Music & Entertainment

How to Write a Song With Tips from Armin van Buuren

Written by MasterClass

Oct 24, 2018 • 4 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Armin van Buuren Teaches Dance Music

If you want to learn songwriting techniques to starting writing a good song, it helps to turn to the experts who have overcome songwriter’s block and produced dozens of hits. Armin van Buuren is a dance music DJ, record producer, remixer, and label owner from the Netherlands. Throughout his career, Armin has won 12 DJ Awards, 27 International Dance Music Awards, and has been named the number one DJ by DJ Mag five times, four times in a row. Armin became the fourth trance artist to receive a Grammy nomination for his 2014 single “This Is What It Feels Like” featuring Trevor Guthrie.

But while Armin is undeniably an expert who knows how to find that creative spark and start writing a song, he turns to his own experts when he’s getting started on a new track: classical music composers. Armin’s first source of inspiration is the piano lessons he takes every day. In those lessons, Armin explores classical songs and music. It might feel like a far cry from the trance and progressive house tunes he’s known for, but Armin says that those basic, classical chords speak to his soul.

Here’s how to discover new ideas, get inspired, and start writing a song, according to Armin van Buuren.


1. Start With a Song You Love

Take a song you love, break it down, and find new uses for its basic parts. Armin demonstrates how a portion of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” can be broken down into two simple chords. These chords can be played different ways and can inspire new chord progressions and melodies.

“Some of these cords that were invented hundreds of years ago are still so fresh and so new,” Armin says. “That can really touch my soul.”

2. Build on Those Basic Chords

Once you have your basic chords, it’s time to start making them your own. This is a basic building block of songwriting: Drawing inspiration from those who went before you and building it up into something new.

So play around a little bit! Try playing them all together or playing them in different orders or even playing them backwards to see if something jumps out at you. Follow your gut during this stage—music is as much (or maybe even more) about instinct as it about science.

3. Do It Wrong—On Purpose

While Armin believes it is helpful to have a basic understanding of music theory, he suggests you experiment with chords that are musically incorrect. Something about unconventional sounds could inspire you. Play with wrong-sounding chords—record them, reverse them, add effects—until you find something that sounds right to you, even if it’s not technically right.

4. Add to A Cappella Tracks

Inspiration for great songs doesn’t just have to come from the classics, of course. There’s so much music out there now, so go for something that speaks directly to you. For example, Armin suggests grabbing an exciting a cappella track and trying to write new chords, melodies, and rhythm tracks that fit around it. What’s different about the song when you do it this way? How does the song structure change? Which songwriting process speaks to you more?

5. Utilize Your DAW

Another source of inspiration can be found right in your digital audio workstation (DAW). Scroll through your DAW’s library of loops and presets and try out different sonic combinations until something strikes your ear as interesting. Record your song idea to save it for later; you never know when your DAW experimentation can form the basis of a new song.

6. Grab a New Instrument

If you want to push yourself even further, Armin recommends going totally outside your comfort zone by picking up an instrument you’re unfamiliar with and playing two notes. If you always compose on a piano, grab a guitar. Or guitar is your go-to, pick up a ukulele. Inspiration can come from so many sources and sometimes the unfamiliar ones can delight you the most.

7. Collaborate

Some of the best art—and the best songs—is the result of collaboration. Armin works closely with producer Benno de Goeij to develop his melody and chords. After going through the process outline above, he has to clean up the music a little bit before handing it over. He records his chords at slower tempo so they’re easier to play, then speeds up the project’s BPM, cleans up mistakes by editing the MIDI data, and quantizes his notes. Quantization is the process of aligning recorded notes with a tempo grid for situations where perfect timing is necessary.

Once that’s done, he invites Benno to collaborate. Their process is very organic and relies on experimentation—they keep playing around until they find sounds and musical ideas that inspire them.

8. Don’t Forget to Save Regularly

Get into the habit of saving and backing up your work regularly. Armin recommends saving every 2–3 minutes and often with different version numbers. Version numbers let you easily access earlier drafts of your songs, so you can recapture some music magic you might have lost, or compare different mixes. Time Machine and Carbon Copy Cloner are both helpful backup utilities. Your projects are your art—they should be well protected.