Writing a song doesn’t have to be guesswork! I’m sharing with you a concrete and hands-on method, so it’s a great way for first-time songwriters to get a handle on songwriting. After all, art shouldn’t always be guesswork. This comes “Popular Lyric Writing,” by Berklee music professor Pat Pattison.
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How to Write a Song in Ten Steps
1. Destination Writing
Begin by free-writing in paragraph form. Describe a scene, or a person, or a moment; focus on using adjectives and similes tied to the five senses, and verbs that are forceful and direct.
2. Separate External and Internal Details, and look for rhyming pairs among them
External details are those that focus on the setting, while internal details focus on the ‘who’ in the story and identify feelings. A proper balance of external and internal details helps create an experience for the listener without sacrificing authenticity or pacing. Lay out key phrases from the free-writing exercise on a table, with external details on one side and internal details on another, then connect the ones that rhyme.
3. Choose a rhyme scheme, toggle pattern, and plot progression.
Some rhyme schemes include ABAB, AABCCB, or XAXA (where matching letters indicate rhyming lines and X indicates lines that don’t rhyme at all). Pattison* uses the term “toggle pattern” to describe the movement between the internal and external details identified in the previous step. Every song should tell a story, so plan how to structure your story across verse, chorus, or bridge.
4. Put some meat on the bones.
Fill the rhyming phrases from step two into your structure from step 3, adding conjunctions and prepositions so they tell the story cohesively in that order. Pattison calls this “toggling” the verse and pre-chorus. He adds that “your first few lines should establish the ‘who,’ ‘when,’ and ‘where'” of the song.
5. Write your chorus.
Destination write about the same thing again, but with an inward focus. This time you’re looking at the thoughts and feelings of your main character. Just as you did in step 1, write in paragraph form without restriction or hesitation.
6. Find rhyming pairs of phrases in this material for your chorus.
Just as in step two, put the phrases you’ve written in a table and connect the ones that rhyme. Try to find the heart of the story, the point or the moral you’re trying to convey. This is also where you might find material for the title of your song. Note that the title is not the first thing you’ll write; it only shows up after you’ve spent some time with your subject matter.
7. Construct the second verse and pre-chorus.
At this point you can focus more on internal details and broaden the scope of your focus relative to your first verse. Verses and even lines of a verse progress from a narrow to a broad focus -“zoomed in and zoomed out” – in a process that Pattison calls “pyramiding.” While your first few lines must establish the ‘who,’ ‘where,’ and ‘when’ to draw your audience into the story, you now have the freedom to explore your concept more and add connections. It’s a principle that should be familiar to anyone who has written blogs, speeches, or hard news.
8. Construct the bridge.
A bridge should break from the rest of the song not just in melody and tone, but in structure and thought as well. Pattison recommends a contrasting toggling pattern between external and internal details. You should also consider how this section will elaborate, add to, or even contradict the themes of the song.
By now, your song has taken shape. You might be pretty proud of it, but don’t let it go just yet.
9. Review your verbs, tenses, and points of view
Is the song entirely in first, second, or third person? Each are valid choices, but they must be consistent throughout. Is the song happening in the past like a memory or a story, the present like an experience, or the future like a promise or a hope? Most importantly, circle all of your verbs; ask yourself whether there are stronger or more precise verbs you could use in their place. This should also be familiar advice to writers: Keep a thesaurus handy, and never submit your first draft.
10. Check for conversational quality
Remember that your audience isn’t reading this, they’re hearing it. Can you follow the action without looking back? Do your thoughts flow smoothly through the use of conjunctions and prepositions? Are the characters, setting, and action clear from the beginning? Make changes where necessary.
By now you might have a pretty rumpled piece of paper and a worn-out pencil, but you might also have a song. Congratulations! More importantly, you have a concrete method for how to write a song you can return to again and again. Like every skill, songwriting gets easier with practice.
If Pattison’s songwriting process worked for you, please support his work and the Berklee college of music by picking up a copy* of his book. I’ve given only the barest of summaries here, and Pattison devotes entire chapters to each of his steps. “Popular Lyric Writing” opened my eyes to tools I didn’t even know existed. It’s definitely worth your time.