Songwriting is a somewhat unique talent even among the musical portion of the population: only a fraction of people who play music also write it. Some people seem to have a natural knack for it, just writing the music they feel inside with very little difficulty. Others have to work hard at it, inspired by the stories of their favourite artists sitting in front of the ivories, writing their own music.
Before we get too far into it, I should mention that what we’re going to be discussing today is a somewhat “old fashioned” method for writing music, using a pencil, piano, and blank staff paper. In today’s technologically advanced world, a prospective songwriter has all kinds of tools at their disposal. Today we can create music with a keyboard connected to a computer, or even the computer all on its own. That being said, there is something fundamentally different about the traditional ways. Call it a sort of magic if you will. But whether you’ve done it before, or you’re just getting started writing your own music at your piano we’ve got some tips to help you form your own songwriting process.
Decide on an Idea
To start off, try to decide on a theme or audience for your song. Are you writing a song for a romantic partner? Are you trying to make a political statement? Are you writing for children? Your audience or theme can have a big impact on the rest of your songwriting process so it is important to start with at least a vague idea of what kind of tone you want to convey.
Chose a Key & a Tempo
Once you know the general tone or theme for your song, it’s time to pick an appropriate key and tempo. These two aspects of songwriting are essential in creating the proper atmosphere or mood. Think about how fast paced, up tempo songs make you feel, versus slower paced songs. Play around with scales and chords in the keys you’re familiar and comfortable with, eventually settling on a key that fits with your song idea. Does what you’re trying to say require high-energy, up-beat, high-tempo music with the brightness of the key of E? Or does it need a more serene, slower sound in the calmness of the key of C?
Learn the I-IV-V-vi Chords
This is a basic, but extremely useful, chord progression. “I” represents your root chord (the chord that shares the name of the key you’re using), “IV” is the subdominant chord, which is 4 above the root chord, “V” refers to the dominant chord, which is the fifth chord above your root, and “vi” is the six chord, which is a minor chord. If, for example, you’ve chosen the common key of C major for your song, you’d play C, G, Am, and F. Play with your 1st, 3rd, and 5th fingers of both hands at the same time. A lot of popular progressions consist of these chords, so it’s a good idea to play around with it until you find the sound you’re looking for.
Play With Your Progression
Next try playing four beats for each chord in the key and tempo you decided on earlier. Move from one chord to the next in different orders. Try C for four beats, then Am for four, then G, then F, and back to C. Play slowly, listening carefully. Mix it up! Keep changing the order of your chords! Try starting with Am, then C, F, and end with G. Keep playing around with your chord progressions until you find an order for the chords that resonates with you and fits your song’s theme. Be sure to take note of the chord order that you like best, and play it over and over, with the theme you’ve decided on firmly in your mind. If you’re writing for a person or a specific cause, it might be a good idea to have a picture or other inspiration with you while you work. Listen carefully and focus, and you may be able to hear the lyrics begin to form in your head all on their own.
Write Down Everything
And I mean everything. Every chord, every phrase, every word should go down on your staff paper, even if you don’t think it sounds very good. Something that sounds terrible today may sound amazing next week, or may work in another song altogether, or might even be tweaked into something more appropriate later on in your writing process. Think of yourself as a recorder, taking note of everything you hear.
Think of Lyrics as Boxes Within Boxes
Writing lyrics can be difficult, but one bit of advice I came across a long time ago seems to be the best answer to the problem of lyrics: think of a great song unfolding like a small box found inside a larger box, inside an even larger box still. The largest box represents your first verse, which is a general view of the subject your song will tackle. Think of opening with something a bit more general as if you’re starting a conversation. The second verse, represented by the middle box, reveals more, progressing the theme of the song. If you’re writing something political, this might be were you would give your view more enthusiastically and emphatically. Continue to unfold the story of your song through the progression of your boxes.
Now it’s time to decide on if you want to use a bride in your song or not. Not every song has one, but it can be a useful and powerful element. A bridge can help break up a song if you choose to change keys, or just change your chord progression. Ballads can especially benefit from the utilization of a bridge. Think of any powerful ballad from superstars like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey and I’m sure you’ll recall the big, high notes at the end of the bridge. That’s the moment that really puts the exclamation mark on the composition. That is the moment that takes it from the same old same old to something truly special and memorable. To actually build the bridge, try playing only the fifth and sixth chords, or the second and fourth, with two beats each. As with the rest of your composition, try playing around with it.
Sometimes you’ll write an entire song in a matter of minutes. Most of the time you wont. Over time you’ll make changes to notes, phrases, chords, progressions, and lyrics. All of these alterations and corrections on your staff paper will eventually coalesce into a final, polished version. Make a final draft on a clean sheet of staff paper, complete with your final lyrics.
Remember, songwriting is an extremely personal and creative art. These suggestions are rather formulaic in nature, and are only meant as guidlines. As you progress through your songwriting you will almost certainly find a different process that suits your creativity better. Remember, when it comes to making music, rules were meant to be broken! The only hard and fast rule to follow is have fun!