If there’s one approach to writing songs that works every time, I still haven’t found it. There are, of course, those rare times where you’re inspired and it all just comes to you effortlessly. But those times are few and far between, and in my experience you can’t rely on that.
I find that it’s useful to have a variety of approaches to try to break through to something. Here are a few of my methods for songwriting.
START WITH LYRICS
I always look for lyrics. Every hour of everyday. Every time I hear a phrase or think of a concept or a metaphor I like, I immediately write it down in my phone. I do the same thing with musical ideas, where I’ll record them as the voice memos. When I sit down to write, I almost always use my lyric notes, but hardly ever listen back to the voice memos. I still think it’s important to record them though, simply for the act of pausing and noticing that you’ve stumbled upon something. I tend to start with lyrics, because once I have a good lyric, I find that the music is easy.
SET A TIMER
If I sit down without a specific idea or objective, I like to set a timer for 50 minutes and then I don’t worry about anything else until that goes off – even if I’m not getting anything good. I keep putting down words, editing and moving stuff around. Basically just searching! Sometimes I alternate between different ideas and go back and pull up works-in-progress. Oftentimes I’ll end up pulling up the last document I worked on and find something cool that I didn’t notice when I was writing. Then I’ll go off of that. Basically, anything goes as long as I stay in the program and work on lyrics.
I like to use a program called OmmWriter, which is somewhat immersive with music and simple sound effects. It’s nice because it’s better than staring at the same word program I use to write invoices and budgets.
WRITE WITH OTHERS
Once I have the lyrics, I like to bring those to co-writers to get some fresh creative input for the melody and the vibe. I find it very valuable to have a bunch of half-finished lyrics that I can use as jumping-off point when I start something new with another writer. If I want to finish it myself I first need some kind of context. What kind of song do I want this to be, what kind of style, who could I imagine singing it? Sometimes there’s a very specific purpose – like when you write with an artist – and in that case you’ll have all of their other material and opinions to guide you. Other times you have to define the context yourself. Sometimes I’ll write a song that’s just for me to sing, but often I’ll try to imagine an artist I’m writing it for. Even if that artist will most likely never hear it.
THE MUSIC CONTRASTS WITH LYRICS
The main thing for me is that the music has to help the lyric. If I’ve written a really sad lyric I sometimes need the music to be more hopeful. In that case I’ll stick with the sweeter sounding chords so the whole thing ends up bittersweet. If the lyrics are a little on the happier side I sometimes make the chords a little more emotionally ambiguous to add some depth and nuance to it. It can also be cool to hit the sad chords on the happy words and vice versa. As far as melody goes I try to mimic how you say it as much as possible. I find it sounds more musical and natural that way, but that’s a personal preference I guess.
BE AWARE OF THE DOWNBEATS
One thing I’m very aware of is which specific word I want to highlight. The words that tend to fall on the downbeats as well as the high notes tend to be the ones that we register as important. For example take the phrase “I Love You”. If the word “I” is on the downbeat or the highest note, it seems significant that it’s “I” who loves you – as opposed to someone else. If “Love” is emphasized it seems as if that’s the most important- as opposed to “liking” someone. Finally, if “You” is emphasized it seems as if it’s important that the one singer is singing to who’s the lucky recipient of singer’s love – and not someone else. So all of this has to gel with your lyrical intention to get the most precise expression of your idea. Of course there are times when it all just happens effortlessly, but this is helpful for all the other times or if you’re trying to figure out why something isn’t working right.
USING THE MUSIC TO INSPIRE LYRICS
Another approach I like is starting with the music. I’ll build the music in Pro Tools and try to record/produce something that sounds cool and inspiring. Once I find something I like, I’ll loop a section and put on headphones. Then I’ll pull out my laptop and try to hear what kind of song this wants to be, lyrically. Which lyrics will fit the mood of the track? This is where it’s also helpful to be scrolling through my lyric ideas on my phone and if something works I aim to write at least a verse and a chorus. Many times, I’ve ended up liking the lyric, but rewritten the music for it. I’ve gotten great results working this way!
ASK FOR FEEDBACK
I usually show my wife first. She’s a huge Bob Dylan fan and loves lyrics. She also has a super ear for understanding them on deep levels, so if she doesn’t get a lyric I’ve written I know no one will. If she’s excited about it I’ll show some of my peers, band mates and fellow writers and artists. Usually my wife’s reaction reflects how I feel about it, but the few times it hasn’t I can usually tell how I truly feel about it myself. If I feel defiant and fired up, I know I like it and it’s worth fighting for and then I get some “second opinions”. If I feel deflated and disappointed I probably never liked it that much in the first place.
Once I have a verse and a chorus I typically pause to get some feedback. If that works, I find it’s fairly easy to finish the rest of it. It does happen that I write a full song without getting feedback, but it is very helpful to get some fresh perspective along the way.
PSYCHE YOURSELF UP
You have to psyche yourself into being excited when you’re working on things, so it can be hard to see the quality of your own work objectively right after you’ve written something. Of course you can get lucky and be inspired once in a blue moon, but that’s not something you can count on. And I also think you can be extremely inspired without feeling it that way. Sometimes you can look back at something that was extremely difficult and unpleasant to write and see that you were in fact incredibly inspired.
I find it really helpful to have a bunch of tools to draw from, so I don’t have to worry about the muses showing up.
That’s why I like to set timers. Say, for the next hour I’m only working on this song- doesn’t matter if I get anything good or not. It’s just about putting in time. Then I’ll do an hour of lyrics the same way. Usually I find that if I put in the time I’ll eventually get something, and if I can eliminate that constant questioning of “is this good?” and “Am I wasting my time?” by simply waiting for the timer to ring, it’s a lot more enjoyable and productive.
That’s another reason it’s great to work with other people, because once you’ve decided to get together and write, you come at it from a much more practical angle. Of course you can be in creative partnerships, where you’re comfortable enough to procrastinate, but most often (in my world) getting together with someone else to write means that’s exactly what you’ll do- no matter how inspired you may or may not feel that particular day. You just keep pushing through – even in the awkward early stages where you don’t really have anything yet.
Writing with other people is also fun because they can help push you out of your usual grooves and habits. I love presenting a lyric and then having someone sing it back completely differently than I could have ever imagined it myself. That can be challenging of course, but also super inspiring and helpful.
The main thing I remind myself is to keep putting in time. If I search for long enough, I will find something. I try to be comfortable with the discomfort and be proud that I’m staring down the blank page. It’s easier said than done, but it’s so worth it all when you write something truly special.