I got the words in my mouth,
I got the flame in my eyes,
and there’s people around me, so let’s inspire

Jasmine Richter | Words in my mouth

Warning: Your first song may not be a hit song, in fact it will most likely will not be a hit song. But then the purpose of your first song is to be your first song. Somewhere to start from. A point to begin and grow from so that you can eventually writing better song. And then possibly, one day,  write a hit song.

Getting started

When it comes to writing songs, there are so many people that have an opinion and they are right. Each person’s opinion about how you write is correct because every form, style or idea about what you should or shouldn’t do is correct for different people. So when it comes to ‘how’, however works for you is correct. Some people write by making short notes about a topic or issue then expanding it into a full song. Others write pages of text then reduce it to the size of a typical song. Another common process is to sing ideas onto a mobile phone or audio recorder, then use this as basis that can evolve into a song. There are so many ways to write, but yet the best way to write is the way that works for you. Try out many different ways to write and see which way suits you the best.

Experiment, there is no ‘wrong’ way to do it.

But there is one critical criteria that will make it easier for you.

Write about what you know or what you have experienced. People can tell if a song doesn’t feel genuine. Songwriting is your opportunity to share part of you, to share your experiences, your life and your take on how you see things.

When you write an essay, it can be very difficult if it is an unfamiliar topic, often the words don’t seem to flow.

Make song writing enjoyable and more personal by keeping it to what you do know.

So many songwriters, similar to writers of novels, struggle with the concept of ‘writer’s block’. There are many books on how to overcome writer’s block. Maybe read a few and look for ideas.

The best solution is to go out and experience real life, this will help stimulate your mind and give you credible stories to write about.

I was talking to my dad the other day and the topic of scuba diving came up. Now my dad has always wanted to get his diver certification. He studied everything about diving that he could find, made sure he knew everything he could about the equipment, safety and history. When the day came to book in his training session, he put his date of birth on the form. After all the study he did thy told him he was too old to complete his certification. That was it, no certificate. He could probably write a book, or a song, about scuba diving, but without the experience of actually diving there would be something missing. It might not be believable that he really knows what he is talking about.

I guess he could write a song how he didn’t get his diving certification.

Write about what you know, write about the things you are passionate about. Your experience and passion will show and more people will be able to relate to the song lyrics and relate to you.

Learn how to play an instrument

One of the most common questions I am asked nearly every week is ‘can you teach me to play guitar, or drums or keyboard’. If you are a singer and you don’t know how to play an instrument, then I highly recommend you learn. There are so many benefits to learning how to play. Unless of course you are starting an acapella group (which you still should learn an instrument anyway so you can understand how music is structured).

Why learn an instrument? Because learning how to play a musical instrument will help you to write your own music. You will then understand music so much better and appreciate how it is formed and this will make it easier for you to be more creative with how you perform, how you arrange your music and how you can record your music later on.

Start by learning chords on guitar. Then move onto learning chords on a keyboard and then scales. You don’t even need to learn how to read piano music or how to read single notes. Just learn chord theory at least and you will discover an even bigger world of musical possibilities.

Learn by listening

Music is sound and sound is something that you listen to. Although the youtube generation now watch music in the form of Music Videos’s. Music is still primarily a format that you listen to.

Radio was the biggest influence in bringing music to our homes and into our ears. Commercial radio started as early as the 1920’s and continued uninterrupted until the 1940’s when commercial television started to take hold.  Until then, and even today people across the globe have earbuds or headphones on listening to the sounds recorded by musicians and singers at an amazing rate.

Listening is extremely important to learning the structure, sounds, melodies and arrangements that are possible and you should make the time to listen to as much different music as you can. Listen to different styles and discover new music all the time. You may not like all the different music but the exposure to different writers, performers and arrangements will teach you so much that you could use in the future when you create your own music.

You would think that the best way to learn about music is to listen to music, but you will find it is even better to learn about music by experiencing music. You could listen to a song by a famous artist, Katy Perry for example, and think, that’s a great song. But if you went to her live concert and experienced the whole show, with the singer performing her songs with a live band then you will see the difference between listening and experiencing.

Finding a mentor

As a young kid, I was sure that I knew it all. As an adult, we have a poster outside my kids room that says, ‘Teenagers, Tired of being harassed by your stupid parents. Act now!! Move out, get a job and pay your bills while you still know everything’.

Sadly, many young people don’t want to take advice or learn from others experiences, mistakes or successes and so they struggle through life trying to achieve specific results, usually they see someone and want to be like them or in the position that they are in. A Rockstar for example. But instead of seeking advice, they try to ‘go it alone’. From my experience, this is a crazy way to go about things.

Going it alone is like rewriting the Bible. Someone has already written it. Why try and write your own. Or it is a bit like saying. If I am going to drive a car, I need to make my own car first. Think about it – it’s plain stupidity.

The quote ‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room’ stands true. You will never learn efficiently unless you surround yourself with people smarter than you or people that have more experience than you.

The easiest way to become good at something or to learn something is to hang out with people that have done what it is that you want to do. If they have done it before, then they know how to do it. All you need to do is ask, and in most cases they will tell you.

But be really careful. Don’t be duped by people that say they have done something and try to sell you the solution to everything in 10 easy payments plus postage,, especially when it sounds unrealistic. Listen to people who have your best interests at heart and want to see you succeed but have also successfully achieved what you want to do.

You would be surprised how open people are when you ask them about how they did something or what you need to do to get somewhere. Most people are happy to share their story, but often we are too scared to ask.

Sometimes their answers are not what you want to hear. I asked a sound engineer about how he became so good at recording music. He had worked on some amazing projects and the recordings sounded fantastic. He told me to find my favourite album, then re-record my own version of every song on the album. Once I had completed that album, choose other and keep going until I recorded an album that I was really proud of. It wasn’t the answer that I wanted, I was looking for a quick fix, 10 steps and all sorted in a one week solution. But he told me the truth. Rinse and repeat until you get better at it. Learn by doing and learn by consistently recording and I will inevitably become better at it.

Finding a mentor or a few mentors that can give you a reality check and make sure you are grounded and can provide the right advice when you need it is critical to becoming your best. Don’t try to do it on your own, it’s too hard and not as much fun as it is when you have someone showing you the possibilities and guiding you through the difficult times.

Writing your first song

This is one of the most time consuming steps of being a songwriter. But it is also the most rewarding step and is ultimately the reason why we have songs.

Every person writes songs differently, so I will outline a few of the most common steps you can use to write your first song.

One of the most logical and easiest ways to write your first song is to co-write.

Co-writing is where you work with another writer and create a song together. Find someone that already writes and records songs and ask if you can co-write a song with them. This means that you will both own part of the song as collaborators on the writing.

Once you have found someone, bring along some lyric ideas or some music ideas, sit together and go through the process of making a song.

The process of making a song can start in many different ways.

Typically you start with some lyrics and then add chords and a melody. But some people start with the chords, or even a drum beat and build the song from there.

This is how a songwriting session could evolve.

You would often already have some lyrics, like a poem. You find the part of the lyrics that are the main focus of what you are trying to say. This becomes the chorus. The other lyrics then tell the story around the chorus. These lyrics become the verses to the song.

Typically the verses and choruses of western music are divided into four, eight or sixteen bars that make it easy to piece the music together.

In musical terms there are a collection of chords that go together and make it easier to decide on what chords you should use in a song. For example, if the first chord in your song is a D chord. Then you would often use the chords D, G, A, Em, and Bm in this song. All of these chords go together.

The purpose of this book is not to teach you music theory, but you can see that if you understood basic chords and basic music theory, you will find it even easier to write your own songs.

Once you have a chord pattern for a chorus, you can then create a chord pattern for a verse.

As you create the chord patterns you then need to combine the lyrics with a melody that flows with the chords. This is the most difficult stage of writing music.

The melody and phrasing of the lyrics needs to flow smoothly and often have a very distinct pattern in it’s highs and low. For example, a chorus is often a higher pitch melody that builds as you progress through the chorus. In contrast a verse is often less melodic and at a lower pitch that gradually builds to the chorus.

A song is usually structured based on a variation of an introduction, verse one, chorus, verse two, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus and outro.

You can then decide how you would like your song to be different by adding extra verses or using variations of the chorus or an extra bridge. A bride is a section of music that bridges two parts of a song together. It is often quite different to the rest of the song and is used to add variety and colour as well as an opportunity to add something different to the song.

All of the musical terms described here can be found at http://www.xsnoise.com.au/musictheory

Take the time to learn the following important topics that will make it easier for you to write your first song.

  • Learn how chords are constructed
  • Learn about key signatures
  • Learn how chords are grouped together
  • Learn how a song is structured
  • Learn the notes in a key (to help learn melody)
  • Learn different rhythms that go with different styles of music

By now you should know what you need to learn that will help develop your songwriting.

Once you have completed a co-write, then you can start to write your own songs on your own. You can see now why learning an instrument gives you a distinct advantage when writing your own songs.

It doesn’t matter if you learn guitar or keyboard/piano, but if you learn both, then this will make you extremely versatile when it comes to creating your own music.

Keeping your songs

I was always taught to send a copy of my songs, lyrics and a recording to myself in the post and never open it unless I need to in court to prove that I wrote the song.

Apparently it doesn’t work that way.

In this day and age, ownership of you music is incredibly important. As is the ownership of your recordings, videos and other digital media.

Copyright is slightly different in each country, so we will concentrate on the Australian copyright system.

In Australia, the law states that you do not have to register your lyrics, songs or music for it to be copyrighted.

“You do not need to register your work, pay any fees or fill in any forms for it to be protected. Copyright protection is automatic, both in Australia and overseas. As soon as you write down your lyrics or music, or record it onto any medium, such as an MP3, CD or tape, it will be protected by copyright. The only requirement is that the work is original (i.e. it is not copied) and the result of some skill or effort on your part.” APRA/AMCOS 2014

For you as a songwriter, the important part of copyright is that people know you are the copyright owner of a song so that you can be paid when your song is performed, recorded or played.

In Australia you should register with APRA/AMCOS http://www.apra-amcos.com.au

When you register as a songwriter you will need to provide proof that you are either performing your songs in a licenced (licence to have live music with APRA) venue or have a recording that is available as a streamed download for sale with you as the writer.

Thanks to the internet there are now more ways that your music can be used that you don’t have direct control over.

For example, if someone downloads your song and uses it as the backing for a video that they place on YouTube without your permission.

As technology becomes smarter, it now becomes possible to earn extra money from your songs being played, for example, on YouTube.

There is licencing called a Sync Licence. This licence is used to allow people to use your music with other media. In a movie or now, even on YouTube or other online media.

More media sites are now recognising that the music played in videos is owned by someone and they have a right to be paid for it. Sites like Vimeo, SocialCam, Animoto, and Twitter.

Checklist

Follow the steps below to start learning how to write a song. The initial priority should be to find someone to co-write with.

  • Write lyrics for a song
  • Co-write a song with another established musician
  • Register with APRA/AMCOS or an appropriate PRO
  • Learn to play an instrument
  • Learn basic chord theory
  • Write lots more songs

The more you write, the better you become at writing. Many people stop at a few songs and feel disappointed when their songs don’t sound like a number one hit song. Many songwriters write hundreds of songs and only choose a few to release. Don’t be discouraged, keep writing and  let your creativity grow.

Songwriting steps (Lyrics first)

  1. Write your lyrics
  2. Select a chorus lyric
  3. Select some chords as a basis for your chorus
  4. Play the chorus chords while singing a melody along with the words
  5. Try different tempos and styles with the chords
  6. Move on to the verse lyrics
  7. Try some different chords for the verse
  8. Experiment with melodies and phrasing for the verse
  9. Pick a different set of chords for a bridge
  10. Either add or use existing lyric to create a contrasting melody and chords that will give the song more flavour
  11. Tie it all back together to see if the changes from verse to chorus work
  12. Record a rough version of the song so that you don;t forget what you did
  13. Leave it for a week
  14. Come back and have another listen and see if it really did work or
  15. Refine the melodies and chords until it ‘feels’ right
  16. Play it to a few different people to see what reaction you get
  17. You know have the beginnings of a new song

Songwriting steps (Music first)

  1. Select some chords as a basis for your chorus
  2. Select some chords for the verse
  3. Try different tempos and styles with the chords
  4. Experiment with tempos and style
  5. Record the chord patterns on a phone or computer
  6. Experiment with melodies until you find a really comfortable chorus and verse melody
  7. Take existing lyrics or write new lyrics that work with the moldy you have created
  8. Repeat the process with the bridge
  9. Record you singing the lyrics and melody with the chords
  10. Leave it for a week
  11. Come back and have another listen and see if it really did work or
  12. Refine the melodies and chords until it ‘feels’ right
  13. Play it to a few different people to see what reaction you get
  14. You know have the beginnings of a new song

This covers only two of the many different ways you can write a song.

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