Ever wondered how hit songs are made? This guide breaks down the process into ten easy steps, equipping you with the techniques used by pros.
From lyric brainstorming to final polishing, we’ve got you covered across all genres.
Dive into the craft of songwriting and start making radio-ready tunes today.
Step 1: Start with “Destination Writing”
Destination writing is a lyric writing method used to set a clear intention for your song from the very beginning. It involves replacing generic verbs like “go”, “do”, and “say” with vivid, emotionally charged ones that better convey the desired feeling.
For example, instead of singing “she went to the store,” try “she stormed into the store” to paint a more vivid picture for the listener. Other active verbs like “run,” “dance,” “cry,” or “fight” better engage the audience than passive ones like “she was.”
This helps establish a strong lyrical hook using vivid imagery. According to Pat Pattison, Berklee Professor of Lyric Writing, the listener’s connection with your lyrics depends on expressing your ideas “as boldly, specifically, and originally as you can.”
So spend time brainstorming evocative verbs and adjectives to add color to your lyrics. Transport the listener into the song’s “destination” right from the first line.
Step 2: Make a List of Rhyme Pairs
Once you’ve settled on a song theme using destination writing, make lists of rhyme pairs related to the topic. For example, if you’re writing a heartbreak song, jot down rhymes like:
Having a rhyme bank for your chosen topic helps immensely when crafting the lyrics. You won’t waste time struggling to conjure rhymes on the spot or relying on clichés.
|Slant Rhyme Pair 1||Slant Rhyme Pair 2|
|mind, kind||move, love|
|eyes, light||world, held|
|blue, truth||time, line|
|rain, change||soul, all|
|word, heard||stone, alone|
|shape, keep||star, door|
|dream, seem||heart, start|
|edge, rest||break, check|
|wind, end||birth, earth|
|sun, land||song, long|
|still, thrill||way, make|
|home, moon||fear, hear|
|fine, mind||leave, live|
|wait, weight||dear, tear|
|face, faith||meet, might|
|shade, shed||game, gone|
|rose, lose||past, lost|
|bold, build||tried, tide|
Avoid exact rhymes ending with the same suffix like “flying/crying.” Go for slant rhymes with similar but not identical sounds, which add variety while still creating rhyme and rhythm.
Step 3: Look for a Title Hook
Start brainstorming potential song titles related to the underlying theme. The title doesn’t have to come first, but having one in mind guides the writing process.
The title should grab the listener’s attention and sum up the essence of the song in a few words. Short, memorable titles work best, like “Hey Jude” or “I Will Always Love You.”
Make a list of possible titles, then pick the strongest one. You can even pull a great line from the lyrics later if you can’t decide on an obvious title up front. Just be sure to include it in the chorus.
Step 4: Write the Chorus First
Most hit songs start with crafting the chorus before the verses. The chorus conveys the core message and emotional crux of the song. Make it catchy and impactful.
Try to summarize the key idea of the whole song in the chorus as memorably as possible. It’s also smart to reference the song title in the chorus lyrics so listeners hear it repeatedly.
Bear in mind the chorus often uses simpler language and imagery compared to the verses. Rhyme it if desired, and keep it focused. The chorus should feel like the musical high point that listeners wait for.
Step 5: Choose a Rhyme Scheme
|AABB||Couplet rhymes; lines 1&2 rhyme, lines 3&4 rhyme.|
|ABAB||Alternating rhymes; lines 1&3 rhyme, lines 2&4 rhyme.|
|ABBA||Envelope rhymes; lines 1&4 rhyme, lines 2&3 form a separate rhyme.|
|ABCB||Ballad stanza; only lines 2&4 rhyme.|
|AAAA||Monorhyme; every line uses the same rhyme.|
|ABAAB||Mixed scheme; lines 1,3&5 rhyme, lines 2&4 form a separate rhyme.|
Map out a rhyme scheme for the verse sections. Common schemes are AABB, ABAB, and AAA. Rap songs often rhyme every line.
Having a recurring rhyme scheme gives the song symmetry and structure. It also makes memorizing the lyrics easier since listeners expect that rhyming pattern.
But don’t let strict rhyme schemes box you in! It’s fine to include some non-rhyming lines to break up repetitive rhyme sounds as the song progresses. Just try to strike the right balance.
Step 6: Use “Toggling” to Add Variety
Toggling refers to alternating between different perspectives or viewpoints from line to line. For example, a verse lyric could toggle between internal thoughts and external actions:
“My heart is pounding as I walk up to the door (internal thought)
I gently knock three times, afraid of what’s in store (external action)”
Toggling creates variety and interest in the lyrics. Other types of toggle perspectives to try are:
- Between characters
- From specific to general ideas
- From questions to answers
|Type of Toggle||Example|
|Internal thoughts to external actions||“In my mind, I’m rehearsing every word (internal thought) |
Then I step into the spotlight, my voice is heard (external action)”
|Between characters||“He looked at me with fear in his eyes (character 1) |
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread (character 2)”
|From specific to general ideas||“Her red hair caught the sun’s golden light (specific) |
Such is the beauty of a summer’s day (general)”
|From questions to answers||“Who knows what tomorrow will bring? (question) |
With hope in our hearts, we’ll face anything (answer)”
Get creative with toggling to keep the listener engaged throughout the song.
Step 7: Write a Second Verse
Once you have a catchy chorus and first verse, it’s time to write a second verse developing the narrative with some new details.
Each verse lyric typically has its own perspective while supporting the core theme. Use the second verse to reveal more layers to the story or characters.
Keep the verse lyrics focused without cramming too many new ideas in. They mainly serve to set up the chorus again. Repetition of the hook is key in commercial songwriting.
Step 8: Add a Pre-Chorus for Buildup
A short pre-chorus section between the verse and chorus builds tension and anticipation. Use it to transition smoothly into the chorus “payoff.”
Musically, the pre-chorus lifts the energy level higher, often via a chord progression change, increased instrumentation, and rising pitch. This builds momentum leading back into the chorus.
Lyrically, you can use the pre-chorus to ask a question, shift perspective, introduce a conflict, or heighten emotion. Even two lines works to set up the chorus.
Step 9: Use a Bridge for Contrast
The contrasting bridge section offers relief from repetitious verses and choruses. It usually has different music, lyrics, and chord progressions for fresh interest.
Bridges provide flexibility to:
- Change the song’s rhythm or tempo
- Introduce a new melody
- Shift to a new character’s perspective
- Answer questions raised earlier in the lyrics
- Offer commentary on earlier sections
- Transition into a guitar solo or instrumental break
Don’t be afraid to experiment in the bridge since it’s temporary. Then return to familiar ground in the final choruses to satisfy listeners.
Step 10: Refine and Polish Your Lyrics
With the song structure in place, refine the lyrics by taking a close look at:
- Verb tense consistency
- Point of view perspective
- Repetition and hooks
- Vivid imagery and figurative language
- Unnecessary words that can be cut
- Vocal phrasing aligned with rhythms
Polish your lyrics until you have the most vivid, concise way of conveying your song idea from start to finish. Every word counts!
Following this commercially proven songwriting process helps craft solid songs from scratch. But don’t forget to break the “rules” sometimes too.
Tweak the formula and add your own flair as you develop your unique writing voice.
Additional Tips for Writing Better Lyrics
Now that we’ve covered the essential steps, here are some additional lyric writing tips to help you take your songs to the next level:
Study hit songs in your genre – Look up lyrics of popular songs in your style to see what makes them work. Find common patterns.
Learn from co-writing – Co-writing teams are behind many hits. You can learn new skills from collaborators.
Analyze lyrics – When listening to songs, analyze what makes the lyrics effective. From vivid imagery to connective rhyming, find techniques to borrow.
Explore rhyming types – Experiment with different rhyme approaches like perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, and more. Varying rhyme types adds interest.
Use devices like repetition – Recurring lyrics, words, and themes help songs stick in listeners’ minds. Refrains and hooks benefit from repetition.
Be consistent in perspective – Maintaining the same point of view throughout makes lyrics more cohesive. Most songs use first or third person.
Use figurative language – Metaphors, similes, hyperbole and other figurative language tools help paint vivid word pictures.
Read your lyrics aloud – Pay attention to the vocal phrasing and how lyrics sound when sung. Tweak words so they flow off the tongue.
Set lyrics to music – Try singing or rapping your words over the music to ensure accented syllables match up with beats.
Edit ruthlessly – Pare down lyrics to the most vivid essence. Remove unnecessary verbiage that distracts from the core ideas.
Enhance with pre-production: Once you’ve honed the songwriting, pre-production polishing can make a good song great. Collaborate with a producer to help arrange instrumentation, improve the melody, modify song structure, and refine the musical elements.
Pre-production is also the time to record simple demos to test out the songs before going into full recording production. With some finishing touches, your song can end up radio-ready.
Knowing the Music Business Side
Beyond writing solid songs, it’s smart to know the business side of the music industry. Learn how to legally register copyrights for your songs to protect your rights and earn royalties.
Understand the process of pitching songs to publishers, record labels and artists. Also research sync licensing, which allows songs to be used in TV, film, and ads. Placement in other media is a lucrative income stream for songwriters.
With the right mix of songwriting skills and music business know-how, you can make a career out of crafting infectious melodies and lyrical hooks that resonate widely. It all starts with the pen and paper (or guitar and mic).
So grab your notebook and let’s get writing some hits! What songwriting challenges are you working on lately? Please share in the comments below.