Tuesday, March 23, 2021

How to Write a Song in Ten Steps

This was something that I wrote on one of my other blogs a couple of months ago, but since it's all about songwriting, I thought I'd share it here, too. 

For anyone out there who may find this information interesting and/or useful, I have outlined below my usual ten-step process for writing a song. I share this not only as a potential insight into the mechanics of creativity, but also with the hope that you might employ this approach in your own songwriting. 

We will always need people to write songs that can move us in one way or another, and to promote positive change in our communities and throughout the world. Why not you? 

1. Practice. 

Whoever said that practice makes perfect lied. Practice makes better. But there's more to it than that. When I practice, I'm constantly looking for interesting chord progressions, riffs and rhythms. When I find them, more often than not, that's what I end up practicing. Most of the time, I also record them with a handheld device for my own reference. Loop pedals can also be incredibly helpful here. The way I see it, a musician has to practice, so why not work on your own stuff when you do? The more I practice, the more of these "song parts" I accumulate, which I file away for later use. There have been riffs that have sat in my back pocket for months or even years before I did anything with them. That's just how it is sometimes. (It's also how I wrote three albums in 2017. I already had most of the pieces from years of rehearsal material; it was just a matter of putting them together in ways that made sense. For more on this, see steps 2-10 below.)

2. Build a song from spare parts. 

As I continue to practice, over time, these various parts start intermingling and coalescing into songs. Hey... this riff fits with this progression. This part can be played in the same key as that other thing I was playing, etc. That said, as a self-taught musician, I should note (pun intended) that I seldom know what key I'm playing in. I usually have to work it out afterward -- but my ear knows what fits together and what doesn't. I suspect that yours will, too. Keep in mind that most pop/rock songs, when it comes down to it, are often composed of maybe five or six chords at most. That's it. It's how you play them that matters. Knowing that, in my own songwriting, once I've got enough chords or whatever to form a verse part and a chorus part, then I've got the basic components of the song, at which point I can safely move on to the next step.  

3. Let the music tell me what kind of song it is. 

Once I've got that basic song structure of a verse and a chorus (and every once in a while a bridge), then I play it over and over, trying to listen objectively in order to determine what kind of song it is. Is this a love song? A protest song? A song about road trips? Old friends? Independence movements in former Soviet Republics? What emotions does it evoke? Figuring this out gives me somewhat of an idea in terms of where to look when it comes to writing lyrics, but I always start with the music and then write the lyrics. To me, the notion of doing it the other way around would be like starting with the paint before you even have the canvas set up. Besides, lyrics without any music is called a poem, and while these two forms are closely related, I find that they are generally not interchangeable. I tend to believe that the lyrics should be an integral component of the song, complementary to everything else. 

4. Start with the vowels. 

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that all we really sing are the vowels. Consonants may be used to add emphasis on a beat, but the notes are all vowels. So when I go to write lyrics, I start with the vowel sounds. As I'm playing these chord progressions/riffs/song skeletons mentioned above, I audition various vocal melodies, exclusively through the use of vowel sounds -- lots of oohs and aahs and eees, etc. Over time and with repetition, certain vocal melodies will stick. I find that whistling to myself can also be useful at this stage, as good vocal melodies tend to be inherently whistlable.

5. Words will eventually emerge. 

As I sing these vowel sounds, the vocal patterns will inevitably make me think of certain words. "Ah-oh" may mutate into "alone," for example. I write these words down, always on the lookout for certain words or phrases that I think might fit with the mood of the song. Generally speaking, I find that it's easier to start with the chorus, since that should be the biggest part of the song. When I sing the vowels of the chorus, I write down approximately how many syllables I need and what vowel sounds fit most naturally in whatever vocal melody that I found myself going back to. When figuring out the rhyme scheme, it's worth remembering once again that the only parts that really need to rhyme are those vowel sounds. Anything else is just a bonus. It's also good to be aware that plosive sounds (like "b" and "p") should probably land on the beats whenever possible.  

6. Build the song around the chorus. 

Once I've got the nuts and bolts of the chorus figured out, then it's a matter of writing verses that logically lead to the repetition of these lyrics that essentially form the gravitational center of the song. When writing the verses, I use that same method of starting with vowels and counting out the syllables on my fingers. 

7. Use the first verse to establish the pattern

Music (much like comedy, metaphor, etc.) is fundamentally about establishing patterns and then disrupting those patterns in interesting ways. So once I've got the syllable count and rhyme pattern of the first verse figured out, I use that as a template for the other verses. The first verse is always the hardest to write, even if it ends up being moved over to the third verse by the time I'm done. If the song seems like it's getting too repetitive, to the point where it starts to feel predictable, then I might add a bridge and/or an instrumental break to disrupt the pattern.

8. Continue to refine the lyrics. 

First drafts are seldom the best versions of anything. That's just as true with lyrics as it is with research papers. Personally, I find that first drafts are less intimidating if I just keep in mind that I can (and probably should/will) go back and revise my work. Does the song have a POV? Does it tell a story? Are there words that stand out like speed bumps when I sing them? The more objective I can be at this point, the better. I believe that it's crucial for an artist to be able to separate art from ego, and this isn't always easy. Sometimes I have to walk away from it for a few days and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. In the meantime, I might work on a different song, or some other project altogether.

9. Own the song

Once I've written a song, I usually play it over and over until I know the lyrics without having to look at a piece of paper or stop and think about it while I'm playing. If I can then play the same song on a different instrument, then hot damn. That's usually a pretty good sign that it officially works as a song and that I know it well enough to record it for real and/or perform the song in front of an audience. 

10.  Fill out the sound spectrum with other instruments

If you play in a band, this is where your bandmates can come in. In my case, however, since my last five six albums have just been me, I record the basic chord progression or riff or whatever the song is built around and then listen to see where it needs more. It's like cooking and figuring out which ingredients you need to make the dish shine and be properly balanced -- and I like to taste it as I go. If it needs more upper-mid range, then maybe it's time to bust out the banjo or the glockenspiel. As indicated in Step 7, I'm not above throwing in a guitar solo here and there, either. Usually at the end of the recording process, I then go back and re-record that original part that the song was built around. I generally do the same with the drum tracks. 

At the end of all of that, I will have created something that did not exist before and that can now be shared with others. Through the use of digital platforms that did not exist even ten or fifteen years ago, I can now reach audiences that I never could have imagined before. While it's arguably harder than ever to make a living as a musician, it keeps getting easier for independently produced music to reach a broader and more diverse audience. 

Follow these ten steps, and you can do it, too.

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