We’ve all been there: a new idea for a song pops quickly into your mind, and with great excitement you dig in and hope to have the song finished in a day or so. But somewhere along the line the ideas fizzle. What you’re left with is something that’s got the promise of greatness, but it’s only a fragment, and you don’t know what to do with it.
For some songwriters, that’s painfully common: a treasure chest of dozens or more great song ideas, but almost no completed songs.
So your problem isn’t starting songs… it’s finishing them. What can you do to improve your batting average?
- Identify where in the song your fragment belongs. One of the reasons the songwriting process stalls is because you think you’ve been working on a chorus hook, when in fact it works better as a verse. How do you know where it belongs? Chorus hooks are short, repetitive, emotional, and relatively high in pitch. Verse fragments are lower, and they describe people or situations rather than emoting about them.
- Repeat your fragment while changing the chords. If you’ve got a 1-bar or 2-bar musical idea, the answer to “How do I build on this?” might be to simply repeat it. Most songs feature repetition as an important structural element no matter what part of a song you’re writing (though less so in a bridge).
- Flesh out a more complete story. Let’s say you’ve got a fragment for which the lyrics are describing your sadness about the breakup of a relationship. Obviously, that’s just part of a larger story. It’s time to get the whole picture. If the fragment is mainly describing emotions, you’ve likely got a chorus. So put the song aside for a moment, and write up a quick short story about how things got to this point. Having a fuller story gives you a better shot at writing more of the lyric.
- Find chord progressions to partner with the one you have. If you’ve got a good 2-, 3- or 4-chord progression, and you’ve been using a mainly chords-first approach, what do you do to extend your chord ideas? Try: a) Playing the same chords in a different order; b) playing the same progression but changing the final one (i.e., create a deceptive cadence as a way of making it sound different; or c) Use the same progression for verse and chorus. Many songs do this, and your job will simply be to create a lower-pitched melody for the chorus and a higher pitched one for the chorus.
- Take melodic fragments and reverse them. If your fragment uses a melody you like, but you don’t know what to do next, try reversing its general direction. If you’ve got a melodic fragment that moves mainly down, try answering it with a fragment that moves mainly up. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that taylor Swift does this in “You Belong With Me”, where she creates a verse idea that moves mainly downward, and then a pre-chorus idea that moves mainly upward.
Don’t forget that if you’ve been simply putting stalled ideas aside and forgetting about them, that that’s a good technique for finally getting a creative logjam to loosen. But the problem is that most of the time we forget to return to those stalled ideas.
So dig back into your archive of musical “broken dreams”, and you may be surprised that the song fragment that was stubbornly stuck suddenly fills you with ideas, even years after the fact.
Right now, “Creative Chord Progression” is being offered FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle. Lots of progressions for you to try, including ones that feature pedal point, modal mixtures, changing key, and more.