One of the top songwriting questions is: Where do you start? Do you begin with a feeling? With lyrics? With music?
In reality, there are dozens of ways to write a song, and while many songwriters have one preferred method, trying different routes can help you cure writer’s block, vary your output, keep things interesting, and surprise yourself.
This 3-part post will cover 15 ways to write a song. Here are #1-5:
1. Take inspiration from a feeling, idea, concept, experience, etc.: This is probably the most common stereotype of how songs are written, but in reality it is probably the most difficult, because it require a genuine, relatable or interesting emotion about something (no wonder so many songs are about falling in love and breaking up!).
It’s also difficult because there’s no clear procedure to follow, and depends entirely on your personal experiences, events, feelings, and the state you are in when songwriting. That said, taking inspiration from something genuine and powerful and communicating it is arguably what makes most great music great, and songs without this quality are usually seen as contrived. It’s almost always used in conjunction with one or more of the other strategies.[Examples: “American Pie” by Don McLean, “The Sign” by Ace of Base, “Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre.]
2. Write lyrics first: Many singers, rappers (unless free-styling), and comedic or topical musicians start with lyrics and build music around the rest. Starting with well-crafted lyrics often increases their quality, and lessens the likelihood that a singer or rapper will use clichés and forced rhymes—but it’s often harder to write an original rhythm, melody or catchy hook after the lyrics.
Generally, it benefits the song when the lyrics are written with a set rhythm or rhyme scheme, but not always. Several albums of spoken word poetry have been put to music. Some songs start out as a group of lyrics, and then are developed simultaneously with the music.[Examples: “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix, “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles]
3. Accidents: A myriad of musical marvels have come from either screwing up or being surprised by the unexpected. Keith Richards claims there are no mistakes in music. By mixing up notes and times, or being in an unusual playing situation, you may stumble across a great idea that you can develop into a full song.[Examples: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard, “Cupid’s Chokehold” by Gym Class Heroes]
4. Imitate something non-musical: Several songs have been inspired by random sounds, or have started when a songwriter wanted to imitate something non-musical. Vivaldi and Akira Ifukube are two composers who used instruments to sound like thunder to convey storms, and bird to convey spring. The Bee Gees got the signature rhythm of “Jive Talkin'” from the sound their car made while driving over a causeway in Miami.
Inventive songwriters have imitated crying, explosions, vehicles, animals, engines, weather, and more. Imitating something is a good way to get things moving, and can make it easier to flesh a song out.[Examples: “Jive Talkin'” by The Bee Gees, “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi, “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls]
5. Playing in a new style or genre: If all you ever played were blues songs in A minor pentatonic, you’d eventually start repeating yourself. Many great songwriters have found fast inspiration from simply switching genres. The new rules of the genre—new rhythms, new scales, new melodies and harmonies—can open up a whole new world musically.
Occasionally bands do get flack for “betraying their sound”, but I’ve always thought this is ridiculous. A good song is a good song, and many fantastic bands only got their signature sound by this kind of experimentation. Try playing a genre you haven’t before, and see where it takes you.[Examples: “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” by Kiss, “Hella Good” by No Doubt]
Try experimenting with these techniques if you feel so inclined, and stay tuned for #6-15!