The Songwriting Process:
Finding What Works for You
The songwriting process is a personal journey. There are probably as many different ways to approach writing a song as there are songwriters.
I'm going to outline a few different approaches that I like to use when writing a song. Some of them I use more often than others, because it's easy to get used to doing things one way. But I tend to get bored using the same formula time after time, so sometimes I like to mix it up.
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Writing from Melody
My most commonly used approach to the songwriting process is to write the melody first. I have always been comfortable writing melody, and I believe a strong melody is of extreme importance. So this is where I usually begin.
I've played guitar for many years and am very comfortable on this instrument, so I often sit around noodling on it.
I play around with some of the melodies that always seem to be circling in my head until I fix upon one that I find compelling.
You don't need to be proficient on the guitar or any instrument to write melody, although it can certainly help.
Simply humming some lines into a hand-held digital recorder is enough to get your ideas flowing.
Once I have those initial strains of melody I play around with various chord progressions until I find one that I feel complements the melody.
I then move on to the lyrics, drawing inspiration from the emotion that the music evokes in me. I work hard to ensure the words and lines conform to the melody in a way that sounds natural.
This is one of the most challenging aspects of the songwriting process for me, so I don't skimp on the effort necessary to achieve the results I'm after.
Writing Lyrics First
Sometimes I know what I want to write about before having any music worked out. I'll begin writing lyrics for my new song with only an idea of the rhythm I'm going to use, and no idea of the melody.
I generally don't wait until the lyrics are complete before I begin working on the melody and the chords. In fact, once I'm happy with the general direction, the music starts to suggest itself to me pretty early on.
I find it easier to write good lyrics using this approach, as I don't have to be concerned about making the words fit the music. It will be the other way around. However, I still have to create clever lines that flow naturally within a solid rhythmic structure.
I must also be sure it sounds like a song. When writing lyrics without music we run the risk of it turning out like a children's poem, with each line the same length as the last, and with a predictable rhyming scheme.
Today's hit songs don't tend to follow this neat, buttoned-down format. They are much more likely to sport lines of varying lengths, and rhymes in somewhat unexpected places. Listen to a few current popular songs and you'll see what I mean.
Try to keep this in mind when writing lyrics first.
Start with the Title
This is probably the songwriting process that has the potential to produce the most powerful, focussed songs. When you write from a title you don't have to worry too much about where the song is going. Your main job is to simply keep it on course.
As long as you make sure each line and section points back to your title you shouldn't have any trouble doing this. If you come up with a really good title your song will practically write itself.
Coming up with a great song title can be as easy as keeping your eyes and ears open. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, try to keep a small part of your mind on the lookout for phrases that command attention.
Newspaper headlines are full of potential song titles. So are presidential speeches, products on the shelves of the local supermarket, and museum exhibits.
Great song titles are everywhere! Just listen in on the conversations of little old ladies at the bus stop. You are sure to pick up a few golden nuggets!
When you have your title, start asking yourself questions about it. Let's say our title is “Never Again”. Who is saying this? Is it you? Who or what are you saying it about? Has your trust been betrayed? Perhaps the title refers to a night of unbridled debauchery! (Never again!!!)
Keep asking yourself questions until you've gotten to the bottom of it. You'll find your answers provide so much information that your song is already under way before you've written a single lyric.
Writing with a Partner
Whether you focus on the words or the music, collaborating with another songwriter is a priceless experience. I can't say enough about the advantages of this particular songwriting process.
When you find a compatible writing partner to share in the act of writing a song, you'll find the possibilities are almost endless.
The more you bounce ideas off of each other, the faster they start flowing. Many times I have come away from a collaborative songwriting session with ideas for two or three songs other than the one we've been writing!
The key is finding a writing partner who you trust and with whom you can exchange meaningful and valuable ideas.
Although it seems as though it would help to find someone who has similar influences and writing style, it might be better if they don't.
When you draw from different musical backgrounds, the songs you write together will become something you probably couldn't accomplish alone.
Of course, you will have to be able to agree upon a certain direction, but if you can both be flexible (which is essential), there is the potential for writing some very interesting material.
What's Your Favourite Songwriting Process?
When I set out to write a song, these are a few of the different approaches that work for me quite nicely.
There are, of course, many more. Do you have a favourite songwriting process that you'd like to share?
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