recognize in their own songwriting.

So what exactly IS contrast in songwriting? Well, it can be achieved in different ways. If your song has verses and a chorus, contrast may be created between those song parts. For example, the verses might have a melody in a lower range, and the chorus in a higher range. Another way to achieve contrast would be a different chord progression in the chorus as compared to the verse. It can be a subtle as starting the chorus with a different chord than the verses start with. Contrast doesn’t have to be “in your face”, it simply creates a feeling of freshness between the parts of a song. A bridge can be a really effective contrast. You’ve set your listener up, starting them off with a verse and chorus, another verse and chorus, and now you want to give them a breather, so you create a bridge.

So, melody and chord progressions can be used to create contrast, what about lyrics?  The most subtle lyrical contrast would be in terms of the subject by changing the point of view or creating a different idea (but not too different!) between two parts of a song.  A very simple example would be where the verses are in the first and second person (I, me, my and you), and the chorus being in the third person (she, he, they).

But a broader and more effective contrast would be to actually change the form of the song by changing the rhyme scheme or the length of lines and the meter.  You see this happening most of the time between a verse and a chorus;  the verse has its own rhyme scheme and meter and the chorus changes to another set.

Contrast can also be created in the production of the song where the instrumentation changes between different parts.  This has less to do with the songwriting, but if your song is missing some contrast or the contrast is not strong enough, adding or changing instruments in the production and recording phase can enhance the parts so they stand out a little more separately from each other.  What often happens with drums in a chorus, for instance, is that the rhythm stays more or less the same, but cymbals (or what they call a “ride”) are added.  Drums also accent a coming change when they do small fills just beforehand.

Drums are only one example of the use of contrast in production, other instruments like strings can also be effective in signifying a different part of a song.  But for the most part, you want to be able to create contrast in the writing itself so you don’t have to rely on production to do it for you.

Contrast is something that be the difference between your audience being continuously drawn into a song and putting them to sleep! Listen to one of your favourite songs and see if you can spot what they do to create contrast. And then listen to one of your own songs to determine if you are creating enough contrast to keep it interesting!


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Q & A – Putting Music To Lyrics

Barre chord notation in classical music uses r...
Image via Wikipedia

© I.Woloshen

Here’s an email I received:

Dear Irene, I play guitar (lefty), just started, and i find it sometimes abit hard to get songs i like (like, by famous people, from the radio, whatever) abit hard to play, because i can’t get the exact tune. So i wanted to start writing my own songs. So i sat down to write some, and i couldn’t. i mean, i wrote a couple, but i can’t seem to accompany my voice (which isn’t very good) with my guitar. i like chords more than notes, so i just go through all the chords i know, just the main ones, and try to fit it together. Anyway, the whole point of me writing, is to say thankyou, you’ve helped me quite abit. But could you please put abit more about putting music with lyrics.

I began writing songs for the same reason you did…I couldn’t play my favourite radio hits! In fact, over the years I’ve met many songwriters who started for the same reason.

When I was in Grade 12, I was given the opportunity to write some music to several poems in the play “Through The Looking Glass”. The idea was that I would play and sing them during the performance with the cast…I was put up in a loft at the back of the stage with a sound system. But the first REAL challenge was writing the music. I had always come from a “music first” place in my songwriting, and never before had tried it the other way around, so when I first sat down with all of these strange poems, I had no idea where to start. After succeeding with one of them, the others came more easily. Here’s what I learned, and what I use to this day…maybe some of it will help you:

1. A song lyric should have a built in rhythm, or “meter”….which means when you read it out loud, you can sense a beat to the words. This will help you to establish the time signature…4/4 is most common, four beats to the bar. Simply speaking, the strum pattern on your guitar should reflect this time signature.

2. Before you even establish the chords, you need to find a melody that matches the lyrics. Don’t go near any instruments until you’ve tried just singing the lyrics accapella (without accompaniment) and found a melody. This takes practise! Look at the structure of the verses…how many lines are there? Are the lines the same length of syllables, or are they different? If you’ve got an even number of lines, say 4 or 6, try singing one melody for the first line, and then another for the second…repeat the first melody for the 3rd line and the second melody for the 4th…see how that feels. Keep it simple. When you get to the chorus, that should be a different melody. Try singing it higher up…the chorus is a kind of climax, if you will, so it needs to be more dramatic in some way. Raising the melody at the chorus is one way of achieving that. If there is a bridge…sing that differently too. Essentially, each part of the song has its own mini-melody, but they all fit together. Creating a great melody is not achieved instantly! Well, not in most cases anyway 🙂

3. Let’s assume you’ve found a melody…now what are the chords? There are several ways you can go about this, most of them take time! First of all, you can randomly look for a chord that “fits” what you’re singing. Knowing a little bit about chords will take you a long way. Is it a sad song? Should the chords be minor chords, or is it upbeat? Do you hear chords around it already in your head when you sing the melody? If you play guitar and have a capo, use that as a means of getting into a key that suits your voice and the melody…you don’t have to play barre chords or fancy progressions, just use the capo up the neck until you find something that’s close. Get yourself a chord book and find out what chords are in a key…which chords go together, in other words. Try out some of the other chords in the key you decide on.

4. When should a chord change? This is where your “ear” really comes in handy. When you listen to a song on the radio, can you hear when the chord changes? If you can, you’re already half way there. Start out simply, by playing one chord all the way through the first verse, let’s call it “Chord 1″…when you hear that the melody doesn’t “fit” that chord, that’s where you should change chords!

Okay, so now you need to find “Chord 2″…look in your chord book at all of the chords associated with and in the same key as “Chord 1″…and try them each out. Most likely, one of them will fit. So now we have “Chord 1” and “Chord 2”. Maybe your verse looks like this:

Chord 1
La, la, da da da, la, la, la

Chord 2
La, da da, la, da da

Is the rest of the verse repeating these phrases? Or are they different somehow? If they are the same, use the same two chords again. If they’re not, try another “associated” chord, or a chord in the same key. Now maybe you’re getting a feel to your song. Use the same process for the chorus, if you have a chorus, and the bridge, if there is one.

That is a beginner’s approach to writing melodies/chords to lyrics…remember to keep it simple! And when it gets “boring”, make a change! No one can write those melodies for you, it is something you learn to develop in yourself over time and with much patience (and sometimes none 🙂 Good luck!

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