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What Writing A Song Really Looks Like

Sep 04, 2021

What does writing a song really look like? Everyone online makes it seem simple and easy.

Write A Song A Day For 30 Days.

Write A Song In 3 Easy Steps.

But what is the reality of songwriting? Why does it take so long sometimes? Am I a bad songwriter?

These are all questions you might be asking because of those who pretend that you can and should write a hit song every hour.

You may be comforted to know that’s not what writing a song really looks like. Let’s take a look at the realistic process of songwriting.


The Idea

Every song starts with an idea.

Sometimes that idea comes from some imagery you find compelling.

Sometimes the idea comes from a musical idea you get while improvising with your favorite instrument.

And sometimes you get a new idea from a  tv show, watching someone on the subway, or a shower thought.

The muse cannot be controlled. You can influence the muse and inspiration to visit you more often by putting in the work, but it’s not a simple exchange of hours for ideas.

Sometimes you’ll be too busy to take time to think of song ideas, but you’ll have 5 great song ideas pop into your head that week anyway.

Sometimes you’ll spend 5 hours thinking about song ideas and come up with only a heap of unusable garbage.

It’s important to note that ideas can be lyrical ideas such as themes, lines, stories, or imagery. But ideas can also be musical ideas from a bass line, chord progression, or even an unconventional song structure idea.

What I like to do is keep a Google document of all my different song ideas. So, if I’m laying in bed at 2 in the morning and think of a song idea, I get up, go to my phone, and put my idea in the document.

For musical ideas or small riffs I come up with while improvising, I often record them into my phone to make sure I can go back and listen to what I came up with.

Ideas may be fickle, but this is the easiest part of songwriting. Anyone can be an “idea guy”. Ideas are fleeting thoughts that don’t require work.

The amount of song ideas in my Google document at any given time is probably around 100.

But the amount of songs I’m actively working on is rarely north of 10.



So, you have a bunch of different song ideas.

You have this random piano riff you like in the key of G major.

You have an idea for a strong structure that only has verses and a finale- no choruses or bridge.

Also, you have a random quote or line that you think is interesting and compelling.

You have a bit of imagery you like, such as “Hands reaching from the sea”.

Now what?

Well, it’s time to prepare for that songwriting journey.

Let’s take the imagery example.

You find the image of “Hands reaching from the sea” compelling.

But, what does it mean? Are they human hands? Are they young hands? Old hands? Are they all different colors or a single color?

Because “hands reaching from the sea” could be anything from the tentacles of a kraken reaching to pull someone to their death (metaphorically), to a more nuanced image that is about just how many people are metaphorically drowning in life. Maybe there are many more drowning than there are boats to save them.

In fact, I could spend a whole post breaking down different things “hands reaching from the sea” could be about. 

Some would be stupid and some would be cool. Some would be dark and some would be hopeful. 

The idea here is that it can be helpful to flesh out your idea before starting to write the lyrics and music of the song.

Because, if you start writing a happy melody and then realize the song will probably be a darker take, you could have avoided going down that dead end by simply preparing a bit better.

Sometimes, the instant you come up with an idea, you know exactly what it’s about and the direction the song should go.

Other times that idea sits for years.

This is why I always encourage songwriters to be working on many songs at once.

You don’t want to be stuck on a song and all your songwriting comes to a halt. 

So, at this point, you have at least one song idea and have developed it some. 

From here, the next two steps can happen in any order, or both at the same time.



Improvising is the heart of songwriting. Whether you are improvising by making up melodies in your shower, noodling with your guitar, or improvising with the piano, the heart of writing the music of a song often comes from improvisation.

Realistically, you can spend hours improvising some good sounding music, but still not find anything you want to use for a song.

Sometimes, you can spend 15 minutes improvising and come up with some melodies and harmonies for several songs.

Think of it like panning for gold. Sure, you can go to the “best” place to find gold to increase your chances, but nothing is guaranteed. 

One day you may spend all day panning and get nothing. Another day you might find a month’s worth of gold before noon.

What you can control is showing up and improvising (or panning for gold). What you can’t do is guarantee what you can find.

But, if you do the right things and keep showing up, you’ll eventually find something.

In this improvising stage, the main thing you’re searching for is the musical side of inspiration.

If you don’t have any music yet, you might be searching for the main riff or hook of your song. Maybe you’re trying to find the melody, bass line, chords, or really any other music within your song.

If your main idea was already a piano riff, maybe now you’re trying to find the right melody or chords. You also could be trying to build out the other sections of your song.



Most of what you write will be garbage.

I don’t care how good of a writer you are, writing is essentially the improvisation of words.

So you’re panning for gold again, this time with words.

It’s not exactly the same, but it follows some of the same principles.

One day, you might sit down and write all the lyrics for a song in 30 minutes and go from no words to finished lyrics in less than an hour.

Those days are rare.

Most days, you write for a while, and only one line or idea is worth keeping. Or maybe you like all the ideas expressed in what you wrote, but the wording is clunky.

Some days you’ll write different ideas for what the story of the verses are, and you might end up disliking all of them.

Or maybe you like them, but they’re not quite right.

The idea is to write. Improvise words and don’t be judgmental while you write. Just write. And write a lot

The nuances of how to write your lyrics would make this post far too long, but I have a free 6-Step Lyric Writing Checklist that breaks down every step in detail and provides you with a simple checklist you can print out as well. 

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