One of the most common challenges I hear about songwriting is not knowing where to begin. With the lyrics? With the music? Or something completely different? It’s a rather simple challenge to find a solution to, really.
Start with a single note or single word
Play a single random note and just listen to your imagination. Does a second note enter the picture? Does a chord or harmony enter the picture? If so, then add what you hear to the mix and keep listening like that. Don’t think about it or edit what you hear in your mind, just dictate.
If you don’t hear anything in your imagination, then force it. Play a single interval up or down. Does that spark another idea? If so, then dictate. If not, play a different interval. If after a number of tries your imagination doesn’t take over, then force it even more. Play a pattern or a sequence that you are familiar with and build a melody around that.
The important thing to remember here is that your melody is not going to be perfect. It’s just a first pass. You can edit after you have 32 bars or so of material to work with. The point is you can’t have a melody to edit if you don’t start writing one.
You can apply the same technique to lyric writing. Write a single word. Use a random word generator or just pick a word from a book. What does your imagination tell you to write next? If nothing comes to you (which would mean that you really just aren’t paying attention) force it by just making stuff up. Rhyme comes later. Prosody comes later. Form comes later. Same as with music, you can’t edit a lyric until you have a lot of lyrics to edit.
An exercise like this should open your mind to the constant stream of ideas that is always occurring beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Just practice opening the aperture until you always have music and lyrics to write.
fergal p says
do you write songs that should relate to your life experiences or write what people want to hear?
Graham English says
Hopefully, you’re doing both. You’re writing what people want to hear and it relates to your personal experience somehow. That doesn’t mean that you’re airing your dirty laundry or vommitting your ego all over the place. Songwriting is similar to talking to someone — it’s a form of communication. So what do you want to tell your listener? And how can it be relevant to them so they want to listen? And how can you invoke your personal experience in a way that draws the listener in rather than alienates them?
My personal opinion is that you start personal and bring it into the universal. When you edit your lyric drafts, you can ask yourself if the details pull the listener in or alienate the listener. If the details in your writing draw the listener closer, then you’re moving in the right direction. If the details are an inside joke or will only be understood by you, the writer, then rewrite the line.
I hope this helps. Thanks for the comment! 🙂
how do you keep from mentally regurgitating intervals from your favorite songs unconsciously?
Graham English says
You could always figure out what your favorite songs are, identify their intervals, and make sure you don’t use them.
But being influenced by the music love isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Music uses a common language. The intervals, scales, and harmony are the same. Just say your own thing.
I’m an old music lover but, new to writing music. I’ve written several ditties in my spare time which my friends like. I would like to be able to give them some more character. My question is how to write the harmonies that build up a song. I’ve checked the internet and see some interesting theories but, maybe I need lots more training. One system that seems almost understandable to me is the Nashville Numbering System. Is there any way that I could improve my song writing so that I could include the (SATB) voices?
Graham English says
Since chord changes aren’t copyrighted, you might want to try rewriting songs that already achieve what you want harmonically.