This is a culmination of a bunch of stuff I’ve been thinking about when it comes to how I seem to write songs, some of which ended up in this ridiculously long blog post about rhythm and things. A lot of this is stuff I just do, rather than being stuff I think about the whole time.
I’ve gone for 8 main ‘tips’. There will be, of course, plenty of other tips that plenty of other people might have. And some of my tips may not make sense or work for you, but this is just some stuff that’s worked for me so far. I’d love to hear how you go about writing songs (or fiction or poems or anything else for that matter) so that I can steal your process from you.
1) Listen to loads of different music all of the time.
2) Cover, copy, and emulate that music.
I like to think of every song I’m writing as a little progression at getting better, and so a little bit of copying can help along the way. Every great musician was influenced by musicians that preceded them. As Mark Twain put it:
“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.”
Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2(from Brainpickings)
3) Stick with what you’re capable of music-wise.
If every attempt at a song is a possible chance at getting a bit better (which it doesn’t have to be, it could just be fun and stuff), then we’ve got to work with what we can currently manage in the hope that what we can manage will get better. It’s great to be ambitious and think about writing music that’s really complicated and pushes you, but if for now you’re nailing the G, C and D chord structure then I reckon it’s probably more beneficial to get a few songs under your belt using those before taking on a face-melting guitar solo.
4) The rhythm’s the thing.
*Potentially incorrect and over-simplifying sweeping statement klaxon* Something that I have recently decided and which I will probably change my mind on at some point is this: Lyrics ALWAYS rely on rhythm, poetry OFTEN relies on rhythm. For an explanation of what I might be on about I wrote a post about this. The reason that’s of any importance to all of this is because rhythm is where I start with lyrics – see point 5.
5) Believe in the power of Nonsense
Once I’ve started playing some chords I’m happy with I start making nonsense sounds that vaguely resemble language over the top of them. This is the beginnings of figuring out a rhythm and a melody, and the hope is that out of this nonsense I can start to pluck some actual words. Again, this is explained some more in that post I did, but I’ll reiterate one of the main points of this idea:
If I were to ever say a twatty thing like “the song wrote itself”, I wouldn’t be talking about some muse arriving to help me out or any divine intervention, I’d be talking about how the structure and natural rhythm of language lends itself to being quite mechanically put together to form some lyrics on a line.
6) Keep the language natural.
We can get caught out by trying to force weird rhymes to work, or worrying too much about whether our language is sophisticated enough or whatever, but it’ll probably end up sounding really weird if it’s not your own voice in the lyrics. Sometimes songs are written from another person’s perspectives or by taking on a character in a dramatic monologue kind of a way, but even then it’s best to keep things relatively natural, use language you’re happy with using. When you’re comfortable with the language you’re using then it gives you a chance to mess about with it, language should be messed about with, it’s what its there for, so don’t be too rigid in what you allow the language to do.
7) Figure out your structure and then fill up the song by ‘painting by numbers’.
This is really a time-saving thing, and it’s really helpful in seeing an end to the song. Even having a couple of lines written down helps you to start to see a structure emerging. We recognise the way pop songs tend to be put together, and so if you can start laying out as much of the song as possible then you can see the gaps that need to be filled in. Whenever I’ve settled on a chorus or a pre-chorus, for example, I always copy and paste it about three times with gaps in between so that I can see I’ve written a lot of the song already – it suddenly makes things seem much easier.
8) Meaning later.
The meaning can come out of revisions and revisits. I find that it’s a lot easier to pull a meaning out of a song that’s been cobbled together and to then take it further than to try and cobble together a song around a meaning in the first place.
A good point that was brought up by a certain Part Yeti in a comment on this video was about revising the song (as opposed to just moving on as I suggest in the video), and I agree with that – I was in the habit of immediately moving on to the next song because of last year’s project, but even if you’ve resolved that a song you wrote is no good, there’s bound to be something in there that you can work with and improve. If all of this is about getting better at songwriting, then revising songs is also part of that.
Nothing’s set in stone when you write a song, and if you want to write songs and you’ve never tried, there’s no point in waiting around for that perfect bit of inspiration, you’ve just got to get writing and accept that the first stuff you write might not be so great. Unless it is – and well done to you, you’re officially a genius-person.
I don’t want this to seem like I think I have all the answers when it comes to this stuff – I definitely don’t. But I really hope I learnt at least a couple of things over the course of last year’s incessant songwriting. So some of these things may seem really obvious to you, but some of these things are things I hadn’t thought about before I was well into the project, so if you haven’t thought about them then this is just me saying, “Here you go, mate, have this thing I learnt. Don’t worry about it.”
Hey, did you know I have an EP now?