Writing a song is a fulfilling accomplishment but it can be tricky to know where to start. Here are my 6 tips to getting past that initial hump and diving into songwriting
1. Have something to say
The most important thing I've learned in my years of songwriting is that if you don't have something to say you won't be able to write a song. Even if it is a simple pop song with ten words, you've got to know what you're trying to convey. Figure out the exact message you want to convey to your audience. It doesn't have to be complicated but it does have to exist. It could simply be a song that says, "I love you." That's great! It can also be as complex as you want. It could deal with a political or social issue; it could be about a tough decision someone has to make. As long as you know exactly what you want to say the song will start to come into being. One trick I like to use is to write what the song is about at the top of a piece of paper. I keep a lyric notebook so I'll write it at the top of one of those pages. Then I'll start writing the first thing that comes to my mind in the context of that idea. Having the main point of your song written at the top of your page keeps you and your song on track. If you come back to it another day, you will remember exactly what you wanted to say with the song. If you're stuck on how to start or what comes next, make sure you have something to say!
2. Have someone to say it to
Almost as important as having something to say, you want to have someone to say it to. You want to specify your audience. It could be someone you love, someone you hate, a group of people or even about someone to a confidant. What's great about this add-on element of what you're saying, is that it starts to get you thinking in the sense of a dialogue. When writing for musical theatre this is very important because we want the songs to be an extension of the character's dialogue to begin with. But even with pop music or any other style, having the mindset of writing dialogue becomes much easier than writing lyrics to a song. What do you want to say to the person and how are you going to phrase it depending on who they are and your relationship? I've started writing songs without thinking about this question and I'll have a lot of trouble. I know exactly what I want to say but I can't seem to figure out the structure or phrasing. When I remember to ask myself who I'm talking to, I mull over some options and I always find one that excites me and gets my pen moving. Have something to say, but also have someone to say it to!
3. Play with musicality and style
One of the best things about writing a song is that you have so many elements to play with when it comes to conveying your idea. Lyrics are one thing, but when you start to explore tempo and dynamics and contrasting textures and everything else that comes bundled up with music, your possibilities become endless. Now this can seem daunting at first with so many different ingredients to play with, but if you know what you want to say you can filter them down to a much more manageable level. Many times I'll find myself writing the same song over and over. My hands fall to familiar chords and I rock out to the same groove. I get frustrated because I want to create something new but don't know how to go against my natural tendencies. When this happens I step back and think about how I'm playing the song. I'm only using block chords, or the same suspensions, or my left hand is just pounding the tonic, or I'm strumming in my typical pattern. I pick one of these elements and I switch it up. I'll try different textures or qualities to the chords. I'll pick up or slow down the tempo. I'll play with a counterpoint melody in the bass line. Anything to radically alter my initial tendency. As I do this I always start to hear the song differently. Because I'm approaching the music from a different angle it starts to affect other elements as well. If I slow down the tempo it might give me a different groove and pull out a funky bass line. If I try new qualities within the chords it might affect the vocal line and how it lays on top of the accompaniment. This domino affect will soon start to take over the song and give you something completely new. So whether you're starting to write a new song or looking back over old ones, start to pick and choose elements of musicality and style that you can play with.
4. Start anywhere
Starting a song is always the hardest step. What's the first chord? What's the first lyric? What does the melody sound like? All of these questions can halt creativity and turn you off to writing the song. I personally will play a progression over and over trying to come of with the first lyrics and eventually give up. Sometimes I find it later, other times the song slowly drifts out of my mind and dies. What's important to remember though is that songwriting is an open-ended process. You don't have to start at the beginning or commit to the first thing you come up with. The important part is to just start... anywhere. Many times I'll have a melody in my head that I try to start a song with but it just doesn't sound right. After playing and listening to it for a while, I'll realize that it didn't work for me because it was the chorus or the bridge to the song. When I sense the best spot for it the rest of the song opens up and I can structure it from there. What I've learned over time is that you won't always know how a song starts or ends or what happens in the middle when you begin writing. It's impossible! The trick is to stay open though. Find what is clicking for you and run with that. Play around with what it might lead into, or what happened just before it. Don't allow gaps to stop you from creating. Keep trying things and let the song build itself. Start anywhere!
When writing music there are many times when I forget to listen, in several ways. Sometimes I'll forget to listen to what I'm playing. I'm so focused on pushing through the song or laying down the ground work that I don't stop to hear what the song sounds like. It's an odd skill to develop but important. You have to separate yourself from the music and listen to it with an unbiased ear. Ask yourself, "Does this sound good? Is this something I would listen to?" Often times you will find yourself being too complicated with your message. There are too many chords or lyrics that you are trying to jam into every moment. The song just becomes sound. You have to think about someone listening to the music for the first time. Don't bombard them; allow them to digest the song. On the other hand, don't be too hard on yourself. You might hear all the tiny nuances that aren't perfect but that's because you wrote the song. Someone listening to it for the first time is not going to be paying attention to a missed note; they haven't heard the song before! Listen to yourself.
The other part of listening for writing a song is listening to other music. This might sound obvious but it is something that can be so easily forgotten if you get wrapped up in a project. Listen to all kinds of music. Listen to the stuff you like and explore within that genre or style. But then find something the complete opposite. Live with it for a little while and see how it affects your songwriting. You'll be amazed by how much a shift in your listening can change your writing. The more diverse your ear is the more depth your music will have. Listen!
6. Give it time
Songwriting is not quick process. If you could write a hit song every hour on the hour you wouldn't be reading this post because you'd be off in Hawaii cashing in your royalty checks. Songwriting takes time. You may finish a song in one sitting but that doesn't mean it is complete. You have to step away from it, sleep on it and then test it out again. Sometimes the song is still as great as you remember it. Many times though you wonder who wrote that terrible piece of garbage. Music sweeps us up in the moment. Writing a song has the same affect. You may start on a roll and get swept away in the process thinking each word you scribble down is a master piece. The problem is that the moment fades and many times you're left with incoherent ideas that look like they're out of a dream journal. That's okay though. That's how you learn. I've started to notice when I get caught up in the thrill of the moment and I try to step back immediately. I reread what I've written and make sure I'm not veering off course. If I am, I find a way to hop back on. (I'll look at my main idea at the top of my page!) Now I'm not saying that's the key to writing a song quickly, but it does help you from doing major edits later on. One of the most important things I've learned through writing songs is to be patient. Don't push the song and don't get swept up in the cotton candy-like high it can give you. Let it arise naturally. Write. Sleep. Repeat. Give it time.
I hope these 6 tips will help you write your next song! Whether you've written songs before or are just starting, it's important to remember why you want to write music in the first place. That impulse and that root of passion will help you over any obstacle you face when writing your song. So use these tips, think out of the box, and start writing!