What is the best way to start your next song? Opinions differ but sometimes all you need is a new idea!
New Artist Model member Lee Pat asked a number of songwriters and teachers 2 questions to see how different musicians approach the dreaded blank page.
1. What is YOUR favourite way of starting a song?
2. What is the BEST way to start – lyrics, melody or chords?
You’ll notice no.2 is a trick question. So it’s even better that experience does the talking:
1. I usually start with the germ of a lyric idea – a few lines, a concept, occasionally a title. Then I’ll brainstorm or free write trying to come up with as much raw material as I can, not attempting to make it rhyme or fit into any particular structure. When I’ve totally exhausted that, I’ll begin to try and work it into musical shape. So the answer is I begin with a few pages of lyrical raw material.
2. The best place to start is with the most important element for your musical style. If you’re a rocker – it’s riffs and chord sequences. If you’re a folk troubadour, a praise and worship musician, a political protestor or a rapper – it’s lyrics. If you’re a dance or pop artist, it’s probably melody.
What I think is more important is not to let the initial element get too developed before your start to bring in the other things. Generally, the later one element is added, the worse it will be – sometimes to the detriment of the whole song. Or at least your options will be severely limited. For example, some bands (Rush, Manic Street Preachers) write an entire track without vocals while one member writes an entire lyric without melody. It’s then left to the singer to fit together. This often has an effect of the lyrics feeling shoehorned into the song with uncomfortable rhythms and melody.
Other bands (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin) write and record an entirely finished track and then leave the singer to write lyrics and a melody over the top. But having everything set severely limits the singer in terms of keys, tempos and arrangement. It can also have the side effect of a band having to guess from the backing track whether the song is going to be worth recording.
Writers who produce complete lyrics before music (like Dylan) could fall into a similar trap. The reason Dylan generally doesn’t is because he is aware of poetic structures etc. and writes with specific patterns in mind. However, this still limits you to a few standard schemes where a particular melody might push you in a new direction.
Key insights: start with the most important element for your style, brainstorm for raw material, don’t overdevelop one element before you bring in the rest.
The Dust Warrior
1. My favorite way of starting a song is with the bass.
In the genres of music I work in (post hardcore, indie, alternative), the bass is a critical part of driving the lyric. It sounds counter intuitive, but listen to anything by Stevie Wonder and you’ll see what I mean.
The bass is also the least complicated instrument on which to develop a vocal melody. If you can work out the chord progressions on a bass (the root notes under a melody you are singing), it makes it a lot easier to work on where else the melody should go. The bass is monophonic and you can better sense where the vocal melody wants to go, because you are not jamming yourself up with the bazillion voicings you can play on a six string guitar or on the piano.
This is by no means the only way that a song gets written, but it’s my favorite way to start.
2. The best way to start writing a song is to have a deadline for having a song finished. Working backwards from there, go with whatever hook first appeared in your mind (lyric, melody, chord progression) and develop the rest of the song from that. A hook would be anything repeatable that catches the ear – a riff on a guitar (like the opening of Whole lotta love – probably one of the most widely recognized hooks ever stolen and exploited by white guys from the UK), a bass line or a sung melody – the thing that makes you keep going and that you think the listener is going to dig when they hear the song.
Be sure to consider the listener and give them a reason to stick around. In my experience as both a fan and creator of songs, that’s something that’s going to get me to play the song again, most likely a big vocal refrain. But it could be a certain musical riff that repeats really well. I’m a sucker for anything that really grabs your attention and makes you move your body.
For example, Let the rhythm hit em by Eric B and Rakim or Snap your fingers, snap your neck by Prong. Or even better – the “When you’re down, it’s a long way up” part of the bridge in the No new tale to tellsong by Love and Rockets.
Key insights: work to a deadline, start with a hook, write with the bass.
The Dust Warrior is a Los Angeles based producer and artist, previously the driving force behind trip-hop New York duo Subtech, described by Mix Magazine as “Beck with a probation officer”. He also writes and performs with the only known US Citizen French Pop-Punk band Tour de France who will be releasing their third album in 2016.
1. Sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar and a notebook, putting together chords, melodies, and lyrics, is a very familiar way for me to write. So, to break out of the box with my creativity, I will often push myself into other ways to write: creating melodies on the piano, sitting at the park writing only lyrics, experimenting with music notation software, playing bass and singing, searching for unique electric guitar effects, etc.
Having a regular routine for writing is very important to keep you from being unproductive as a writer, but it is just as important to break out of that routine with less familiar ways of writing. This will keep you productive, while expanding your creative boundaries at the same time. Another way to expand your boundaries is to mix solo writing, co-writing, and writing with a band.
2. I think that there are more than three ways to start a song. You could start with chords, lyrics, or melody, but you could also start with a drum beat, a sound effect, an unusual instrument, a concept, and quite a few other methods. There really is no best way to start a song, so long as your final product has all the major components of a finished song.
Key insights: have a routine and routinely break out of it, write with a co-writer or with a band, start with tools you’re less familiar or comfortable with.
Kevin Thomas is the owner of Songwriting Planet, an online education company that teaches the craft of songwriting, and is a renowned singer/songwriter. Check out his new course on how to make your average songs awesome!
1. I always start my songs with chords and melodies first and then add lyrics to fit the melody. Music is the most important aspect of a song to me and what I listen to first when I fall in love with songs. However, lyrics are extremely important to me as well. I’ll edit and reedit lyrics (and melodies) 100 times before I end up tracking them.
Sometimes, I start songs by listening to someone else’s song I love and play off the vibe and energy of that song. I recently tried something I had never done before which actually worked out well. I cut and pasted one bar of drums/percussion from Bill Withers “Use Me” live at Carnegie Hall and then looped that in Logic. I wrote the entire song based on that drum groove. It brought inspiration I would have never gotten just sitting along at the keys or guitar.
2. Тhere definitely isn’t a “best way” because every songwriter’s approach is different. Even I don’t have a “best.”
Key insights: start with what you love in other people’s songs, get inspired by a vibe or energy.
1. My go-to, “automatic” way of starting a song tends to be chords, then melody, then lyrics. It’s less natural for me to do it in a different order.
2.I think the best way to start a song is to keep changing the first part of the song you write as that’s how you’ll improve the most as a songwriter. So sometimes start with lyrics, sometimes with chords, sometimes with a melody.
Key insights: vary what you start with, plan out each section before you write the lyrics.
Anthony Ceseri is the founder of Success For Your Songs, where he shares advice from the most well-respected professional songwriters, producers and performers in the industry.
Declan O’Shea (Mako)
1. When I write with a partner, I would be sitting with the music I’ve been given for a few days at home or driving to it, all the while singing with it, no finished words, just whatever comes out. As the melody and lyrical idea form and I have a rough idea, I sit and write the lyrics around the feeling of the track and usually around what’s going on in my life at the time. Then, I’ll arrange the track in my DAW, record vocals and vocal harmonies, and any counter-melodies in the instruments I may come up with, if the track needs them.
When the first vocal demo is done, I send it to my writing partner and we discuss possible changes to the music and the vocals and record the next demo version. It’s usually done in 2 or 3 versions, but it can also go on to 4 or 5 !
In the end, we record the final version in the studio.
When I write alone, I sit with my acoustic guitar, whether I want to or not, and I play random chord ideas and sing, not caring what comes out. Once something catches my attention, I follow it and keep going while recording into my phone with a notepad close by for lyric ideas as they pop up. I do this as regularly as possible and then review the ideas in the car as I drive. If something stands out, I sit with it and finish the piece on the acoustic with lyrics and then put it together in the DAW.
I like this approach but have ended up with loads of songs that need to be recorded so that’s going to take good scheduling on my part to get through them all. Having a deadline is really important!
Key insights: start with chords and then melody, base lyrics on the feel of the music, improvise while reconding to find a catchy idea.
Mako is an Alt/Indie rock band from Ireland and France featuring Declan O’ Shea & Christian Montagne both former members of the acclaimed cult band Cyclefly. Follow them on Twitter @makotunes andFacebook
1. These days, most of the music I write is for choral groups, and most of it has been arrangements of pre-existing folk songs. So in that regard, my writing starts by working primarily with the melody as a first step. I familiarize myself with the tune, then work out chords. And because I’m doing an arrangement, I often find that I use lots of different progressions to set the same melody as the song progresses.
2. Gary’s answer to the trick question is in his recent post on the methods for starting a song, which is actually an excellent summary of the current article and better-structured to boot!
In true teacher fashion, in yet another post he reflects on why we ask this question and I find his reflections nothing short of inspirational.
Key insights: try out different chords for the same melody, start out differently each time.
So, what is YOUR favourite way of starting a song?
Who are YOUR favourite songwriters and teachers you think I should ask these questions next?
Would YOU like to be in Part 2 of this article?
Leave a comment below or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
“Eight ways to start your next song” is a guest post from New Artist Model member Lee Pat. Lee plays guitar and sings for Let Bygones and is the founder of OneMinuteSong.com, dedicated to music theory for busy songwriters.