Songwriting Process

Firstly, there is no right way to write a song. No two writers write the same way, and even for each writer no two songs are likely to have come into existence in quite the same way. We all start from different materials, even different forms of material. We can just as easily be inspired by a painting or a film as by a fragment of conversation or musical phrase we hear in passing. This is all part of the joy of songwriting. The process is essentially to start with whatever material you have got and then gradually shape that into song form.

Process being a highly individual thing, as well as there being an infinite number of processes, does not mean we are wasting our time in talking about it. We can learn through trial and error that some approaches work more effectively for us. We can discuss our findings with others and learn from each other to find new approaches and think in new ways.

So this thread is for sharing what has worked for you, or how you are currently working at the moment. My current approach to songwriting currently looks something like the following.

  1. Start by explicitly writing down what you want your listener to feel. You have to define an objective before you devise a plan as to how to achieve that objective. So what is the objective of songwriting? Well it is presumably to make the listener feel something. It therefore makes sense to start with the question of “what do I want my listener to feel” before doing anything else.

  2. What is the context through which you want to evoke this feeling? Is there a particular story you want to tell that made you feel it? Who is telling the story and to whom? Where and when?

  3. How could this idea be molded into song form? Just like writing an essay or a novel often starts with an outline, it can be very useful to start with the big picture idea of what the different parts are going to look like and how they are going to fit together. We need to think about the different song sections and their roles. We need to think about the song title, how the plot develops through the verses, whereabouts in the song the payoff lands etc. Big picture stuff.

  4. Generate a tonne of content. Now that we have a big-picture plan, it is time to write a tonne of words and phrases that could sit in each of the sections. Of course, you need to be flexible enough that during the process of doing so the plan in step 3 is very likely to change. You may fall in love with a particular angle that changes the entire context you set up in step 2, or even the entire feeling you want to evoke in step 1. This step for me is just about getting a tonne of words down which can then be used as the actual building material. I find it helpful to do this almost in prose form, taking away any restriction of rhyme or meter which might block the flow of raw material.

  5. Start shaping into musical form. Now start considering the melody and the harmony. What tempo are we feeling? How subdivided is the beat? Rhythm is usually a good place to start as it defines the lyrical placement and the positions where one might employ rhyme. This is very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, and for me personally the most satisfying bit.

  6. Orchestrate. Once you have the basic lead sheet together you can think about the harmonic movement of the song and the instrumentation. How is it going to be arranged? Who is going to perform it?

  7. Produce or perform. Bring the final thing into existence. Does it make you feel like you intended in step 1? Get feedback from others, ask them what they think and how they feel.

  8. Use this feedback to rewrite it, again and again, until you are happy with it. Your song will likely get better with every pass, but there is a balance to be found in terms of perfectionism - at some point you have to call it a day so you don’t go on forever.

Again, this is just a rough idea of how I happen to be working at the moment. I hope there might be something you might find useful, and would love to hear what your current approach is!

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My process varies often (on purpose… to try to keep it interesting and experiment). My most natural way of writing a song is lyrics first because, for me, lyrics make the song. I can listen to a mediocre singer with mediocre music sing wonderful lyrics and be truly happy. I try to write a little everyday, sometimes lyrics or poems or scholarly articles or stories or journaling, basically anything. That way I build a lot of content, like you said. Sometimes the spark hits me and I follow a trail of words that lead to lyrics. Other times I go through what I have written and find stuff jumping out at me to transform into the beginnings of lyrics.

Once I get my lyrics pretty well down. I just start noodling around on an instrument. I still have no melody in mind, so I am just looking for something that feels like the lyrics. Usually just chords. Then I record myself playing the music I just decided fit. Then I listen to it and try to find the melody that comes to mind.

Once I have the chords and an idea of potential melody, I take my lyrics and apply them. Often that comes with editing and rearranging and stuff.

That is how I naturally write a song. But, I try to push out of that. Sometimes I will start with music. Sometimes a melody. Whatever.

When I topline for others, I listen to their instrumental a few times and write down what it brings to mind. It doesn’t have to be coherent, I am just trying to figure out what the music is telling me. Once I have it all, I flesh it out to get the mood and coherence down. Once I have the lyrics, I sing them over the instrumental in the first way that hits me. Usually, this creates a melody that was straight from the gut associated with the instrumental. From there, I go about tweaking the melody and lyrics until it feels right. Of course, when doing this for others, I am always open to their critiques and opinions. That is important. They reached out for help, so I listen to them and correct course where needed.

Hope that is helpful.

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