A lot of people wonder how long does it take to write a song, and the answer might surprise you. A lot of the best songs a written in well under an hour. For example, Paul McCartney wrote Let it Be in his sleep.
Of course, plenty of songs take longer.
In this article I’m going to dig into the three songwriting scenarios - the instant hit, the slow slog, and the dumpster fire.
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But first, a couple of quick thoughts.
First, a song means music and lyrics (i.e. it’s meant to be sung), and the lyric writing process is the longest part. Second, I’m not talking about writing every single instrument, but rather the chords, vocal melody, hook, and lyrics. In other words, the parts of a song someone might hum.
If you're wondering how long does a song have to be, I'd suggest two minutes as a minimum. If you want to get paid by Spotify for your song, it needs to be 30 seconds long, at least. But I think we all have a little more to say than that! And if you want your song to be used for music licensing, it should be 2-3 minutes long.
Until recently songs were frequently 3-4 minutes long. But the average length of a hit song has become a lot shorter over time.
Sometimes everything just comes together.
The muses strike!
You’re walking down the street and a catchy melody and lyric just pop into your head. Or you’re asleep and you wake up with an incredibly moving song, even if the lyrics are “Scrambled Eggs.”
In these scenarios, the song just writes itself, and your job is to get out of the way of the song and let it reveal itself. This means you’ve GOT to capture it asap. Whether this means humming it into your phone, or if you’re lucky enough to be home, grab your guitar and start figuring it out.
Sometimes the instant hit will reveal itself in the middle of a jam session. You’re just playing the piano, you make a mistake, and all of a sudden a whole area of your brain just lights up with ideas.
In either case, the song usually tends to write itself. Each part revealing the next. When you’ve got a song like this, it’s best not to over think it. Definitely don’t second guess anything, especially during the writing process (you can always edit it later).
Be open to the intuition that inspired the song.
In order to capture your inspiration, I recommend carrying a portable, high quality notebook (affiliate link) around to sketch your ideas. I find that putting pen to paper is a lot more inspiring than trying to work with a phone or computer.
If the song came with a lyrical theme already, then go ahead and run with it. Don’t agonize over the perfect rhyme - you can always leave it blank for now. The important thing is to get the song as complete as possible.
Often, I find that I can write the core of a song like this in under 20 minutes. Then I put it aside for a few days, and when I come back to it, I fill in the blanks in a single quick session.
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But of course, a lot of times the song doesn’t come like this. In that case, you’re going to be in a slow slog. Thankfully, you're going to learn a lot of strategies for getting through the slog to write your song.
Songs that are a slow slog can take a lot longer to write. These songs will probably take 4 hours or more to write. These are often really good songs, it’s just that they’re being created less through inspiration and more through skill and hard work.
Recognize the difference between these two scenarios will save you a lot of time down the road, because you can instantly lean into using the appropriate techniques for each one.
You know it’s gonna be a slow slog when you’ve got a great chorus hook, but for the life of you can’t figure out the bridge. Or when you can’t figure out how to have the melody sit with the chords. Or your lyrics just feel trite and corny.
If you’re experiencing this, though, don’t despair. Just push through it with hard work and the following techniques.
If you’re struggling with coming up with another section of the song, try one of these tips
Or just go for a walk. Going outdoors and clearing your head can often lead to bolts of inspiration and clarity.
If you’re having trouble getting the melody to sit with the chords, I recommend recording the chord change, and then jamming over it. Approach the melody from a lot of different angles. Try making it simple or complex. Rhythmic or flowing. Start on the root note, or start on the third. Mix it up, don’t be judgmental, and keep jamming on it until you hit something you like.
If it’s taking you a long time to write the song because of lyric problems, a little prep can save you a ton of time. Just like a painter has pre-mixed their pallet of paints before they put brush to canvas, as songwriter should have the elements in place song that it doesn’t take as long to finish a song.
In a notebook (affiliate link), write the theme of the song and title at the top of the page. Then make a list of imagery associated with the theme along the side. Finally, once you’ve established your basic rhymes, pull up a list of all the words that rhyme using Thesuarus.com, so you have it quickly available.
Let me explain this in practice. Let’s I’ve written part of a song called “Kissing in the Moonlight.” I’d write that along at the top of the page, as well as the themes: Love, Romance, Passion, Nighttime, Seduction.
Then along one side I’d write out a bunch of imagery related to the topic. So: lips, shadows, stars, stolen glances, and sneaking out. These provide some of the scene you may want to mention.
Finally, you could pull up a list of rhymes: kiss, miss, tryst, etc.
The more you write songs, the better you’ll get at judging what’s good, what needs work, and what’s a total garbage fire. When you’re dealing with a garbage fire, it’s best to just stop writing as soon as you can and move on to a new song.
There’s no point in throwing good music after bad, because you can’t put lipstick on a pig.
I mean, you probably can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still just be a pig wearing lipstick.
Ultimately, you’ll end up saving a ton of time writing songs if you stop writing bad music quickly. And I don’t mean that flippantly - everyone is going to write music. The difference is when in the process you realize that the song is bad. If you realize it sooner and move on, then you have more time to devote on your good songs. But plenty of people are over-attached to every song they write, and can’t stop.
Even after 8 hours polishing a turd, you probably still won’t have a good song. You would’ve been far better off if you had give up quickly and slogged through two songs.
As you’ve seen, how long it takes to write a song really depends on the type of song you’re in the middle of writing. If you’re sitting down to write a song that’s decent it should take less than four hours. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with a song that you have no business working on, you could waste days and still not be happy.
And then, sometimes, a miracle happens. Inspiration strikes, the muse descends, and you’ve written an incredible song in under an hour.
All said, if you're lucky, you can make a song - write, record, and mix it - in a day. But that really takes the stars to align. Laying a solid foundation for that is important. That's why you need to keep your gear in working order, have a notebook, and be ready to rock.
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