If you’re a bit new to songwriting, there’s probably at least two things you’ve noticed already:
- Your first few songs may have come together quickly, and this is exciting.
- Your next few songs took hard work, and this is discouraging.
- Today, you don’t even know where to start.
And because you don’t know where to start, an alarming thought is starting to invade your mind: maybe you’ve only got two or three songs in you. Maybe you aren’t really a songwriter after all.
Accepting that frightening thought can be the end of the creative process for many. Thinking that maybe you’ve just been a pretender — a victim of imposter syndrome — usually leads quickly to a severe form of writer’s block that’s hard to recover from.
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For some reason, songwriters often take that feeling of not knowing where to start, and interpret it as “I have no good ideas.” If this describes you, take this advice: slow down, take a deep breath and relax. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a head that’s clear enough to address this problem.
The Creative Process
All good songs start with one good idea. From that idea, other ideas get added. As you add ideas, you feel an excitement brewing. That excitement is what we typically call inspiration. And it acts as the fuel to keep you creating more ideas, gluing it all together until you have a finished song.
If you don’t know where to start, there are two possible reasons:
- You haven’t taken the time to create a musical idea in the first place, or
- You’ve got an idea, but you don’t know where it fits in a song.
The short answer to “Where do I start?” in the writing of a song is “Anywhere you’d like… just create an idea as a first step.”
That idea might be:
- A catchy chorus hook, or even just a fragment of one — a bit of melody with a couple of supporting chords underneath, and a catchy backing rhythm.
- A line of lyric.
- An enticing bit that might be a song intro.
- A chord progression with a rhythmic treatment.
- A fragment of melody.
- …or anything!
At this point, you may have nothing else, and that’s completely fine. You’ve got one thing. That’s good.
You may have no idea where this idea will wind up. But you’ve got that one snippet of music. You keep asking yourself “Where do I start?”, and the answer is: right there. That’s your start.
So what do you do with a musical idea when you’ve got nothing else? Try the following and see where they lead:
- Play it over and over, again and again. If you find yourself changing your fragment, let it change. If you find that your musical mind is inventing something to go with it… an “answering” chord progression, or perhaps a melody to go on top of the chords you’ve been vamping, let it happen.
- Try to identify where in a song your idea might go. Does it feel like a chorus hook? Maybe you thought it was, but perhaps it’s a better start to a verse.
- If your fragment is a melody or chord progression, move it up or down in pitch. What does it sound like when you’re singing at the top of your range? Near the bottom? In the middle?
- Add to your fragment. Does it work to add something to the front? To the end? Does it sound good when you repeat it? What about repeating it a tone higher, or a tone lower? Adding to your original musical idea helps create the inspiration that keeps you going.
- Toss out what doesn’t work, and replace it with something else. Remember, not every idea you come up with will work. If you start joining ideas together and it doesn’t sound right, try to identify the part that isn’t working, keep the bit(s) that work, toss the ones that don’t, and keep creating.
The First Step
So the first step in knowing where to start in the songwriting process not to ask that question. The first step is to write something. Don’t worry about where it will go, or even how good it is. You may wind up changing it completely, and that’s fine. But at least you have something.
Once you’ve got something, let your creative mind tell you what to do to it to expand on it. And once you’ve done that, how it fits into your new song becomes much easier to identify.
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