Most songwriting processes use improvisation to some degree. Early in the process, improvising can seem aimless and futile. There’s a good reason for that: the best songs are a partnership of ideas. And since you’re just starting, most of the ideas you and your bandmates are coming up with might not be communicating with each other. It all sounds like a mish-mash at first.
But eventually you’ll start to notice that little melodic bits are coming together. The chords start to change a little to support those initial melodic ideas, or vice versa, and a mood starts forming. And you’ll notice that the more things come together, the faster the process yields results.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
The problem is that this kind of random improvising can happen for a long time before you hear anything good happen. And in any one session you might not hear much of anything useful. Is there a way to make improvising a more productive time?
The ideas I’m going to suggest apply directly to group improvisation, but you can also use most of them for solo songwriting sessions.
Every band does things differently. In most cases, someone comes to the session with something they’ve started already, and then the improvising that occurs is meant to build on that original idea.
So if you and your band are improvising on an already-existing short idea, here are some tips to make better use of your time:
- Listen to other ideas as you improvise. Remember, you’re trying to create ideas that all communicate with each other. Let other ideas you hear influence what you’re doing.
- Stop once in a while. Constant playing with no verbal communication can slow down your process. Stop once in a while and talk it all out. Suggest different chords, different lyrics, even a different approach.
- Don’t get stuck in one tempo. Changing tempo has a huge impact on the mood and feel of a song, so it’s an important improvisational tool.
- Try to identify what part of the song you’re all currently working on. If it’s a chorus hook that you’re trying to write, remember that they tend to sit high in the singer’s voice, so you may need to suggest a higher key, or at least higher notes within the given key. If it’s a verse, you may want to consider a sparser more transparent instrumentation, with melodies that sit lower. Knowing what part of the song you’re working on can save a lot of time.
- Re-start the process for different song sections. Trying to do it all in one session may not offer great results. If you feel that you’ve done all you can with the chorus, leave it for the day, and then tackle the verse on a different day. Starting again on a different day allows you time to think between sessions.
- Record your sessions. Sometimes something good happens and you don’t even notice it. Or you do notice it, but by the time you stop to think about what it was that sounded so good, you’ve forgotten what it was. You should be recording all these sessions, and then you’ve got something to check if someone says “Oh, you did a really neat chord thing there, but I can’t remember what it was.”
In group improvisation, it’s important to not let egos get the best of the sessions. It’s not a competition, and if something you think is great is downplayed or rejected, let it go and keep working positively.
In the end, whether you’ve written a song by yourself, or done it as part of a full band improvisation, the best songs are going to be the ones where the ideas all communicate well with each other. Good songs, like good bands, is all about communication.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process,” along with a Study Guide. Learn how to make the writing of a good lyric the starting point for your own songwriting method.