How to Teach Yourself Songwriting: Main Concepts & Resources
Finding someone to teach you songwriting can be difficult. It’s definitely not as easy as finding a guitar teacher or a singing teacher. Because of this, you might want to learn how you can teach yourself songwriting. But since you don’t know what you don’t know, I want to share a few things I think would benefit you as you learn how to write songs.
To teach yourself songwriting you can start off learning the basic concepts by searching online and watching tutorials on Youtube. These basic concepts will include major, minor and seventh chords/scales/and arpeggios, the Nashville Number System, common chord progressions, common song structures, instrumental arrangement, and the major and minor pentatonic scales.
You also need to start widening your taste in music so you can see how different styles have different tendencies in the writing, and of course the most important step, listen to TONS AND TONS of music!
Main Concepts of Songwriting
We’ll start off with the beginner concepts since, if you searched this, that’s probably where you are at. However, I will be adding the Intermediate concepts at some point later as well.
The Beginner Concepts
This might seem like a lot but just bear with me. I promise if you understand these concepts well you will have a super solid foundation for songwriting. You will be able to write both the music and the vocals. You don’t really need to know a ton of theory to write songs, just these basics can be enough.
Major, Minor, 7th Chords and Diminished Chords
A chord is formed when multiple notes are played at the same time.
What we know as Major and Minor chords are called triads because they have 3 notes played simultaneously, a root, 3rd and 5th.
We give them those numbers because the root note is the first note of the chord, and the 3rd and 5th are exactly that, the 3rd and 5th notes in a Major or Minor scale, which when played together, create either a Major or Minor chord.
Beyond that you also have 7th chords which add an extra note, the 7th note of the scale. When chords have more notes beyond the basic triad or seventh chord we say they have chord extensions.
Seventh chords can be Major Seventh (1, 3, 5, 7), Minor Seventh (1, b3, 5, b7) or just a plain Seventh chord (1, 3, 5, b7).
Diminished chords are essentially a major chord but instead of playing the major 3rd and 5th you lower those two notes by a half step, which make it a 1, b3, and b5 (the b means “flat” or half a step down).
Major, Minor, Seventh and Diminished chords are the 4 types of chords you’ll use most as a beginner. Beyond that, there’s chords with extensions (chords with more notes beyond Major and Minor triads and Seventh chords). Extensions make chords more complex.
Don’t worry about chord extensions for now. Just focus on these 4 types of chords. These are the ones you will come across most often at the beginning.
I have a post on Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented chords you can check out called What are the 4 Main Types of Chords?. It doesn’t cover Seventh chords because it only talks about triad chords (chords with 3 notes). I will do a separate post on Seventh chords later, as those are built with 4 notes instead of 3.
The Nashville Number System
Basically each note of a scale has a corresponding chord built from it. So with the notes of the C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) each one of those notes has a chord built from it. The chords are said to all be in the “key of C Major”.
The Nashville Number System gives those chords a Roman Numeral from 1 to 7 depending on what number note in the scale the chord is built from. C Major is the I chord, D Minor is the ii chord and so on. Upper-case roman numerals mean Major and lowercase means Minor. The chords in Major and Minor keys are a combination of Major, Minor, Dominant, and Diminished chords.
The Nashville Number System is useful for musicians to figure out chord progressions on the fly so they don’t have to rely on reading chord charts (although it is also useful for writing chord charts). It’s a sort of shorthand.
The idea is that musicians can tell each other something verbally like “hey we’re doing a ii-V-I chord progression in C Major” and you, knowing the chords of C Major, can just plug in the second, fifth and first chord of the scale and instantly know the chords and be able to improvise on it if needed.
This can be quite useful to a songwriter because many times, there are very common chord progressions in songs. So you can use common chord progressions that sound great as a starting point and just choose what key you want your song to be in and it can help you write a song very quickly. That is why this is useful for you to learn it.
Common Chord Progressions
Expanding on the previous point about the Nashville Number System, you will need to learn a few common chord progressions. This will help you have a quick catalog of progressions to reference when writing songs.
It won’t just help you find the chord progression you are looking for, it will also allow you to write songs very quickly as well.
Furthermore, it will make it very easy to teach your musicians the chord progression of your song because they will likely be familiar with it already.
One of the most common chord progressions to learn is the Pop Hit Song chord progression. This is literally in hundreds if not thousands of songs. That progression is I-V-vi-IV.
Check out a few of them and see which ones you like.
Common Song Structures
As I have mentioned in other blog posts, song structure is essentially the structure in which you tell the story of your song, much like how storytelling has standard structures.
The most common one is the Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus structure.
Most modern music follows this structure or a variation of it. If you want to read more about song structures I do have a post you can check out here titled Song Structure Templates to Write Songs Fast and another post called 7 Creative Ways to Structure Your Songs Better.
And that is what common structures can help you do, write songs fast in a structure that makes sense and that presents the music to the listener in an easy to understand manner that they are used to hearing.
This refers to the organization of your instrumentation, melodies, and rhythms.
This is an important one and I guess you could say it is more on the logical side than the creative one. The guiding principle with instrumental arrangement is that you want to make sure the elements of a song are presented in an organized way.
That means your instruments are not fighting each other for the spotlight (the listener’s attention).
You wouldn’t put a shreddy guitar solo over a busy and complex lead vocal melody at the same time right? That would probably make it sound like they are competing with each other for the spotlight and you don’t know what to pay attention to. It might sound messy, hard to understand and you might wonder if the guitar player is even listening to what everyone else is playing or just trying to show off.
Another example, let’s say you have one specific drum fill in one specific section of your song and you want to highlight it. It would really help to highlight this drum fill if you didn’t also put a guitar and bass fill on top of it.
Listen to Oslo Skyline by Jaga Jazzist. Near the end of the song you have this very dramatic build up. In minute 5:04 all the instruments pause and let the drummer do this really satisfying short drum fill. Then all the instruments come back in. Listen to the whole song from the beginning to hear it in context.
If there were other instruments playing the fill with the drums it would take all the drama away.
So having all the instruments pause serves to highlight the drum fill and make it super dramatic.
So this is why you will need to learn about instrumental arrangement. So you can make sure you are giving the spotlight to the important elements in each part of the song at the right time and getting the most out of them. It will make your songs more interesting and pleasant to listen to.
Major and Minor Scales and Arpeggios
This is your bread and butter for making melodies and solos.
Many great melodies focus especially on arpeggios. Why? Because you are playing the important notes of a specific chord but in a melodic line. This really brings out the feeling of the chord underneath.
Jazz musicians use this especially to highlight the chord changes.
Essentially you are making melodies or licks with arpeggios to stress the notes of the chords that tell each chord apart from one another. When this is done, you could even take out the chords in the back and you would be able to listen to the melody by itself and you will feel and hear how the chords change even if the rhythm track with the chords is muted.
It makes soloing and melodies especially musical and lyrical because you are being taken through the chords by the melody.
Adding to the last point, pentatonic scales are also very commonly heard in all types of music and help make great melodies and solos.
As opposed to a regular scale which has 7 notes, the pentatonic scale only has 5 notes.
This gives it a particular sound that is commonly used in blues, which also uses the “blues scale”. It’s the same as a pentatonic scale but it has a passing note between the third and fourth notes of the scale.
These scales are the bread and butter of many lead guitar players, but also sound great when used for vocal melodies or other instrumental melodies.
You’ll want to have this in your tool belt when writing songs.
Lyric and Vocal Melody Writing
If you are trying to teach yourself songwriting you may or may not need to learn more about lyric writing. There’s many songwriters that only focus on writing instrumentally and leave the vocals to a singer, and there are also singer songwriters who write both music and lyrics.
Learning to write lyrics can be tough for those who may struggle with finding the words to say what they want to say.
I recommend learning a bit about poetry, because though it is not the same as writing lyrics, many of the tools are the same. Poetry has a rhythm and rhyme to it, just like music. And there are many literary techniques to help you come up with and write beautiful words that you can put to your music.
It also helps to develop a habit of introspection, reflection and of thinking about your thinking. Keeping a journal is great for this.
This will help you approach your writing from different angles and analyze what you think and feel about things so you can put that into your music.
For writing vocal melodies, it often helps to remember that singing is just speaking emotively on pitch. So when you are writing melodies, it’s a lot like speaking but just more dramatic lol and using pitch.
You can make melodies that go up and down the scale, use arpeggios, or there’s also “one note melodies”. These are common in a lot of modern music. Essentially the singer stays mostly on one note and the chords change underneath. The mixture of changing chords and a catchy rhythm on the vocals make up for the simplicity of the melody note-wise. It makes the melody very easy to sing and remember.
Study your favorite singers. What do they write about? What words do they use a lot? Are they telling stories, describing something or are they more about creating an aesthetic that matches the music? Do they use one note melodies or melodies that travel the scale a lot? Do they use a lot of vocal runs and riffs?
Good Resources for Songwriting
In addition to the above, I have a few more posts that I think would be useful if you’re learning songwriting.
- How to Make Songs Easier to Write
- How to Write a Song With No Experience in Songwriting
- What Makes Good Songwriting?
- 7 Tips to Make Your Songs More Interesting
Also check out the Song Analysis section in the main menu to see what other artists and bands are doing in their songwriting.
This guide would not be complete if I didn’t share a few other resources that can help you. So here are a few.
Youtube Channels for Songwriters
Our blog and Youtube channel is aimed specifically at songwriters so give us a subscribe if you like what you see.
Of course, having multiple resources to learn from is essential, so I wanted to share with you some other channels that I think offer tons of value.
You probably already know him. Rick Beato should be considered a national treasure and kept in a hypo-allergenic, germ-free glass case and kept under armed guard to ensure maximum longevity.
From his youtube videos analyzing songs, explaining music theory from beginner to advanced in an easy to understand way, his various interviews with incredibly talented artists and musicians, and his many insights and tips for improvisation on his channel and Instagram, he just keeps making great, helpful content for all levels. Go subscribe.
This is one of the first songwriting channels I ever followed and has some really cool analysis on many artists ranging from Pop to Rock and Metal. His Artist Series is pretty cool and full of great insights. Check him out.
At the time of writing this, this is still a fairly new channel. I think last time I checked it only had like 6k something followers. They have a lot of valuable content for songwriters including some videos on arrangement that I found particularly helpful so you should check them out for sure.
Websites and Apps for Songwriters
This website is very helpful if you are coming up with chords on a guitar or piano and you have no idea what the chord you are playing is called. It will give you the name plus show you some other variations for fingering and even some additional chord extensions.
It shows the chords played on guitar, piano, ukelele and even banjo. I assume in case you are in a Hawaiian bluegrass band.
This is an app that has gotten very popular recently. Using AI, It lets you separate and remove certain instruments from an uploaded track. The track can be from your library or any public URL.
This can be helpful for removing instruments from the track and doing a cover for social media while you play over it with your instrument or singing it.
Obviously, it isn’t perfect. You can remove the guitars for example but it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like you had all the instrument tracks in a DAW and just muted the guitar track. It’s going to affect how the rest of the instruments sound but it’s still pretty good.
Wrapping it up
I hope you got tons of value from this blog post. I certainly wished I had come across something like this when I was starting. I started off just writing what I thought sounded good with no idea how to make it sound organized and well executed so I made a ton of mistakes, from which I learned over the years. I also learned a lot writing with other musicians so I recommend trying to co-write sometime.
Good luck, catch you in the next one!