It’s exciting when a song seems to happen spontaneously and easily; within what seems to be a few minutes, you’ve written something that is, for all intents and purposes, a great song that’s ready for prime time.
As you hopefully know, that’s not the norm. It usually takes a lot longer to write songs, anywhere from a day or two to a year or two. There’s no rule that says the longer it takes to write something, the less likely it is to be successful.
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So putting aside the argument around how long it should take to write a song, I want to describe something related: the benefits of purposely writing a song as quickly as you can.
Speedwriting is hard because all good music needs good structure. We might be able to come up with words, melodies and chords relatively quickly, but structure? That sometimes takes a little longer. Structure involves smooth transitions between sections, giving lyrics a sense of chronology, and pulling melodic fragments together using melodic and rhythmic motifs, etc. That usually takes a bit of work.
There can be some benefits to forcing yourself to write a song quickly, in real time. Mainly:
- There is a sense of creativity that comes forward when you don’t have time to evaluate and critique your process. You might be impressed with what you come up with so quickly.
- You learn how to expand beyond your comfort zone. If you keep using the same word combinations over and over, that’s important to know as a songwriter.
- You very quickly end up with a song that, even if it’s filled with weak moments, can serve as the framework for a better attempt later. In other words, a song that’s thrown together in 3 minutes gives you something useful that you can edit and fix.
There are many ways to speed-write songs, but I think the best way is to just sit with your instrument and start playing with little or no forethought. It’s best if you’ve got a chord progression as a starting point, so if you need, take a few seconds and sketch something quickly.
Then: just start. Imagine that you’ve been asked on the spur of the moment to sing at a local show. You don’t have a song ready, but you don’t want people to know that. So you just start.
Be sure to have a recording device rolling so that you have something you can go back to later on and listen to.
Some tips for spontaneous speedwriting:
- Don’t stop. Keep the flow!
- Repeat melodic ideas. Remember that most good songs use repetition, whether it’s exact or approximate.
- Use nonsense syllables if lyrical ideas are abandoning you. Nonsense syllables have a place in songwriting; many good songwriters will mumble and mutter as words are hard to find. You can fill in the blanks later if the song has possibilities.
Speedwriting allows you to see your musical instincts in action, and the results might surprise you (in a good way!) You might be tempted to always default to a slow tempo because it gives you time to think. But challenge yourself. Each time you try, choose a new tempo, a new key, and a new performance style.
You’ll discover that it’s not easy to do this, and you may wind up with nothing particularly useful for future songs. But forcing creativity in this way is a great mental exercise. No one has to hear your results, but every once in a while you’ll create a gem of a moment that can find its way into a future songwriting attempt.
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Many songwriters like starting the process by working out the chords first. That’s because chords give us a strong sense of mood, and if you’re trying to generate lyrics, creating a mood is a good start.
So you’ve got a chord progression to which you then add a rhythmic feel. With that partnership of chords and rhythm, you’re starting to get a sense, even if just a vague one, of what the song could be about. But what about melody? A good chord progression may give you no hints at all for what a good melody might be. So what do you do?
If you like the chords-first process for starting songs, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It shows you the best way forward, and most important, how to avoid the problems that are typical to the chords-first songwriting method. Get it separately, or as a part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
There are several ways to generate melodic ideas from a chord progression. Here are 3 that are easy to try:
1. Create a melodic fragment based on a pentatonic scale.
A pentatonic scale is any 5-note scale, but in common usage we’re talking about one that uses the following scale degrees: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (C, D, E, G, A, assuming your song is in C major.)
Pentatonic melodies are easy to harmonize, because the trickiest notes to fit into chords are the 4th and 7th scale degrees, which don’t exist in this kind of pentatonic scale. So create a short melodic fragment (from 4 to 8 notes long) by improvising on the notes C, D, E, G and/or A.
Listen to the following example. You’ll hear a standard I-ii-V-vi progression, and then on the repeat a short 4-note melody that uses the notes E, G and A. It works when you repeat it over each chord of the progression.
2. Keep changing the chord voicing
Chord voicing refers to the order of the notes in a chord. As it applies to this exercise, we’re mostly interested in the upper notes of the chords. Each time you play the progression, whether on your guitar, piano, or some other chording instrument, change the voicings so that different notes are the topmost ones.
You’ll find that your ears will gravitate to those upper notes, creating a kind of melody that might stimulate your imagination and create short melodic fragments for you to improvise with.
3. Change the backing rhythms
You may not notice that each time you create a chord progression for a new song, you have your favourite go-to backing rhythm, and in addition to making all your songs sound similar, it stunts your imagination for improvising a new melody.
So play through your progression several times, changing the rhythms you use in your strumming or keyboard playing. You might also experiment with tempo as well. Once you find a new rhythm that you like, try either ideas above (1 or 2) to create a new melodic fragment.
Melody and Lyrics
As you work out melodies, don’t forget lyrics. It can be a good part of your songwriting process to throw words in, even if you’re not sure why you’re doing it. Often the words you toss in will sound like garbage, but once in a while you’ll find that you’ve found a word or phrase that fits with the rhythm and gives you even more ideas.
More importantly, those improvised lines of lyrics will help generate melodic ideas, because words have a natural contour that implies melodic shape.
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Sometimes just editing verse lyrics won’t give you what you want. It might happen that despite how many times you change a word here and there, you still wind up with a verse that’s weak in some way. It can be frustrating.
So here’s a different way to fix the verse (and lyric) that isn’t working: write lots of verses, and choose the ones that come the closest to saying what you want to say, and then edit those ones.
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George Harrison did that with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and you can read more about that online at The Beatles Bible.
The great thing about writing lots of verses?
- You can do it knowing that no one is going to hear the verses you don’t intend to use.
- It lets you finesse the direction in which your song is moving.
- It takes the pressure off of having to fix verse lyrics that are hard to fix.
- You can come across metaphors and imagery you might otherwise not find if you’ve decided on your chosen verses too early in the process.
Once you’ve got a dozen or so verses written (you can’t write too many!), choose the two or three that you think flow nicely, the ones that create the right kind of imagery, the ones that tell the story the way you think it needs to be told.
In a sense, writing too many verses is a great way to practice your lyric-writing skills. You’ll often find that each time you rewrite a verse, you get a little closer to what you’ve been imagining all along, and it can be very satisfying.
It can also work well as a lyrical brainstorming session. Try it as a kind of speedwriting exercise: get as many verses written as you can, as quickly as you can, and try not to be overly critical of what you’re doing. Remember, you can (and will) toss whatever isn’t working for you.
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Do you ever find that you randomly come up with a killer line of lyric, something that’s clever, poetic, rhythmic and imaginative all rolled up in one great phrase… but nothing else happens? And try as you might, you just can’t come up with more lyric to add to it?
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If that happens to you, here’s what you can do with that one line of genius that can help expand it into a complete lyric. Imagine (as a thought experiment) that you’re writing a song that’s eventually going to become Lorde’s big hit, “Royals” (Lorde & Joe Little) Let’s imagine the process that could have led to that great lyric:
- Find the topic. Let’s say that the killer line of lyric you came up with as a starting point was “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” Ask yourself, what kind of song would that line come from? You’ve got several options, one of which is a song about cars, but the better one is a poor person dreaming about being at the top of society, living the dream. Lorde eventually drops hints of a backing story, perhaps the music industry, or perhaps some other kind of “elite.” If it were your song, you could have gone in any direction you wanted, of course.
- Create word lists. You may have a topic, but you don’t have a story. Creating a list of words helps to create the story. If you’ve decided your song is about imagining being rich, you might fill your list with words like “gold”, “money”, “fantasy”, “ball gown”, and so on. But there are lots of ways of being rich. It might be money, it might be popularity, it might be.. anything you want it to be.
- Find the first level of your story. Those words may not yet give you a story. So keep adding to your list, and then start putting words together. “…trashing the hotel room”, “tigers on a gold leash”, “didn’t come from money,” and now you’ve got a direction to move in. Perhaps that killer line of lyric is leading to a song is about poor people (whatever that ultimately means to you) who aren’t quite sure what being rich is all about, or perhaps poor people who don’t like what being rich usually seems to imply. What if being poor/rich are metaphors for something else entirely?
- Find the final version of your story. In “Royals”, the final story is about a person who wasn’t just dreaming about being “rich”: she was dreaming about being a “ruler” of sorts — not a member of the royalty (musical royalty?), but a different kind of leader. She wanted to be rich, but not the way she saw it around her. In the end, it’s always up to you.
You’ll find that the more words you add to your list, the more the story starts to emerge. So creating word lists is key to building a lyric where you only have that one killer line as a starting point.
One of the best things you can do with a line of lyric that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere is to put it away for a while. Take it out once every couple of weeks, and try to add a line to the end of it, and maybe add a line before it. Eventually, something will click.
Take the time to let your line inform the rest of your song. And if your word lists aren’t helping, throw them out and start new word lists. The human imagination eventually opens up and gives you a story you can use.
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Do you ever find that when you’re talking to other musicians about music in general, there’s a list of “the things you’re most likely to say” guiding your conversations?
Everyone has their big issues in music. Their pet peeves. Their guiding principles. Their “why do people think this way!?” kind of rants.
There are many different kinds of hooks, and they all have a place in making great songs great. Learn everything you need to know in “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.”
Shall I list five of my particular favourites? I won’t call them rants, although… well, don’t get me started! I’ll just characterize them as songwriting ponderables, and I’ve listed them in no particular order below.
And then in the comments, please feel free to rant about favourite songwriting issues you find raise your hackles and get you steaming.
- No song ever failed because the chord progression was boring. Some songs benefit from chords that make us think, that challenge our imagination, or that take us on interesting musical journeys. But when a song fails, and the progression is at fault, it’s because it’s not working, not because it’s too simple.
- You are too fixated on Nickelback. This one really gets me. Let’s set aside for the moment that most people who talk about how much they hate Nickelback couldn’t list a song they recorded. But that band has become the icon for cringy, horrible music. I get it. To me, all their music (and particularly their performance style) all sounds the same and lacks imagination. But if you’re a musician and you’re can’t get over how much you hate this group, you’re wasting an incredible amount of time. Move on!
- An opinion in a song doesn’t become more relevant because it’s been sung. It doesn’t become more clever because it rhymes. I remember seeing an interview with Bob Dylan once in which he was asked to expand on his thoughts and opinions from one of his songs’ lyrics. He said something to the effect of “Why? I’m just a songwriter. I don’t know anything more than anyone else.” So if someone sings, “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way,” your first reaction might be, “Wow! That’s SO TRUE!!” Hopefully, your next reaction will quickly be, “Oh, that actually isn’t really smart after all.” Being clever isn’t bad in a lyric, but nothing takes the place of a simple line that touches the emotional heart of the listener.
- Music theory will give you an important insight into the workings of music that always improves your creativity. No, music theory will not stunt you as a songwriter. It does the opposite: It shows you why music works, and gives you vocabulary to describe your musical thoughts to others. It can be every bit as important as learning the rules of grammar are to a writer. Theory isn’t a set of rules, it’s a set of observances. If it stunts your sense of creativity, you are (as they say) using it wrong.
- You can improve your songwriting by listening to other genres. Most songwriters want to be unique somehow. They want their songs to stand out apart from the rest, and to be distinctive. Nothing will help you more than simply immersing yourself in good music from genres you don’t normally listen to. And if you don’t know what to listen to, a simple online search for “the best [metal] songs ever” will get you started. (Replace “metal” with any genre, and you’ll have enough to keep you going for a long time!)
What grand statements do you find yourself regularly making with others when you talk shop? Please share your own ponderables below in the comments.
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I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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