If you were going to go on a long journey, you’d consult a map. If you’re using your smartphone, you’d consult the numbered steps on a Google or Apple Maps list (“Turn left onto West Street…”), and you’d mentally check off each listed location along the way. And you’d be confident that as long as you have properly arrived at each location within that list, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.
In the composing of music, whether you’re writing a song, a lyric, a symphony or an opera, you can always get there from here, but you might feel a bit lost along the way. Many songs that remain unfinished are ones where you felt you knew where you were going, but you simply got lost.
You got lost because songwriting doesn’t come with a list of steps. Not a good one, anyway. And you don’t want a list of steps. You’d hate writing music if it were all that predictable, that formulaic.
So no, you can’t consult a list to see where you should be at any one moment as you write your song, but there is an overarching principle at play: a song should sound good (even if unfinished) at every stage of its creation. In that sense, there is a list of steps for writing a good song, but you create it anew for every song you write, and you do it as you go.
Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows how melody and lyric need to work together. Along with chords, they are powerful partners in any song. Learn how to do it right! Get the entire 10-eBook Bundle at a discount price, along with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”
Working With a Stripped-Down Version Of Your Song
The songs that sound the best when you perform them in a seriously stripped-down minimalist early stage of writing might be ballads. That’s because ballads frequently use a lighter, more transparent instrumentation, so they’re often performed in what sounds like a preliminary phase; they don’t need much more than the melody and a simple chord progression.
But even songs that seem all about the beat, like “Uptown Funk!” or Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”, or even a song like Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out”, should still work as you listen to each element in its earliest stage of development.
By examining your new song and performing it for yourself frequently as you write, you are, in effect, creating a list of steps not unlike a Google Maps list. It’s not one you can follow in the same way, because this is a list you’re creating as you go.
But the advantage to checking each new element you add to your song is that your song should work at every stage. It may not sound complete (because it won’t be complete), but it still work: no obvious musical errors.
By listening carefully to what you’re writing at every stage, you are better able to fix issues before you try to add to them.
So here’s a closer look at what I’m suggesting:
- For each step in your new song, sing what you’ve written, and decide if there are any obvious problems, errors or weaknesses. Let’s say you’re starting with a chord progression. Play that progression for yourself, and ask yourself, “Is this working?” Do you like the melody on its own? Read the lyric to yourself.
- Don’t bother asking yourself, “Is this complete?” As you create each step of your new song, it may not at all sound complete, but that’s OK. The question is, is what you’ve written actually working? Or do you notice a weak moment in your melody, or chords, or lyric?
- “Incomplete” may not mean “not working.” For example, you may need to insert some “nonsense syllables” into your lyric as you’re still trying to work out the final wording. That’s OK. What you need to be listening for at this point is if anything is obviously not working.
- Try your song in different tempos and backing rhythms, even time signatures. Though you may not like what you hear, that’s not the concern. What you need to be analyzing is: is it actually working on some level.
A good way to see this in action is to take a well-known hit song, one that’s stood the test of time, and strip it down to its bare elements, and imagine the steps the songwriter took to write it. For example, play through the chord progression of “Let It Be.” Do you notice that as a chord progression, it sounds great? You’d never just play its progression as a finished product. But if Mccartney had started writing “Let It Be” by working out the chords, it would have been senseless to keep writing if there were problems at this stage.
Now sing through the melody on its own. Does it work? Even if you can’t imagine “Let It Be” as an unaccompanied solo song, with no backing chords, it needs to work in this melody-only version.
Next, put the melody and chords together in a very simple stripped down version (not much unlike the final produced version of The Beatles’ rendition of the first verse). Does it work? Next, add instrumentation.
For every step in putting a song together, it needs to sound acceptable, with no obvious errors. One of the reasons we get discouraged or stuck in our songwriting process is because we’re trying to build on something that has problems at an early stage.
So as you write a new song, play it for yourself early and often. For each step along the way, make sure that there are no glaring errors. You can ignore incompleteness as you write, but you must fix musical errors before you move on.
The benefit to assessing your song at each step as you write is that you evaluate each small element within the song as you write, rather than waiting until you’ve got a finished product with problems, but no easy way to know what’s wrong.
But the best benefit of all is this: you’re far more likely to finish the song.
Are you looking for ways to make your progressions more creative? Tired of the same-old, same-old? This eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions“, is being offered free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle. Read more.