How to Write Good Songs When You’re Not Very Good

This is about writing the music of a song, when you’re not a very talented musician.

When I was a little kid, my prodigiously talented father quietly resigned himself to the idea that I would never achieve much with music. My brother was able to sing in tune before he could even talk, but I didn’t pick up that talent at all. Luckily, no-one told me this until much, much later.

I was raised in the folk scene, where everyone joins in, and my experience was that people opened their mouths and the right notes came out, so I presumed that when I opened my mouth, the right notes were coming out too. My dad gently led me through the process of learning how to make the right notes, through which process I came to grasp how far from that I had started. I can now sing in tune and on a good day I can tune my guitar, but I’ll never be one of the people for whom music is easy and obvious.

A lot of examples and teaching I’ve seen for how to write a song involves a fair amount of just singing, either along to some chords or without, and finding a melody line you like. My experience of trying to write songs that way is very nearly 100% dissatisfying and leaves me feeling like a cake that’s been decorated with a catapult. I did successfully write one song with voice only, when I was on an 8-hour shift of counting traffic, and had plenty of time and privacy to go back and repeat and try again.

My usual method is to pick out melodies on my guitar, and play around with them until they sound like I want them to sound, and then learn to sing them. It sounds long-winded, and of course it is. It would be far quicker if I could whip them out of the air with just my voice. But this is my reality, and what I experience when I write songs this way is that I get melodies that I like. And that is very satisfying.

I write in a folk style, one feature of which is that the melody is the essence of the song (musically), and the chords are secondary. It’s called ‘melodic’ music – the usual alternative to that is ‘harmonic’ music, where the basis of the song is a chord pattern, which cycles around, and a melody is laid over the top of it. My songs rarely have a cyclic chord pattern (except that obviously the whole thing is repeated in the next verse etc.)

But this writing style works either way. If you’re starting with chords, in some ways it’s easier because you can play the chords slowly as you go, and just pick notes from the chord to make your melody notes, and then put runs between them to join them up. Or you can have complete freedom and start with the melody like I do, and then fit chords to it later.

At first I would depend on my dad to help me work out what chords to play to my tunes. But gradually I got to be able to work that out for myself. But I still take suggestions from other people, and change what I play to incorporate better chord patterns that someone else uses. And I’ve had people comment that they find my music very interesting to listen to, and sometimes very beautiful. So it does work, even though I’m manifestly not brimming with the raw musical talent that many gifted musicians are.

So that’s the main point of this article, just to say that if you’re finding it off-putting trying to write like a talented musician does, perhaps try writing like a much less talented musician does, and see if you might still produce something that you and others enjoy. What follows is just a few of the specifics of how I’ve had some satisfaction in writing, and what a song needs.

Making a Start

This can be the hardest part. How to start your tune. When I write, I more or less always write the words first. I have usually got the lyrics basically finished before I start on the tune. But the more I write, the more I realise that actually I’ve got a tune brewing in my head as I write, so it’s a matter of grabbing hold of a thread of that tune and drawing it out.

Sometimes the hook line is the easiest place to start. That’s where the essence of the song is, and it’s often where I have the clearest idea of how it should sound. I will sometimes belt out something vocally, and see if I can guess what I was trying to produce based on what I actually produced…

Other times, I’ll choose the most important verse, the one that climaxes the song, and write the tune to express what’s going on in that verse. I will sometimes speak the words in an expressive, oratory style and listen to the ups and downs of the intonation, and try to capture that in notes. I’ve had some great starts on tunes a few times that way.

The Elements of a Tune

The simplest place to start is the end. A tune needs to resolve. What does that mean? Well, unless you’re going way outside the box, your tune will be in a particular key. The chord of that key, e.g. the C chord in the key of C, is the ‘tonic chord’ and the note C is the ‘tonic note’. A tune will almost always resolve to the tonic chord, and most often to the tonic note. That gives it a satisfying finished sound. If it doesn’t resolve in that way, it doesn’t sound quite as finished, which isn’t always wrong but is always noticeable.

The tune needs to move. A tune that flows fluidly up and down through all the notes in the scale can end up not having much impact or being very memorable. It has more to say if it spends some time in one place and then moves to somewhere else, and finally resolves. How many different places it moves to depends on the complexity of the story and many things, but a sense of being somewhere and moving to somewhere else is important.

The tune needs a style. Some tunes use a lot of the same note repeated, others use big jumps, others use arpeggios (running up and down the notes of a chord). There are lots of characteristics a tune can have, and it can use a few different ones in combination or to express change, but it should ultimately show a certain character, rather than random selections of intervals thrown together.

Without getting deep into music theory and terminology, which would be boring as well as pushing the limit of what I can knowledgeably talk about, I think that’s enough on this topic. I hope there has been a useful kernel or two in there for you.