Songwriting Methods

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The best way to learn to write songs is by writing songs. There is no other way. But how do you get started?

This is not an article that will tell you how to record music. I only deal with songwriting here. One very effective modern tool for songwriters is the multitrack recorder. One songwriting method I list in this article does incorporate the use of a multitrack recorder, but please don't mistake this for recording advice - for that you must look elsewhere.

I have three different methods I use to write my music. Each seems to produce a slightly different type of music from my ideas. For simplicity's sake, I gave names to each different method I use:

  • Woodshedding - Where I sit down with instrument in hand and attempt to write music outside the studio environment
  • Tinkering - Where I sit down with instrument in hand and attempt to write on-the-spot music in a recording session environment
  • Idea Dumping - Where I am struck with an idea in an inconvenient location and must preserve it for future use


Woodshedding is my way of saying one of two things to myself:

  • I've got a killer idea, and I'm going to turn it into a song, or,
  • I've got time to kill, and I'm going to use it coming up with a great idea from scratch.

My experience has so far been that the latter of these two options has never worked for me yet. Why do I keep doing it? I have no idea. Any time I sit down with my guitar with the intent of conceiving and writing a song from scratch, forcing myself to a state of inspiration, it has failed miserably. Why? Because inspiration doesn't heel on command, folks. (at least for me it doesn't) Writing a song this way is like trying to build a skyscraper from the top down. Oddly enough, I can usually produce something worthwhile spontaneously if I'm trying to compose while sitting in front of a multitrack recorder, but not if I'm using only my instrument and a pad of paper.

For me, inspiration comes when it comes. Every time I've forced myself to sit down and write a song from scratch, with no prior ideas to use, it has ended up sounding soulless and too-technical instead of imaginative and free-flowing. I keep trying to give up this bad habit, really I do, but once every blue moon, I find myself with an hour to spare and nothing to work on and decide to write music. This time would be better spent playing video games or learning origami, because I tell you, it ain't happening.

The only time I can sit down and hope to write a song is when I've got at least a slight idea of what it should sound like already. The idea will start out as a cool or annoying little snippet of rhythm or melody. It will drift around my thoughts like a dandelion seed on the wind, finally taking root in an accompanying part or beat, and that's usually when I can't stand listening to it in my head anymore and decide to give the song a proper birth. Or burial, being realistic - some ideas are just plain no good, and consequently deserve to die.

When you reach that point, take the phone off the hook and lock the front door, because it's time for you to sit down with your instrument and figure out how to play the song idea that you already have in your mind. DO NOT WATCH TV. Commercial jingles and background music will distract you immensely. And no key-cheating! If you have a good idea - keep it in the key you heard it in originally. Yes, guitarists, it's much easier to play in E or A, but you'll lose the feel of the original idea if you transpose it for playing ease - not that that's always a bad thing, just keep it in mind.

For the next part I find that, whenever possible, it helps to have a tape recorder - or modern digital equivalent - nearby. If using a recorder, take a moment to "jot" your idea down on tape, so you have an accompaniment for your songwriting session. It's time to either flesh out your original idea by continuing your musical phrase, or give your idea depth by coming up with the chords you'll need to carry your melody. What's that you say - "but my idea is a riff or chord progression, not a melody!" Well, then I suppose it's time to expand on that riff with either more of the same, or come up with a melody to ice that cake.

Unless rhythm is an especially vital part of the developing idea (see Paul Simon's song "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" for example) I typically save that for last. That's just personal preference, but I find that it's easier to change the phrasing of a guitar or bass melody part if the rhythm is not yet determined.

Notice that I have not yet mentioned lyrics. Notice, and ponder. If you think that having a set rhythm ties you to a particular phrasing in your guitar or bass melody, believe me, having your lyrics written beforehand does this to an even greater extent. The most convenient way of writing a song is to come up with the melody or riff first, supporting material second, rhythm third, and lastly, your lyrics.

Of course, inspiration doesn't necessarily strike in "the right order"! I'm sure many great songs were written with the lyrics first, but it seems to me that it's not only putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, but you are basically starting out with a snapshot of the song you'd like to write and are trying to work backwards to fill in the holes. Your phrasing (the way you play a particular piece - as in the difference in inflection, timing, or accenting between the similar phrases "bee BOP a LOO bop" instead of "B-B-B-BEE bop a loo BOP") will tend to sound more natural if you save the rhythm-specific parts such as lyrics or drumbeat until the end. Binding yourself to a rhythm like this can be similar to painting yourself into a corner - your strumming, or picking, or whatever, has nowhere to go when this happens; it's tied to a beat. But hey, there aren't any set rules to this art.


Writing music this way is like trying to build a stone wall. It's about finding the right pieces to fit the existing construction. The process for songwriting with this method is similar to woodshedding, except that I've found that it seems less important which element of the song you choose to work on first. As a matter of fact, I can think of several occasions where I've sat down with a drum and pounded out a rhythm, then went back to layer bass, then melody, then rhythm guitars. While this is much harder to do without the benefit of a multitrack recorder, when you are using a recorder it seems to be no problem.

The limitation of this method is in its linearity. In other words, you are trying to get from point A, the beginning of the song, to point B. When woodshedding, you have the ability to instantly start and stop writing on whichever part of the song you wish. When you're recording, you must start from a beginning of some sort. You can overcome this by keeping in mind that you can always cut and paste your ideas to different areas of the song later.

How do you start? Sitting in front of your multitrack recorder, trying to decide where to begin can be intimidating. It's like an artist staring at a blank canvas - the potential hugeness of the project and the realization of just how far you have yet to go can overwhelm you. With so many creative choices to make, where should you begin?

The simple answer is to begin with the first idea you've got. Noodle around with the instrument you've got handy until you find something you like. Next, figure out the timing of the piece by finding a matching tempo with your metronome. Yes, I said metronome - I don't recommend writing using this method without a good, solid click track. While it's no hindrance at first, the more tracks you add later, the more you're going to find that your creative timing is holding you back. ("gee, I'd really like to add this quick little guitar lick at the end of the verse, but it jumps to the chorus so quickly that I don't have time...") When you are able to play your first idea - let's assume it's a guitar riff, just for the sake of convenience - with a metronome, go ahead and record your first track, using the metronome.

The first track is always the hardest one. Once that's done, you've got an idea to work from. Start layering. One good way to come up with additional ideas is to loop a section of the track you just recorded, playing with or against the track over and over until you have come up with an idea that you like. Start layering your tracks like this, and you're on the road to songwriting success.

Idea Dumping

You are in your car, driving home from work. Inspiration hits you in the form of a perfect song idea. Maybe it's a set of lyrics, maybe it's a beat or riff, maybe all of the above - it doesn't matter. You know you have to save this idea somehow or it will be lost like a sand painting in a desert storm by the time you get to where you're going.

Enter the tape recorder. I cannot tell you how many ideas I've had that I was able to capture after I purchased a cheap little tape recorder from Radio Shack. It seems like my best ideas always come during my hour-long commute to and from work each day. I can't pull over and scribble down my ideas in pencil, as it would take me another half hour to get home. So I keep my tape recorder in the glove compartment. (Not during hot weather, though. That would be a good way to make melted plastic.)

You can save any type of musical idea on tape using only your voice, hands, and feet. You may, however, feel foolish doing so in public. If you have a lyrical idea, sing it into the recorder. Since you are singing the vocal lead, typically at the same time you are also subconsciously (or consciously, take your pick) selecting a key and tempo for the music to follow later. If you have a guitar idea - hum it, sing it, vocalize it somehow. Again, you are typically selecting a tempo and key when you do this. Don't worry, nobody has to hear it but you. Accompany yourself with a handclap metronome if you wish. If your idea is percussion-based use your voice, hands, and feet to vocalize, clap, and stomp your idea onto tape.

You don't have to be a perfect player to do this - using a tape recorder to record yourself is like drawing a rough sketch of a piece of art before you begin. The idea is to capture the idea itself, not to be a perfect player. Usually when I'm singing my ideas onto tape, most lines begin and end with "..uhhh..." or me clearing my throat or whatever. It doesn't matter. Just get the idea onto tape, take it home, and flesh out the idea into a full song.

Obviously, you also have paper and pencil available at most times, and these will allow you to jot down your idea as well. But for my money, unless I'm writing lyrics, I greatly prefer to use the tape recorder. I would recommend that every serious songwriter purchase one and keep it handy, with fresh batteries and tape ready.

In Conclusion

Using these methods, you should be able to write anything that pops into your head. It's tough at first, trying to teach yourself how to write music that you are proud of later. Nobody has the perfect, universal songwriting method. The best way to learn to write music is to write music, any music, and just keep going. It doesn't matter whether no one likes it but you, the important thing is that you are turning your idea into music. Even lame songs serve their purpose as learning experiences and developmental stepladders - we get better with every single song we write.

Remember, all music that has ever been produced uses the same 12 notes. An unwritten song is a blank canvas, and you can decorate it in any way you like. You are only limited by your available instruments, your musical preferences and goals, and your imagination. I'm no pro songwriter, but I love to write music, and I think I'm getting better at it every time I write. If you are ever stumped and need a fresh perspective, drop me a line on the message boards, I'll help you out if I can. Good luck with your songwriting!

"Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid." - Frank Zappa

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User-submitted comments

Feb 04, 2012 06:06 pm
Great songwriting tips!!
Just reading along and was so caught up into it that I hated to see the piece end.

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