Songwriting is a craft which can take years to develop. You may need to write tens of songs before you create something you can call good. I've compiled a few tips to help you save time and energy and hopefully cut down the time it takes to get to your desired songwriting level.
On the lookout
As a songwriter you should always be thinking about your next song. This means keeping your eye on everything around you and taking inspiration from your environment, always being ready to note down your thoughts, either by using a notepad or recording device. You may be able to use your mobile phone to record yourself, or at least keep a record of your ideas.
It's also a good idea to listen carefully to what people say and how they say it. You can pick up interesting lines and phrases from those around you. Often the best lyrics are a different take on a common phrase. This way, listeners can relate to your song but not be put off by clichés.
Find a hook
The most successful songs contain a part of the track which catches the ear more than any other part. It can stick in peoples heads long after they have listened to the song and can turn an average song into a hit. Pop songs will often play the hook at the beginning of the song and then repeat on numerous occasions, normally in the chorus.
A hook is usually the hardest part to write as it requires stepping outside any obvious melody. A good tip would be to try using simple, short and familiar words which sound good together and are sung in a different way to the rest of the song. For example, if the other lyrics are sung quickly, then try singing longer notes in the hook, but keep the number of words to a minimum. Similarly, long drawn out verses could be punctuated by a fast and sharp hook.
Riff on the lick
This is a similar concept to the hook, in which the listener can be drawn into the track with speed, but using music rather than lyrics. A lively and energetic set of guitar notes, repeated several times during the songs intro can work wonders. Many famous songs have begun this way, often starting with the lick in solo, before the drums and bass kick in to emphasize the guitar even more. The same trick can be used with piano and other instruments.
Keep the lick simple, using only a few notes and keep them close together in the scale you are using. It's also good practice to be objective about your lick. Don't spend too long on perfecting it. Record an idea, then have a break from it. You can then come back later with fresh ears and continue. If you realise this idea wasn't one of your best, you can start a new one. It may take a while, but with a bit of persistence, you will be successful.
Song structure comes in many forms and there have been various trends and fashions over the years. Broadly speaking, a song can be broken down into the following sections:
Normally this section is instrumental and builds up with different instruments coming in one by one, or in pairs. This is where the lick would sit, often played over the chords used in the verse, setting the tone ready for the vocals to come in. The idea behind the intro is to tell the listener what kind of song this is, the genre and the tempo. Of course, some songwriters have been known to trick the listener and have an opening different to the rest of the track. This approach is less likely to work but can produce interesting results.
The verse follows the introduction and contains the bulk of the lyrical content. It is a very important part of the song and lead the listener towards the hook in the chorus. There may be multiple verses in a song, usually with the same melody but different lyrics, and separated by the chorus. Great songwriters are able to tell a story in the verse using the different verses to talk about different aspects of the story, much like chapters in a novel. Verses are not so reliant on a memorable melody as the chorus is, so lyrical content is key to creating a great verse.
Moving from the verse to the chorus can be done in different ways. If your two sections are similar in tempo and music, they will probably flow nicely into each other. However, if they are vastly different, you may need a pre-chorus to bridge the gap.
A good tip is to move from a major to minor key or vice versa. This gives a different feel to the pre-chorus, setting up the chorus. Alternatively you can break up the instrumentation or have no words. The chorus can benefit dramatically from a pre-chorus using these methods.
Your hook can be used here once or multiple times to increase the emotional tension in the song. The chorus is normally the same each time it is played, or with a slight variation towards the end of the song.
Subsequent verses follow from the chorus and this pattern can be repeated several times, depending on the length of each part. You may wish to include a short repeat of the intro before each verse to separate parts of your story.
Popular songs in the first half of the twentieth century tended to begin with a chorus and then move into the verse and some songs today do the same.
To break up the potential monotony of the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern, you can introduce a complete change to the sound of your song, altering tempo, instrumentation or melody. The eight represents eight bars in length and middle to convey the position in the song, often after the second chorus.
Completing the song
At this point in the song, you should have written the majority of the lyrics and melody and the final section maybe left until the track is recorded. It will probably contain an instrumental section, a further repeat of the chorus and an outro which should have similarities to the intro, completing the circle of the song. These decisions should be left until the rest of the song is complete and should flow naturally.
Key changes at the end of a song to emphasize a final chorus should be avoided at all costs as they signal a desperation for the songwriter to grab the listeners attention. Your song should be strong enough without this.
Lyrics and melody
As mentioned previously, your lyrics should tell a story or portray an emotion. It's also important that the words sound good when sung. Rhyming is the most obvious way to achieve this, but you shouldn't forget the importance of a beautifully sounding word at any point in the song.
Melody is normally constructed over a chord sequence, with moody and melancholic melodies associated with minor keys and upbeat, happy ones on the major scale. There is no magic formula for a great melody, other than practice, hard-work and a bit of luck.