How to write a song

In 1961 when John Lennon was asked where the band name came from he famously replied “It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day forward you are Beatles with an A.’ Thank you Mister Man, they said, thanking him.”

That’s about as good a description of inspiration as you’re going to get. Sometimes the best and the simplest ideas just fall from the sky and into your consciousness. And so it is with songwriting. Very occasionally a tune is in the ether, waiting to be born, and you are the lucky person the universe has chosen to receive it.

Some of our most important musical works fall into this category of ‘pure art’. Those are the songs that tend to move us the most and stay with us for a lifetime.

Trouble is, it’s not a dependable source of material. Inspiration like that has never happened to me in a lifetime of waiting and willing it to happen. Surely there are ways to kickstart the creative process, prevent writers block and get some songs happening?

Well… there is. A good place to start is outlining some of the tricks used by the top pop and rock writers. This is craft rather than art I admit, but so often putting the time and graft in will pave the way for inspiration to follow. The processes I describe here were picked up during co-writing sessions organised by our publisher in the somewhat desperate pursuit of a ‘hit record’. Although a bit formulaic, it worked. And the old band secured several Top 40 hits along the way – a few created in the ways as I describe in this blog.

Of course, no one’s interested in a ‘hit record’ anymore, it’s a meaningless and antique term. But what we are looking for is that song that will separate your band from the hundreds of thousands of other acts all screaming for attention in the same space.

Good bands and good music are painfully commonplace. Great songwriting is still super rare. Songs still matter and can still change lives and start careers.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s begin our step by step journey to writing your best song yet.

Step 1 – Put the guitar down and step away from the keyboard.

We will start with titles and subject matter. When a band writes to a backing track it often produces less coherent writing. So just for once let’s not think about the music until we have written down 50 great titles, each with a strong concept behind it.

See what’s happening? We’ve already created a tension with songs crying out to be written, if the titles are interesting and engaging, and we’re inspired to want to tell the full story.

Write those titles on a large piece of paper or white board and stick them on the wall so they are staring you in the face.

Step 2 – Tempo groove and feel.

Stop and think about tempos. If we don’t, most writers end up defaulting to slower tempos. I think it might be just because it’s easier to write slower tunes. But most commercial hits and show-stopping gig tunes are faster than 120 BPM and often 130 BPM+.

There is a massive mismatch in average tempo of songs written by your average writer, and songs actually consumed and listened to. Stick the radio on and check the BPMs on the playlist. Play a few classic albums and work out how the thing hangs together tempo wise.

Watching the crowd at a big gig will tell you everything you need to know about which tempo and feel holds a crowd and makes them move. Watch the support acts to see what sends people to the bar. Radio programmers are very sensitive to this and they don’t want anyone switching the dial because they are bored by a dirge of a tune.

You might want to use a drum machine or loops to collect a batch of drum feels to use as the basis for the writing session. We have 50 titles there, so let’s have a wide selection, maybe include a shuffle or two and some different time signatures. You can afford to experiment with quirky drum sounds and samples at this stage as we are building the vibe as we write.

Step 3 – Let’s crack on.

Pace is really important in writing. Nothing kills the buzz more than trying to make the first line a masterpiece. Try not to censor yourself and just allow the songs to write themselves. Let’s knock out some tunes quick and come back and re-look at them in a week. You might not be able to be objective on the same day you’ve written a song – don’t be in a hurry to scrap anything.

Now take a title and see if it sits well with one of the drum grooves, try singing the top line lyric over the drums, jam around with it, and maybe try and get a main chorus hook out there first. Find the hook first and then write backwards. Hopefully two or three lines will leap out from your list of titles and pair up nicely with one of the drum loops.

When it starts to click together, try and bash out a song fast, without thinking too hard. Trust your subconscious and the most obvious first choice of lyric or melody may well be the one.

Keep it loose, enjoyable and pacey. Aim for half a dozen completed but rough tunes in a day and record them, label them carefully and come back to the file later.

Ah yes you can get the guitar out now. Add licks, keys, bass – knock yourself out. You’ve been pretty disciplined so far, so now you can riff, be loose and find a flow. Try different keys, major, minor and add the underpinning chords to the melody. If you get stuck for harmonic ideas, go back to the greats – Kinks, Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys will get you out of a rut. But you’ll also have your own references of course.

If you’re on a roll, keep going and you may be doing this for days or even weeks before you come back and sort thought the ideas.

Step 4 – Quality control.

Now the work begins. Sort the songs into piles. A, B and C lists might be a good place to start. In the 80s, most major label acts would have 50 or 60 tunes to pick through before they whittled the section down to an album. These days you may even be looking at releasing just one tune at a time. Let’s make it count.

So after picking our favourite tunes, we now need to refine them into a finished form or maybe even a recorded master.

Looking at how much care a band takes over lyric writing tells you much about their level of respect for their audience and their overall musical standards. Lyrics are everything. Although it is fine to write instrumentals too and that would be infinitely preferable to weak ass lyrics. Of course, this is subjective and sometimes ‘dumb’ is great, sometimes inaccurate grammar works. It’s all about the context and we know substance and meaning when we hear it. That’s probably what will link you to your audience more than anything else.

Having a great title and a strong subject will make completing the lyrics much easier as the song will want to write itself.

Step 5 – Loosely arrange the track.

Don’t be afraid to take away rather than add. You could also consider setting some kind of sonic direction with your choice of sounds and instrumentation. Keep it bare and leave space as it’s just a sketch at this stage.

Step 6 – So we’re done right?

Well, yes and no! If you have taken a song as far as you can, and you’re digging the result, you now have the option of rehearsing it up and sticking it in the set. Or you can bring in other people to see how much further you can go with this thing. Maybe consider co-writing with an experienced commercial writer who could pull out another hook or two and refine the lyrics, and then the right producer could help you fine tune the arrangement, and a decent engineer can help you realise an ambitious sonic vision.

These days it’s easy to find and work with top professionals. Sometimes it costs a little bit but often it’s much cheaper than you would expect, and you’ll be surprised at what you learn by hanging with experienced pros.

I come back to my earlier point – great songs are rare. They change the world, they change lives and they start careers. That has got to be worth that little bit more effort hasn’t it?

If songwriting is an important part of your life, remember you can study a flexible BA (Hons) or Master’s Degree course with a focus on composition and production at WaterBear the College of Music, Brighton.

By Bruce Dickinson

Bruce has had 11 top forty hits and a number 1 album with Little Angels. He’s toured with Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and opened for Guns N’ Roses on their first UK shows. With his group Colour of Noise, he has run a successful Pledge album campaign and he continues to help new bands through curating the Rising Stage at the Ramblin’ Man Fair festival and Underground Music Conference events. Bruce was a founder of the BIMM group of colleges, leaving in 2012 for the Little Angels reunion at Download Festival and UK tour. He has negotiated several university partnerships and written many validated degree courses, with thousands of undergraduates studying those courses still. He holds an MA in Education Management.
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