Ideas for Completing your Half-Written Songs

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Songwriter at workEveryone who writes music has got tons of musical fragments that have gone nowhere. I mentioned in yesterday’s article that writers need to be “sketching” all the time. But it can get depressing when your sketchbook is full, and you’ve only got a song or two that’s complete. Surely those bits of melodies, lyrics and chord progressions have got some use! Here are some ideas for what you can do to finish up a song that has a start, but no end.


If you find yourself saying, “I’ve got a really great chorus, but when I try to think of a verse, my brain shuts off. I can’t seem to create anything that works”, study the chorus carefully: make sure that what you’ve got really does work as a chorus. The lyric should be emotive, and the chord progressions should be mainly strong, featuring lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths.

Also, the melody should dwell in and around (away from and toward) the tonic note. If that’s the case, try starting work on a verse by starting with lyric ideas, and write words and phrases for which the chorus lyrics provide an obvious answer.

For melodic ideas, try this: study your chorus, and find a melodic fragment that seems to be an important motif, something that is distinctive in shape. Now, play around with that idea by moving it down in pitch, and playing with the order of the notes. For example, if your chorus features lots of upward-moving melodic shapes, try playing with downward shapes, mainly lower in pitch.

Regarding chord progressions, while reversing the order of a set of chords often doesn’t work too well, you’re likely to find one or two chords that do actually sound good when played in reverse order from the chorus.


You know the fragment you have is a verse if it seems to be primarily narrative, or at least descriptive, in nature. Again, the recommendation would be to start putting a chorus together by creating lyrics that answer questions or describe emotions related to the verse.

Improvise melodic shapes that sit above the verse in pitch level. Make sure that the tonic note plays an important role in what you’re creating.

Let your chorus chord progression feature the tonic chord as a starting and ending point.


This is where it can be fun to look through your sketchbook or collection of song fragments, and find bits and pieces that can go together. Probably the most famous example of this is The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”, with two seemingly unrelated bits, one written by John, the other by Paul, were simply “jammed together” to form that iconic song from the Sgt. Pepper album.

Using that song as a model, you’ll discover that the bits and pieces don’t need to be obvious song partners. Putting them together creates a new reality, and play it all together several times before making a judgement call.

One last piece of advice: don’t worry if your sketchbook keeps getting bigger and fuller. As a songwriter you shouldn’t be throwing anything out. It often comes as a surprise when you discover the bits that finally wind up together!


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. I was curious if you could answer a similar but ultimately different question I have about songwriting credits. I am working with a singer currently and she sent me a recording of her singing and nothing else. She asked me to write out chords to her melodies. Does this merit being credited for co-writing the song with her? I was forced to adapt the lyrics/melody to a small degree in order to fit it in with the chords if that makes a difference. I also came up with a few small ditty’s for the guitar to play in order to spice up the song a little bit.

    • I was in a very similar situation myself a few years ago. A keynote speaker for a national choral conference gave a speech concerning Canadian folk songs. As a conclusion to his speech, he sang, unaccompanied, a song he wrote. I was then asked by a choral director if I might add chords to the melody and create a rendition of the song for mixed choir and piano. The only difference would be that I did not adapt the lyrics or melody in any degree. I did create the piano part, which includes all the “extra bits” that weren’t there in the singer’s rendition, including a song intro. And since the singer was not able to offer any guidance for the chords, I created the 4-part harmony for the choir based on my own choices as implied by the melody.

      I think that most of what you are describing would come in under the category of “musical arrangement.” In my situation, I started by getting the writer’s permission to do the arrangement. I described what the project would be, and I drew up a contract that said that any sales of the music would be split 50/50. I got a bit of guidance from a lawyer, who said that the percentage split can be whatever the two writers decide it should be. And because the choral arrangement would not have existed without my work, we collegially agreed to 50/50. The composer of the melody took the writing credit, and I was credited as arranger. When he sings the melody on his own (without choir) at concerts, I am not credited, and I of course have no expectation of a performance royalty in those cases.

      It’s always best in these kinds of situations to speak to the writer of the melody and get a clear (i.e., written) description of the project, and what the financial arrangement will be. I think that what you’ve described is called a musical arrangement. Before you give the person the written out version of their song, you should expect 1) to be paid for the work done (i.e., a set fee), and/or 2) an agreement for a writing credit that would be in effect if the song is recorded, performed and sold. However, I don’t believe even with the little melodic modifications you have done that it could be described as a co-write. If the original writer could still sing the song as an unaccompanied song, it would mean your work is truly an arrangement. Having said that, if the person intends to use your chords along with the lyrical and harmonic adaptations as a norm in performance of the song, you are within your rights to ask for some sort of co-writing credit, even if you agree to a 90/10 split in the other person’s favour. The best solution is to speak to the other person and see what they’re thinking.

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  4. Man oh man, I can’t believe that you made a whole post about Neil’s speaking out. I mean I love that you take a “serious” look at more traditional pop songs, but it’s great that you’re willing to focus on something a bit darker and weirder like Neil’s dark masterpiece “Tonight’s The Night”.

    Anyway, I’d just like to address something completely different, but very interesting. Springsteen does a really cool thing in his slow dirge-like ballad “Racing In The Street”. Instead of doing a really hokey whole-step upwards modulation, like you would expect, to increase energy; he actually modulates a step downwards in the bridge but adds more instruments. When he then returns to his initial key, a whole-step upwards, but with just a piano, it gives the song a great boost even though the instrumentation and tone is more sombre. I hope this comment wasn’t too long, I just love that you actually took a serious look at my suggestion.

    • It was enjoyable to give Neil’s song a good listen, and a great tune. I’m going to give the Springsteen song a listen as well… I don’t know that one. But it got me thinking. A while back, I did an arrangement of a Gaelic song for a choir, and I did a semitone-lower modulation that seemed to build energy. I don’t really have a theory that explains why moving downward built energy. But I’d love to listen to what Springsteen did.


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