How do you write a song? This is one of the few things that has nearly every beginner stumped. The truth is, there is no single answer that can live up to this question. While there are “standard” practices that some choose to follow, there exists an infinite number of ways in which people write songs.
From composing on piano to beat making in a DAW, the range of options is quite vast. Moreover, some individuals are able to put together entire melodies or arrangements in their heads without ever touching a thing. This is all very telling as to why everyone has a different perspective on what making music looks like.
In this list, I am going to try and outline some general concepts that have worked well for myself and others. Even though some of these may not seem like they are right for you, don’t sweat it. Maybe just pick out one of the ideas below and try to implement it gradually. All good things take time, this saying could not ring truer than in the context of songwriting. Hopefully, these tips will help speed things up for you.
1. Start with Where You Want to End Up
Part of the reason for why songwriting can be so overwhelming is due to having limitless paths to go down. Say you randomly come across a cool riff… that’s great, but without direction, it can become a lost cause. The idea here is to have an idea of what direction you are headed before embarking on the journey. This mentality can be applied to both the conceptual and sonic properties of your endeavors.
Sonically speaking, try working from the biggest or most impactful part of the song first. Plan how you can build up to that larger section. What can you take away from the earlier parts to make things sound bigger later? While this might sound like producing advice, it is actually really helpful to be planning like this when writing on your instrument.
Thinking conceptually, what is it that you are saying with your music? What is the message that you hope to leave your listeners with? The answers to these questions will act as guides in your writing process. When you are faced with a choice of where to head next, just think; What will sound like what I am saying here? Don’t be afraid to put a little extra planning into your workflow!
2. Get Uncomfortable
Work at not being too complacent. Writer’s block and musical ruts are often the results of sticking WAY too close to your guns. For singers, this can mean not trying any unique harmonies and for an instrumentalist, it can be living only in your favorite pentatonic scale. Everyone does things like these to some extent, we are all creatures of habit. However, don’t misunderstand me. Common harmonies and simple scales are not the problems here. The issue is the overuse of anything. But, I am not here to tell you where the line is, I believe we all can sense when we are wearing something out.
There a few common practices that should help if you feel like you are overly comfortable. Many people find inventiveness in altering the notes slightly from what you are used to. So, in the case of scales try sharpening or flatting just one note/chord and include it in your work. If you really want to dive into the unknown, you can take this to another level by changing up tunings or instruments. This way you would have very little idea (in most cases) of what you are doing and will likely lead to something you would not normally play. Obviously this process can also be quite frustrating too, so some may not benefit from this as much as others. Regardless, just make sure you are keeping your musical ideas fresh.
3. Don’t Avoid Learning Chord Numbers
Okay, I promise, this is a far as I will go into theory for these tips. I believe one of the most useful pieces of theory for songwriters is chord analysis. You don’t even have to dig very deep before this information will be super helpful to you. Basically, all I am talking about here is learning to use the Nashville Number System. The NNS is a method for connecting scale degrees to the chords made from those degrees. Sound confusing? It’s not. Anyone can learn the basic idea of this system rather quickly.
Once you begin understanding how these numbers work you can take that information and build on it greatly. You will start to realize things like the progressions G – C – Em – D and E – A – C#m – B both function the exact same way (I-IV-VI-V). You can take this knowledge and start learning how the songs you love were created. After you have a grasp on this way of thinking, you can write your songs in a much faster and lucrative manor. While some things might not be that important in theory, the NNS is without a doubt useful to most people writing music.
4. Listen, Listen and Then Listen Some More
I know this might seem like the most obvious thing to some, but there is nothing more powerful to a songwriter than their ears. Just like muscles, your ears strengthen the more you use them. Make a point to attempt to understand why the songs you love are made the way they were. All it takes is a little extra thought the next time you listen.
Having good ears goes even further than just songs, however. Ear training is a very real and fruitful practice for many people involved in music. And no this is not just something that benefits mixing and mastering engineers. You can start to learn what certain intervals and chords sound like. No not perfect pitch, but majors? Minors? 7ths? Of course!
Try to spend some time dedicated to listening. You can do interval/chord training or check out some new music you’re interested in. But actually listen, just listen. Don’t attempt this kind of thing while working or even driving. The kind of listening I am referring to here is that of total immersion in the music. This may actually be hard for you, but if you can, listen to a full album and do nothing else. You will be surprised how much of what you put into your ears shows in your songwriting.