Songwriters are correct to think a lot about how to start the songwriting process. How you start often has a strong influence on where things end up. But songwriters typically worry, not so much that they’re starting the wrong way, but more that they’re possibly missing out on a better way.
You need to look at the issue of starting from two different angles:
- How to generate song ideas; and
- Which elements of music you concentrate on first.
Improvisation as a Generator of Song Ideas
Pop music — and some might argue all music — is essentially an improvised art form. In other words, when music is done well, it gives the impression of being created as the listener hears it. A great example of this is listening to a guitar solo by your favourite group in a concert. If that solo is played note-for-note exactly the way it sounds on the recording, we feel a bit let down. We like to imagine that the solo is being created anew, on stage, and that it might sound different every time it’s played. That’s really what we expect.
So that addresses point #1 above: because pop music has a strong sense of improvisation at its root, improvisation winds up being one of the best ways to generate song ideas in the first place. So try this:
- Using your instrument of choice (usually guitar or keyboard), improvise melodic shapes and ideas, and concentrate on finding ideas that sound good when repeated over and over.
- Strum improvised chord progressions.
- Sing improvised phrases of words and expressions.
- Work all 3 of those approaches together, and take note of the ones that work best.
Improvisation is the best way to generate song ideas, because you’re tapping directly into your creative mind without worrying about rules. Don’t be overly critical about what you’re doing — just critical enough that you toss out ideas that aren’t working, and go searching for better ones.
Which Elements First?
The three most common elements to think about when writing songs are: melody, chords and lyrics. But of course there are more: rhythm, instrumentation, instrumental technique, and so on.
There are no ways that are better than others. It really depends on where your mind is on any given day, and what’s been influencing your musical thought process.
So here’s a quick look at how you might start a song by focusing on any one of those elements.
1. Chords-First Songwriting
Chord-first songwriting is one of the most popular starting methods. Its danger is that the song’s melody can get either neglected or hamstrung by choosing chords that don’t necessarily lead to an enticing tune.
So as you improvise chords to start your next song, keep the following tips in mind:
- Choose different chord voicings. Move your chords up and down, from high voicings to lower ones. That will help keep your mind generating new and more interesting melodic ideas.
- Remember that chords support melodies, not the other way around. When all is said and done, no one will walk down the street humming your chords. They will hum your melody. So you’ve got a good progression if it yields a good melody.
- Remember that chorus progressions are short and strong, while verse and bridge progressions can wander a bit. If you’ve found something short, strong and repetitive, consider it as being a likely progression for a chorus. Songs in major keys often use minor chords in the verse and bridge, so use that as a guideline as you improvise.
If you like the chords-first method, you’ll want to check out “Writing Songs From a Chord Progression”, which puts a magnifying glass on how the chords-first method can work for you. It examines the various kinds of chords that appear in a song — verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc. — and shows you how to create a song melody that makes it all work. “Writing Songs From a Chord Progression” is part of the 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle. Read more..
2. Melody-First Songwriting
In a very real way, melody-first writing is also chords-first writing. That’s because it’s normal to hear melodies and the chords that might support it at the same time. In that way, though you may find melody-first difficult, it can give you something more powerful to focus on than just the chords: it gives you a potentially enticing melody.
Here’s how melody-first can work for you:
- Improvise melodic ideas. Don’t make them long, just something short — 4 to 8 notes in length. Play and modify that idea until it gets an interesting contour, and then immediately try to find chords that will support it.
- Don’t worry too much yet about where that idea belongs. Some ideas work better as a chorus hook, while others will sound like part of a verse or bridge. Making that decision can wait. Just try to create melodies, and then pair them up with chords that work.
- Find lyrical ideas to bring the melodic fragment alive. So yes, improvising melodies not only gets you focused on chords, it can make lyrics take shape as well. Songwriter Paul Simon has said in interviews that he often decides what a song is about after he writes the music. As you hear the melody and chords come together, you may start to find ways to generate words and phrases that fit the general rhythm and pulse of what you’re creating. This becomes part of the important idea-generating machine.
3. Lyrics-First Songwriting
When writing lyrics first, you’re essentially coming up with a poem, with an important possible difference: song lyrics need to usually have more of an immediate impact that works on a personal level. While poetry can be read over and over, with deeper meaning found each time, a song lyric often has the added responsibility of making some sort of immediate impact.
- Don’t feel you need to write the entire lyric before setting it to music. A song that starts by working out the lyric first may simply mean getting a chorus idea together first, and then setting it to music. If melodies or chords are coming into your mind as you work out the lyric, don’t wait: get busy bringing it all together.
- Let the up-and-down of your voice help guide your creation of melodies to set your lyrics. Read your lyrics out loud, and notice the moments your voice moves up or down. Use that as a guide for creating melodies.
- Remember that lyrics need to communicate to the listener on a casual level. The words, and the way you use those words, should sound the way you would say something, with an obvious informality. Lyrics don’t need to sound sophisticated; they need to sound real.
Remember that there is no one right way to start a song. In that regard, you’ll often find that mixing the ways you start from song to song gives your music an important sense of individuality.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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