If you find that someone is able to write a complete song every few days, you might be tempted to think that there’s something magical about whatever process they’re using that helps them be so prolific.
But the truth is that good songwriting is rarely about whatever process a writer might have used to create their songs. “Process” is a word that is very well-known and much talked about in the world of songwriting, but the average non-songwriting listener will have never heard of the word in that context.
I studied musical composition in both my undergraduate and graduate-level schooling, and in all those years I never heard the word “process” mentioned even once. Every week I’d head off to my composition tutorial to show what I had written the previous week, but no instructor ever asked me, “What’s your process for this piece?”
So it seems to be a word that applies mainly to the writing of songs in the pop genres.
That’s not at all to say that talking about process is a waste of time. But it gets a lot more attention and reverence than it deserves.
Some songs you’ll start by strumming away at a few chords until a bit of melody pops into your mind, and you try out a few words or lines of lyric. For other songs, you might write a verse or two of words, get a general mood, and then work out some chords.
Or maybe you’ll start by working out a guitar solo, and then add words to it, and then experiment with different chords as a way to support the solo. Or maybe you’ll dial up a drum beat and improvise some musical ideas over that.
None of these methods of proceeding through the songwriting process is wrong or right. For every song you write, your process might be the same as the one you followed for your previous song, or it might be completely different.
I know where the fascination with process comes from: you’ve heard a great song, and you’re tempted to think that if you follow the same process that led to that song, you’ll be able to write a great song too.
But if I were to make a short list of the things that really matter in a song — things that make songs connect to listeners in a powerful way — that list would look something like this:
- The lyric uses words that are of the common, everyday variety.
- The lyrics connect with the average listener in an emotional kind of way.
- The emotional and musical energy of the song moves up and down as the song progresses.
- The chords support the notes of the melody.
- The progressions target one particular chord as being the tonic chord, and move away from and back to that chord.
- The instrumentation and production ideas all support the mood and intent of the song.
- The entire song feels like a musical journey, with a beginning, middle and end.
And that’s about all you can say about great songs with any certainty. How you get the job done can differ from one song to another. If that’s what we mean by process — HOW we get to the end product — then I’d say you may be worrying too much about your process.
I’d be very surprised if you or anyone uses the same process for every song. Whatever song element you give the most initial attention to (the lyrics, the melody, the chords, etc.) will probably wind up being the most important and relevant part of that song.
But when a song is finished, what really matters are those seven things listed above — the things that really matter. How you get those things to be true of your song matters less.
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