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How to write a song in 12 steps from start to finish

There’s no doubt that there’s never been an easier time in our history to write, record, and release music than right now.

While this is beautiful in more ways than I can say, the problem that comes with this new territory is that the music world has become oversaturated.

An overabundance of new songs are being uploaded every single day making it difficult for an emerging artist to be heard above the noise.

So how do you stand out from the crowd?

In this article, I’m going to share what I believe to be the absolute essentials needed to write a song that grabs attention and holds it there based on my own experience as a professional songwriter and musician.

Behind the insights

I’m a producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator with over 16 years of experience in the industry.

Aaron Cloutier, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a graduate of the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences with a study in Audio Engineering, which led me to collaborate with artists ranging from Ill Nino to Sir Christopher Lee.

As an artist, I’ve self-published two full-length albums of my own music with a third album on the way.

As a professional songwriter, I have worked for a number of companies (namely, Songfinch and Songlorious) that specialize in creating personalized custom songs designed to tell the customer’s personal story.

As an employee, I am expected to write, record, produce, mix, and master an original song to be delivered to the client within three days.

After writing 100 songs (as of a few months back) for Songlorious, I’ve learned so much in terms of how to make quick decisions, stay in the creative flow, and streamline the writing/recording process in order to meet a deadline.

Okay, now that we’re best friends, let’s dig in!

Here’s my step-by-step approach to writing songs:

  1. Define your motivations.
  2. Organize your environment.
  3. Organize your time.
  4. Organize your tools.
  5. Start with the music first.
  6. Find your chorus melody.
  7. Lay down some chords for your chorus melody.
  8. Write rough lyrics to your chorus melody.
  9. Choose a structure for your song.
  10. Find the statement in your chorus’ lyrics.
  11. Tell the story of your song’s chorus through the verses.
  12. Finalize your song.

Step 1: Define your motivations

Before we get into the meat of it, I think this is an important place to start and something that often gets overlooked when one scours the web for how-to articles on writing songs.

There are so many avenues one can go down regarding songwriting with the most popular resources saying: “Hey do this! All the pros do it!”

While there is plenty to be learned by studying professional songwriters from all areas of the industry (and I encourage you to study from as many as you can), I think the important thing for you to get clear on, first and foremost, is what your true motivations actually are.

Ask yourself: Why do I write music?

Is it for financial gain? If so, you’ll likely want to go down the path of music licensing for TV and film which has its own set of parameters and formats to follow.

Is it to become famous? That too comes with its own rulebook on how to write songs that cater to a wide audience.

Ultimately, you’ll never be able to predict how an audience will respond to your song. All art is subjective and music is no exception.

However, history has shown us that the songs that stood the test of time and have resonated most deeply with an audience did so because the artist or band was writing to satisfy themselves first.

This makes sense because if you approach the songwriting process with the mindset of having an audience of one – you, you’ll write from a far more authentic place. That honesty and authenticity is what will resonate and connect with your audience.

Nothing’s guaranteed in this game, so I say start by pleasing yourself first, but that’s just me.

Step 2: Organize your environment

I think the problem with a lot of how to write a song articles is that they often overlook important details based on assumption.

Because of this, I think it’s important to touch on one of the most important elements conducive to creative work. Your environment.

Do you have a place you tend to always go when you need to write? Is it at home? Is it that coffee shop down the street?

Do you need to run to the public library because it’s the only quiet place for miles inside the noisy city you live in?

Are you lucky enough to have your own studio where everything is professionally treated? Or are you the type who’s always on the go, and all you need are some headphones and a laptop?

Where is your ideal environment?

As someone who suffers from misophonia (sensitivity to specific sounds), I can attest to how vital the need for peace and quiet is when it comes to the often delicate process of songwriting (especially at the beginning stages), and protecting that space is vital.

The slightest disruption can take me out of a creative state pretty quickly so there are certain environments I take great efforts to avoid when creating.

generating song ideas while sitting on a couch
Photo: Frank Vex

Ideally, I work from home. Typically on the couch with an acoustic guitar for generating rough ideas.

If the situation calls for it, I’ll toss on some noise-canceling headphones if there’s a lot of noise happening around the apartment, which occurs often and at random times.

My point here is to find ways to control your environment as much as possible.

Step 3: Organize your time

Do you have a certain time of day where you feel most creative?

Is it first thing in the morning? Or do you prefer to write at the end of the day when everything is quiet? Does it live somewhere in between?

Becoming clear of your daily habits as it pertains to songwriting can help you to determine how much time you need to budget each day in order to be productive.

For me, I find that I’m at my most creative first thing in the morning upon waking up. My ritual is always the same. I stumble over to the kitchen to grab a glass of water, hit up the coffee machine, and plop down on the couch to do something creative.

I don’t need to know what that creative thing needs to be by the way. It’s often better if I have no idea what I’m going to do. That feeling of creative freedom first thing in the morning really sets the tone for the rest of my day.

What I do know is that for the next 90 minutes, I’ll be working on something whether that’s coming up with a new guitar melody, refining a lyric, or even journaling as that is an expressive act in and of itself.

It doesn’t need to be this great big herculean endeavor. Just a little something to get the gears turning.

Just to recap real quick, some important questions to ask yourself are:

  • At what time during the day do I feel like I’m at my most creative?
  • How much time do I require in a given day to do what I need to do?

These answers are different for everyone.

Step 4: Organize your tools

The next thing you’ll want to do is gather up and organize your songwriting tools.

The idea here is to have everything you need to make your process more efficient at the ready and within reach so that nothing stops you from capturing inspired ideas as soon as they come.

songwriting tools and materials

The last thing you want is to be held back because of some kind of instrumental or technical limitation that takes time away from acting upon the inspired moment.

For example, your guitar is out of tune, or maybe the one you have on hand isn’t the “right” one for the idea you’re trying to manifest.

Maybe there’s a preset in one of your favorite plugins that inspires you instantly as you hear it.

Here’s an example of some of the go-to songwriting materials I have at the ready in my current ideal recording environment:

  • Phone to record my thoughts and rough ideas in either audio (using the voice note app) or video using the camera.
  • Stationary (notepads, notebooks, pens) for writing lyrics, random thoughts, or producer-type ideas I may have for a song.
  • A small table big enough to hold my laptop.
  • A second small table to my left where I have an audio interface, headphones, and a microphone.
  • Inside my laptop, I have a series of pre-made songwriting templates loaded up with my favorite software instruments so I can quickly capture and record rough ideas.
  • To my right, I have an acoustic guitar on a stand. I tend to notice that I write a lot of simple melodic ideas on this guitar either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Especially while watching TV.

What are the instruments, devices, and items that help you work best? Write them all down and set them up in a way that doesn’t interfere, but rather supports your flow.

Step 5: Start with the music first

Let me preface this by first saying that because there are so many ways to go about writing a song, it’s important to play to your strengths.

If you feel like you’re a strong lyricist but need help on the musical side of things, start there.

For me personally, lyrics are rarely what catches my ear when I’m listening to new music. Generally speaking, it’s a hooky melody or a killer guitar riff that perks my ears up Doberman Pinscher style complete with head snap followed by “Woah! What was that?!”

Because of this, I tend to gravitate towards writing the music first as I feel that conveys emotions in a way that goes deeper than words can convey so that’s the low-hanging fruit I go for in most cases when writing.

In my experience, the simplest way to get the bed of music going is to write a simple melody of some sort.

If I’m writing a pop-rock tune, this is taken quite literally as I’ll focus on developing a catchy chorus melody first and build the song around that, as its job is to be the most attention-grabbing and memorable part of the song.

If it’s a metal song, this “melody” generally manifests in the form of a memorable riff. Something that hooks the listener and brings them back in after exploring the complexities and brutality of the rest of the composition.

There are many ways to go about writing a melody, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to be coming from the perspective of how to write a more traditional pop-style song.

At this point in the process, I believe it’s important not to aim specifically for writing a chorus melody, or a verse melody, or whatever. I think that puts too much focus on a specific outcome too soon in the process which can add unnecessary pressure.

Instead, just keep the creative flow going until you’ve amassed a number of catchy melodies that could be a verse or chorus. Right now is all about play though so keep writing until you have two or three melodies that you love.

Step 6: Find your chorus melody

At this point, we want to pinpoint which of our melodies is going to be our chorus. The reason I like to start here is because the chorus is the focal point of the song, both lyrically and melodically.

Typically, the job of the chorus is to carry the song’s overall message, so the melody is designed to be the thing that listeners remember the most. Even before the lyrics.

Part of what makes a chorus melody catchy and memorable is that it is easy to quickly digest. In other words, the hooks found in the chorus contain fewer notes compared to, let’s say, a verse, for example.

Because of this, I usually start writing from a “chorus first” perspective because it’s easier and less complicated to come up with a short melody that will require fewer lyrics to fit to later.

As mentioned above, you want to play to your strengths when beginning a new song, and writing chorus melodies, for me personally, is the low-hanging fruit of the song.

If I can lock in a killer chorus melody, it’s going to define how the rest of the song is shaped.

Step 7: Lay down some chords for your chorus melody

Now that you’ve got your chorus melody, the next step is to lay out the bed of instrumental music underneath to support it.

This can be anything from a simple chord progression played on acoustic guitar, piano, etc., to a full rhythm section. My suggestion is to start with the former when starting out if you’re new to this.

In my case, I will typically start by humming or singing my new chorus melody, then grab my acoustic guitar and figure out a handful of chords that sits best underneath to my ear.

At this point, I immediately record the performance, either by using my voice note app to capture rough audio or just use my phone’s camera to film what I’m playing/singing.

From there, I’ll hop on my laptop, load up a songwriting template session, and flesh out a simple demo consisting of drums, bass, and the melody, all programmed on software instruments.

To see what this process looks like, check out this video:

Step 8: Write rough lyrics to your chorus melody

A lot of people like to write lyrics first before anything else, but I find that if you already have things in place musically, it can help dictate the lyrical content more easily because we have a set of boundaries put in place that we can work within as opposed to facing the proverbial blank page and writing lyrics from scratch.

Start by listening back to the rough recording of your chorus melody and chords, and simply sing along to playback.

We’re not concerned with full lyrics just yet at this stage. What we’re going for instead with this approach is creating what’s known as a “wordless melody.”

In other words, scat out some word-sounding sounds to the music that you’re listening back to, and be sure to record yourself.

To keep everything organized, I like to keep it all in my Logic Pro session, but sometimes, I’ll use the DAW to play back my rough instrumental and melody reference while recording my voice scatting along into my phone.

However you approach this, be very open and easy about this, and do it as many times as you need in order to start getting ideas for lyrics.

What you should have at this point is a recording of very melodic gibberish. To go more in depth about this process, check out this article.

Step 9: Choose a structure for your song

At this point, it would be good to consider what kind of song structure (also known as song form) works best for what you have so far.

The structure of your song can, of course, vary greatly depending on what genre you’re writing in and what your overall motivations for writing are.

If you’re writing in more contemporary genres like pop or country, it wouldn’t make much sense to have a sprawling epic song form reminiscent of something from Dream Theater’s catalog.

That said, if you’re looking to coin your own personal brand of 70’s-style progressive-rock-influenced country music (wow, what would that sound like?!), have at it!

Having the right structure can make or break a song in certain cases, so it’s best not to rush into making a decision here.

My suggestion is to, once again, be very open and easy about making a choice, as things are subject to change. A lot.

I’m at work on a solo album at the moment and have reworked the structure of a particular song 13 (!) times until I found something that felt right.

Step 10: Find the statement in your chorus’ lyrics

Assuming that you’ve followed the remaining steps in the accompanying article on how to write lyrics, let’s take a look at the finished rough draft of your chorus.

As you read the words back to yourself out loud, can you attach a specific narrative to them? What is the grand statement here? What is this song about?

Knowing this will help us to write the story laid out in the verses.

Step 11: Tell the story of your song’s chorus through the verses

Results will vary obviously depending upon what song structure you choose, but for the sake of this article, I’m going to assume that your song is going to, at the very least, include a verse and chorus structure.

Hopefully, by this point, you’re in a nice creative flow, but if you’re stuck on how to get the verses going, repeat steps 5 through 8 until you have a wordless melody and rough chord progression going.

From here, we’re going to circle back and focus on telling a descriptive story through the verses. If the chorus is the song’s grand statement, the verses are all the details that hint towards it.

One of my favorite insights was from a conversation I had with Pat Pattison (author of Writing Better Lyrics), in which he told me to “show” with my choruses and “tell” with my verses.

Step 12: Finalize your song

Once again, this depends on what song structure you choose, but the same rules apply here as they do for the verses. Repeat steps 5 through 8 as many times as necessary for any other song section you may need, be it a pre-chorus, bridge, intro, outro, etc.

One final thought here. It’s important to remember that, like with any brand-new thing you create, it’s called a “first draft” for a reason.

Make sure not to be too critical of yourself at the start of things. Give your rough ideas a chance, and make sure that you capture them so you can listen back objectively instead of having them spin around in your head.

Most people kill ideas before they’re born because of this. Not giving them the time and space they need to grow.

If you’ve finished the first draft of your song, or if you feel like you’ve hit a wall and don’t know where to take it, it’s important to walk away from it and come back with fresh ears.

This could take anywhere from a day to a week and even beyond. It all depends.

In closing

So there you have it! This is my personal go-to when approaching a new song, and though there’s much more to dig into regarding this topic, after writing hundreds of songs, I’ve found that this process is what works best for me to maintain efficiency while staying open and creative.

Maybe this will work for you, maybe not. Like anything, I think it’s important to take all the information you see here today, apply what works best for you, and, if need be, abandon the rest.

That being said, I’m confident that if you follow these steps and let go of your expectations of a specific outcome, you’ll be surprised at what comes out.

Stay open and easy. Trade your expectations for curiosity, and you will be rewarded by the magic that occurs during the process.

Thanks for reading! Happy writing!