Though everyone has a favourite way of starting songs, I think it’s fair to say that most people will use many different processes, depending on what musical idea pops into their head at the start of a session. Some typical ways of starting:
- Setting up a percussion loop and improvise over it, using the mood of that loop to help define the kind of chords and rhythms.
- Starting with the chords, and then applying a rhythm to see what comes of it.
- Thinking of a bit of a melodic shape that sounds really interesting, and then through improvisation slowly expand on the idea and flesh out a more complete song.
All of those ideas have one thing in common: the lack of an initial meaning to what’s being created. In other words, it’s possible to start the songwriting process without actually knowing that the song is about.
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I’m mentioning this because many songwriters get stuck at an initial “I-don’t-know-what-to-write-about” stage. But I want to propose that it’s actually possible to get quite far into the songwriting process before you must make that decision.
Musical Meaning and Early Rock and Roll
“Travelin’ Man” (Jerry Fuller, sung by Ricky Nelson), is a song where the singer travels all over the world with the proverbial “girl in every port.” But try this experiment: try to imagine the song without a lyric at all, and now try to imagine that it’s a song about:
- going to the local dance, and seeing all your friends there;
- breaking up with your lover, and moving on;
- the need for world peace;
- a first date.
You see what I mean. Especially in the days of earlier rock and roll, meaning came from the lyric, and so a song’s meaning could be applied late in the process, even after a song was completed.
Later on, particularly starting with The Beatles, the music itself, quite apart from the lyric, offered a mood. So when you listen to “In My Life”, you pick up a sense of deep emotion and melancholy, quite apart from what’s offered by the lyric. The music is now helping to direct the meaning of the song, even before you consider the lyric.
Applying Musical Meaning
So what does this mean for the songwriter? In short, you can allow your songwriting process to help you decide what your song is going to be about. And therefore once you’ve got most of the music of your song worked out, you can then work out the lyric in a second stage of writing.
The benefit to working this way is that you’ll find the lyric will partner better with the musical meaning indicated by the musical choices you’ve made. You might find, for example, that the music sounds emotional or sad, and then you can direct your lyric choices to enhance that apparent musical meaning.
It’s up to you how far along in the songwriting process you get before you decide to work out a lyric. You might find that those beginning stages of writing will make it obvious what the mood of the song is going to be, and you can get started pretty much right away working out a lyric.
But it’s also very possible to get most of your song working as an instrumental, play it through a few times, and then work out your lyric as a final stage. Those kinds of decisions are really up to you.
But in any case, don’t let the absence of a topic or lyric keep you from getting your next song started. Let the music you improvise tell you what the song is going to be about.
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