How do you get started writing a song?

Kind of complementary to the other topic I opened today (how to write a song from a short musical idea).

In this one, I’d like to hear your strategies for generating that first musical idea.

Personally, I think this is an area where I (we?) should start exploring new ways, because I can see how I tend to always repeat the same steps (and get stuck in the same places!).

This is usually what I do:

  1. Load a simple 4/4 drum loop
  2. Try to come up with a guitar riff (with a very vague plan - like it’s a song about dragons or whatever)
  3. Try to come up with a melody on top of the riff (or on top of the implied chord progression)
  4. get stuck for weeks :rofl:

This is an example of a recent snippet that came out recently using this method. The basic idea was along the lines of “walking on a desert planet”. I hope to turn it into a full song someday.

Something I’d like to get into a bit more is the use of “randomness” to generate idea (using dice, picking bits of paper in a bowl, software etc.).

So yeah, let me know the methods you use to facilitate the generation of ideas!

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Great topic!

I will write down my process later today and post here. I tend to start the same way, which is something I need to experiment with.

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My current opinion is that constraints cause creativity, or alternately that creativity is problem-solving. So if I don’t have anything playing in my head already, I’ll pick a time signature, chord progression, texture, etc. until I’ve got a problem to solve.

Edit: If you always load up a 4/4 drum loop you’ll always write music in 4/4! Nothing wrong with that, but 6/8 is pretty fun too :grin:

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From a Guy MIchelmore video: :laughing:

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I was a composition student in college. For the last few semesters I had to write a new piece almost every week. My instructor had me choose a ‘form’ before anything else. That’s an example of the above referenced “constraint”.

This ties in with your other thread. If you’ve got a cool riff already, think what other riff or melody might compliment it in another section. This could be a variation, but it doesn’t have to be. In a lot of classical music (i.e. Sonata form) the first and second themes were nearly always contrasting.

Another option is to fragment your main riff/motif. Say it’s 2 measures long. Are there like 3 or 4 notes you could steal, but take it in a different direction? This gives the piece unity but also fresh. I’ve talked with some real purist composers who thought that every single measure of a piece should be related to the entire piece in some fashion. I think that’s overboard, but if you start there and get a little more liberal it might help push you in an interesting direction.

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Thanks all, this is all great input :slight_smile:

I came across this term before, but I am still not sure what it means in practice. Is it the same as “rough idea of the arrangement”? (what instrument will play what, etc)?

thanks!

Yeah, but I think it goes further than that! You can say “I’m going to have electric guitar riffs” and still have more “texture” to define there. Distorted, will you play power chords or maybe outline the chords with sixths? Palm muted single note lines? Etc. Open chords at the edge of breakup? Roll-type ideas with clean tone (or palm muted with distortion)? I find “coming up with interesting ways to outline a chord progression with distorted guitar without just playing power chords” to be a rich source of ideas if I’m feeling dry.

Or if you have drums, are you going to have a blast beat, big boomy toms, or maybe a breakbeat-type idea? Are the keyboards a pad or more pianistic? Picked bass, fingerstyle, slapped? All of these things contribute to what I think of as “texture” even if the instruments are completely determined.

I will readily concede that “texture” is a very nebulous idea, though :laughing:

Edit: more guitar-specific “texture” ideas that I argue would count even if instruments are fully determined.

  • Blastbeats under clean guitar, how could I make this sound cool?
  • Clean guitar layered over big power chords (Ihsahn of Emperor fame has a solo project that’s full of this particular idea – Check out the album After)
  • anything to do with effects pedals beyond reverb – tremolo etc.
  • How can I write a riff that’s identifiably “thrash” while still following a non-trivial chord progression? (the first Cynic album is the closest thing to an example I can think of here)
  • roll 2d6 and pick two of these things to layer:
      1. tremolo picking
      1. big open vibey clean guitar
      1. power chords
      1. Slidey octave lines
      1. and 6. someone finish this for me, I just vomited out all of the ideas I could come up with off the top of my head

Sorry for the wall of text :joy:

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I like to sit with the guitar and and without planning anything specific, just try and express my mood at the time. Whether that’s heavy distorted guitar or guitar with endless reverb and delay, depends on my mood.

I’ll usually come up with a basic idea and I’ll record it down. If it’s chord changes, I’ll experiment with splitting it between two, or more, guitars. Sometimes power chords one side and triads, extensions or whatever else I’m hearing the other.

Once I’ve got this far I’ll think about what sort of a part is this…? Does it sound like a verse? A chorus? Or something else? Will there be vocals here? If I feel I’ll have vocals here, I won’t add any additional guitars, keys or overdubs until I have a vocal idea down. Gotta leave space, can fill in the gaps later!

What I do next depends on what the initial idea sounds like.
If it sounds like a verse, I might start thinking what kind of chorus could I imagine could work with this?
I might stop there and have the idea on my phone, listen to it every so often and try to imagine and hear what sort of chorus I want.

I’ll usually have an idea within the next couple of days or so. Sit down with the guitar and record some basic ideas down. Then experiment with voicings, splitting guitars etc etc until I’m happy with it. Experiment with ways to connect the two ideas together.

It’s sort of a rinse and repeat process where I’m mostly trying to hear what I want before I play anything.

At this stage I might think about drums. Now this can be a long process. Programming a few variations, then experimenting with where the accents are etc etc. I usually end up changing the original rhythm after experimenting with drum beats.

Once a few parts are down, in their basic form, it’s easier to come up with other sections, intros, outros etc.

Eventually the basic full demo is done. Then have to start thinking about vocals, which is not something I’m very comfortable with yet, but lucky for me I’m a big shoegaze fan so plenty of reverb, delay and layers hides a lot :wink: I’ll record melodies down without words. Make sure I’m happy with the melody before worrying about words.

When basic vocals are down, I have a listen and experiment with overdubs, background keys, fx etc. Does it feel like something is missing? If so, what and how do I fix it?

I only start to record guitars down properly when I’m certain I’m happy with the demo. Then that’s a whole other process.

So my process is sort of messy I suppose… I don’t plan too much. I find if I try to hard, it just doesn’t work for me.

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I almost never start with a drum track because I feel like it locks in a rhythm or feel too much.

Here’s the final piece I’m going to kinda outline how I thought about it - if you hate it then you won’t have wasted your time reading lol

https://soundcloud.com/christopher-mcgee-818089419/nyarlathotep

A lot of times what I’ll do is just play around re: spending a lot of time experimenting and collecting riffs until a few fit together in a way I like - pick a key (honestly, it’s always A or E minor or harmonic minor to start off - if it’s different it’s cheating because all I did was downtune and play E harmonic minor) or something or even just throw patterns together.

I’ll hear something I kind of like and then put in in Guitar Pro to save it. Then I’ll start building variations on that theme. What if I make so and so a triplet feel, shift some notes up or down, embellish this, add a trill etc. What Chord can underlie this riff? Can I transform it from a lead to a rhythm part?

Plenty of times - and this is crucial I think to writing - I steal stuff. But in a particular way. What I’ll do is probably already have started writing a piece, and a song or something will come to mind as “oh this kind of would fit in this section”. I’ll pull that up, learn some of it, play with variations on it and try to make it my own, and hone in on why I thought it fit with that part of the piece, see if I can really get down to what I liked about it and transform it.

I started writing the piece below using all of the above methods. Usually I’ll get some cool riffs for the main parts that I like from messing around, putting them in Guitar Pro, making a ton of adjustments and seeing if anything even cooler comes out of that. Then play some more guitar, and see if any new riffs come to mind, throw those in Guitar Pro too ad nauseam.

Eventually I have a few sections that probably don’t quite fit together so I think about how I might want to transition between them, is there anything I can derive from each section that sounds closer to the other or is a good palette cleanser? Also very crucial I go listen to some music in a similar vein as what I’m writing or what I want to capture. In the case of the piece below - What would Revocation do? What would Ihsahn do? I learn what they did, play with a bunch of ideas until something just works and I like it. I again, try to make it my own.

I usually end up writing the intro sections last, because I feel like you need to know where it’s going full blast to get the mood right for the intro. In this case, just by messing around with minor inversions and was like "oh if I shift this Fm inversion down a major 3rd - that sounds pretty cool. Let’s start going back and forth with those two chords. Then I needed a turnaround for bars 7 and 8 - messed around just shifting it down further, tried a major 3rd and minor 3rd, decided minor 3rd sounded better. I’m not being very methodical (my theory was super rusty when I wrote this and is still pretty rusty now, something I intend to spend some serious time working on soon).

Then I messed with arpeggiating on top of the chords - found some cool patterns there, that’s a solid intro for something.

Solos I think I did last - I originally wrote 2, I still haven’t actually recorded them - just added a virtual one for now, but this involved a lot of just knowing a variety of solo lines and playing around over the key changes. Many times I’ll write an entire solo in Guitar pro and then work on making it more natural for guitar.

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I tend to start with what I think would be a catchy intro because that’s going to be the first thing anyone hears. Then comes the chorus because that’s going to be the heart of the song, and likely related to the intro. Things like the verse likely will be more sparse anyway. Then comes the layering and small melodic aspects to make it all more interesting. Bridge and solo absolutely last.

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I’m not sure I feel desert planet with this one Tommo. I don’t feel the oppressive heat (or cold), desolation, and utter hopelessness in that song. Maybe dessert planet?

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Not that I have ever been much of a song writer, but I never really thought of thinking of a theme to start with, especially for an intrumental track - I would normally come up with something and then see how it makes me feel and go with that

For me I would substitute number 3 with “create plenty of ideas - none of which I can play up to tempo!”

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You may approach it differently for an instrumental track. I think for instrumentals, usually you may have a melodic idea, or “head” first. And you would build around that.

I’m personally interested in more full band compositions, and don’t really listen to instrumental music all that much unless it’s a tonal piece. The few instrumentals that I had to do for school projects way back when, that’s usually what I did.

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A lot of times I think I feel a mood for a piece more than a specific topic, then the topic comes to me as I’m writing it and it can affect the flow of the pieces - for example, this one

I wanted it to be kind of triumphant power metal but since it’s about vampire hunting I wanted it to have kind of a darker “boss theme” feeling dip in it, and come back out to the main theme.

I do that all the time, I couldn’t play the above song for a couple months after I wrote it - I used it as motivation to woodshed the hell out of my sweeping and economy picking non-stop. Definitely never let a physical barrier stop you from writing - I’ll keep myself motivated by building the song in Guitar Pro, exporting the MIDIs to Reaper and generate synth versions of the songs with different instrumentation.

Lately I’ve been using Serum packs for that, I’ve used Sylenth before as well - find something that sounds cool and experiment without being able to play it on guitar. Then maybe as you get close to being able to play the desired parts, also feel free to adjust them if it still sounds right with the piece but is easier to play.

Then for this one

I was really going for a more proggy Gothenberg sound, but I decided it kind of reminded me of the intro to Hell in Diablo 2 - I actually want to add some more to this for an intro section still and keep re-writing the solo portions. I don’t have them recorded on guitar yet. However, I bought a Serum synth pack for Mick Gordon sounds and some others, and layered them in throughout. I think I also decided to layer in the section around 1:11 after making that the theme as something more brooding than the main theme. I don’t recall entirely how I came up with that portion - I think mostly playing with different suspended chords, what’s really the key thing is I had come up with a lot of it for something entirely unrelated and realized it fit the theme so I brought it in and scrapped the other thing I was writing with it. I feel like when I’m in a writing mood I generate a lot of ideas and cannibalize them for something else.

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I’d like to try doing some full band compositions, even some more mainstream oriented stuff with vocals, but when it comes to lyrics I’m just dead in the water - I have nothing to write about, nor the skill to do it if I have a theme/concept. Probably because I don’t tend to take much notice of lyrics in general - I barely know the names of songs I like, let alone the lyrics. :crazy_face: I just like the sounds and delivery… I think that is a very stupid place to be, but thats where I am!

Not random at all, but you could phase shift a mediocre riff and see if placing the emphasis in a different place spices things up a bit?

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There are a couple of you tubers who do this. They take famous songs and offset them by a beat, against the drums, and they end up sounding like completely different songs. It’s kind wild how much of a difference it makes.

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It’s been a while since I wrote a song, but I think I used to just jam until I could come up with a cool idea. Then, I would glue together different ideas, sometimes in not-so-obvious ways, like gluing a 5/4 section to a 12/8 section, like you can see here:

I think I used to prefer working on the guitar parts before adding lyrics and vocal melody. The latter can be a LOT more difficult for me to figure out than the guitar parts. It can make or break a song, whereas a cool guitar lick will always be a cool guitar lick. But if the lyrics are just slightly off, I cannot really feel comfortable.

I would say that my greatest “secret” is to not be afraid of doing things that most people would never dare to think of. Nevermind the theory and whatever notion you have about what constitutes a “good” song. Just pick two chords or two notes at random in sequence. Hell, don’t even look at the guitar while you’re doing it. You have a certain progression in your head? You might want to go for it. But then you make a mistake and play a chord that you wouldn’t really think would make sense, and in a odd timing too. Well, so what? Just keep it and elaborate on it instead! Don’t dismiss your mistakes, appreciate them and incorporate them in your songs, because if you don’t, if you only write what you are aiming for and what you think it makes sense, your music will sound a lot more predictable and boring.

I thinl it’s a good idea to think of it like going to the grocery store. You can go through the most direct route, or you can try to go through a completely different street that you’ve never been before! You are now getting to know a completely different part of town that is unknown to you. Oh, but now you’ve got lost and you don’t know where to go! Just ask that shady person in the corner instead for directions rather than using your phone’s GPS. Perhaps they are a robber, perhaps they are honest and will give you the right directions, perhaps they will mislead you to get a laugh out of it and you just get more and more lost BUT THEN you end up meeting the love of your life in a hipster coffee house at the end of the street. Then you catch a bus to the grocery store and you look through the window and you can see a child holding a huge chocolate icecream and then you remember how your dad used to buy you icecream everytime you were on vacations together. Every damn thing can happen if you just take the risk of trying something new. Even if it gets you lost or in trouble. But you’ll live something new. And that’s how I strive to write music: always be on the lookout for a creative, crazy, fun idea that you would never imagine if you just stayed in your safe place all the time, afraid of doing mistakes and what people might think of your songs. Screw what people think, screw the theory and screw your own plans and expectations about how your song should turn out. Screw you comparing yourself to your favorite musician. Screw all of that, really.

If you don’t believe what you have to say is worth being listened to, then you’ll never write anything and be always feeling like an impostor who has no business doing music. Never allow yourself to believe that.

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This is something that resonates with me and follows on from one of my previous posts - I’m very much in that camp of not believing what I have to say is worth listening to. I try to think of a subject and come up short, so then I force myself to pick a theme from another song so that I can put pen to paper - whatever I write makes me be sick in my mouth a little!! Haha so cringe! I think a ‘how to write lyrics’ might need to be a separate thread!

Yup! I released an EP a couple of years ago and the lyrics I wrote are so bad that I cannot listen to it now :joy:
Currently working on lyrics to a new ep, but not even sure where to start. It’s such foreign territory for me