1. DEFINING A SONG
To start, it helps to understand what a "song" really is. When you listen to a song on the radio, you hear a lot of things that may overwhelm you, but much of what you're hearing is the production and arrangement. Strings, drums, loops, electronic sounds, background vocals – these are all important to the end result of any song, but they are not "the song" itself. Songs are really just melodies and lyrics. Everything else – the chords, harmony, rhythm, arrangement and production – are there to highlight the melody and lyrics. That's why you often hear the same song done in so many styles (for example. a reggae version of "Amazing Grace" or a version of "Misty" with different chords). In fact, you can only copyright the melody and lyrics to a song – never the chord progressions or rhythms. So, let's begin by getting you started on writing a melody.
2. CREATING MELODIES
Here's a great way to begin songwriting: Find a simple sentence or two – it can be anything at all – "My cat is the best cat ever" or "I love ketchup on my eggs" (I sense a hit song coming!). Start repeating it out loud. You'll soon notice there is a rhythm to your phrasing. Keep repeating it and start letting notes overtake your speech pattern. You already do this naturally without realizing it. Speaking without any musical tone is called "monotone" and is often how we impersonate a robot. Just start exaggerating what you're doing naturally to the verse you've selected. Randomly start picking words to break away from your natural speech tones by making bigger leaps between tones, or by holding some words out longer than others. This is no magic trick – you will probably not write your first masterpiece this way. But you will likely be writing a melody that no one else has ever written. It may not be very good, but a few minutes ago you were not a composer at all. Now, at least you're a bad one! Time and practice will begin to fix that.
Obviously, you aren't going to write many songs about ketchup, so as you continue to work at it, choose to write about things you know about or care about – things that matter to you and will be "real" coming from you. For example, if you've never been in love, don't write about being in love, but instead about wanting to fall in love.
3. CHORDS, HARMONIES, RHYTHMS
Once you've created a melody to work with, you can start finding the chords to play behind it. If you play a polyphonic instrument, such as piano or guitar, and know some chords already, you're ahead of the game. If not, find a musician you know who has some training to collaborate with (see point 4).
If you really want to explore your options, consider buying a keyboard that helps train you in chord theory, like this one from Yamaha. Also, books that teach you basic chords can be helpful, like this one for guitarists by Hal Leonard, this one for keyboardists from Amsco Publications, or this wall poster from Walrus Publishing. Simply "guessing" as you search for chords can help you discover the right sound and is a great "trial by error" method for learning.
As you repeat your melody, you'll be amazed at how some chords sound right and others don't. And there will probably be a 'eureka' moment when suddenly you hear the perfect chord. Our minds often naturally harmonize a song in our heads even though we are unaware.
Collaborating is a great way to begin writing, especially if you have no musical training. Having a well-trained musician or composer to bounce your ideas off of is incredibly valuable. They can often suggest things you would never have thought of on your own or help polish a song to where it sounds like the real deal. Often collaboration ends before it begins because people are naturally shy. No one wants to have their creative venture criticized. But, unless you are writing songs just for yourself, then there's no way around it – you need to develop a somewhat thick skin. If you surround yourself with people who are truly trying to help you, then criticism is a great thing and will help you to grow in your skill. If the person you've chosen to collaborate with isn't into your songs, find someone else. You'd be amazed at the rejection stories of the great composers.
Lyrics are tough, and a bad lyric can ruin a great melody. Likewise, a great lyric can save a weaker melody. But bad lyrics are the first sign of a writer who has, shall we say, not "found their groove" yet. Again, collaboration is a great method, but you can also find some helpful tools such as this book by Rikky Rooksby. Rhyming dictionaries are helpful as well, like this one from Alfred or this rhyming guide from Berklee.
Always, try and avoid rhymes that have been done to death. We don't need another song with the line "hold me in your arms, fill me with your charms" or that rhymes "love" with "above". Don't be afraid to re-write, re-write and re-write!
Once you've started – change it up. Try different chords in different places, try different rhythms or phrasing. Try changing a lyric or two. Mold and refine your creation. Rarely is a masterpiece birthed at its inception. Chances are your favorite composers work and rework their songs, sometimes taking days, weeks, even years!
Study the works of the great lyricists. Cole Porter, Lennon/McCartney, Steve Wonder, Hoagy Carmichael, Marylin & Alan Bergman, Diane Warren…whoever your favorites are.
8. PRACTICE Don't give up! This process may take years to refine, but you can do it! You should also begin carrying a small tape recorder around so you can capture ideas before you forget them. And don't get discouraged. Writing is hard work – it's not supposed to be easy. But with practice and study, you will improve. Here are a few other books that can be helpful to you.
Backbeat Books Melody - How to Write Great Tunes
Backbeat Books How to Write Songs on Keyboards - A Complete Course to Help You Write Better Songs
Hal Leonard How To Write Songs For Guitar - Revised Edition
Good luck on your way to your first platinum seller!