Songwriting Steps Pt1
Songwriting can be hard. You have to come up with a catchy chorus, have verses that make sense and move people, and a good production. This is more work that many are willing to do alone. That’s why most songwriters just focus on songwriting. The best songwriters do not only that but have steps to ensure they make consistently good songs. Today, I’m going to walk you through songwriting steps which focuses on the initial idea through basic development. In a later post, I’ll go into marrying chords to the melody, form, and final polishing.
Stairway to Songwriting Heaven
I go through several discrete phases to finish my songs. Sure, not all my songs get this treatment but most do. I do this because there is too much that goes into a song to just wing it. Songwriting is not unlike a turn-based strategy game like Civilization. Whereas a live performance is like a first person shooter, here we can use planning and consideration to our advantage. The songwriting steps that I go through are:
- Sing the initial idea into Voice Memos
- Write down the Title
- Come up with the Due North
- Come up with my Why
- Project the song’s development with Boxes
- Start filling out my Rhyme Worksheet
- Identify and develop Key Words
- Use a Thesaurus
- Find a Reference
Now you might be thinking, “Hey, that’s not how John Mayer does it. Tool doesn’t do it like that and neither does Justin Bieber.” Well, I’m not those people. However, I can guarantee that these guys are using some of these steps. You don’t have to do it my way but I bet you can find some use in these songwriting steps.
The Initial Idea
If you’re melodically inclined, then just sing something into your phone. I subscribe to the idea of ‘begin with the end’. In other words, if you can sing a basic eight-measure chorus then you’ll be off to a good start. I think that, if it comes easily, it’ll be more easy to remember. You can always develop this idea later.
The Song Title
Every song needs a title, even if it’s ‘Untitled’ or something weird like ‘Afx237 v.7‘. Whereas Aphex Twin is making instrumentals, a song with words really needs one that’s relevant. When listeners are scrolling through your work on Spotify or SoundCloud, that’s one of the first things they’ll notice. If you have a song called, “I Love Vaporizers” and it’s about punching stuffed animals then they might not stick around. Besides that, it’ll show that you’re unskilled at keeping your vision cohesive. Starting with the title keeps you focused.
Due North, Ahoy
Continuing with our idea focusing, come up with a Due North. This is the elevator pitch of the song which briefly outlines what it’s about. Where a title gives you a vague sense of what’s to come, Due North is your rational reason why the song exists. If you can go, “Hey man. Check out this song. It’s about …” then whatever that ellipse is will function as your Due North. For example, “If You Could Read My Mind” has a Due North = we have a lot of baggage in our heads. The title comes from the repeating refrain, see songwriting steps one and two. The Due North outlines the jist of the song’s message.
Of all the songwriting steps, this is one of the most important. This is the behind-the-scenes engine which will propel your song’s feeling forward. Remember that, when you write a song, you actually become a character. Really, your personal identity is anonymous. Who really knows anything about who wrote “Happy Birthday” or “The Star Spangled Banner”? We know nothing of them but we know the message of the songs. You can also think of it as the song is your avatar or mask. Anyway, the Why is the emotional corollary to your Due North’s raison d’être. For “If You Could Read My Mind”, we can say the ‘why’ is ‘the character is lonely and seeks to be reunited with a past partner.”
Boxes is one of my favorite songwriting steps. Too many songs go nowhere. They just rehash the same kind of vibe throughout. By using boxes, you can ensure your second verse is sufficiently different than your first and not worse! Just make a three item list, put your WHY at the end, then ask yourself, “How did I get here?” If our example song has ‘lonely character seeks past flame’ as Why then the boxes are 1. My head is messed up, 2. Your head is messed up, 3. Pay attention to me. Try this out, I think it’ll help you make your songs more cinematic.
Now that you’ve completed the previous songwriting steps, now it’s time to begin the development phase. You probably learned about brainstorming in high school. You may have since forgotten about it or never realized its importance. I’m here telling you that this songwriting step is indispensable. Imagine going to a job interview without researching the company. Or, imagine going to prom in any old clothes. No, you plan and prepare and go through a few options beforehand. Brainstorming is the first chance you get to write the worst crap so that it doesn’t make it to the final draft. Just write for 5 minutes in an uncensored way. You might not get anything valuable and that’s great – better to get 5 minutes of trash here than in your final lines.
I’m not going to explain this on at length here since I already did that last week in this post here. What I will tell you is that, after the previous songwriting steps, now you can transfer the powerful nouns, adjectives, and verbs into it. You’ve got a Title, a Due North, a Why, and a clusterfuck of a brainstorm. Go exploit those resources and mine for gold. Don’t worry if your Rhyming Worksheet looks as empty as a gay bar in the Berchtesgaden. We’ll fill’er up in a jiffy.
Remember those nouns, verbs, and adjectives which closely relate to your song’s Title, Due North, and Why? Find seven of those and list them like I show in the video. Come up with synonyms, antonyms and associations from your personal life. Of the development songwriting steps, this one can be the most personal. Don’t hit up the thesaurus until you’ve used your own juice first.
The Thick Thesaurus Forest
Now’s time for my favorite of the songwriting steps. Y’see, my rhymes suck. At least the ones that come off the top of my head do. It was only after I started using my thesaurus that my writing got interesting. To be sure, I don’t use it for my YouTube videos or for these blog posts. I use other tools for that. For songs though, where every word counts, because there are generally so few, I’d be lost without it. Try the dictionary.com app for mobile and see how it helps your songwriting steps.
In case you didn’t know, most producers take it as common practice to use what are called ‘reference tracks’. This is where you have no idea what you’re doing, figure that others probably know what they’re doing so you copy them. That’s a crass way to explain it but it’s got a grain of truth. Pretty much, think of a song or two that reminds you of what you’re trying to create. Then break down their lines into strong and weak beats as well as rhyme schemes. All you have to do then is fill in your own words using that framework as a guide. It doesn’t always work but I find it to always be helpful to try before moving on to the remaining songwriting steps.
Ok, there you have it: 10 songwriting steps to help you write better tunes. These tips will help you start, clarify, and begin to develop darn near any idea you can imagine. The old saying is that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Well, at least now you can sweat along a proven roadway instead of digging trenches out in the desert.
Of course I know that everyone writes songs differently. Even the same writer might do things a little bit different each time. Even so, especially when you’re starting out, you’re well suited to follow a recipe that’s proven. Many of these ideas come from Pat Pattison’s book Writing Better Lyrics. Pick up that book to improve your songs. By clicking that link, you’ll also help me earn a commission which in turn inspires me to keep putting out content.