I had a conversation with a friend regarding music. He was becoming frustrated with his attempts at songwriting and asked for my help. There are many ideas circulated by many songwriters on the subject – from the tried and true to the questionable, but I knew that exercises were not what he was looking for. I offered my own beliefs on the matter and attempted to do so in a way that would not set rules to be followed, but allow for free expression. The results were impressive. The following is a reproduction of my thoughts from that meeting.
Beginning the process
Music or Lyrics
This is an old question that has plagued songwriters honing their art, mainly because there is no right answer. Even writers who have had success with one method will have breakthroughs working from the other direction. I find that the title is often most helpful in focusing ideas. But, having said that, I can think of several of my own pieces where the title came after the entire composition was complete.
Finding Inspiration – First Instinct
Songs should be as unique as the composers that create them. Because of this, it may not be helpful to say, “Write about this or that and try using these chords.” There are, however, some things I find constructive.
In writing music, it is often the case that the first idea or solution you come up with is the best thing for your piece. In some cases, you may have to work out some rough spots so that it fits exactly what it is you want to say, but don’t disregard it if it doesn’t feel right at first. Moments that don’t fit what you are working on can also be great for a song you write at a later time.
The first instinct approach can break times of slow progress or “writer’s block.” If, after hours of work, your songwriting session is not productive, try giving it a break for a while. Then come back to your guitar, piano, or legal pad, and begin to tinker with the first thing that comes out. Usually there is a bit of an idea that turns into what you were trying to say all along. I have found this technique to be very useful, but have also found that there are days when no songwriting should take place, and other days when it is necessary to write three.
Lyrics and Melody
The best songs come from ideas and feelings that are important to you. In addition to being a platform for communicating these thoughts, songs can serve to express what would be difficult with words alone. Everyday occurrences, from conflict to harmony, can be the basis for an idea if the thought resonates in you and you desire to express what you think. Follow your passions…and your gut. From this point of view, anything is possible. But keep this in mind: “It’s all been done,” so make your ideas as unique as yourself.
Not to say that each piece should be a revolutionary reinvention of language and music as we know it. In serving the message and the intent, it is almost always better if it is not. In song, music serves the lyrics the majority of the time. Overcomplicating a piece with unnecessary levels of complexity in the music can render the entire effort useless.
The lyrical component is an art in itself. There is an approach that is very popular today where the details are spelled out so clearly on the most basic level that there is no room for the imagination of the listener. When lyrics provide a level of depth and imagination, the results can be the difference between an “OK” song and a timeless one.
One of the things I enjoy most about a song is when there is room for interpretation of a message on different levels. A song is about one particular idea, but the thoughts expressed could easily apply to something seemingly unrelated. This doesn’t have to be extremely complicated, but the application of this art in the lyrical content can prevent the song from being too shallow.
Melody can be added to the chicken-egg complex of songwriting. So now is it music, lyrics, or melody? Because the melody is so closely related to the lyrics, I put this in a different category than “music” as a whole. Since it can come before or after the lyrics, and any riff or chord progression for that matter, the gut reaction process can be applied. Most lyrics are sung, so sing anything. Nonsense words, sounds, rhythms. This approach will sometimes not only reveal a melody to begin with, but also help key into a particular word or phrase that you find interesting.
Your interest is key. The level to which you are excited about your melody or an aspect of your song will directly translate to the amount of interest for the listener. For example, a monotone string of eight notes may serve a section of a song well at first, but it will soon become background especially if it is used for several verses with the text boxed in to fit the rhythm.
Because of this, it can be helpful to begin to fuse the lyric and melody early in the process. Word choice has an impact on the melody, and rightly so. Lyrics will sometimes have to be adapted to fit the melody, but this isn’t always a bad thing. The results can be quite interesting and memorable. The melody, though, can serve as a powerful guide in focusing the lyric.
Form And Poetry
Most songs, especially pop, follow the well-known verse-chorus-etc. format. Working within a structure such as that can help focus ideas, but they should not be followed unquestionably as an absolute. Sometimes doing so can wreck an otherwise good piece. There is a trend that has been developing for many years to blur the lines between the sections of a piece, some with good results. It’s not a matter of one being better than the other, but it’s important that the form (if any) serves the expression. With regard to the “hook,” I don’t think it is a requirement that it occur in the chorus. Unique and memorable moments don’t need to be dogmatically relegated to the same place in every song. For that matter, it doesn’t even have to be in the vocal or melody.
Rhyming verses and structure within the poetry of a song is a good approach, but not always the best answer. Unless it is your intent, rhyming clichés should be avoided. Sometimes a word that ends a phrase that breaks the rhyme scheme can have a dramatic effect. The expectation of the rhyme in lyrics can make a piece more compelling, but sometimes when a rhyme is anticipated from around the corner, it might be more interesting to go in another direction.
Continuing and Focusing Ideas
Once you are at the point that you have some thoughts down, a topic, maybe a verse, the start of a chorus; try to resist the urge to just pile up ideas to create a song. You should always keep the musical bits that you come up with, and don’t dam up any lyrical download that you may have, but keep in mind what it is you are trying to say. This is especially useful to remember if you have become stuck or unsure what to do next. Digging into a word, phrase, or melody you already have can be quite revealing in where the song should go next. Stream of consciousness on a part can be helpful as well. That being said, when working out ideas, especially lyrics, I find that it is best to write first and edit later. Some ideas can be so fleeting that they get lost if transformed when working to make them fit.
Demo and Critique
Even if your song has a detailed accompaniment, solo sections, and harmonies, try recording it in its most basic form once you have completed writing. Voice and instrumental accompaniment recorded on any format, boom box to digital studio, will reveal your composition’s strengths and potential weaknesses. If you are happy with the results, then try adding other players or overdubbing parts as needed.
Everyone has opinions of the songs they hear, and it won’t be surprising if they are different from yours. Still, you should seek feedback from others. Especially from those willing to be objective. This doesn’t mean that you have to follow any suggestions for change, but this is, after all, the intention of song – to be heard by someone other than the author. See what happens. Most important, though, is that it is your idea being expressed and you get the final say in what you think is right and how good the piece is.