5 Songwriting Tips All Beginners Should Know
The songwriting tips for beginners I’m about to give you are foundational to songwriting. There’s always going to be exceptions, but for the most part they’ll help you understand how to think about songwriting and also keep your songs interesting and concise.
Tip #1: Less ideas is better
When you’re just starting a song you may have all these ideas, and most likely you want to put all of them into the song, but that can become a problem. It’s really hard to get a direction when you have too many things crammed into one song.
In contrast, you also want to be careful not to get stuck on the same idea for the entire song. Many songwriters fall into the trap of finding one riff/idea/vibe that makes the song sound really great, but then the song just continues on that same path and it never really changes. That can put you at risk of losing your audience. The initial idea has to be developed and evolve throughout the song in order to keep your audience’s attention. Otherwise it can make the song boring because it’s just the same thing over and over again. So, what is the recommended amount of ideas to start writing your song?
You really only need two or three good ideas to start off with. That’s what I personally like, and I suggest that everybody starting out a song begin with just two or three ideas. That way you can assign one idea to be the verse, one idea for the chorus and one idea for the bridge. It’s so much easier to get direction for your song this way. It also helps fix the problem of having a song that sounds like many songs crammed into one.
Remember you want to start out just with 2 or 3 ideas and build up from there. Less is better.
Tip #2: Start with a standard song structure
The most common standard song structure is:
The reason this is such a good structure to start your song is because it’s very simple. It’s also very popular so you’re used to hearing it and your audience is used to hearing it. That is going to make it really easy for you to pick out any songwriting mistakes, like having riffs that don’t add anything to your song. Additionally, it will help keep you focused and give your song direction so that you don’t start adding new ideas mid-song which might confuse the listener and throw the song into a million different places.
For the most part, songs in this kind of structure last between three to six minutes.
Tip #3: Contrast makes it interesting
Ever felt like your song sounds a bit boring? One great way to spice things up is to look at the contrast of different elements in your song.
There’s a lot of things that you can contrast to make your songs more interesting. For example:
- Energy Levels
Even though we’re talking about sounds, every sound has a tactile feel to them. It is a sound, but you can almost feel it on your skin (ever felt the sound of nails on a chalkboard?). You don’t just hear the sound; you feel the texture across your skin. This physical sensation applies to musical textures as well, so you want to make sure that you’re paying attention to the textures that you have in your song. Look at how you’re contrasting either the textures from one section to another (verse w/ distortion vs chorus w/ clean tones), or from one instrument to another (smooth vocal pads vs a bassline with lots of fuzz below the pads).
For example you can have a synthesizer that has a very grainy quality to it, almost like the sound of Velcro but with a pitch. Just by hearing it, you get a feeling like you are touching the Velcro or maybe the sound feels like you are running your fingers down sandpaper. Notice how there’s a physical quality associated with the sound.
Well, imagine if you contrast that grainy synth with something very smooth, like another pad or maybe a clean guitar. By doing this you are expanding on the texture of the sounds in your song and contrasting these textures can really add another dimension to your music.
Slowing down can be a great tool for dramatic effect. Likewise starting off very slow and building up to something that’s a bit faster can add a lot of tension and raise energy levels in your song. Playing around with these changes in speed are great ways to keep your listener from getting bored of listening to the same pace for 3-6 minutes. Therefore, increasing tempos can help increase energy levels as well as make your song more dynamic.
Google defines harmony like this:
Harmony – In music, harmony is the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superpositions of sounds, is analysed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches (tones, notes), or chords.[
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say musical harmony is the sounds that the chords and melodies create.
An example of contrasting harmonies in different song sections would be to have a verse with chords that are very dark and dissonant (maybe minor and diminished chords) and then contrasting it in the next section of the song with chords that are very open, and very celestial, bright sounding (for example, by using lots of open major chords). This might be oversimplifying it but best to keep things simple for now.
The contrast between the harmonies of each song section can bring out the best of each section since they serve as an auditory frame of reference for each other. This would result in both song sections sounding more extreme and dramatic. Therefore it’s good to keep in mind how the harmony is changing throughout your song as it will directly affect the mood and drama of the song.
The sound of a guitar being played in an empty room has a different quality to it than a dry guitar being played directly into your ear. There’s a physical quality of space to it. You don’t just hear the guitar, you hear the sound of the guitar bouncing off the walls of the room too. This adds the illusion of space to the sound (the sound is not just being played, it is being played in an empty room). Listening to things with space added to them can make things sound very close to your face or far away. We call the effect that creates this illusion of space reverb.
Reverb is basically when sounds bounce off the walls of the room they are played in. If a mic records the sound after it has bounced off of a surface in an empty room, you get an idea of how big the room is, and how close or far away the origin of the sound is within that room.
This difference in space (created thanks to reverb) can add mood to the music. For example, having a really exciting, in-your-face riff with a dry tone vs a distant haunting riff with lots of reverb. Notice how the amount of space added using reverb can add another dimension to your song, and in a way make the song seem to exist in a physical space, as well as giving it a quality of being almost “visual” and cinematic. This is important to keep in mind because when you are making music, in a way, you are creating a landscape with sound.
Play around with how you’re working with the space in your song. It might be something that’s a bit more on the side of production than songwriting, but if you write taking into account a few production details ahead of time, it can really help you out later on when you’re actually producing the song.
- Energy levels
Most of the songwriting elements we have discussed so far affect the energy levels in your song as well. Due to this, you want to make sure that your song doesn’t stay on one energy level the entire time because that will make your song very monotonous. You’ll want to be aware of what the energy level will be for all parts of your song. Make sure that you’re not going off in random directions with the energy levels (imagine a build up that never gets anywhere. This can be super annoying and unsatisfying to listen to, unless done with a specific purpose). Any adjustments to energy levels should be done with a purpose in mind and relate to what is happening before and after.
Note: Tension and Release
One thing to keep in mind with all these contrasting elements is that most of them will affect tension in the song. Tension takes into account all the contrasting elements of the song and serve as the overall umbrella term for what you are hoping to influence by adjusting these smaller details.
You will want to contrast tension and release in your song. You can do this by checking the tension and release of all instruments, as well as the tension and release of the elements throughout the song (such as space, textures, etc). If some parts of your song sound boring, you could look at what you’re contrasting and how it relates to what either came before or after, or how one instrument relates to the others, or what the textures are, or the tempo.
All of these different details help make your song a little bit more interesting by making it multi-dimensional.
Tip #4: Use previous parts of the song later on in the song
This is why I say you only really need two or three ideas to start your song.
Using parts of previous sections of your song is a great trick when you need something to switch things up, but instead of throwing in a completely new idea (which might risk changing the direction of the song), you can instead take a melody or chord or riff found earlier in the song and develop it or rewrite it, so that it shows up again later on in the song.
This helps to catch the listener by surprise because they will be expecting the riff/chord/melody that you did before but it will be slightly different. This will seem familiar and at the same time new to the listener.
This can be a really effective way of avoiding adding unnecessary riffs/chords/melodies that don’t add anything to the song. You will reach this point a bit later into writing the song, most likely when you have some ideas put together and are trying to make the song more consistent.
Tip #5: Rhythm makes it catchy
Rhythm is very unique because it’s a very visceral part of music. I would say that rhythm is people listening to music with their body, because rhythm is what makes people want to move.
Since rhythm can make people want to move, it helps your song stick in their mind a lot more easily. They’re not just using their ear to listen; they’re also using their body, which makes them pay more attention.
To take full advantage of this, make sure that at some point throughout your songwriting you stop and analyze the bass and the drums especially. Double check that things are not too stiff. You might also want to take a look at guitars/keyboards/vocals and check that the instruments are complementing each other in terms of rhythm.
You don’t want to have one rhythm on the drums and the bass and then have the guitar doing something that sounds totally random and disconnected (unless that’s what you’re purposely going for).
Disconnected rhythms can completely throw the groove off and break your song, so be careful here.
The rhythmic drivers in a general sense, and for most types of music, are the drums and the bass. There are other instruments like the guitar/keyboards/vocals, linked with rhythm, but most of the time the rhythmic drivers are the drums and the bass, so pay extra attention to them.
Make sure that your rhythms are flowing together and it will help your song stick in people’s minds and make your music more memorable.
Bonus Tip: Trading Space
I really love this tip. This is going to help simplify your life when you’re writing music because trading space means giving the spotlight to different instruments throughout the song.
If you write a song that is guitar-driven, and you never give the spotlight to your other instruments then that puts an awful lot of pressure on the guitar to always be interesting and to carry the entire song. Same thing goes for vocals. If you take pop for example, pop is very vocal driven so there is a lot of pressure on the vocals to be the center of attention and make the song interesting.
However, by trading space, that not only gives the opportunity to your other band members to shine, but also keeps the song interesting and gives it movement by shifting the listener’s attention.
Trading space is something you want to look at after you have a basic framework for your song. That’s why I leave it until later. I think you should leave it until the latter part of your songwriting process as well, but don’t forget to look back on what you’ve written and see how you’re trading space in the song.
These songwriting tips for beginners are going to help fast forward your songwriting and help keep your songs interesting and concise. By looking into all of these elements, you will see that there is a lot more to songwriting than just putting together a chord and some melodies. Listeners don’t often notice these things, because they don’t know to look out for them, but as a songwriter it’s up to you to take into account all the little details so that you can bring your songs to life.