Young Songwriter 2021: Three Steps to Becoming a Songwriter

The Song Academy Young Songwriter 2021 (#SAYS21) competition, in its 11th year, is an international songwriting competition inviting young people aged 8-18 to participate. Soundtrap is a sponsor of the competition and a tremendous tool for unleashing the power of students’ expression through song.

With judges including Fraser T Smith, Tom Odell, Miranda Cooper, Calum Scott, Michelle Escoffery and Tom Grennan, plus fantastic prizes, 2021 is set to be the biggest year yet. Submissions are now open and students can enter up to five songs before March 31. 

Many teachers have found the competition to be an inspiring way to engage, motivate and boost the confidence of students. Even if your students have never written a song before, these three steps can get any learner started:

Step 1 ― Creating a strong concept and an engaging title

Listening to some songs in different genres is a good step for students to get a feel for the style of song they’d like to write and the topics they want to speak up about. This list of songs is a great place to start. 

One of the key components, and biggest challenges, of songwriting, is trying to express common, relatable feelings in an original and interesting way. The more inventive students can be when describing feelings or experiences (for example, the pressures and joys of growing up and living in our society), the better. These are two exercises students can try when starting a song:

  • Have students select five things in their bedroom (chair, window, guitar, books, etc.) and then turn them into interesting song titles. For example: Bed – Safe Haven, Chair – Where I’ll Stay, Guitar – Broken Strings, Books – Read All About It.
  • Encourage students to find a quote they like ― For example, “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” “an obstacle is often a stepping stone,” or “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing,” and use that as the main concept to build around.
Step 2 – Getting started with writing

Thinking of their object or quote, encourage students to focus their senses on it and write freely for 10 minutes non-stop. Anything goes. All seven senses should be involved in the process: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, organic (awareness of inner bodily functions, e.g., heartbeat), and kinesthetic (your sense of relation to the world around you. For example, when the train you’re on is standing still and the one next to it moves, your kinesthetic sense goes crazy!)

After this 10-minute writing exercise, have students think more about the lyrics they’ve written and write some rhyming couplets. Remember that lyrics have a rhythm and using different rhyming schemes can help to shape lyrics and make songs more engaging. The best two rhyming schemes to start with are A-A-B-B and A-B-A-B. 

Below are some examples of well-known songs that use both rhyming schemes:

‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams (chorus) in AABB form:

A Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I’m happy)
A Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I’m happy)
B Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
(Because I’m happy)
B Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

‘Anyone’ by Justin Bieber (Verse 1) in ABAB form:

A Dance with me under the diamonds
B See me like breath in the cold
A Sleep with me here in the silence
B Come kiss me, silver and gold

Once students’ rhyming couplets have been written, they can now count the syllables in each line. If they count the syllables while tapping their foot (creating a tempo), they’ll notice that they’re naturally creating a rhythm. This can be extremely helpful when working out a melody and figuring out how long the song’s lines are going to be. 

Next, ask students to think about creating some metaphors with the words that are connected to their song to give it a unique twist. They can write a list of five interesting adjectives, then a list of five interesting nouns, thinking about each combination and writing some sentences. Then, a list of five nouns and five interesting verbs, and repeat the process of thinking about combinations, and so on. Once students have loads of lyrical ideas, they can organize them into different sections to build the song’s story.

Suggested Song Structure:
  • Verse 1 — Introduces the song’s message and sets the scene (four lines, A-A-B-B or A-B-A-B)
  • Pre Chorus — Link between the verse and chorus, builds up both melodically and lyrically (two lines, A-A or A-B)
  • Chorus — Main message of the song, catchiest part and most memorable part of the song (four lines, A-A-B-B or A-B-A-B)
  • Verse 2 — Continuing the explanation of the song, solidifying the message and introducing new imagery; lyrics change, melody stays the same as verse 1, possibly with a few small changes to keep it interesting (four lines, A-A-B-B or A-B-A-B)
  • Bridge or Middle Eight — A contrasting section that brings the song to a new level and adds depth; rhythmically and melodically the song changes, looking at the message from a different viewpoint (four or eight lines, A-A-B-B or A-B-A-B)
  • Chorus — Repeat (can add hooks to the outro of it)
  • Outro — The closing passage. It can be instrumental or vocal

Check out examples of song structure including rhyming scheme and chord movements at the end of this blog post.

Step 3 ― Creating a chord progression and adding a melody

It’s at this stage when we put music together with the lyrics. Sometimes this may involve students playing instruments, but technology is also hugely beneficial in modern music-making. Using Soundtrap, students will have many options for adding chords and beats.

Chord progressions are the foundation of pop music. Here are the three main ones:

  • I, IV, V (Which is C, F, G when played in the key of C Major)
  • I, V, VI, IV (C, G, Am, F in C Major)
  • I, VI, II, V (C, Am, Dm, G in C Major)

For the next step in songwriting, each student should choose a key for their song and select one of the three chord progressions. They can play the chords and improvise different melodies for the lyrics. It works well to have different chord progressions for the verses, chorus, and bridge of the song. 

Here’s an example of the different chord movements between sections for ‘Castle On The Hill’ by Ed Sheeran:
  • Verse 1 ― Standard four chord progression to lay the foundations and set the scene: D – G – Bm – A (I – IV – VI – V)
  • Pre-Chorus ― Change in movement, going to chord IV here creates a lift in the song and allows tension to build towards to chorus: G – A – D – G (IV – V – I – IV)
  • Chorus ― With tension, comes release and the song feels like it needs to resolve from the pre-chorus leading into the chorus. The pre chorus ends on chord IV and the chorus starts on chord I which in musical terms is a plagal cadence which gives us the resolve we need. D – G – Bm – A (I – IV – VI – V)
  • Verse 2: D – G – Bm – A (I – IV – VI – V)
  • Middle 8 ― Chord progressions moves to minor first which helps convey the change in perspective in the song: Bm – G – D – A (VI – IV – I – V)

Examples of song structure including rhyming scheme and chord movements

Dynamite by BTS

Chords that run throughout are Bm/Em/A/D (VI, II, V, I) which proves that great songs can be written with the same four chords running through the song.

Verse 1: 
A Shoes on, get up in the morn, cup of milk, let’s rock and roll
A King Kong, kick the drum, rolling on like a Rolling Stone
B Sing song when I’m walking home, jump up to the top, LeBron
B Ding dong, call me on my phone, ice tea and a game of ping pong

Pre-Chorus:
A This is getting heavy, can you hear the bass boom? I’m ready (woo hoo)
A Life is sweet as honey, yeah, this beat cha-ching like money, huh
B Disco overload, I’m into that, I’m good to go
B I’m diamond, you know I glow up, hey, so let’s go

Chorus:
A ‘Cause I-I-I’m in the stars tonight
A So watch me bring the fire and set the night alight (hey)
B Shining through the city with a little funk and soul
B So I’ma light it up like dynamite, whoa oh oh

Verse 2:
A Bring a friend, join the crowd, whoever wanna come along
B Word up, talk the talk, just move like we off the wall
A Day or night, the sky’s alight, so we dance to the break of dawn
B Ladies and gentlemen, I got the medicine, so you should keep ya eyes on the ball, huh

Bridge or Middle Eight:
In this instance, BTS uses this section as a post-chorus to reinforce the message of their song. This is a very popular thing to do particularly in the most commercial sounding songs. Another example of a song using this technique is ‘Shape of you’ Ed Sheeran when he repeats: ‘Come on be my baby, come on’.
A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
B Light it up like dynamite

A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
A Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy
B Light it up like dynamite

Chorus — Repeat (can add hooks to the outro of it)
Outro:

As you can see from the example above, each section can have a different rhyme scheme so don’t feel like you need to be restricted to one.

Bones by Maren Morris

Verse 1:
Verse chords: G – D – Bm – A (IV – I – VI – V) (songs don’t always have to start with the first root chord!)
A We’re in the homestretch
B Of the hard times
A We took a hard left
B But we’re alright

Pre-Chorus:
Pre-chorus chords: G – D – Bm – A (IV – I – VI – V)
A Yeah, life sure can try to put love through it,
A But we built this right, so nothing’s ever gonna move it

Chorus:
Chorus chords D/F# – G – A – Bm (I – IV – V – VI) The chorus resolves to the root chord giving the song a perfect cadence
A When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter
A Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter
B Let it rain
B ’cause you and I remain the same

C When there ain’t a crack in the foundation (Introduces a new rhyme)
C Baby, I know any storm we’re facing
D Will blow right over while we stay put
D The house don’t fall when the bones are good

Verse 2:
Verse chords: G – D – Bm – A (IV – I – VI – V)
A Call it dumb luck,
B But baby, you and I
A Can’t even mess it up,
B Though we both try

Bridge or Middle Eight:

Chorus chords D/F# – G – A – Bm (I – IV – V – VI)

In this instance, Maren Morris repeats the chorus but varies the dynamics of the music to give the song a little twist. This is also common in pop music.

A Bones are good, the rest, the rest don’t matter (baby, it don’t really matter)
A Paint could peel, the glass could shatter (oh, the glass, oh, the glass could shatter)
A Bones are good, the rest, the rest don’t matter (ooh)
A Paint could peel, the glass, the glass could shatter (yeah)

About the author
Rowena Atkins is the founder and Chief Executive of Song Academy, who present the annual Young Songwriter competition, now in its 11th year. Song Academy Young Songwriter is the leading international songwriting competition for young people aged 8-18. 

This blog post is adapted from an article published on edCircuit