To Write a Song, You Might Try Sketching It First

Sketching ideas out as you work is a great way to stimulate your musical imagination.


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architectAn architect would never plan their next building design by only sitting and thinking about it. At some point, usually fairly early on in the creative process, they’d start actually writing their ideas down. As far as an architect is concerned, the details of building design make it too complicated to try to conceive of the entire project in one go.

An architect’s work is finished when they have a completed blueprint in front of them. A songwriter’s work is finished when they have a completed recording, or in some cases, a completed musical score.

While some songs are simplistic and basic in their design, songwriters looking to create more imaginative music might take a lesson from an architect’s approach: don’t just think about your ideas – write them down.

If you know how to read and write music, you’ve got the best way for writing down musical ideas, and you can do it in the most accurate way possible. But if you aren’t able to use standard musical notation, you’ve still got abilities to write your ideas down by drawing and sketching ideas.

For your next song, rather than simply strumming your guitar and stringing together chords, melodies and lyrics that you hope you remember, try the following set of steps:

  1. Take a sheet of paper, turn it to landscape orientation, and draw a horizontal line along the bottom. This is a rough timeline, an indication of the start and end of your song.
  2. Draw blocks from left to right above the line to represent the various sections you plan your song to have, and label them. This will take some forethought, of course, and you may find that you’ll change your initial ideas as you go. But come up with a preliminary sketch of the basic form of your song.
  3. Inside the blocks that you’ve drawn, indicate anything that you know already. Write down bits of lyric where they belong, sketch out a chord progression. You might even try to indicate the basic shape of your melody by making a line drawing that reflects the contour. That line drawing can serve as a memory aid each time you return to the song to continue your work.
  4. Continue to fill in the different sections of your song. You’ll find that your “architect’s drawing” may change so much as you proceed that you might want to toss it out and start a new one, and that’s completely fine.
  5. Start playing your song through, and see how the different sections fit together. You may decide that your verse is too short, and you need a pre-chorus… sketch it in. Any changes you make to your music should be indicated on your plan.

By step 4, you’ll sense a feeling of confidence that comes from seeing your music take shape in front of your eyes. Sketching your song gives you a visual perspective that you may not have had before, and it can free up creative ideas that may have been stifled before.

Sketching your ideas is also a great way to help cure writer’s block. So much of songwriter frustration comes from a lack of vision, a lack of planning. So borrow from the architect’s way of working, and see how writing and sketching your ideas can help stimulate the creative process.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Amazing post as ever… I wonder , could you analyze one song from a composer called zak belica named “What’s The World Come To” , it works as a song and have a very complex song progression (to my ears)

    • It’s in B minor, and the main progression uses chords that come from that key (Bm Bm7/A E F#…), so not very complex for most of the song. There’s a short instrumental section in the middle that adds a couple of altered chords, including what at first sounds like a secondary dominant of flat-VII (E/G#)– not a very common chord. That chord is then re-interpreted so that it slides chromatically to VI (G). But it mainly sticks to typical B minor chords.

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