If only writing a song was like building a piece of furniture. There would be instructions, tools included, and a finished product that looks just like the picture on the box. Songwriting is an inexact science. Fortunately, we have the freedom as creatives to try different things. So, here is a 7 step method that I use to write a song a day, every day.
Music is evolving constantly, and while traditional songwriting is defined as lyrics and melody, many writers, producers and musicians are often producing a rough mix or demo of a song during the 'write'.
Therefore, as part of this list, we'll touch on some basic production and arrangement work in our 'writing' process.
The easiest place to begin writing a song is with a groove or beat. Program a bare-bones groove in your DAW, or download a loop from a royalty free sample library like Splice.com.
Find something you like and move on, don't get distracted programming fills, layering sounds or adding any processing yet. We only need the basic structure to support the rest of our writing.
Pro Tip: Select 'random' sorting selection when using a sample library, this way you find something less used by other writers and producers.
Now we'll need to write a chord progression or riff over our beat. Loop the beat and improvise, or use a reference track to write with a similar progression. A few ideas to get you started:
- Avoid using the 1 chord until the chorus
- Borrow any chord from the parallel major or minor key
- Start with a bass line and build chords from there
- Choose four chords, use two in the verse and all four in the chorus
The melody is the most important (and memorable) part of a song. Look no further than karaoke at the nearest sports bar, wedding, bat mitzvah, pool party or office mixer for proof. Chances are your friends, family and coworkers know some of the lyrics, but can easily mumble and belt through the melody of the entire song.
Start by looping the verse or chorus, hum along or grab your instrument and start recording some ideas. When you're happy, record a 'scratch' version that you can playback as a loop to focus on writing lyrics in the next step.
Lyrics come after the melody not only because of the melody's importance, but because it's much easier and effective to write lyrics to the melody. Trying to fit existing poetry into the syllabic structure of an existing melody is a giant headache, and it hurts the song.
Creativity is an exhaustive resource, so we should prioritize writing the chorus, and a verse. Second verse, bridge et al. come later.
You may have gotten some lyrical ideas as you composed your melody, start from there and write down everything. I'm still a big fan of the hands on spontaneity of pen and paper. Loop the section you are working on and let it hypnotize you, try different lyrics and don't be precious with your ideas.
If you're not sure what to write about, try to start with a song title. Another idea is to outline a problem in the verse, and solve that problem during the chorus.
Now that we have our song, we can build out the song's arrangement (order).
You can create section markers in your DAW, or write down the arrangement on paper, the possibilities are limitless. Some common arrangement ideas are to:
- Have an intro that is 0:06 or less
- Get to the chorus before 0:50
- Write a 2-4 bar 'pre-chorus' between the verse and chorus
- Make the 2nd verse half as long as the 1st verse
- Repeat the chorus twice at the end of the song
- Insert a stripped down chorus before the final chorus
These are only suggestions that have worked for many writers before. I would encourage our readers to focus on writing the most honest songs; instead of writing songs solely based on algorithms, playlists, or radio friendly formats.
So we've created our arrangement, and now we may be missing a few pieces. This is where we write the elusive 'second verse', bridge or pre-chorus.
If you're writing for other people, feel free to leave the second verse blank, this way the artist has an opportunity to contribute lyrically and make the song their own.
When writing a bridge, repeat the first four steps. One technique for bridge writing is to 'fly' or copy over another section of the song, and write a different melody and lyrics to fit. You can also create excitement by using chords in the bridge not used elsewhere in the song.
Start producing ONLY after the entire 'song' is written. I cannot stress the importance of adding production elements after writing. A great melody and lyric speak for themselves, and the more ear candy we pile on during the writing process, the more watered down those ideas can become. Production can cover up inadequacies in the writing process, and deceive you into commiting to an idea not because it is good, but because the production sounds good.
If your song slams, production will only make it better, not the other way around.
Ear Training for Musicians