In this lesson, I walk you through the steps of writing a song. This is not the only method that can be used, and songwriters can begin writing their songs in a variety of ways.
In today’s lesson, we’ll look at five different ways you can start writing songs. We won’t go through the entire songwriting process, but we will look at different ways you get to your ideas turned into a tangible thing that can be developed into a song.
How to begin writing a song
Every song began as an idea in the mind of someone with the ability to develop it into a piece of music.
This idea can be abstract, but the first step towards turning it into a song is to find an entry point where you can turn it into something tangible you can build on.
For the purpose of this lesson, this is the place where the song begins. Thus, we’re not looking for the source of inspiration here, but rather at some of these “entry points” that turn an abstract idea into a song.
Important: As you’ll see, you don’t necessarily use one of these entry points at a time. Sometimes the first tangible form of an idea is a combination of two or more of these elements (or other musical elements not explored in this lesson).
1. A string of words
This is probably the most common, and the easiest way to start writing a (non-instrumental) song.
The reason is that, unlike musical notes, words have referential meaning.
Let’s say you want to write about a teacher who used to mistreat you at school.
With music alone, you can express the feeling of anger, but you can’t explain that the anger is directed towards a teacher, let alone who the teacher is and why.
But a string of words like: “You taught without passion, but we learned more than you think, what you taught us, Mr. Skinner, is how we should not think” gives you a clear idea of who the songwriter is referring to.
Note: The reason I’m calling this “a string of words” rather than “lyrics”, is that all you need as an entry point to a song is just a string of words. These words may end up in the verse, the chorus, the bridge, or nowhere at all. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have created something tangible you can build on.
2. A string of notes
If coming up with words is difficult, you can begin with a melody or even a short motif.
Note: A musical motif is the smallest unit of a piece of music that has a thematic or structural identity. The first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 are probably the most famous motif in music history. When you listen to it, you’ll notice how Beethoven develops this short motif into a whole symphony.
This melody or melodic motif can be sung, played on an instrument, written in computer software, or simply memorized.
You’ll have something tangible to work on once you’ve recorded this string of notes somewhere, even if it’s just in your head.
My favorite way to start a song is to come up with a string of words together with a tune.
For instance, the first song that I wrote that was actually performed was called Midnight Express.
It started with paraphrasing a line from the film Midnight Express: “What’s legal today has been illegal yesterday, what’s legal today may be illegal tomorrow” which came along with the tune.
It was a simple Punk Rock song, the genre I played at the time, but from it, I learned the power of coming up with both the words and the tune.
All these entry points to a song discussed here can come in various combinations with other entry points.
The goal is to come up with something that you like and can develop, and if you come up with two elements at the same time, you have something even more concrete you can work on.
3. The Title
The song’s title is something tangible and gives direction to where you’re going with the song.
A song I’m writing at the moment started with just the title “We Know Where You Live”.
I didn’t even know what the song was going to be about but I liked the title and wanted to write a song around it.
Soon, I started fantasizing about secret police spying on civilians in a dystopia where the informers may be your own children.
Following the visualization, strings of words started coming:
“We know where you live,
We know where you sleep at night
We know where you live
And we’ll make sure you’ll never sleep tight again”
I kept developing the concept, allowing myself to get carried away in espionage fantasies which fuelled the flow of words and melody for the rest of the song, which is almost finished by now.
Point is, when I first came up with the title, I had no idea what the song was going to be about. But once I had a tangible thing, a title I liked, I could take my creativity running and take me to the place where parts of the song will just write themselves.
4. The harmony
Another place where you can begin the song is the harmony, that is, the chords and chord progressions backing the melody/lyrics.
In this lesson I show you how to create good-sounding chord progressions for your songs.
The harmony can also come in the form of a guitar riff. Learn how to create guitar riffs in this lesson.
Once you have a chord progression or a riff, you have something tangible you can develop into a song.
5. The Rhythm
If you’re familiar with the music of Queen, reading the above should remind you of the rhythm to the song We Will Rock You.
No words, no melody, no chords, just stomping and clapping.
I don’t know if Queen started writing We Will Rock You from the rhythm, but this rhythm, among many others, is an example of a tangible thing that can then be developed into a song.
If you have nowhere else to start, clapping a rhythm could also be the first tangible thing you create.
The Next Step: Turning your idea into a song
The songwriting process varies from person to person, and every songwriter develops his ideas in different ways.
What I can give you is what I usually do after I’ve turned my idea into its first tangible form:
- Create a visual image. If the song is, for instance, about secret police invading people’s privacy, I start visualizing imagery of it actually happening. These can be things I had seen in films, read in books, or created by my mind right then.
Having these images in the back of my head is a constant source of inspiration for the content of the song.
- Create the second tangible thing. For instance, if I have a string of words with a tune, I will either write the next string of words and give them a tune, or choose the chords (harmony) to back the tune that I have.
- Keep repeating this until I have enough content to start giving it a form. For instance, choosing what will be the verse and what will be the chorus, how to connect different sections in the song as well as its overall form.
Once again, this is not the only process that works, but if you still don’t know how to go about developing an idea into a song, you can use it as a template.
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