How to Compose a Song

Six Methods:Starting OutCreating a Basic Structure and FormMaking Genre ConsiderationsAdding LyricsAdding DepthDocumenting and Recording

Do you want to write your own music? Do you dream of being a singer-songwriter? Follow this tutorial to start your musical journey. Songs are (by definition) a piece of music which is meant to be sung, so this would normally mean that it includes words. However, "song" tends to be used with a much broader meaning these days, so we will take an equally broad approach and discuss methods which can be used to write a wide variety of musical styles and types.

Method 1
Starting Out

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    Consider what it is for. Before you begin composing your song, you will need to consider what it is for. What the purpose of the song is, what type of song it is, will significantly impact the writing process. You should plan accordingly.
    • If you will be writing a song with lyrics, you will need to consider that while you are writing the song. There are many different ways to go about incorporating lyrics into a song. You can begin with lyrics or words which you set the music to, write the lyrics after writing the melody, or you can try to write both together. It will depend on your skill and style. You will also want to consider the style of music and be sure that it fits the lyrics you are working with and vice versa.
    • If you will be writing background music, theme music, or some other type of instrumental music, you will need to plan this accordingly as well. Think about what you are writing the music for and what mood you want to convey. Appropriate instruments and music styles will be needed to create the necessary mood, since words won’t be used.
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    Consider what instruments, if any, you will use to write it. Some people will compose entirely from their own mind and will only sing or hum a part if they need to get an idea of how it sounds. Others, especially when writing a piece to be played on a specific instrument, will use that instrument while composing in order to try out how certain things sounds. Think about if you want or need an instrument with you in order to compose and plan accordingly.
    • Common types of instruments used while composing songs include guitars and pianos, though some people will use certain string or band instruments.
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    Consider your method of documentation. Consider how you will be writing the music down, in both final format and while you are working. Those with more musical training will want to write sheet music, whereas those who have less may want to write out tabs or chords. If you are writing only for yourself and have a very good memory, it may be possible not to write anything at all (but this is not recommended).

Method 2
Creating a Basic Structure and Form

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    Create a starting tune. Before you can begin to compose a song, you will need to have a basic idea of how the song should sound. This tune should be the essence of the song and will be what you build everything else off of.
    • One starting point would be the melody. This is the basic line of music, usually thought of as the “singable” part of a song. This is a tune which you can easily write lyrics to and build off of.
    • Another method would be to start with a chord progression. This is a series of chords which will give the overall feel of the song. This may be a better place to start if you don’t have a very good idea of the melody or are having trouble coming up with one.
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    Create a hook or riff. A hook is a memorable line or series of lines in a song. Think of it as the part that gets stuck in your head. This catchy bit of tune and lyrics is what will grab your listener's attention and keep them thinking about the song later. A riff serves a similar purpose: it is a noticeable and memorable instrumental piece which is separate from the melody.
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    Understand popular song structures. If you want to write song, it is important to understand the basic song structures or forms which dominate popular music. Using these forms will give you a comfortable model on which to build but it will also create a song more in keeping with what your audience is used to hearing. A song too outside of the norm can be off-putting for the majority of audience members, even if it is otherwise good or well performed.
    • AAAC: This is the title given to song forms in which each verse is musically the same but differs in lyrics. Though uncommon in mainstream music, it can still be found readily elsewhere. A solid example of this song structure is “Amazing Grace”, a common American traditional song.
    • AABA: This is considered the most common form for popular music today. It comes an a number of variations and can be observed across most genres. In its most basic form, the AABA structure begins with two musically similar verses, breaks for a bridge (the "B" in the formula), and then returns for another verse. There are many examples of such a song but a good one is “Something” by The Beatles.
      • AABABA is probably the most common variant of the overall structure. ABAB, is another variant but less common. ABCD (which is a progressive, non-repeating form) is also sometimes used.
    • Verse-Chorus: This form is not so common as it once was, but many songs from the first half of the 20th century used it widely. It was still common well into the 1960’s. With this form, the verse takes a backseat to the chorus, which is repeated frequently. A perfect example would be “All You Need is Love” by The Beatles.
      • There are two major variants of the form: simple and contrasting. In the contrasting form, the music for the verse will be different from the music for the chorus. The simple form, then, is obviously one in which the music is the same.
      • There is an additional variant, termed Verse-Chorus-Bridge, which adds two or more bars as a small break between choruses. This bridge is always shorter than the verse, and often is followed with a key or tempo change.
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    Understand classical song structures. For composing, it can also be helpful to understand classical song forms. These can be used to inspire newer style songs, or they can be used as the basis for more instrumental pieces.
    • A canon is a song form in which an imitation or repetition of the melody is played after the main melody has begun. It makes use of several layered, echoing “voices” to create its unique sound. A canon in which all of the voices are identical is called a round. An example of this is the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.
    • The sonata begins with the exposition, which is an introduction to the theme. It is then followed by a section called the development, which explores the themes of the piece. The last section is called the recapitulation, which returns to the theme (usually with a key change) and provides a sense of closure.

Method 3
Making Genre Considerations

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    Consider pop and rock music. Pop music is a complicated genre because it really isn’t a genre: it’s just whatever is the predominant form of music at the time. For now, pop music is heavily influenced by rock. To write songs like what we consider pop now, you will need to take certain things into consideration.
    • Form: Pop and rock songs are both very formulaic and put a heavy emphasis on the chorus, which will usually be repeated several times. Choruses also tend to be shorter and catchier, so try to capture those aspects.
    • Instrument choice: Many of the same instruments are popularly used in rock and pop. Examples would include guitars (though many pop songs will make use of acoustic rather than or in addition to electric guitars), synthesizers/keyboards (in pop music, they are a bit obvious while not commonly used in rock music), bass, drums, and occasionally pianos. Some pop and rock songs will use classical string instruments in the background to add dramatic effect.
    • Tempo: The tempo associated with pop and rock music will largely depend on the emotion meant to be conveyed in the song. Sadder or more heartfelt songs will need to use a slower tempo, while ones meant to rouse your audience should be faster.
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    Consider country and folk music. Country and folk music are related genres which use very similar instrumentation. These genres place a heavy importance on live shows, local musicians, and reasonably low levels of audio editing (preferring the “acoustic” sound and using little autotuning).
    • Form: The song forms tend to be the same as with more popular music, with an emphasis on the AABA structure. Folk music usually uses more complex, complicated lyrics, however.
    • Instrument choice: There are a number of instruments which are common to both genres. These include the heavy use of acoustic guitar, dobro, mandolin, a single classical string instrument as backup (such as a fiddle or bass), autoharps and pianos.
    • Tempo. As with pop and rock, the tempo will largely be determined by the mood of the song. Country music tends to be faster than average while folk tends to be slower than average.
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    Consider rap and hip-hop music. These related genres are different from the previous ones in that they tend to use different instrumentation and tempo. Forms vary widely, however. Be sure that you are taking these things into consideration when writing this type of song.
    • Form: While hip-hop and rap both make use of the verse-chorus dynamic, it is much more common to see the AAA structure in these genres than it is in the others. Emphasis is certainly placed on verse, rather than any type of chorus which may be included.
    • Instruments: Both rap and hip-hop focus very heavily on percussion, rather than instruments like guitars. Certainly, the emphasis is placed on digital methods of making the musical backup to the more central focus on the lyrics. Turntables, samplers, and computers are frequently used, in addition to synths, snares, cymbals, and drums.
    • Tempo: The tempo for rap and hip-hop music is generally in the range of 90-100 beats per minute. Slower songs are generally categorized as more lyrical and is more commonly seen in hip-hop, while faster songs are considered better for dancing and are more commonly played in clubs.
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    Consider jazz music. Jazz music is extremely complex to play, though technically simple to write. Tempos tend to be slow and the form can vary widely. What is, however, definitive about the genre is the use of call and response and improvisation. When writing a jazz song you will need to leave in room for both of these aspects.
    • Instruments: Jazz makes more use of brass and wind instruments than the other genres do, often soloing saxophones or oboes. It will also make use of pianos, bass, drums, and guitar.
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    Consider electronic and dance music
    • Form: Usually hooks and riffs in this kind of genre are incredibly catchy but can cause a bit of earworm so let's just skip that. Anyway, vocals are sometimes processed with phase vocoder effects to give a robotic feel or some dance songs use samples.
    • Instruments: So basically the common used instruments are: Vocals, synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines. Sometimes guitars are used but only if the producer wants the dance song to start out as folky and acoustic.
    • Tempo: The tempo for dance music is in the range of 90-140 beats per minute. The slow, low-tempo (90-105 beats per minute) songs sometimes includes melancholy for it's lyrical content and is played for happiness. The upbeat but midtempo (110-125 beats per minute) songs are danceable for some people and includes little to no melancholy. And the fast and uptempo (125-140 beats per minute) songs are played in raves, clubs, parties, and Coachella so basically anyone in the world could dance to it.

Method 4
Adding Lyrics

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    Work with a lyricist. The easiest way to get lyrics for music you have written will be to work with a lyricist. You can work with a friend or you can hire a professional, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. A lyricist can put words to your song after you have written it, work with you while you are writing it, or give you lyrics to work with before you begin.
    • You will want to ensure that their style meshes with your song. Someone who writes Shakespearean love songs may not write the best heavy metal lyrics. Find someone who gets your song, style, and the feelings associated with it.
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    Write lyrics yourself. You can write the lyrics yourself, as well. This may require some skill, as it is easy for lyrics to sound cheesy, strange, or silly. Don’t be afraid to work hard at it and take your time.
    • Try to sing the lyrics as you’re writing them. This will make sure that they sound natural with the melody and there are no strange pauses or mismatched syllables.
    • Before you begin writing the lyrics, try to determine if you want to use rhyming or non-rhyming words. Knowing how you want the structure of your lyrics to work will go a long way towards helping you write them. Rhyming words will need to be placed at reasonable intervals, which means planning ahead.
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    Set existing words to music. Another option would be to set existing words to music. This can be words from a play, poem, a speech, or anything that you feel would make an excellent song. Choose something that has meaning to you! Your audience will be able to tell when you’re expressing real emotion in your music.
    • The best way to start setting existing words to music is to find the natural rhythm of the words. Pay attention to how they fit together. Natural speech contains pauses, emphasis, and rhythm. This is what makes it sound natural. Exploit this natural rhythm to make your song.
    • If you’re having trouble or you want to give your song an edgier feel, experiment with breaking up phrases to emphasize particular words. This can help you overcome awkwardly long sentences or a melody that doesn’t entirely fit the text you’ve chosen.
    • Don’t forget that you can always omit words or phrases to preserve the flow of your song. If a particular word is throwing off your syllable count and it isn’t necessary, just leave it out or rearrange the words if necessary.

Method 5
Adding Depth

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    Improvise. You might want your song to be more than just your voice and a piano. If you do, you’ll need to add depth to your song by elaborating on what you already have. The most basic way to do this is to improvise. Listen to your song and add things where they seem to be needed.
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    Collaborate. If your own improvisation doesn’t seem to be enough, you can get friends and fellow musicians together to see what a fresh set of eyes (and ears!) can bring to your work.
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    Introduce counter-melody and harmony. These are variations of the main melody which can be added to give the melody a more fleshed-out feel. A counter-melody is best thought of as a separate melody which fits between the gaps of the first, where a harmony is meant to work in conjunction with the main melody line.
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    Add percussion and embellishments. Add more instruments to the background to give your song more depth. You can do this by adding percussion like drums, a small string quartet, chimes or flutes...the possibilities are almost endless! You can even add in sound effects like wind, thunder, or street noise. Just be sure that the style of the additional sound is in keeping with the style of song you have written.

Method 6
Documenting and Recording

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    Do your notation by hand. You will probably want to write down the music you are writing so that it can be played again, especially if you want it to be played by other people. One way will be for you to write the music down by hand. You can write as little or as much as you want to. Doing this will require a certain understanding of music theory, however.
    • Lead-sheets are a form of sheet music which include only the most basic notation, usually the melody and harmony. These are common for jazz and improvisational music, as well as with popular musicians who have little musical theory training.
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    Use a DAW (digital audio workstation). These are computer programs which are designed for music composers and audio workers. They allow you to mix and record music and will also have a certain level of music notation functionality. These can be expensive, however, and should only be considered by serious musicians.
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    Record audio directly. Another way would be to record yourself playing and singing the music. From this you can write down the notation or have someone else do so at a later date.

Things You'll Need

  • An instrument.
  • Some score paper or computer scoring software.
  • A MIDI keyboard (optional).

Sources and Citations

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