Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

How to Write a Song


I know this is a very bold title to a post, but after reading some horrifying information online yesterday on the topic of songwriting, I felt like I had to throw my hat in the ring on this subject.

On a portal “expert answer” site I saw an article that looked like “well, you have written some words, and some chords, and now you need to find a good melody.”

Editorial opinion: you have not written a song yet if you have “chords in search of a melody.”

To word it as though melody is the “last step” in the process is totally incorrect, and in fact, ass-backwards.

I’m sure there are many approaches to squeeze one’s creativity, but a great song will sound great even without the lyrics. Sometimes a verbal phrase may “unlock” a melodic idea for me.  However, melody is king.

No melody = no song!

Look at the great tunes that last over 25, 50, 100, 300 years….they are unforgettable melodies. So if you write a tune, ask yourself – could an instrument play the melody, and fully retain the identity of the tune?

Contemplate for a minute the opening lines of “You Are the Sunshine of my Life” or Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic” or “Michelle” or “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

You can just sing any one of these melodies walking down the street (without lyrics), with no fancy equipment or even an instrument other than your voice.

Even a solo sax could convey the whole thing all by itself.

In 2 lines of music, the story is being told.  You remember it forever.  It’s more than notes, it’s a song.  When you “write”, that’s what your radar must be attuned to.

To “receive” these melodic germs, is like being tuned in to a “zone”.  I have had days that are barren….waiting for a song to come, and nothing.  Then, I’ll be in a zone where anything and everything I sing sounds like a tune.

You’ll need a way to capture the “germ”, the inspiration when it comes knocking.  Personally I like writing it on paper, but others like a recorder (maybe you can sing into your iPhone or other?).

I personally stay away from the confines of the guitar or piano and do “sound in my head direct to paper” to get the purest result.

  • I hear many fingersyle guitarists doing things where fingers look very “busy” as they thumpick their way through chord progressions at breakneck tempos.
  • I hear many guitarsists who play a percussive / slap / harmonics thing.
  • I hear many singer-songwriters with gruffy bluesy voices and weird instruments.
  • I hear many super technical jazz bands.

Someone will then invariably ask me my opinion – “did you like them?” or “what did you think?”

It’s quite simple…all I say is “sing me the melody.”

That’s the moment where you know if a piece of music soars to the heavens or falls flat on it’s face.

(The musician may be great, but it’s the SONG we’re talking about – not the skill, the look, or the charisma.)

That’s the test.

Could chords or lyrics or a groove inspire YOU to write a song?  You bet!  Yes, of course, and that’s ok.

I repeat – sing me the melody.


Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

11 thoughts on “How to Write a Song

  1. Right on the mark as usual Adam. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Could you give me some super technical jazz bands , singer wit gruffy bluesy voices . Thank you very much

  3. Spot on AR. I will remember that phrase: “sing me the melody.”

  4. Excellent post Adam…couldn’t agree more, I forget who it was who asked Can you sing this newly written song walking down the street? If you can, but it’s not addicting then there’s still work to do.

    Loved the new beat of the week btw!

  5. I biased-ly agree, but as the previous blog entry “there is more than one way to do it”. Music works for different audiences in different ways, some admire the technical prowess, some a texture or groove, some the sentiment of a lyric and other associations…even persona.

    For sure though with instrumental music, especially with something like solo guitar, melodic interest is a huge part of making it work…but I am struck that we stand on the shoulders of giants and on the affection of an audience for a tune as much as anything, hence the standards of jazz or the prevalence of covers as a mainstay of most instrumentalists it would seem.

    As for the process of song writing, especially if aspiring to a great tune that has it all, groove, melody, texture and ‘meaning’ and an ‘audience’ the end result is what matters. Weather one starts with a melody and harmonises it, a harmony which inspires the weaving of a melody through that landscape or a groove that feels good and a melody gives it ‘purpose’, they are all valid approaches.

    For sure a lot of artists come across as playing ‘stunt guitar’ and appreciated for their approach or technique. To stand out and repeat verses without lyrics (and often without the ‘in the moment’ improvisation appreciated in jazz) or other instrumentation requires the ability to provide contrast and a musical conversation that is engaging.

    In a lot of instrumental music we hear now, they are attached to images (such as in film) that function much as lyrics do for audience acceptance.Cavatina after the association with ‘The Deer Hunter”, Duelling Banjo’s dare I say from ‘deliverance’. It’s very rare to find original instrumental music to be embraced by audiences without such associations these days. It may be possible through force of personality to be associated with an original tune I imagine, once one is established.

    The same applies in the classical art field of course, melody and even harmony is given over for texture and rhythm…this is also evident in contemporary dance music too. All are valid forms, but with the relative consistency and range of a solo guitar it seems necessary to rely on an audiences association with a song and in particular songs with a great melody to make it work.

    I do think though, in a contemporary song format, you are more likely to arrive at a good melody if it is inspired to some extent by vocal phrasing and it is a valid criteria to look behind a surprising technical achievement to see that value you hold (say a memorable melodic line) in it.

    I am sure a lot of great songs were written to a groove or a particular harmonic progression and melodies stem from it…it’s all good, as long as it achieves the affect…great if it hits all the bases.

    These are monumental standards though to compete with the power of a lyrical song that an audience is primed for. In something like solo guitar, there will always be some element of walking a tightrope of whether the performer can convincingly ‘pull it off’ that will be the attraction, or so it seems…

    Interesting blog, lots of food for thought…

    • Thoughtful reply. My reasons for posting my opinion are this:

      1) many young people have no way to know if hey are on track and ask for my opinion. And, many of them learn off youtube, rather than take lessons.

      2) this ain’t just abut guitar – it’s about music. it ain’t about people pleasing, entirely. it’s about creating a lasting piece of music.

      3) there is a lot that can be musical about many other aspects (groove, sound, harmony, etc) but a melody, a song cuts across genres and stands up to the test of time. It is the “melody” that lasts, and the melody that people take with them.

      I myself am taking a step back from the hubub of online activity to remember what’s important in music.

      • Thanks AR…as I say, I’m a little biased as I too see melody as paramount.

        The world needs more great music and seeking to add to it a heroic role…and important. The idea that someone might be humming in their head one’s own tune or provides meaning for them would be such an honour.

        I completely agree with your thoughts that some put the technical to the forefront of aspects like melody, at times even on covers that have a great melody…I think that is a youTube trap..the need to technically impress over content at times.

        Keep up the great work, it inspires in the love you render your music with.

  6. Hey Adam, thanks for the inspiring words! It would mean a lot to me if you could take a look at my vid and let me know if its any good…


    Thanks man!

  7. Couldn’t agree more. For just about all of the music I grew to love, melodicism is the common factor. Well, that and groove. When you have both, you have something …

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