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Where to Focus When Writing a Song

Songwriting is a skill that many try to master, and only a few manage with resounding success. Jobbing musicians up and down the country are hunting for that one killer song that will put them on the map, and in the process of writing it, they may well churn out thousands of other tracks.

Each song will have a story, and a tune, and mean something to the writer. It might be personal, it might be about an event, a place, or a feeling, but each is a little slice of them in musical form. Some of the best songwriters have produced their most famous works in a single afternoon, other songs have taken years to formulate and create.

Where should you get started? What’s the first step to writing a song, and what should you focus on? Here are a few tips and examples from the very best writers around.

Try to have a subject

All songs start with an idea. You might want to write a song about a breakup, or a love song directed at your partner. You might wish to sing about a place, an event, or even another musician. The key to some good writing is to know what you want to sing about before you start.

There are many reasons people write a song. Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone, ranked as the fourth best song ever by Rolling Stone, was originally a 20-page ode to his inner hatred, but was later whittled down to four verses and a chorus. Marvin Gaye wrote What’s Going On about peace on earth, whilst the Presidents of the United States of America wrote Kitty about a cat, scratching at a door. It doesn’t have to be profound!

You might even find inspiration in your musical heroes. Cam Archer pays tribute to one of his idols, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, in his track Voltage. Noel Gallagher wrote the Oasis album track Cast No Shadow about Richard Ashcroft of The Verve, whilst famously, Don McLean’s American Pay pays homage to many artists of the sixties.

It's good to have an idea – that’s where a great song starts.

Start with a tune

There are lots of tales about how a song has been started by someone simply strumming a hook on a guitar. After all, having a reason to write motivates you and helps you form the lyrics, but good music is a reason to listen. Some songs don’t seek to change the world, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, but they do have a great hook that gets people listening.

Paul Simonon wasn’t one of the key figures of The Clash, but his hypnotic bassline for Guns of Brixton is iconic and has been sampled by Cypress Hill and Norman Cook for tracks of their own, proving that just music can stand up to the test of time without a lyric of emotion behind it. Florida-based singer-songwriter Bacon James Music explains that you make a song memorable by creating a catchy, instrumental-led melody. This should never be underestimated in songwriting – changing the world is all well and good, but if you don’t sound good, nobody will bother trying to hear the message.

Decide on a structure

You’ve got the idea, you’ve got the hook; where do you go from here? Lyrics are important, but they’re merely a part of the overall arrangement, which is the structure of the song. As a songwriter, you must make your song have a certain structure: most songs have an introduction, verse, and chorus. For instance, think about Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N’ Roses – it has perhaps one of the most famous introductions of all time. Consider how you’re going to lure your listeners in, like a good opening chapter of a book.

The verses and chorus are also important. The verses can tell the story of your song, whilst the chorus remains as a callback to the song's central premise. This can be seen in Bon Jovi's song, Living on a Prayer. The chorus is catchy, repeated, and repeatable, and can be yelled at the top of your voice – this makes it land with listeners. Of course, you don’t have to fix a hard and fast structure. Johnny Cash is a great storyteller, but his song A Boy Named Sue, recorded live at San Quentin prison, is an example of a well-written song with no discernable chorus at all. If you’re telling a story, don’t feel the need for a chorus if you think it breaks things up.


There are no solid rules when it comes to songwriting, and you can pick one of these points to focus on first. You may not want a big chorus, you may not have an idea or premise, but you’ve got the hook. Develop that and build around it. If you have an idea and a mood, sit down and just jam on your instrument and find the sound that suits it. The key is to make sure you have a starting point and motivation, and hopefully, this list will help you get your next killer track up and running.

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by Riley Jada

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