Songwriting – how to write songs
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” – Chuck Close, American painter and photographer
“Which do you write first, the music or the words?” This is the classic question that all songwriters get asked. In my experience, there’s no correct or incorrect answer to this one. There are many different methods that can be used when writing a song. Some people develop a hook and build the song around it, some may songwrite lyrics then compose the music around it, others may write a chord progression then write lyrics around it, etc.
1. Songwriting based on a title/lyrical hook
Coming up with a really catchy title or lyrical hook is an art. 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. Great song titles are everywhere!
When you songwrite with this approach make sure that everything in your lyrics points to and supports your lyrical hook. Having a catchy hook only works if you build a foundation around it so that when the hook arrives, there’s a sense of drama and release.
2. Songwriting based on a general idea/lyrical concept
Sometimes you’ve been through an experience or have an idea for a song that feels important enough to write about. You know what you 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.
3. Songwriting from a melodic idea
If you’re a melodic writer, then you’ve got a different set of challenges. People will learn your melody long before they learn your lyric, so having a good one is not to be taken lightly. I have always been comfortable writing melody, and I believe a strong melody is of extreme importance. So this is where I usually begin. 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 you have those initial strains of melody, play around with various chord progressions until you find one that you feel complements the melody. Then move on to the lyrics, drawing inspiration from the emotion that the music evokes in you.
4. Songwriting from a chord progression/groove
When you pick up your instrument or sit down at the piano, often it’s a chord progression or groove that comes first. Great! Dig in and develop the groove and feel. This can really set the mood of a song and inspire all kinds of interesting melodic and lyrical ideas. Also, a good groove is the very first thing listeners will notice when they hear your song. However without a strong melody and lyric, it’s entirely possible to have a great sounding track and, unfortunately, a mediocre song.
5. Songwriting with a Partner
Whether you focus on the words or the music, collaborating with another songwriter is a priceless experience. 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.
Tip: Ask the Questions hidden in your title!
Every title suggests questions that need to be answered. Some of the questions will be ones that you want to explore, others will be questions that listeners have. You’ll need to answer both
You can choose the questions you want to answer. Just be sure to include the questions that listeners will have and answer those, too. If you were a listener, what would you want to know?
Here are some questions that work for many titles:
- What does the title mean?
- How do you feel about that?
- What caused it to happen?
- What do you think or hope will happen next?
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