About 10 years ago I decided to write a song for my girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day gift. We were in college and I worked at the school cafeteria, so I didn’t have a lot of spending money. Fortunately, I did have a guitar, so I figured I could save some money and hopefully score some major points with my lady.
I’ll get into the details later in this article, but I just locked myself in my room with a notebook and a guitar and started writing down some thoughts and playing some chords. And when I finally finished I was pretty happy with the result.
The first time I played the song for her was really great. She was smiling the whole time and I think we both felt pretty in love.
A year or two later I recorded the song in my home recording studio and this was the result:
Maybe my song appeals to you, maybe it doesn’t. But a few years later this song played at my wedding and I married the girl I wrote it for. I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned this song was a major hit!
I’ve written dozens of songs in my life, but this is really the only one that I wrote specifically for someone else.
Some Personal Stuff At The Time of Writing My Song
Revisiting this song and thinking about that time in my life has me reflecting on some things. If you don’t care about my personal thoughts then just skip to the next section.
In high school I got pretty involved in the youth group of a local church. My best friend invited me to come regularly and I went along with him until I eventually just felt like part of the group. My religion and beliefs were a huge part of my personal identity in high school, and that carried over into college.
I joined religious groups right away when I got to college. I met people and made lots of friends this way.
But for reasons I won’t go into in this article, I began to seriously question my beliefs. I spent like 9-12 months slowly going from a pretty serious, enthusiastic Christian, to an Agnostic. And to this day I am still Agnostic.
I went from having beliefs that defined me to having no beliefs. I went from having a great support system full of people who I related with to having nobody that I felt understood me. I went from feeling like I belonged somewhere to feeling like a stranger everywhere I went.
It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of “losing your religion” to someone who never has. This process also happened to coincide with the first, and only, time my heart was broken.
Needless to say this was without a doubt the most turbulent and difficult time in my life (so far).
Well during this whole process I met Kate, now my wife, and she was just starting a process very similar to my own.
Naturally, we formed a strong bond. We were going through difficult times and she often felt like my only confidante.
Now that I’ve set the stage for my mental and emotional state during this time in my life, I want to start with the lyrics.
Others may do this differently, but I always start with the lyrics. Before I have written or sung a single note I start writing down my thoughts.
Here are the lyrics to the song I wrote for reference:
I could sing a song about how much I love you right now, but I don’t think that’s enough.
Cause any guy and any girl can fall in love and share their feelings, but what we have is more than love.
In five or ten or fifty years I know that I won’t love you just the same.
but I believe in us and I don’t believe in much. Yes I believe in us and I know that you’re enough.
We’ve been to hell and back and had to do some things that we should have never had to do.
Now that we are finally happy there’s no way that I can promise that we won’t return to that place we were before.
I’m not with you every minute of every day but my life is so much brighter because of you.
No one sings about the day to day, but that’s the part you have to love to last for fifty years and I do.Lyrics from “I Believe in Us”
Are these the best lyrics ever written? No. And yes.
Lyrics are all about the person listening. And my audience was Kate. These are words written for her and about her. They are personal for her. So they don’t have to change the world, they just have to change her world.
Just write. Anything. No really.
If you try to think of the perfect thing to say, you’re going to be sitting there forever. Don’t try to think of the perfect thing, just try to think of something that’s worth saying.
You may feel like you want to crack open the egg of meaning and pour it all over this person. I can tell you that’s just not going to happen.
Maybe you want to tell your dad that he’s been a good dad. You could literally write something as stupid as “You took me fishing when I was five and I still think about how much fun it was.” Do you know how freaking amazing your dad would feel if you wrote that down in a song??? If you’re a dad then you know, but if you’re not then just trust me. Your dad will love that stupid lyric till the day he dies.
Or maybe you want to write a song about your best friend and you write down “I love how we can not see each other for 6 months and then talk like we saw each other yesterday.”
I mean you might need to do some editing, but this kind of stuff is gold even if it doesn’t sound very cool.
Forget about sounding stupid
They WILL like your lyrics. I promise you that. Think about it, you’re taking time and effort and writing a freaking song for them. Even if it’s stupid (and it might be kind of stupid), they’ll be flattered at the very least.
The number one rule in doing anything for the first time is to just do it. Don’t worry about sucking and don’t worry about embarrassing yourself.
You will suck and you might embarrass yourself. That’s the price that everyone must pay in order to become great (or even good) at anything.
Just don’t be creepy
Now I’ve just told you to write down anything and I meant it. That doesn’t mean you have to keep everything you write down. If you’re writing a song about someone and they will hear that song and know that you wrote it, then you may care what they think about your song.
The one thing you want to avoid is to creep them out. How do you know if you’re being creepy?
Well you won’t necessarily know. But you can always ask someone to read through your lyrics and ask them if it’s too much.
Or you can avoid writing songs for people who don’t know you very well. And if you don’t know how someone really feels about you then it may be better to avoid writing a song about them. Of course sometimes a big swing hits a home run, so what do I know?
Honesty is so powerful
I’ve heard so many love songs that they all start to sound the same. To me, if you’re writing a song about someone specific or for someone, you can’t use those generic lyrics you hear on the radio.
I once heard Shia Labeouf in a Hot Ones interview say “anything that moves you is art.” And I believe that’s true. We all have thoughts and ideas that we keep hidden for ourselves. Things we don’t bring up or things that we are embarrassed about or things that make us feel bad.
These are the thoughts and ideas that make for great art.
Let some of those hidden thoughts run out onto the pages of your notebook and see what comes out of it. Some of it may just be depressing, but some of it may move you.
Closing thoughts on writing lyrics
There are millions of artists out there. And everyone has a unique style of creating their art. When it comes to writing lyrics, don’t expect yours to sound like anyone else’s.
It’s great if you like to study other artists and draw inspiration from their style, but art is a very personal thing. If you read your lyrics and they move you, then you’ve done a great job. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
I’ve already said I like to write my lyrics before I touch an instrument. That’s just my preference. I feel like the song is more interesting when I don’t try to match the lyrics to the music.
And there’s another reason why I like to write lyrics first. Once I have the lyrics in front of me, I start to understand what I want the song to feel like. I know what kind of emotions I want the music to make me feel.
So that’s where I start. I read through the lyrics and get into that state of mind. Then I pick up my instrument.
Start with chord progressions
Obviously this isn’t an article to teach you music theory. It’s an article about writing a song. I’m going to be giving generic advice.
And my first generic advice is to start with chord progressions.
First you’ll want to pick a key and then you’ll want to make sure you know all the chords available to you in that key. All major keys follow the same pattern and all minor keys follow the same pattern.
If you know your major scales, then you know the root notes of every chord in a key. Let’s take the key of C for an easy example. Here’s your scale:
So those are the root notes for all your chords. Here are the chords
- C major
- D minor
- E minor
- F major
- G major
- A minor
- B diminished
- C major (again)
It’s common to call these chords by their numbers (1, 2, 3 or I, II, III and so on). So the first chord in the scale is always major, second and third chords are always minor and so on.
Common major key chord progressions
One of the most famous major key chord progressions is I, V, VI, IV. In the key of C this would be C major, G major, A minor, F major. It’s the chords to literally thousands of popular songs.
In reality you can literally pick any combination of these chords, but it’s very common to start on I (C major in the key of C). Here are some chord progressions that you can try out, but always experiment to see if you can find something you like better:
- I, V, VI, IV (1, 5, 6, 4)
- I, IV, V, IV (1, 4, 5, 4)
- I, IV, V, VII (1, 4, 5, 7)
- V, VI, V, I (5, 6, 5, 1)
- I, I, III, V (1, 1, 3, 5)
Minor keys all follow the same pattern as well. If you know their notes then you know the root note of every chord in a minor key. Here’s C minor:
- E flat
- A flat
- B flat
And the corresponding chords are:
- C minor
- D diminished
- E flat major
- F minor
- G minor
- A flat major
- B flat major
- C minor
Just like in major keys the we can use the number notation for chords (I, II, III or 1, 2, 3) and just like in major keys the chords follow the same pattern. The first chord is minor, second is a diminished chord, third is major chord and so on.
Common minor key progressions
I’m usually partial to minor key chord progressions and my current favorite is I, VII, VI, V. It reminds me of the Gerudo Valley song from Ocarina of Time. Here are some minor chord progressions you can use for inspiration:
- I, VII, VI, V (1, 7, 6, 5)
- I, V, VI, V (1, 5, 6, 5)
- I, VI, IV, V (1, 6, 4, 5)
- III, IV, I, VI (3, 4, 1, 6)
Again, you can get pretty creative and just make up any random sequence of chords. In fact there are some sites online that will do it for you. If you need some more ideas generate random chord progressions at ChordChord.
Put the Lyrics to the Chords
Once you have some music going, you should start singing over the chords with the lyrics you wrote. This may not come naturally to you. If you have a hard time singing and playing together, then record your music and then try singing over the recording.
I usually start integrating lyrics right away. I don’t wait for the full song to come together before I start singing.
Typical Song Parts
You can of course make your song however you want, but there are some pretty standard patterns followed by most popular music.
You’ll generally have at least three different chord progressions. One for the verses, one for the chorus and one for the bridge.
It’s very normal to alternate between verses and chorus throughout the song, then throw in a random segment that differs from both (called the bridge) that is only played once.
Most songs will follow something similar to this:
Maybe they mix it around, maybe they add a verse or a chorus or take one away. But most songs follow this pattern.
But not all songs. One of my all time favorites “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t follow any of the traditional song structure patterns. Don’t feel tied to these patterns, but use them if you need some help.
Focus on Finishing First, Then Improve
Perhaps the hardest part of writing a song is just finishing it. You want the song to say something important and it’s easy to feel let down with what you have, which also makes it easy to just give up and not finish.
The most important thing you can do is get a finished song done, even if you’re not happy with it.
Once you have a finished song, it’s much easier to pick out the things you do and don’t like about it. Keep what you like and brainstorm ways to improve on what you don’t like.
Maybe you don’t like the second verse. So go back and rework it. Maybe you’re unhappy with the sound of the chorus. So try some new chord progressions.
Trust me, once you have a finished song, you’ll find some ways to improve it. It’s just like writing a paper. Make your initial draft and then start turning it into a finished product.
Heck, I regularly find things today on songs I wrote years ago that I’d like to go back and improve on.
You don’t have to finish in one sitting
I often hear stories about popular songs that were “written on a napkin in 45 minutes while she was waiting for the tour bus” or something crazy like that.
That’s not how most songs are written.
Write some. Then sleep. Then write some more.
Take some time away from your song and allow your brain to work out the problems you’re trying to solve. Give yourself an opportunity to draw some inspiration from real life. Go meet with the person you’re writing your song about. You’re sure to get some great ideas.
Then come back and continue working on your song.
Finally, Perform or Record
After you’ve got a song you’re reasonably happy with. It’s time to let someone else hear it!
So perform it for your person. Or sit down and record it to be played later. Whatever you pick, make sure someone gets to hear your song. Because art is best shared with others.