There’s no right or wrong way to write a great song. Some people start with the lyrics, or a topic. Others start with the music and find the words to fit later. This post is not to tell you how to write a song, and to say that any other method is wrong, but just to share my approach to songwriting.
Always Hit Record
Whatever your approach, make sure you capture it. Take 1 is fresh, 100% reactive to whatever you're hearing. Don’t loose it!
Music & Melody First
I always start with the music, or melody. Rarely, if ever, do I start a song by writing lyrics. In my opinion, any song that I’ve attempted to write starting with the lyrics reads more like poetry than a song. I also don’t think what is being said is anywhere near as important as how it sounds. Ever find out the actual lyrics to a song you’ve been singing incorrectly for years? Or find yourself singing or humming a melody to a song and you have no idea what the lyrics are, or what the song is about? What matters first is if the song is catchy, how it sounds, and how it makes the listener feel.
Catchy doesn’t only apply to pop music. Rap music is catchy. The vocals are very percussive and rhythmic, and less melodic in most rap songs, but we latch on to the flow and rhythm. It’s usually not until several listens in any genre that we catch all of the lyrics and learn the songs meaning. We remember melody, and overall vibe.
I find that the instrument that I’m writing on plays the biggest role in finding inspiration, and determining the style and sound of the song. For example, if I start writing on the acoustic guitar the song will probably be slow, melancholy, and a little country because that’s the feeling that the acoustic guitar brings out of me. If I know I want to write a pop song, I’m not going to start it on the acoustic guitar. Instead, I’ll cue up a keyboard and cycle through sounds until I find something inspiring and in genre.
Once I’ve found a sound, it will usually trigger a melody in my head. I’ll immediately hit record and try and find it on the keyboard as quickly as I can to run with the inspiration and not overthink it. I haven’t paused to think about setting up a metronome or any of those kinds of tasks that halt creativity. (Staying in the zone is the most important thing for me, and I’ve made session templates with track routing, effects, instruments, sounds, etc. all pre loaded and ready to go so that when inspiration hits I don’t have to stop to worry about anything within my DAW.)
Now I’ve got the first element of the song to build on. It will be different every time. Sometimes the first thing I’ll write is a chord progression, other times a melody or lead line on a guitar or synth. Whatever it is - its the first element that we will use to inspire the rest.
The second element to add comes from an endless list. If your first element was a chord progression on the acoustic guitar or piano, you may be done with the entire instrumental at this stage and want to move on to writing the vocals. Usually, my first element is a chord progression on a keyboard patch - something like a Fender Rhodes. I like to jump right into drums and percussion and quickly map out the feel and groove of the song. If you write with a band, your drummer may want to handle this.
I allow myself to get caught up and go as far down the rabbit hole of production as possible while Im feeling creative and into it. Many times I’ll finish 95% of the instrumental in that first draft. There’s nothing like riding that initial wave of creativity.
Vocal melodies fly out of my head as easily and effortlessly as the instrumental. I’m able to hear them without thinking about what they should be. Often times I have a lingering melody in my head throughout the process of writing the instrumental that ends up being the lead vocal melody. It’s worth keeping your phone nearby to quickly jot down a voice note if you start hearing melodies while still working on the instrumental.
By now we have most of the song finished. We have a music bed and vocal melodies. All that’s left is to write the lyrics. For me getting the song to this point can happen in only a few hours, however, lyric writing can take weeks. Here’s what I do to avoid dwelling on lyrics for too long:
While developing the vocal melody I’ll usually be singing some kind of phonetic sound. Record yourself singing those sounds, and then find words that fit with similar sounds and syllables.
Write down an outline of what you want to say in plain english (or your native language). You might have a paragraph on what verse 1 should say, a paragraph on verse 2, the bridge, and so on. Then, find creative ways to say the same thing in a more singable tone.
Use a thesaurus to find alternative words with the same meanings.
Use www.Rhymezone.com to find words that rhyme, as well as inspiration for entire lines.
I like this one a lot. If you have the first line and need a second, skim through words that rhyme with your first line. You can build your sentences in reverse - starting with the end, where it typically needs to rhyme.
At this point you should have a pretty awesome song taking shape. Here are some key points to take away.
Use templates to keep technical difficulties out of your creative songwriting time
Start with the sound. Build the vibe. Let the words flow later.
Allow yourself to get lost in creativity
Keep your phone handy to record any melodies you might not be ready to dive into just yet.
Hope this post was able to shed some light on my process, and inspire you to get to writing! If you do things differently - I’d love to hear your process!