How do you guys write songs?

cantstoplt021

Member
Messages
1,217
So I want to start writing my own songs and I've tried to a bunch, but I don't really get anywhere. How do you experienced songwriters approach writing a new song? Do you start with lyrics first and then try to write music to it or do you start with music and then go to lyrics? Both?

For the music part of this what is your general strategy? Chord progression first and then melody? Vise versa? I really have no idea where to begin. I think it would be easier to start songwriting with a nice strumming song, but even then I have a hard time coming up with a cool chord progression or building off of one. I know the key signatures so I know what chords fit in a key, but beyond that I don't know how else to spice up the chord progression. For example one thing that I came up with recently was Dm7-Am7-FMaj7- Cmaj7 where I pick the bass note and then the upper three strings. I think it sounds cool, but I have no idea where to go from there. I just have a static, kind of boring chord progression.

Is there any harmonic theory lessons online that you could lead me to? So I could learn more about harmonic theory in relation to song writing?

Any other tips? What do you guys do?
 

JonR

Member
Messages
15,132
I don't tend to start with any strategy. My songs usually start with a phrase, often both melody and lyrics, and that itself might begin from an overall idea, a theme for the song, something for it to be about.
But sometimes I just find myself humming something. It might come from another song I just heard, but I'll feel that song doesn't take the tune the way I think it could go. So I'll adapt it, edit it.
Once I get a phrase that feels strong and singable, wherever it comes from - a hook - then I know I've got something I can develop and work from. It's like a seed, that then needs to germinate.
I find the notes of the phrase (humming to guitar, or trial and error on guitar), and usually a chord or two to go with it. I experiment with different chords, because any melodic phrase will usually fit more than one chord, and the best chord will enhance and support the phrase.

The chord(s) and phrase notes will usually suggest a key, and I know enough theory to know what other notes and chords "belong". But I try to forget all that and just follow my ear - imagining, humming, or feeling, what note the next phrase ought to start on, or what shape the phrase ought to have (as a follow-on from my "seed" phrase).

Musically, I don't have too many problems putting tunes and chords together, it's always the lyrics that are hardest. I'm quite fussy about how they scan and rhyme, and always try to avoid cliche. I want phrases that look sensible on the page, are grammatically correct, preferably colloquial, but still feel comfortable and natural to sing, and don't sound as if they've been jammed into the melody. I also like puns and wordplay (Elvis Costello-style), although they don't have a place in every song. Making it feel "natural" often requires weeks or months of chipping away and re-writing. Sometimes I come back to a song years later and tweak it some more - not expanding it, but refining it, trying to purify its essence.

In fact, the main difficulty I have is keeping songs simple. They often end up with too many chords, or one bridge too many. I'm in total awe of folk like Dylan and Neil Young, who can make masterpieces out of 3 or 4 chords, and a couple of simple melodic phrases. ("Helpless" is a case in point: one 2-bar melodic phrase, 3 chords; over and over, with minimal variations. Genius. Dylan copied it for "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", but even he couldn't resist adding a 4th chord.)

In short, you need a MELODY to start with. You need that seed, that spark of an idea. Just noodling around with chords is unlikely to get you anywhere, because any chord can go to just about any other chord; a 100 things can sound equally good. How do you choose your direction? A melody - even a short 4 or 5-note phrase - is what you need to point the way.

Start with a chord or two by all means, but sing or hum to it (you don't need words to start with) until you find a phrase that feels good to sing. If you can get some words to go with it, even better. Just allow the melody to lead you, try to feel where it wants to go, and don't impose chords on it. Chords are always secondary.

Remember a song is something you SING. You can't sing chords. Melody rules; chords support.
 

monty

Member
Messages
22,927
I'm a music first guy. Once I have that I feel the song out and get a melody and lyrics down.
You cant overthink this stuff or you'll stare at a piece of paper all night.
 

RLD

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
8,098
I write mostly instrumentals these days, but when I was doing "songs", i.e. music with lyrics I would often just scan written lyrics and ideas would come...as long as the lyrics were written well.
When I write "music first" I have in mind the genre I want and I imagine a band playing and a song will come to me.
Sometimes I will listen to just a snippet of a radio station, just a seconds worth of random music can be enough and your mind will fill in the missing parts.
I've had many writing sessions where I'll just hammer out 2-4 bar sections of ideas, record say 20 of them with a hand held recorder and save for future reference.
Even if you only get one idea from those 20 it can lead to a song.
Takes some practice but it's really about using your imagination and letting it do the work.
When you get stuck its good to have a little theory under your belt so you can find chords that fit.
 

Teal_66

Member
Messages
3,303
I've heard a lot of well known musicians (Michael Jackson, Joe Walsh) state that it's very important that the listener can hum the song/melody.

Randy Rhoads stated that what he would do would be to just record himself playing for extended periods of time, and within that - he would many times find something, maybe a quick phrase, or a few chords - anything. Then from that, a song would be built.

I use a looping pedal a lot to come up with ideas. It allows you to hear melodies and chords together, which can lead to many possibilities.
 

Nordberg

Member
Messages
198
I write music for a living and I have a journal I put down phrases and words I find when reading books and whatnot. Next to it I write the sort of mood I want it to be associated with. Then I go back later and try to think of "what does this title/phrase sound like when sung?". Then add more words. Worked pretty good so far.
It's fun to write music. Even the bad songs!
 

ZeyerGTR

Member
Messages
3,911
Sometimes I start with just a title, and then start playing until I find something that fits. Occasionally I'll have a few lines of a verse or chorus and work from there. Most of the time, though, I come up with a chord progression and groove I like, then find a melody, lyrics, chorus, bridge, intro, etc. The chords & groove set the feeling for the tune and everything flows from that. For whatever reason I rarely start with a melody first, especially if it's a vocal-based tune. My wife is an amazing singer, so I think I tend to let her rewrite the melody if it isn't strong enough.

The last couple years I've been working on instrumentals a lot, which has been really challenging for me, but it's been fun. Maybe it's been challenging because it's forcing me to work out good, strong melodies!
 

ari

Member
Messages
990
I don't tend to start with any strategy. My songs usually start with a phrase, often both melody and lyrics, and that itself might begin from an overall idea, a theme for the song, something for it to be about.
But sometimes I just find myself humming something. It might come from another song I just heard, but I'll feel that song doesn't take the tune the way I think it could go. So I'll adapt it, edit it.
Once I get a phrase that feels strong and singable, wherever it comes from - a hook - then I know I've got something I can develop and work from. It's like a seed, that then needs to germinate.
I find the notes of the phrase (humming to guitar, or trial and error on guitar), and usually a chord or two to go with it. I experiment with different chords, because any melodic phrase will usually fit more than one chord, and the best chord will enhance and support the phrase.

The chord(s) and phrase notes will usually suggest a key, and I know enough theory to know what other notes and chords "belong". But I try to forget all that and just follow my ear - imagining, humming, or feeling, what note the next phrase ought to start on, or what shape the phrase ought to have (as a follow-on from my "seed" phrase).

Musically, I don't have too many problems putting tunes and chords together, it's always the lyrics that are hardest. I'm quite fussy about how they scan and rhyme, and always try to avoid cliche. I want phrases that look sensible on the page, are grammatically correct, preferably colloquial, but still feel comfortable and natural to sing, and don't sound as if they've been jammed into the melody. I also like puns and wordplay (Elvis Costello-style), although they don't have a place in every song. Making it feel "natural" often requires weeks or months of chipping away and re-writing. Sometimes I come back to a song years later and tweak it some more - not expanding it, but refining it, trying to purify its essence.

In fact, the main difficulty I have is keeping songs simple. They often end up with too many chords, or one bridge too many. I'm in total awe of folk like Dylan and Neil Young, who can make masterpieces out of 3 or 4 chords, and a couple of simple melodic phrases. ("Helpless" is a case in point: one 2-bar melodic phrase, 3 chords; over and over, with minimal variations. Genius. Dylan copied it for "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", but even he couldn't resist adding a 4th chord.)

In short, you need a MELODY to start with. You need that seed, that spark of an idea. Just noodling around with chords is unlikely to get you anywhere, because any chord can go to just about any other chord; a 100 things can sound equally good. How do you choose your direction? A melody - even a short 4 or 5-note phrase - is what you need to point the way.

Start with a chord or two by all means, but sing or hum to it (you don't need words to start with) until you find a phrase that feels good to sing. If you can get some words to go with it, even better. Just allow the melody to lead you, try to feel where it wants to go, and don't impose chords on it. Chords are always secondary.

Remember a song is something you SING. You can't sing chords. Melody rules; chords support.
Jon, do you have your songs posted somewhere? I'd like to hear them. I have a lot in common with your approach to lyrics.


To OP, I've written songs in every process imaginable -- I can start with written words, a single melody that you stumble upon (in the shower, of course), or from a riff/chord progression when playing the guitar.

That said, I choose to start from guitar 90% of the time, mainly because I find it's the easiest way for me to write fresh sounding songs, because I'm primarily a guitar player. When I start with lyrics it's easy to write melodies from it, even if I start with just a melody it's cool -- but good, natural feeling melodies tend to fall on fairly conventional chord progressions (that's because they feel natural) and I find that while it's very challenging, interesting melodies happen when I try to write one on top of some unusual/fresh-sounding riffs/chords. It can easily result in terrible melodies, too, so it's definitely an art that I keep working on.

If you don't know where to begin, though, I recommend you get away from instruments and just imagine. Be clear in your mind that you intend to write a song and when you're in good mood (it never works when you're tired or crabby) just try to imagine a piece of a song, whether it's a riff or a melody or a catchy phrase. It's OK if you don't get the whole song in one setting, just a piece of it. Write/record/video it and from time to time pull it out and play with it, try to imagine what may come before/after. DO NOT WORRY if it sounds like a song you've heard before, especially when you're starting out. You have to learn to turn off the editor if you plan to create. Don't worry if it's good or bad, don't worry about ripping off somebody else -- just capture what comes to your head, tinker with it, see if you can get a verse/chorus pair together. Then you're like 75% of way to having a complete song.

Songwriting is a life-long pursuit, take it slow and have fun with it.

ari
 

derekd

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
43,969
I think of a mood first then find a melody and chord progress that fits it. Lyrics last.

I've not written much, but what I have penned, I've been pretty pleased with. I kick around the idea of writing all the time.
 

charliemccarter

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
429
i almost always write music first, then lyrics - like jon, i'm picky and will write & re-write a bunch - in fact, i'll come back months or years later & tweak a phrase just to move it to a spot that feels better - he's right about chords not lending themselves to melody as much as the other way around but it's how it works for me, which makes melody tougher - that being stated, i'm super proud of how my last record turned out, though those 8 songs came out of many more over the last decade - and keep in mind that writing bad songs helps you write good songs - i've got a lot of duds in my journal...but a few real gems of which i'm proud - just write, write, write, get out of the way, and then edit - your real test is if it feels up to snuff to your favorite writers - your second test is if it resonates with others...but trust your own judgement first - you know what good sounds like - happy creating!
 

charliemccarter

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
429
ps - there's a great book called "songwriters on songwriting" - de-myths a lot of stuff via interviews with great songwriters (i.e., people you know/love vs. unknowns) and also reaffirms that sometimes it just happens
 

LagunaMan

Member
Messages
614
I used to make a chord progression that sounded good then imagine an idea for a song and write the words as I'm trying to fit them into the progression. Lately however, I just play and start signing anything that comes to my mind and then try playing the same thing over but use different words that rhyme or that fit together better or smoother to match the tempo of the strumming/etc. I always imagine an old black guy sitting on a porch playing an old beatup guitar and singing what was in his heart to some blues music he's playing. So that is my approach lately :)
 

newb3fan

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
1,353
Jimmy Webb wrote a good book about songwriting. I had a nice hang with Jimmy earlier this year. Nice man and pretty decent songwriter.
http://www.amazon.com/Tunesmith-Inside-Songwriting-Jimmy-Webb/dp/0786884886
I just bought this book. Thanks for the link. I too am in a place where I've jotted ideas down in a journal and written a couple of songs but want to get into songwriting and composing much more heavily as I move toward my second career of full time musician (a.k.a. retirement :aok)
 

JonR

Member
Messages
15,132
Jon, do you have your songs posted somewhere? I'd like to hear them. I have a lot in common with your approach to lyrics.
I'm no singer (apart from yelling along with backing vox occasionally), and I haven't yet developed the courage to expose my vocals in public recordings. You can hear some of my compositions here, but none of them illustrate my approach to lyrics (although most illustrate my inability to keep things simple...):
https://myspace.com/jonpriley/music/songs (you need Chrome or Firedox; IE won't work)

The two vocals, Hearts Of Fire and Butterfly, are sung by Zoe Larks; we collaborated on the lyrics of both of them; they began as her ideas and I modified some of them to fit better, and added a few. The melody for Hearts of Fire is mostly hers, but the chords and arrangement are mine. The music for Butterfly is all mine.
Otherwise, all the other tracks are my compositions, with me on guitar (acoustic or electric).
01 and 03 are improvisations using traditional forms and changes.
02 is a free improvisation (unedited).
04 and 09 are live amateur jazz workshop recordings from a few years back (04 has a pro sax player on lead; I'm on bass on 09).
07 and 08 are midi tracks, with lead guitar(s) overdubbed.

Most of it seems way too mellow for comfort to me now... :(

Happy to give more details of writing processes for any of these if anyone's interested.

The other material I write tends to be more pop/rock-based - complete songs with lyrics - but most of it needs a better singer than me!
 
Messages
657
Jimmy Webb wrote a good book about songwriting. I had a nice hang with Jimmy earlier this year. Nice man and pretty decent songwriter.
http://www.amazon.com/Tunesmith-Inside-Songwriting-Jimmy-Webb/dp/0786884886
That's a really well done book, and he is well beyond a "pretty decent" songwriter ;). I also liked Jai Josefs' Writing Music For Hit Songs. It's like a book on harmony without 2/3 being dedicated to voice leading. http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Music...=1393871540&sr=8-1&keywords=writing+pop+music
 




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