#1 question at any house concert:
So, what’s your writing process? Like, how do you do it?
The short answer is, it’s a mystery. But here’s my process, in no particular order.
Get an idea.
Or receive an idea. Or be open to an idea. A song says something, so figure out what you want to say.
More directly, what is your song about? Is there a moment you want to capture, like that afternoon when the blind piano tuner came to your grandma’s house and you made a fort in the dining room so you could watch? Is there some emotion you need to express, like how pissed you are about how your dad left your family high and dry when you were 15 years old?
Figure out what your song is about. Be as clear as possible. It’s a common mistake to try to include too much in one song. Stay on point.
Write a bunch of freestyle, flowing, uninterrupted, on-and-on, blah-ditty-blah about all the ways you can see the subject of your song. Be descriptive. What does it look like, sound like, smell like? WHat time is it? What time of year? Is it sunny or rainy? Not all these details will become lyrics. In a few pages of mostly garbage, you’ll hit on a magic word or phrase.
Open up beyond your own words. Use a thersaurus. (Blind. Unsighted. Groping. Eyeless. Unseeing.) Google your topic. (“blind piano tuner, images“)
Don’t make assumptions. Step outside your person, even if the song is about you. Ask friends about the topic. “What do you think was going through my dad’s mind way back then?”
Keep at this. It may take longer than you think. I will often come back to this phase of my process when I get stuck writing. Make time for it. I’ve been moderately consistent with writing as a regular practice. I call it “muse time.”
Use a hook book, a dedicated notebook to keep all your musings. It’s a great place to jot down lyric ideas.
Remember, this list is not in any particular order. I often start here, just noodling on my guitar until I find something cool. If you’re new to writing songs, don’t beat yourself up. Keep your life manageable. Go look up some common chord progressions and start there. No shame! I do this all the time. One of my more recent favorites, “Don’t Let Me Let Down My Man” is a typical 8-bar blues I found researching blues progressions online. It already took ten years to get that amazing title into a song. If I didn’t steal the chord progression, who knows how much longer it would have taken me to write that one?
That’s not to say you shouldn’t dink around and come up with something fresh. I will often go to my guitar when I’m experiencing some heightened emotions, just to see what comes out. If I happen upon an interesting strumming pattern, bass line, melody, I’ll make note of it or record it. (I just use Voice Memo on my phone.)
Eventually, you have to bring stuff together. The music has to meet the idea. The words have to step into the music. Sometimes, I’ve already come up with a melody before touching my guitar, so I have to find the chord progression to match. If you don’t have a huge chord repertoire, start with the chords you know and enjoy. Often, my melody will shift a bit with the evolution of the chord progression. The aspects have to adjust to each other.
Other times, I have no idea of a melody. I just have some cool idea and a few fun phrases I’ve brainstormed. I might pick up my guitar and throw out the first chords I think of, strumming whatever I feel to see if those words find a home in there. I just start singing whatever comes out! Sometimes total crap comes out. But usually, eventually, a phrase lands just so, some strumming pattern supports it in an interesting way, and a spark bursts inside. I’m on to something.
You might think this would be a last step. Not necessarily. Say you come up with a few cool lines. Is that a chorus? Is it a verse? If so, is it the first verse? The last? It matters.
Generally, a chorus is a summary-like rallying cry for whatever your song is about. The lines of a chorus should relate to every other aspect of the song. The verses are little pieces of the story. They may relate to each other, and they may not. But they should relate to the chorus.
Many songs have other components like a prechorus, a bridge, interludes and breaks, intros and outros. A good song feels balanced. You don’t have to follow a formula, but there is a reason we love songs that do. The predictability makes it easy for the listener to find themselves in the song with you. Listen to a great song you love, and you’ll see how it works.
Review and revise.
Play your song for someone else before you get too attached to it. Seriously, I’ve been that songwriter, the one who thinks their song is untouchable. Don’t go there. Yes, it’s art, but if you ever want other people to enjoy your music, get feedback. Then go revise. Move that third verse to the first and cut the stupid prechorus. Be strong and your songs will be too.
SHARE YOUR WORK!
Play your song. Go to an open mic. Play it at a backyard BBQ. Join a songwriter’s circle. Take that risk and put yourself out there. My songs keep getting better and better. I credit my willingness to keep sharing this process with you.
Reactions, questions? Do you have a songwriting process the rest of us can try?
Let us know…below!