How To Write A Song: A Producer's Guide
"It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin."
— Paul Simon
How to write a song — it's a question too few producers are asking these days. Why? Because many modern producers are too focused on the easy part: writing a good loop.
But when a producer knows how to write a song, they are instantly set ahead of the competition. And the top artists in the game won't attribute their success to sound design, DJ skills, or marketing prowess. They say it's Songwriting that broke their career.
Once you know how to write a good song, you can convey emotions with intentionality and purpose, tell a story that captivates audiences, and most importantly, connect with people across the world.
On the other hand, bad songwriters can only compose loops, have hard drives full of unfinished projects, and have tracks with a shorter shelf life than homemade guac 🥑
Perhaps spend a little time to think about which one you are right now...
Why is Songwriting so Hard?
So many things in life have a formula that makes them easy to replicate, but not Songwriting. Every song you write will be different; there is no recipe for success.
On top of that, no single thing can make for a great song. Instead, it's a culmination of a thousand different decisions along the way. Once we understand the most challenging parts of Songwriting, we can start arming ourselves with the knowledge needed to tackle each decision as they arise. Little by little, we begin to see the trees through the forest, and a roadmap to our next great song becomes clear.
As a young producer, my Songwriting was hindered by the following as I struggled with the following things:
Not Knowing the Basics: Not knowing which notes sound good together will drastically bog down your creative workflow. If your brain has to struggle to decide if a C major chord will sound good after a D minor chord, you won't have the headspace to determine the more important things that come after. Know a few major and minor chords, a couple basic progressions, and having the patience to write a good melody can be enough to build yourself a small fanbase.
Remember that most popular music is built around the same few chord progressions, which cannot be copywritten. Stealing chord progressions from your favorite bands can help you get started, but knowing WHY those progressions are so effective will open up more creative doors in the long term.
Another solution is something that might cause production purists to raise their eyebrows. But in the modern era of production, there are infinite tools we can lean on to help generate creative ideas. Rhythm generators, MIDI plugins that spit out lead melodies, and stealing chord progressions from your favorite artists are all ways to fast-track past your theoretical pain points.
Writer's Block: Hot take; writer's block is a myth. Here's a hotter take: inspiration is a choice. Many things can distance our creative selves from our DAWs, but professional songwriters always seem to push through these moments of resistance. If they can do it, so can we!
Don't assume you're cutting corners by relying on the tools and resources available to you. Look around and see which tools are available to you right now? You might see a hard drive full of killer samples, thousands of MIDI chord progressions to instantly get something into the DAW, or preset packs just begging to be tweaked, or even endless educational resources to learn new tricks and tips.
All of these are invaluable assets for you to lean upon to get a vibe going. It only takes a single spark to conquer whatever you imagine writer's block to be.
Not Respecting the Process: Professional songwriters make their job look easy, and it can be infuriating when you sit to write music but feel lost before you even start. Everyone says music doesn't have rules, but it definitely does and knowing them opens up more possibilities than merely "going with the flow" ever will.
Workflows and methodologies create boundaries for us to be creative in. Understanding the process allows for producers to begin to see the bigger picture as they begin to draw connections between different ideas and musical themes that, at the onset, may not have been related.
This hallmark of creativity is called 'global processing' and is why the pros make it look easy. We discuss, in-depth, the processes of writing music that connects and inspire in our Songwriting Matrix course, which you can learn about here.
Each producer's songwriting process will be different. So let us explore mine...
How to Write a Song
The best songwriters, Paul McCartney's and Jimmy Hendrix's, make Songwriting look easy, creating myths and falsehoods that say that timeless songs write themselves. But every professional has their own ways to tap into their creativity at a moment's notice. If they didn't, they probably couldn't afford to eat.
Here is my production process that allowed me to consistently write songs that connect to audiences, convey emotions, and tell stories through my music that I truly care about:
Step One: Start Your Core Idea
I always find myself starting with a chord progression. A melody is the track's face, but the harmonies are its bones. An incredible chord progression acts as an anchor for the entire melodic structure, which is why, nine times out of ten, the chords are the first thing down in my DAW.
If I want to fast-track this stage, I might drop in MIDI files or borrow chord progressions from a favorite track. But if I am trying to make something special, I'll open up Ableton's Grand Piano and work on a chord structure until it really makes me feel something.
This is just one method to get started, but you may find something else that works best for you. You may find that starting with energetic percussions gets you excited and grooving, or if you've had a melody stuck in your head for days, it might be best to get that down as quickly as possible. Some producers even start with a tonal pad that sets an emotional tone they are trying to build upon.
Step Two: Progress Your Core Idea & Go Wild
Now the scariest part is over, and you no longer have a blank canvas. At this stage, I throw every ounce of creative power I have atop my foundational elements. I explore ear candies, unusual percussions, more complex sound designs, and even begin finding potential candidates for my lead melody.
The further you can get in this stage in one sitting, the better. The active flow state unlocked in these playful and exciting moments is hard to tap back into once a structure begins to take shape. Creative ideas may come about now that would seem almost impossible later on in the songwriting process.
Step Three: Identity The Hook
With your DAW filled with creative ideas, it's time to start getting a bit more intentional about the moves you make. During the previous stage's whirlwind, you easily could have a project filled with cascading arp sequences, dazzling synth plucks, and evocative pads, all of which could possibly act as your track's hook.
This is the most crucial moment of the entire songwriting process, as once a lead melody is decided upon, every other decision we make will be in service to the hook.
When in doubt, ask yourself, 'What do I want my listeners to come away from this song singing? What element can most easily by hummed along to?'
Once this important decision has been made, it's all smooth sailing from here!
Step Four: Complete The Idea
Now, we begin to reform our creative ideas so that every element works with, not against, the leading hook.
It might mean you need to reign in the filters on those arp sequences, so they no longer grab as much attention. Maybe this requires altering the percussions, so they add more syncopation to the lead. It might even mean deleting whole channels or adding new, more supportive parts to fill the space.
It may sound counterintuitive, but I've found that the longer you can spend at this stage, the better the song will be. Spending the extra time to map out parameters on your synths, experimenting with subtle variations, and dialing in your primary ideas will pay off dividends when it's time to start expanding upon these ideas in the later steps.
Step Five: Decide on a Structure
Dance music thrives off predictability, which means the arrangement stage should be the most straightforward. We are big proponents of using reference tracks, and when it comes to structuring a track, it's the secret sauce that will make your arrangements better.
The biggest takeaway is that every great song must tell a captivating story. It must have highs and lows that create a narrative arc – song structure allows this all to happen.
Form and function are the same in dance music, and specific pieces must be in place if a song is ever going to move a dancefloor. Dig more into this topic with our Ultimate Guide to EDM Structure.
Step Six: Bringing It All To Life
At this stage, the blocks are arranged, and you might even be able to pass your work off as a finished piece. But there is much work that still needs to happen, and it is in this stage alone, much of an artist's 'signature sound' comes to fruition.
If you spent that extra time working with and polishing your core ideas, this is the time to reap the benefits. Dance music may be repetitious by nature, but automating as many different parameters across the project will create exciting moments in each section. It can help move the track fluidly between sections of the arrangement.
Automation and movement can help give each element its moment in the spotlight. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy wouldn't be nearly as iconic if it was ONLY Frodo from start to finish. Directing the attention between different elements, the pads during the calmer sections, and leads during the drops, make each element that much more impactful. Use automation to your advantage!
These moments of subtle detail reward the listeners who pay attention, heightening their connection to your music – in these details, you separate yourself from the amateur songwriters.
Why is Songwriting So Important?
So many amateur producers think they can get by just writing loops, and I've heard the joke "I'm not a songwriter; that's why I got into EDM production" more times than I can count. Anyone can make a track, but tracks have a shorter shelf life than my homemade guacamole.
Plus, people who focus on writing tracks usually get pigeonholed into a specific genre, only writing banging party music or emotionless instrumentals. But those who take the time to learn the art of Songwriting have the creative freedom to express themselves in any way they want – the music speaks for itself and for the artist. In doing so, the artist indeed develops a sound and style all their own.
Because songs tell stories. They stay with us for years and only get better with age. They focus on evoking real emotion and human connection. In the modern music industry, genres don't matter, but ideas can change everything – That is why songwriting is important.
Where to Learn Songwriting
Not to date myself, but when I started producing music, songwriting resources were far less accessible than they are today. I had to learn how to write songs and then apply this learning to writing songs in a digital space. It was tricky, but I would argue that modern producers have it even worst.
With the amount of information on the internet, it is hard to know who to trust. Most resources will likely teach you more bad habits than good ones, and even in the best of cases, they are far from offering the hands-on approaches needed to become a proficient songwriter. So here are some tested options:
Private Mentors: This is an old school approach but can be very valuable. Many professional producers offer 1-on-1 mentoring sessions to help newer producers learn the ropes. The benefits of these are that the mentorship is tailored to your skillsets as a producer. The downside is that these sessions will likely cost a pretty penny as music production continues to be more popularized.
The Hyperbits Masterclass: My Masterclass is designed to include everything I wish I had when I started producing. It offers a top-to-bottom approach to making music in the modern era and offers comprehensive modules that get you writing songs that are as good, if not better, than the artists you look up to.
Hook Theory: This small company has exploded in the past years, and it's safe to say it is one of the best resources available for what it does. For a small subscription, it helps demystify the complex theories and structures needed to write captivating music. It's the perfect tool to help turn theoretical knowledge into muscle memory.
Final Thoughts on Songwriting
Nobody said that learning to write good songs was easy, but I promise you that it is the fastest way to build a lasting career for yourself and your music. And while it may seem like a mystical and complex artform, simply knowing the basic can put you worlds ahead of the competition.
With so much bad information out there, this process can be much longer than it should. That is why we built The Hyperbits Masterclass in the first place – as a singular resource that gets you producing music that's as good, if not better, than the artists you look up to. With in-depth modules on theory, arrangement, artist breakdowns, and more, Masterclass alumni develop the confidence to essentially conquer every facet of dance music in as little as 8-weeks.