Who Should Read This Article About Song Writing Process?
This article is for all those songwriters who either don’t use a formal song writing process, or the song writing process that they are using is not quite working for them. If your songs aren’t as popular as you would like, if they are not connecting as you would hope, they are being misunderstood, or you are finding that many of your songs are never completed, or that the standard of your songs varies greatly, this is the article for you.
This article discusses the use of song writing phases to enhance the quality of your work and the speed that each work is created. It also provides tips on song writing process, observations and suggestions about writing key aspects of a song, information to help both nurture and focus your creativity, and help towards finishing more songs to a higher standard without losing the benefits your creativity has brought to the song.
Motivation For Using A Song Writing Process
There are many ways to write a song, almost as many ways as there are songwriters. Some song writers follow a formal or semi-formal process, but most songwriters tend to work in an random, ad hoc way. It probably comes as no surprise, but having such an unpredictable method of writing songs leads to less perdictable results, with more variation in the standard of the songs, and less songs being fit for purpose. While there is no correct way to write a great song, there are techniques that consistantly work, and using a process will increase the number of songs that you start that make it through to being finished songs, that you are proud to represent you to the rest of the world.
There are many factors that contribute to the success of a song. Not everything is within the scope of the songwriter, but the foundation of a successful song, is the song itself. It is the one part of the process of taking a song from an idea to being a successful it song that is completely under the control of the songwriter. True, there are songs that achieve a degree of success due in the main part to marketing and hype, plus large numbers of fans for an existing artist performing that song, but such success tends to be short lived. There are always exceptions.
Listeners care about the end result. They don't care if the writer grew trees and re-invented paper and ink to do it. Nor do they care whether you used a rhyming dictionary, or if you prefer to sweat as you try and pull words from the vocabulary stored in your head. What has been repeatedly demonstrated is that they care about music that moves them, that they connect to. Songs that can mean something to them, the listener. Some listeners do want to think the song meant something to the writer, but most don't hold that as a strong opinion. They want to be entertained and engaged.
They also want to share the music they like with others with similar tastes as a validation and ego boost if nothing else.
The Drawbacks Of Not Using a Song Writing Process
Writing ad hoc, with no process, doesn't help you organize your thoughts. It also doesn't help you to focus on all the elements and perspectives that give a song polish and longevity.
The myth about using a song writing process is that somehow by using one your songs lack emotion and honesty, that they are not genuine and the songwriter was motivated by reasons beyond creating good songs. That somehow a song created with a process is tainted. Such feelings show a lack of understanding that all writers employ creativity in one way or another, but creativity is a process. The difference here is whether you use an informal process or apply a formal process to your writing to aid creativity, to help you improve the quality of your work, and the speed you work at, and, importantly, to help you improve your songwriting skills over time. If you are serious about your song writing then you will care about the quality of your work, and care that you improve over time. To achieve those things, amongst others, you have to care about the process of creating a song, be prepared to look at your working practices and improve them, and learn to look at your work objectively.
We use informal methods to do things all the time. It is second nature and ingrained in most things we do. However it takes effort and discipline to use a formal process.
At first using a formal process can feel awkward or alien, but by using it over and over you will quickly find that you become familiar with it, you will work much faster, much more efficiently and with more accuracy.
The standard of your songs will improve at a faster rate and the depth and breadth of your song writing skills will also improve at a faster rate than with informal methods alone.
True, not all processes are equal. There are good ones, and bad ones, and processes that kill creativity and processes that support creativity. Some processes will suit you as an individual, others will not.
The method outlined in this article is straightforward. It leaves plenty of room to use informal methodologies, in fact it embraces them.
So the only real drawback is the effort it takes to implement the process and improve that process over time. Like anything you repeat, by far the most part of that effort is in using it the first time. After that it comes down to having the discipline to keep using it. As time passes the results speak for themselves until using and adapting the process becomes second nature and almost effortless.
Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.
Some Of The Benefits Of A Song Writing Process
Using a song writing process makes writing a song easier and more effective.
In using some flexibility in your song writing process, you can use just as much, if not more, creativity in your song writing. Write songs your fans will enjoy, because from the start of the process you write with them in mind as your listeners. This is no different to having a conversation with a stranger versus having a conversation with someone you know.
The trick is to use a process that helps the writer be creative in the way that works for them, while building in aspects that helps the writer both broaden and focus their creativity as needed, gives a framework for working, helps them look at their song from a number of perspectives, helps them polish their song to be the best it can be, helps them avoid writer's block, reduces the number of unfinished songs and songs not fit for purpose, and ultimately helps the writer achieve the aims for any individual song.
So why not use a process to help you work more efficiently? There is nothing to be lost and a whole lot to gain.
A Draft Song Writing Process
Phases Of Songwriting
It is a good idea to develop more than one phase in your song writing process. Unless you are focusing on specific parts of the process as a LEARNING EXERCISE ONLY, the aim is to write complete, quality songs, with a minimum number being shelved marked as incomplete or dumped in the trash as a poor idea.
Getting the benefits of a process for song writing doesn't have to be complicated. It doesn't mean less creativity is involved, or that less genuine emotion is expressed, or that somehow it is less authentic. It simply means that you have organized your thoughts and the order in which you do things.
Using song writing phases can really help you get the best of both worlds: the "in-the-moment" authenticity; songs that are finished more quickly and of a higher standard. By introducinging simle phases it allows us to more easily create the song we want to write, instead of the song that appears after some more or less random evolution.
Can a song randomly evolve be successful? Of course it can, but it is a less dependable outcome than songs written using a song writing process.
Core Song Writing Phases
- The Ideas Phase
- The Draft Phase
- The Development Phase
The Ideas Phase
Effectively Capture Your Ideas
How many tunes, hooks phrases, titles, and lyrics do you think are lost each year simply because we forget them? A fleeting idea crosses our mind, the moment passes and the idea is probably lost.
It's easy to under estimate just how useful being able to instantly capture an idea can be, or to over estimate how well we remember the ideas we come up with through each day.
If you don't have a mobile recording device then it's time to go get something you can use for mobile recording. Something you can take with you everywhere you go. A modern smart phone is an ideal recording device for both audio recordings, and written lyrics.
Collecting Melodies and Lyrics Ideas
You can write a good melody while walking about, driving, in the shower, while you make food. At almost any time.
Keep your recorder with you at all times, or at least handy (don't take your recorder into your shower! Not much of a surprise but water and recording gear do not go together.). Whenever you come up with a melody, record it as soon as possible.
The same goes for lyrics, titles and hooks. Either keep a notepad with you, or get a notepad app for your phone. When a line comes to you, write it down as quickly as possible, simply as a collection of individual lines and phrases.
This will give you a growing collection of melodies and lines of lyrics, titles and hooks.
The Draft Phase
It is during the draft phrase that you best capture raw emotion in songs. I would encourage the use of any tools which help you get into a flow, generate new ideas to supplement ideas you have when you start the drafting process etc.
Drafting is an essential step, but it is not the final step. Often stopping after the draft phase is an excuse by songwriters who have shiney object syndrom, forever wanting to churn out songs, always wanting to move quickly to the next idea, leaving a large number of songs unfinished.
Drafting and Developing Your Melody
When writing melodies it is a good idea to connect melodies with emotion. You might start with a short riff that suggests an emotion and take it from there, or you might start from the outset feeling that emotion before writing a note. Let the emotion and your ear guide you.
If you start from a riff, emotionally, what does it suggest to you? Is it happy? Sad? Angry? Sexy? Whatever it is, get in that emotional zone. If it's got a sad feel, think of things that make you feel sad. Being in that emotional place while writing a melody can have a profound impact when that melody eventually gets played to a listener. Very quickly your melody establishes the mood of the song, or section of the song. By reflecting how you felt at the time of writing, listeners will far more easily connect to the song and feel something close to what you felt when you wrote the song.
As you develop the melody, try to do some rudimentary song structure development. By that I mean, try and identify a good chorus melody, a good verse melody, and a good bridge melody. Try placing them in an order that supports the mood of the song. These are all DRAFT melodies for a song. Hopefully they will have a good emotional connection, precisely because you wrote the piece in that state of mind, using emotion evoked by the melodies and melodies fed by the emotion.
Emotion And Your Song
It is a good idea to take the listener on an emotional journey. Songwriters achieve this, intentionally or not, by varying the mood and the intensity of emotions as the song progresses. The exact combination and order of emotions varies according to topic and writer, but there are some characteristics that are common to many successful songs and other pieces of music:
Base your melodies on fairly strongly felt emotions to extremely strongly felt emotions. Wishy-washy emotions become too vague and confusing
At it's simplest think of each section of music as having a distinct emotion. For example, a song about thinking back on sad circumstances and learning from what happened might plan to have the background story from the past delivered during the verses, a chorus that makes a thoughtful and hopeful comment on the verse set in the present, and a bridge that puts them in perspective by connecting them with perhaps a revelation that helped turn a sad event into something hopeful.
The verse melody may well overall evoke a strong sad emotion. The chorus might be more thoughtful and hopeful in nature, while the bridge is more unexpected, more surprising, containing some sad and some upbeat tones.
That could be translated into smooth and flowing passages, almost painful resolutions with most of the melody being within a short range of notes, the use of cadence or half-cadence in the chords, faster flowing melodies in the chorus with the melody covering a wider range of notes, while the bridge could contain larger transitions.
Moving on from there and developing the melody, we first arrange the melodic sections in some song form, for example ABC (verse-chorus-bridge) derived as a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge chorus, chorus layout. If we then replace each section with the emotion felt during the corresponding section we can visualize the emotional basic dynamic of the song.
Changing Emotional Intensity and Energy
Building on that we can evolve the melody and harmony in such a way as to vary the energy and intensity of the emotion as we travel through the song.
Yet again here there are common trends in songs:
- Songs generally build energy and intensity as the song progresses.
- Songs generally go from lower pitches and tones, to higher pitches and tones as the song progresses.
- Often there is a step up in energy and emotional intensity when the chorus starts.
- Usually there is a step down in energy and intensity when leaving a chorus. If the transition is to a bridge this may not be the case.
For more discussion about this please read our article "Keeping A Song Interesting"
Drafting Titles and Hooks
Take a look at your draft titles and draft hooks while still in that emotional space. Preferrably fresh after working on the melodies.
Do any of the titles or hooks work with the emotion of the song? If not, time to brainstorm some more titles and hooks. What is important?
- Something that has a meter that reflects the chorus melody
- It should contain an emotive word or phrase about how you feel (when in the song).
- It should be memorable
- It shouldn't reveal exactly what the song is about. Keep an air of mystery.
- Pose a question in the listeners mind that they can only answer by listening to the song. This can be done in many ways. For example,
- Make the hook a question.
- Make a statemet that infers a question
- Make an ambiguous but emotive statement
So by now you have a draft title and main hook that works with the melody. You have a draft verse melody and a draft chorus melody.
The trick is, not to be precious with your work so far. It is only a draft. Be prepared to make the changes necessary to make the song work.
Drafting A Chorus
Now, write a draft chorus, using your title / hook. This may mean times where the meter of the lyrics does not exactly work with the draft melody. Luckily all your work so far is draft.
Generally, melody wins the day. Only change the melody IF the meter from your draft lyrics will enhance your melody and stay true to the emotion. Yet again it is a good idea to be in that emotional place when you write the chorus.
IF your lyrics change the melody, go back to the melody and check it in isolation.... ie with no words. Try and see if the new meter will create a melody that still contains the raw emotion.
If the existing melody is string, then you need to re-think your words.
Your Chorus should deliver the main message of your song for the strongest delivery of the message.
Drafting Verses and Bridges
Once you nail a DRAFT chorus, start on the verse. This is the part of the song where you ideally want to deliver the story, the setting, the backdrop... it's where you ellaborate on the theme of your song. Your theme is just that... I can tell a sad story in many ways, set in different situations etc. Your verse is where you have all that... it should:
- Not blow your entire story line in the first verse.
- It shouldn't answer any questions posed in the title.
- In early verses, pose some questions in the mind of the listener, either directly or indirectly.
- In the last verse, or bridge lyrics, that is when you answer any of the bigger questions. Sometimes it can be good to leave a little ambiguity.
It is this leaving unanswered questions in the earlier part of the song that helps draw listeners through the song, makes them want to hear more, so they can understand the song.
The Last Verse Or The Bridge
The last verse or bridge is where you make sense of the song. It works really well when it reveals the key fact, adjusts the previously understood chorus (a twist), or it connects seemingly unconnected verses with the chorus. In ballads the last verse usually completes the story.
The Development Phase
Now you have a draft song. Don't leave it there. Editing is a skill. It's the one facet of songwriting that really focuses you on the quality of your work. Editing is a cycle. Go around it several times.
It is a sad excuse that simply by looking to improve a song by editing that, somehow, the integrity of the song is undermined. Editing is about making a song be the best it can be, to ensure that any emotion and message are delivered with maximum impact.
Ask questions of your lyrics and melodies. For example:
- Do they logically and emotionally flow?
- Do they make sense?
- Do they convey strong emotion? (Strong being the best for a strong connection with the listener).
Editing and Quality
It is during the edit process that you really focus on improving the quality of the song. It is you, the song writer, that sets the level of quality of your work, no one else. The edit process is the final gate, or should be, on deciding a song is fit for purpose.
Don't skimp on your edits. Why? Because people do notice when a song isn't quite working. Even when you get passed obvious stuff. As listeners they may not know why it doesn't work as well as it should, if you know them they may know but don't want to upset you, but they will know when a song doesn't come up to the mark.
For song writers, setting a high standard for their work is very important. Getting a good, balanced perspective on their own work to really set the bar high is not straightforward. Why? Attachment. Writers get attached to their work to the extent that they struggle to get any sort of perspective on their work other than their own, inherant perspective.
The more commercial a writer you are, the earlier in the song writing process you are likely to consider elements like your target audience and the perspective of listeners. At a minimum these elements should be considered during your edit cycle.
Go around an edit cycle a few times to hone the song to be it's very best. A bit of polish goes a long way. It is far better to have fewer songs of high quality than 100 songs of an okay quality.
Editing is strongly tied to the critique process.
- Critique what you have (either yourself or other songwriters)
- Consider Solutions
- Make the changes YOU think are needed to enhance the song.
Try to think about your song from the perspective of a variety of listeners.
Try NOT to be too restrictive on changes. You can always go back. Just remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Songwriters, especially those who have less experience, are often too tied to what they already have. For example, during the ideas or draft phase you write what you think is an excellent / interesting melody or lyrics. That may even spark the draft song into being a song in the first place. However as the song grows into a fuller song that melody or line might no longer fit with the rest of the song quite as well as it should. At this point the fact that the songwriter is strongly attached to the genious of that one line, and so avoid making a change that the song really needs, all because of their own attachment to that one bit of melody or line of lyrics.
It's better to make the change and at least try to get something that works with the song. The only real other alternatives are:
- Re-write the rest of the song to be more in-keeping with the line you cherish
- Leave it not quite fitting the song as well as it should.
Perhaps the line can be tweaked, but if it needs a complete re-write of the line, you could always try using that line in another song!
Nothing ends up in the trash. Ideas that aren't used just end up back in your ideas bank, ready to be used somewhere else.
It is a good idea to go around an edit cycle at least once before seeking critique, if only to help improve your critique skills when it comes to your own music, but it is also useful to develop your ability to be less invested in your lyrics being a set way. The less invested you are, the less tied you are to a particular line or a particular phrasing, the more you will be prepared to do during edits to improve your song.
To get critique, post your songs to the Songstuff Community boards, or perhaps you know people who could offer critique? Go around the edit cycle a couple of times using critique in each cycle.
The beauty about giving critique to other songwriters about their songs is that you truly develop your ability to critique your own work, by allowing you to improve your critique and editing skills WITHOUT being attached to the work you are critiquing! It lets improve your level of observation, the depth and detail of analysis, jusge how appropriate your solutions are and helps you get better at saying to yourself "make the edit and try out the change".
It also helps you to develop your ability to shift perspective, precisely because you are not attached to the work you are looking at.
To be good at giving critique (especially on your own work) you have to look at your work from different perspectives while going through an Observation, Analysis and Solution Finding cycle for each perspective, or at the very least to consider your solutions from different perspectives.
It is these points that make giving critique as valuable to songwriters as gold dust is to a pan handler.
It takes time to develop good skills in giving critique. Critique is NOT a verdict. It is a discussion, and in that discussion you are as likely to encounter new thoughts and ideas, new rationales and skills from genres you are not a master of, drawing on the experience of all those involved in the discussion, as you are to finding out why suggested solutions might not work before you go spend time trying them.
The point is to help the other songwriter on one level, but far more to the point, it helps you, the songwriter, improve your own works.
Do I have to give critique on the work of other songwriters?
The short answer is no. If anything, this article should at least reduce some of the fear or disdain that some songwriters feel towards using a song writing process, and hopefully it allows you to make a more imformed choice. If you choose not to use a song writing process, it is your loss. A big loss at that.
Is Your Song Fit For Release?
Ultimately you are the one who decides what goes out the door. Each song potentially represents you on a world stage. That means it is up to YOU just how seriously people take your music. If they don't take your work seriously, be they listeners, or other songwriters, musicians and bands, or publishers, labels and production houses... it is down to YOU.
Using a song writing process is not simply to help you to make decisions. It is to help you make informed decisions. Understanding helps you to operate at a higher level. Learn to work quickly AND effectively.
Using the draft process, outlined above, you can begin to work with the core elements of the process, and have some ideas as to how you can evolve the basic process to completely fit with you the songwriter.
In using a song writing process there is nothing to lose, and everything to be gained.
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