5 Steps to Being a Songwriter
Whether you want to make a business out of your lyrics or just share your love of music with others, your journey must start with a single choice. You must choose to put in the time to be a songwriter, because we are not born like that overnight. People frequently assume that songwriting is a talent: you either have it or you don’t. It’s easy to feel like that when all you see as a fan is the finished product of a song. But before your favorite artist ever got a single song published they likely spent years in obscurity mastering their craft.
Like any skilled trade, practically anyone can learn to write songs. And like any skill, writing lyrics will require consistent practice and training to see results. Today, I’m going to share with you five simple and actionable steps you can take to become a songwriter.
The 5 Steps to Becoming a Good Songwriter
Now without any further ado, let’s discuss those 5 steps. They are:
- Read (as much poetry, lyrics, and books about them as you can)
- Write (at least one song every day)
- Listen (to the singer’s rhythm)
- Cheat (by using rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, prompts, idioms, and music tropes)
- Practice (every day whether you feel like it or not, at the same time each day)
1. Read More
If you know nothing about a skill, the best way to learn is by seeing how others do it. That’s why reading is the first step to writing. For songwriting, that means specifically reading poetry and lyrics; prose (like novels and short stories) could help, but I would focus on poetic works because that’s the genre you want to write in. Songs are nothing but poetry set to music, after all.
Look up the lyrics of songs and artists you love, and read them without the music playing. To start, ask yourself what it is about these lyrics that you are drawn to. We’ll focus on form and function later, for now just read and absorb the words.
Next, start reading poetry that has no musical form. If you’ve never shown interest in written poetry before, examine as many different styles as possible and find which ones you enjoy the most. There are a few ways to go about this:
- Sift through online poetry collections and sample a few poems from every school of poetry that they have categorized. A school of poetry is essentially like a genre of music; poets in certain “schools” (i.e. groups) share stylistic elements in common. A few sites you can visit include:
- Get a few poetry collections in book format. You don’t have to buy a bunch of them outright; try a local library or Amazon e-books (they tend to be cheap or even free in digital format). A few books I can suggest are:
Lastly, read about poetry—that is, books and instruction materials that teach the form and rhetoric. Books or reviews that analyze the writing of well-known poets are also great material for understanding how a good poem is articulated. A few books I can suggest here are:
2. Write Everyday
Once you’ve read and learned how other people do it, you’ll want to start writing your own verses. Let me assure you that it probably won’t be good poetry when you first start out, but everyone has to start somewhere. The most important point now is that you make a habit out of writing. Every day if possible, even just one song or poem will do. Keeping a physical notebook is better than using a computer-based word processor, because the physical act of writing pen to paper has a neurological impact on the learning process that typing on a keyboard does not.
There are many ways you can generate topics for your writing sessions. The most common method for beginners is the use of writing prompts. Prompts can range from vague themes to specific situations you are supposed to imagine yourself in and narrate from. Besides prompts, other techniques for starting a song can include:
- Free association about a specific word or emotion.
- Recounting a personal experience,like journaling but in verse rather than prose.
- Taking the perspective of a character from a book, film, or TV show.
If you want more in-depth suggestions on picking topics for songs, I have a whole 4-part series on just that topic. You can start with Part 1 here.
3. Listen to the Rhythm
Putting words on paper is only one aspect of songwriting. Unlike poetry, lyrics are meant to be sung with melody and rhythm. Therefore, you need to acquaint yourself with the topic of flow to improve on your verses and hooks. Flow is the way in which your words pace throughout the song, the meter by which you move from one syllable to another, and the rhythm of your lines.
The topic of flow is, in and of itself, an entire area of study for poetry. But you don’t need to read a book just on meter to apply it to your own songs. The best way to learn about flow is to listen to songs and pay attention to how the vocalist moves through words. Pay attention to the following aspects when you listen to a singer:
- How he/she keeps the beat with each syllable and stays on tempo
- How many words he/she fits into each bar
- Where the stress is placed in words (sometimes they stress a normally unstressed syllable to fit an internal rhyme scheme)
4. Cheat for Convenience
All good artists cheat to make their process more efficient. For lyricists, this means keeping tools on hand for common struggle points. The most common tools you’ll want to keep nearby when you’re writing include a(n):
- Rhyming dictionary
- Thesaurus, maybe even a regular dictionary
- Audio recorder (in case you come up with a melody or need reference to remember the flow of the words you just jotted down)
- List of common idioms
- Book or website of songwriting prompts
- Tap tempo (for measuring and noting the BPM of your song if you record it)
Most of these can be found online. Here are my preferred links for each:
- Rhyming dictionary: https://www.rhymezone.com/
- Thesaurus: https://www.thesaurus.com/
- Dictionary: https://www.dictionary.com/
- Idioms: https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/
- Tap Tempo: https://taptempo.io/
5. Practice Every Day
Lastly, you need to make a habit out of practicing or it will never stick in your subconscious. Your subconscious mind is averse towards change so it will make excuses as to why you should not start doing something new. That’s why practice needs to happen every day, regardless of how tired or uninspired or depressed or busy you are.
Set time away every day, or at least every week, where you can sit down and only work on songwriting.
The best way of starting a new habit is to make it as concrete of an action as possible. That is, don’t just tell yourself “I’m going to write today” because an abstract thought can easily be hand-waved and forgotten. Be specific about how you’re going to do it, when, where, etc. Make your habit concrete with the following steps:
- Choose a specific time every day when you will sit down and write. For example, let’s say that you have spare time in the morning around 6:00 AM before work. Then you should designate 6:00 AM as your writing time and stick to that schedule.
- Specify an exact amount of time in which you will write. If you only have 20 minutes, then make it your goal (whether internally or written down in a planner) that you write for at least 20 minutes. What you write does not have to be edited, coherent or “good”, you just have to be writing something.
- Keep a day planner and add “write” into each day’s to-do list with a little check box. This is a great way to remind yourself visually of the task. Personally, I get irritated seeing all the empty check boxes on my to-do list and I can’t get relaxed unless I get them checked off.
- Choose a specific location where you will write. Preferably some place that is quiet or at least calm and comfortable. The best location would be somewhere you already spend a lot of time so it’s easy for you to get there.
- Tell whoever you live with about your specific time for writing. Let your roommates, family, etc know that this is the time and place where you are going to be writing and not to disturb you. I realize this may be easier said than done with some families, especially if you have kids. But informing others of your habit intention in this way can both prevent unnecessary interruptions and create a sense of accountability. If someone knows that you’re supposed to be writing at 6:00 AM every morning, then that may push you a little harder to actually do it…because now there is a witness to scorn you if you shirk on your habit.
I am a self-taught lyricist (for the most part) with over 15 years of experience now. The 5 steps outlined in this article are actual actions and techniques I implemented to learn the art of songwriting, and I believe they can guide you on your own journey. Just remember that skill requires continuous effort: your first few songs will not be good, but you will never get to the good ones unless you suffer through the bad and learn from your mistakes. If you want to learn more about songwriting, melody writing, and music composition overall, please feel free to browse through the myriad of articles and resources on this site. Good luck!
Other Articles to Consider
If you found this guide helpful, here are a few more articles you may consider reading: