Songwriting Road Map
At first glance, writing a song can seem like a big endeavor with a LOT of moving parts (literally!). I've worked with many beginning songwriters who have a lot of great ideas but don't have any idea how to turn those ideas into actual songs. One of my favorite things to do with beginning songwriters is to set them up with a really solid road map for creating their own songwriting process. Some artists prefer to start with lyrics and melody, while others leave lyrics until dead last. Every artist I’ve worked with ends up developing their own unique take on the songwriting process - this is ART after all.
*Side note: If you've been songwriting for a while now, sometimes it’s a good idea to change it up and try a different process. If your music is feeling stale or repetitive, or if you’re feeling lost in your process, here’s one of my go-to processes for songwriting:
Write a chord progression. This is the time to decide the tone of your song - is it a happy pop song that is going to make listeners dance? Is it a heavy breakup song that’s going to put listeners in their feels? Usually, when I write my chord progressions I write to my current mood and feelings. Once you lock into a feeling or a mood, I spend some time with the piano or guitar playing with chord progressions until I find something that really connects with the mood I’m trying to convey.
Once I’ve got a solid chord progression picked for the hook of my song, I record the chord progression into my DAW and start playing with synths and other instruments to add a couple more layers of sound to the hook. Once again, I’m filtering my choices through the lens of what kind of mood I’m trying to convey.
Once the hook has a couple of layers of instruments, I work on verses and pre-choruses. My first decision is how I want these sections to sound different from the hook. Sometimes that’s rearranging the chord progression, sometimes it’s changing the instrumentation, sometimes both! The main thing here to keep in mind is staying rooted in your hook. While the different sections should feel different, they still have to be connected enough to sound like the same song. I try to stick with the same basic chords in my hook, though I will often rearrange the order. Sometimes I might even add one or two new chords if they don’t change the feel too much. If I change the instrumentation, I try not to make it too random or different. Perhaps that cello line in the hook is a violin part in the verses, or you tweak the settings of a synth from hook to verse.
Now that you’ve got the verses, pre-choruses, and choruses roughed in, it’s time to start playing with a melody for your hook. There are MANY different ways to create your melody, and there’s no wrong way. Vocalists may prefer singing/humming gibberish until they lock into a catchy hook, while instrumentalists may prefer to play with melody on a keyboard. Whatever tools you use, the hook is the most important melody in your song. It’s the part that you want listeners to be humming to themselves after they listen. Taking time to get this dialed in is the difference between “nice song” and “omg I can’t get this song out of my head”. Take the time to get this part right.
Once you have a melody for your hook, it’s time to add melody to the other sections of your song. The key to the melody in the other sections is to create more contrast between the sections. If your hook is in the upper end of your vocal range, try to put the verses in a lower range. Look at what scale degrees you use in the hook and try to use the missing scale degrees in other sections of the song. Use the WHOLE scale over the course of the song to give your song a bigger, more complete feel.
Lyrics - now that you’ve got melody, it’s time to write lyrics. I could write an entire book on writing great lyrics in a song. The most important aspect of your lyrics is to keep in mind you’re telling a story in your song. Your hook should be the main idea of the story, for example in Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits”, the hook is “Nothin' happens aftеr two, it's true, it's true My bad habits lead to you” - the rest of the chorus and the verses are telling the story behind that statement - how his bad habits lead to this person. If we were writing school papers, the hook would be your thesis statement, and the rest of the song would be all the other parts of the paper. Take some time to get outside of the music of the song and really focus on the best way to tell the story. Then bring it back to the music and the melody and spend time figuring out how to tweak and massage the lyrics until they fit the music well. Once you’ve got the lyrics dialed in, it’s time to record your vocals into your DAW, and figure out any effects you want in your effects chain.
Now that you’ve got your vocals recorded in your DAW with the instrumentation, it’s time to make some decisions regarding the rest of the song - is there a bridge? How do you best bring this thing home? It’s also time to figure out your drums (if you want to use them and haven't added them yet).
Once you’ve got all the major pieces in place, it’s time to listen to the song as a whole so far and decide if there are any other finishing touches to make in the instrumentation. Is it too busy? Do you need to pull anything out? Are there any holes that need a little something to punch it up? Once again, try not to add a random instrument here - how can you use what you’ve already got in a new way?
At this point, you’ve nearly got a complete demo. All that’s left is mixing and bouncing your song. Ask a couple of trusted friends with good taste in music to take a listen and give feedback before you bounce it out and share it with the world!
Songwriting can be a really fun and fulfilling process when you have a clearly defined process for creating. If you’d like more personal feedback and coaching on your songwriting process, one on one songwriting lessons is an excellent way to hone your skills and build confidence in your songwriting. Send me an email or a DM to get started today!