How to Write a Song with Guitar Chords

Even if you’re a beginner at playing the guitar, writing your own original songs is within your grasp. Creating a unique piece of music through chord progression is literally a by-the-numbers approach to songwriting.

Part 1 Writing Lyrics

Choose a story to tell. Imagine settings and characters. Although the subject matter can be just about anything, songs are widely used to convey very personal stories, so focus on characters especially: their motivations, what actions they might take, and the consequences of those actions.
Of course, no rule says that you must start with lyrics before composing the music. So if you wake in the night with a snatch of melody in your head, feel free to skip ahead to Part 2 and start from there.[1] But having a firm grasp on the story you want to tell can make critical choices easier when composing music.
Even if you only aim to create an instrumental piece, consider keeping a story in mind to guide you. Classical composers would often do this for inspiration. For instance, Dvorak scored the second and third movements of his ninth symphony, “From the New World,” to a poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow.[2]

Flesh your story out in verse. Songs are typically structured into verses and choruses. A traditional verse is composed of four lines, with the second and fourth line forming a rhyme. Build your characters here and develop your story.[3]
For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” depicts the mounting mistrust between a husband and his wife. Each verse depicts their relationship by listing the husband's growing suspicions.

Encapsulate your theme in the chorus. While verses develop a story, the chorus sums up the situation. Use the chorus to hammer home the point you're trying to make.[4] It can be expressed in a single line that’s only sung once, a single line that’s repeated for emphasis, a rhyming couplet, or four lines, just like a traditional verse.
In “Brilliant Disguise,” Springsteen follows the four-line format for his chorus. In a few words, he sums up the overall theme of mistrust with: “So tell me what I see/When I look in your eyes/Is that you, baby/Or just a brilliant disguise?”

Consider including a middle-eight. A middle-eight (also known as a bridge) is a unique piece of music within a song. Usually it comes before the last verse and chorus, offering the audience a fresh change in sound. Lyrically, they serve as a means to express a significant change in the story, whether it's a change in perspective for the characters or a new turn in the narrative. However, middle-eights are not necessary, so don’t feel obligated to write one.[5]
In the last verse before the middle-eight in “Brilliant Disguise,” the narrator begins to switch focus from his wife to himself as he wonders why she’s with him at all. Springsteen employs the middle-eight to expand this shifted focus. Here, the narrator examines his own actions and state of mind, revealing a new dimension to his mistrust with the conclusion: “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust/‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself”

Write multiple drafts. In your first draft, concentrate on the story itself and flesh it out in full. With each subsequent draft, make edits that will strengthen your lyrics when sung.
Count the number of syllables in each line to make sure no one line has too many for you to sing.
If you’re using a rhyming scheme, identify cliched rhymes, like “forever” and “together." See if you can express the same idea in other words that will stand out as an original statement instead of a borrowed phrase.
Don’t worry about perfecting a final draft just yet. Most likely you will have to make additional edits once you’ve composed the music.

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Part 1 Quiz

True or False: You should always write the lyrics before composing the music.

Part 2 EditComposing Music through Chord Progressions

Choose a key to play in. C, D, E, G, and A lend themselves well to the guitar.[6] Certain keys tend to elicit specific emotions from the audience. Choose one that complements the tone of your story.[7]
Use major keys to elicit happier responses from audiences, and minor keys to evoke sadness.[8] To hear the difference between major and minor, listen to John Williams' original “Imperial March” from the Star Wars movies. In the movies, it's played in G minor and sounds exactly like the terrifying war march that it’s supposed to be. However, you can find other recordings online where it's played in G major instead, which makes it sound more like a pleasant little parade march for a sunny afternoon.
Listen to the following songs, which have been grouped by keys.[9] Gauge your own reactions to them, and decide which ones you wish to replicate: A: “Out on the Weekend,” by Neil Young; “Wild Thing” by Chip Taylor C: “Imagine,” by John Lennon; “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” by Oasis D: “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty; “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” by the Clash E: “Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon & Garfunkel; “Take a Message to Mary,” by the Everly Brothers G: “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding; “Eternal Flame,” by the Bangles

Determine the harmonized chords for your key. Chord progressions are expressed numerically (for example: I-IV-V) with each chord being a degree in your key scale. The “one” or tonic chord is always the key you’ve chosen to play in. Roman numerals map out the other chords in that scale: uppercase numerals denote major chords; lowercase numerals, minor chords. A numeral followed by “dim” indicates a diminished chord.[10] A I-IV-V chord progression played in the key of D, for instance, would run D-G-A.

Choose how many chords to play in your progression. Two-chord progressions may sound simple, but they are limited, which means you may have to employ some extra tricks and nuanced playing to make your song stand out.[11] Three- and four-chord progressions are perhaps the most common in popular music.[12]
*For reference, listen to the following songs, which have been grouped by the number of chords in their progressions: One chord: “Get Up, Stand Up,” by Bob Marley; “Coconut,” by Harry Nilsson[13]Two chords: “My Generation,” by the Who; “Wrong Way,” by Sublime[14]Three chords: “Twist and Shout,” by the Beatles; “Let My Love Open the Door,” by Pete Townshend[15]Four chords: “With or Without You,” by U2; “Peace of Mind,” by Boston[16]

Start with a basic three-chord progression, such as I-V-IV or I-IV-V.[17] This is a pretty popular chord progression in pop music and perfect for beginners. Let's say you’ve selected the I-V-IV for your intro and verses; for the chorus, try switching to the V-IV-I progression.[18]Tinker with various chords and progressions until you find a combination that matches the mood of your lyrics.
Listen to the following songs, which have been grouped by their respective chord progressions:[19]I-IV-V: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Bob Dylan; “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd I-V-IV: “Rock around the Clock,” by Bill Haley & His Comets; “Margaritaville,” by Jimmy Buffet

Explore melodies. Countless melodies can be played over a single chord progression.[20] Sing or hum your lyrics as you play until you find a melody that complements your story.
If you’re stuck, forget the song you’re working on and jam away without worrying about finding the “right” tune. Play stream-of-conscious-style for the sheer pleasure of it. You may just discover the right tune by accident.
If you’re still stuck, play one or more songs by other artists who inspire you. Once you’ve mastered their melodies, experiment with changing them bit by bit, studying the effects that each change makes, until you’ve come up with a melody that’s similar yet distinct from the original.
Remember: there is a thin line between imitation and plagiarism. When using other people’s works as inspiration, honesty is the best policy; Kurt Cobain admitted that Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” was a rip-off of the Pixies.[21] The music to the Smiths’ “Rusholme Ruffians,” meanwhile, was so directly influenced by Elvis Presley’s “Marie’s the Name (of His Latest Flame), the band would open their own song in concert by playing the first couple of verses of Elvis's; you can hear both the similarity and the subtle differences between the two on their live album, “Rank.”

Reedit your lyrics if needed. Now that you have your music, revise your lyrics if any one word or phrase trips you up while singing them out loud. For instance, say that you use the word “particular” in one line, which you now find to be one syllable too many to enunciate clearly; try replacing it with a shorter synonym, like “certain” or “single.”

Add a hook. Spice your chorus up with an extra musical or lyrical phrase to make it more catchy. Lyrically, this could be the “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in the chorus to the Beatles’ “She Loves You.” Musically, it could be the Edge’s guitar lick in U2’s “With or Without You.” Either way, it’s an extra flourish to the chorus that creates an expectation for repetition in the next chorus; by fulfilling that expectation, the hook creates satisfaction in the listener. As with writing lyrics and melodies, embrace the trial-and-error process. The right hook might come to you immediately, or you may have to work your way through several before finding the right one. [22]

Reevaluate the structure. Be sure that it supports the emotional payoff that you want your song to deliver.
If your story requires numerous verses to build your characters effectively, consider having two verses before each chorus instead of one, so that the chorus’s effect on the audience doesn’t wear off due to excessive repetition.
If your characters have changed significantly by the end of your story, consider adding a twist to the last chorus to signify this change. Going back to the last chorus of “Brilliant Disguise” as an example, the narrator now dares his wife: “Tell me what you see/When you look in my eyes/Is that me, baby/Or just a brilliant disguise?”
If your story ends on a note of ambiguity, as “Brilliant Disguise" does, consider ending with a verse as opposed to a chorus. Since most popular songs end with one or more choruses, play with your audience’s expectations by denying them the neat little ending that they’re anticipating.

Workshop your song with others. Test your material by playing an open-mic night or for one or more friends and then ask for honest feedback. If playing for friends, be sure to stress the “honest” in “honest feedback.” Seek out songwriters whom you know and respect for tips and techniques.

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