Original Song Writing

This article is meant to be a key, a guide, and even a challenge to keep your song writing new, fresh, and interesting, while all the while maintaining a quality sound.

Ultimate Guitar

We've heard it all before. One band will come out with a hit song, Top 40 radio will eat it up like Grandmas apple Pie, and then just like that, a new sound has been born. Examples are "With Arms Wide Open" by Creed, "My Immortal" by Evanescence, and a few by Blink 182. Suddenly many bands have songs that sound ridiculously similar, either in key, formula, or even imitating the singer's voice. You can mainly find this in local bands, and sadly enough, the majority of "Christian" music.

But what if we thought outside of the box? What if we made sure that our songs were long enough to make a point, but short enough not to bore? What if we steered clear of carbon copying other bands success and wrote what was in our heads and in our hearts as musicians? I say to you that if we did these things, our songs would live on much longer than we would, leaving a peace of us behind for future generations.

I offer you immortality, in a way. Let's look at several ways to ensure that you write a good song.

Finding Formulas

Most mainstream or "pop" tunes of any genre, be it rock, country, rap, anything, have a formula. Some bands even have a formula, a certain way that songs are written, and they generally stick very closely to it. For example, Creed (and the many sound-alikes that followed very closely afterwards) have this formula. The guitarist will pick something (usually in D) with a clean tone. Enter the southern "take-a-half-step-on-every-pitch-you-hit" vocals for the verse. Then after the first verse is done, the chorus comes in, and it's not much different. It's the same chord progression as the verse, only with distortion, the picking is done away with, and the lyrics become very catchy (which in and of itself isn't such a bad thing). Oh, and the rest of the band usually enters here. For the second verse, the bass and drums keep a steady beat going underneath the same picking part that we heard on the first verse. Then the chorus comes back, same vocals, same distortion, and then comes the bridge. It usually goes into a minor feel, and introduces some new chords to the song for a short few measures, and then back to the chorus, yadda yadda yadda, then back to the soft picking part we heard in the beginning.

This is actually a pretty solid song, when writing is considered. My complaint here is this. This pattern, this formula, is extremely overdone, over rated, and over duplicated.

Now there are bands and songs everywhere just like this, and it's really just your basic stencil song. Take this formula; add your own chords, guitar tones and novelty vocalist and you have a new sound. When you find a formula in your genre or even in your band, be sure not to over use it. Try to keep things fresh and almost ambiguous. Shorten a verse, or cut it in half. Start off with your "bridge" and then bring it back in the end to tie up your song in a nice, neat little package. Avoid formulas as much as you can, and make sure your song flows.

Finding Your Flow

It pains me to hear when a band or an artist has a great point musically and lyrically to make, and then ruin the flow with some off the wall effect, guitar breakdown, chord progression, or even key change. Foundationally, the drummer is a vital key to any band and any song. If there is no drummer, the rhythm must keep the song flowing. If the drummer breaks down, or if the drummer puts in some impulsive fill in the middle of a song (as many often do) the song can literally be ruined. The drummer is key and thus should not be overlooked when it comes to a songs flow.

My musical heroes, Nickel Creek, are perhaps the best when it comes to finding the songs flow. Beloved is also very good, but I will concentrate on Nickel Creek.

They are masters when it comes to writing a song and creating pure musical force. From one verse to the next, from one chorus to the bridge, from introduction to ending, they make sure that the song stands on its own, with a strong foundation. Describing musical flow is difficult and even putting tangible "do's" and "don't do's" can be difficult. This may also be something thats inherent to you and may not be able to be learned, other than listening over and over to good song writers. Push the envelope in your song writing, but be careful not to make the waves of your songs flow capsize your song. Make sure that all the musicians and all the parts have a good working knowledge of the song. They should know what the song is trying to say, where it should go, and how it should get there. If you are a solo musician, be sure that all the parts come together to make one beautiful sound; one magnificent song.

Finding Your Message

What does your song say? What do you want your song to say? How is it going to say it, and how is it going to get to its final destination. These are questions every song writer should ask themselves when writing a song. Whether it be lyrically or musically, every song needs to say something. Enter my qualm with pop music and the rap genre that it has embraced. Musically, Rap communicates to me drunken orgies, wasted time at clubs, and mindlessness. Lyrically, it communicates an infatuation with shiny objects, expensive cars, and the all holy club. As a genre, as a society even, surely we can come up with better, less shallow things to discuss...Please.

I will step off my soapbox now, but I will say this. Every song should come from the heart of you. I should be a product of life experiences, of life, love, pain, good, bad, ugly, beautiful, and all the other spaces in you. Make sure that lyrics and music match up well or compliment and/or balance each other out. It would also be to your benefit to make your point in the shortest amount of time possible. There are songs that will continue and continue and continue and by the time the song is done, you are sickened. Make sure your highest point is memorable and all other points support it. Explore your song and your sound and your meaning and carry it out as long as it will go. Do what it takes to drive your point home, and when you do, let it go. Let your song stand on its own and let it speak for itself. As a communicator, music needs to do its work alone. It is up to us as musicians to create it. Once that is done, be proud of what you made. Trust it to make the point and communicate very clearly. Liken it to rearing a child. Though I've never raised one of my own, I have observed good parents and bad parents alike. I've even read some books on the topic. You are responsible for the way the child turns out, but whenever the child turns 18 and moves out (hopefully) it can go out on its own, make a living and make you proud. You must release your song out into the cruel crazy world and allow it to stand alone. You must learn to release it.

Finding Your Release

Once your song is written, once you are confident in it, and once you have everything fine tuned, honed, and perfected, let the song go. There's something beautiful in simplicity. Some of the most beautiful songs are written with one acoustic guitar or one piano and some vocals. Many bands and artists alike think (though subconsciously) that quantity equals quality. In fact, this mindset can be lethal to your song. Say what you want to say, say it in the time frame you need to say it to fully drive your point home, but avoid fluff. Its a mindset of extremes. When communicating or talking to someone, if you consistently use one word to describe something, let's use the word "awesome" for example, the true meaning of that word is lost. Where is the contrast between one awesome to the next? The point I'm trying to make here is this. Don't overuse elements in your songs such as catchy bridges (or bridges in general) or loud guitar solos or a drum breakdown or anything else you may have up your proverbial sleeve. Don't be tempted to layer your guitar tracks 5 times over and add harmonies to your vocals all through the song and add some intricate guitar breakdown. Even if your song comes down to bare bones tracks, let the song stand on its own for what it is. Be proud of what you created and let it say what you wanted it to say.

If all of us as songwriters will take the time to look over our songs, refine them, and then be proud of what we came up with, I think our songwriting will become very solid, and something to be very proud of. I said that I offered you immortality in the introduction of this article. If we write good songs with good messages and good points offered on a quality palette of musical styling, future generations will look to us for inspiration. Pieces of our heart and soul will live on as long as our songs do. That point alone is something that is very encouraging to me. I challenge all songwriters to go over their songs again, and cut out the fluff, add extra parts, and really give them a work over. Make sure that all your music, all your songs make a point, make it efficiently and drive straight to the heart of the listener. Hearts connecting to hearts, souls connecting to souls, and thoughts inspiring other thoughts. This is the beauty of music, and it is something that should be respected and cherished.

-Mikey Harper

111 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Bubonic Chronic
    Hmm...a little too bitchy a short on advice. I would suggest recording your riffs and chopping them into pieces like parts of a sandwich. That cool fingerstyle thing you always play in A Phrygian (key of F). That slidey thing in D Major. The syncopated thing with the Bm chord... Record them all as riffs. Repeat them quite a few times with a solid rhythm. Then you can stick them together, slap one after another, shorten up the reps, and piece together a working song out of your various riffs on a piece of recording software such as Cubase or ProTools. Once you have an acoustic guitar, or piano, or whatever you write your riffs on recorded, sit and listen. Jam along with your bass. Jam along with your lead guitar. Sing or hum along. If you sing or play something you like, keep it (record everything), but if it's no good, ditch it. Eventually you will find what works and what doesn't. You won't have to worry about playing your song again and again or nailing that tricky riff in the middle - let the computer do it (or a 4-track.) That's how I write.
    about the rap comments. yes it is ture that a lot of rap discusses those topics whihc you find unsavory but that means you refuse to hear the politically and poetically charged 10 percent or so that use their interseting flows to promote something different like krs-one or tupac, you can't label a type of music bad without listening to it and secondly it still artistic inspiration and a true artist would accept that for what it is
    EDIT: Oh, and Lacuna Coil has a pretty cool sound... and on behalf of the American people I want to take this opportunity to apologize for Good Charlotte, Blink 182, Britney Spears, M.C. Hammer, N-Sync, Hanson, Jessica Simpson, Ashlee Simpson... and I'm really really sorry about Madonna, but she's all yours now, we don't want her back
    how dare you say that about mc hammer
    halfwaythere123: 5 stars. You tell it like it is. I'm only 15 but i know what sounds good, & more originality is needed in songwriting really. Just writing a song now, y'all should hear it [POSTED: 01 April 2005 - 08:29]|
    I wanna hear this "song"
    I am a DJ at a christian Radio station. I have been a youth pastor, and I lead worship every sunday at a church here in Texas. I grew up listening to christian
    music, and I probably know more about it as a sub-culture (not a genre) than most anyone who has mentioned it on here... And from an inside perspective, I am ashamed to even admit that I have affiliation with it.
    What the f*ck! So now he's sharing his life's story with us?
    [ause I didnt do what I preached in this article, which is look over our creations, I let this article slip through my fingers and upset many people. I have wronged you, the reader, and I am very sorry. But I am glad to see everyones opinions. Im very sorry. And speaking of creativity, did anyone else catch the new insult? "Clutter****" thats very creative. Kindest regards, mikey [POSTED: 02 April 2005 - 14:17]| Gumbi89:/QUOTE] no
    Howdy everyone, its Mikey, the author of this article. I have a sincere apology to make to every reader. I sent this article in haste, and did not proof read it or check it over or anything like that, as I normally would. For that, I am very sorry. I would have cut out much of the "fluff" indeed, and I would have reworded many things... Of course nothing is original, and I should have mentioned that. Creed and Evanesence and Blink 182 arent original, simply radio friendly. And I dont really care for them too much. Of course there are rap artists out there who are actually talking about things and put out good music. Sadly, in my opinion, they are in the minority. I was speaking of pop-rap and things of that nature. And About christian music, I simply meant that if you listen to Christian Radio, or go to christian music stores, you will be hard pressed to find something original. They even have fliers at the stores that say "if you like such and such band, try listening to so and so..." its really depressing. Yes, Underoath is amazing. They perfected their style, and no one can do it better (in my opinion). Relient K's new stuff is still not very original, but still very good. mewithoutYou is one of my favorite bands. The sad thing is, the list pretty much stops there. Switchfoot was great, and still is, They are just overplayed in my opinion. How dare I make fun of christian music, right? Who am I to diss christian music, right? Its great that people are speaking their beliefs in music, right? I am a DJ at a christian Radio station. I have been a youth pastor, and I lead worship every sunday at a church here in Texas. I grew up listening to christian music, and I probably know more about it as a sub-culture (not a genre) than most anyone who has mentioned it on here... And from an inside perspective, I am ashamed to even admit that I have affiliation with it. I am sickened that the majority of "christian music" is not original in any sence of the word. Whenever Vanessa Carlton had her hits, Joy Williams came out with a song that was such an imitation Im surprised that there wasnt a law-suit. As soon as the high soaring female vocals of evanesance became popular, barlow girl released a hit that is also surprisngly similar. Im not trying to put down any whole groups or genres, Im merely trying to say "what if we thought outside of the box and wrote what we wanted to, no matter what was popular?" and because I didnt do what I preached in this article, which is look over our creations, I let this article slip through my fingers and upset many people. I have wronged you, the reader, and I am very sorry. But I am glad to see everyones opinions. Im very sorry. And speaking of creativity, did anyone else catch the new insult? "Clutter****" thats very creative. Kindest regards, mikey
    Inspiration's got to come from somewhere... our problem, as human beings, is that we hear the same old thing being jammed down our throats and we get tired of hearing the same old thing, so we either try to make it better than the original musician did or we tune it out entirely. As musicians we have to keep re-inventing ourselves or struggle with the threat of stagnation and monotony... I'm a huge fan of progressive rock and metal, so should I take a Tool song, for instance, and try to redo it? No, but I will use that song as an inspiration to write a new song based on those ideas and throw my own spices in to create something completely different. Maybe not the same chord progression, maybe a different rhythm, it doesn't matter, everything has already been done before so why do we down people and call them unoriginal because their music sounds similar to someone elses? Go with what you know. FAITH+1 RULES!!!
    This guy doesn't know what good rock is. Evanescence?! Creed?! What the ***?! Besides being bullshit fakers, how can you be a so called Christian band if your a ***ing goth, or your band's a bunch of pricks about getting wasted on stage? Secondly how can you slam on christain music when there's two christain bands in the first paragragh of your post? And for all this talk about making your song short and to the point he shure did dramatize and made this entire thing longer than it needed to be. What about Metallica, they have some of the longest solos but they still sound letha as hell. It makes for a better song. Isn't that what inspiratoin is? Somebody else does somehing that's tight so you'r "inspired" and you go and come up with your own ideas based off what you heard. I see a red house, I paint a red apple. Count how many times I said *** and get a free prize!
    You mainly wrote on what is bad in each of the section more then what should be done, next time write more advice when u write something.
    christian music rocks 98 % of the time. and nobody can honestly say that they haven`t been influened by a band or a singer. atreideslegend hit the nail on the head.
    to each his,or her own. it`s definately way better and cooler and not gay, if you write original stuff. but to each his own.
    I think it's a little stupid having guidelines to 'think outside the box, actually it's awfully stupid. I hate it when you people come on here and write columns, thinking your the shizze. If you follow guidelines to write a song you shouldn't be writing songs at all.
    i strongly dissagree about "christian" music.....bands like underoath, mewithoutYou, and relient K, have all either pioneered or greatly furthered their genre.....be well educated before you make assumptions please
    look u will never ever EVER find an original sound because ure music is based on what u hear. Its how humans learn, u wouldnt be able t talk if u had never heard a person speak, music is the same. People cant play music that is 'different' because if they did something in their head would say to them it sounds crap. All u can do is mess around with what u already know and twist that to ure own.
    omg after reading the first paragraph n im down here already. i mean r u trying to say BLINK182 n EVANESCENCE r ORIGINAL? COMPLETE UTTER BOLLOCKS n if this was an april fool then it was pish right, now im going to actually read the rest of the article
    5 stars. You tell it like it is. I'm only 15 but i know what sounds good, & more originality is needed in songwriting really. Just writing a song now, y'all should hear it
    except since i wrote that post I ACTUALLY FOUND SOME INSPIRATION! whoo. go me. ehm.. did i mention i liked this article. 4 stars.
    To monkeyspks: it's ok if you lack inspiration, just jam for 8 hours and write about nothing. It worked for Phish!!
    OK yes that works, let's skip school and jam for 8 hours.
    EDIT: Oh, and Lacuna Coil has a pretty cool sound... and on behalf of the American people I want to take this opportunity to apologize for Good Charlotte, Blink 182, Britney Spears, M.C. Hammer, N-Sync, Hanson, Jessica Simpson, Ashlee Simpson... and I'm really really sorry about Madonna, but she's all yours now, we don't want her back.
    Nobody even bothered to mention the fact that Creed and Evanescence were comprised of Christians, or that the reason they went mainstream in the first place was to subtly hint at the fact that they were writing songs with Christian values... I like Evanescence, I like their sound... I can't stand Creed or Alter Bridge or whatever they're called. Oh, and Switchfoot? The band I play in covers "Meant To Live" and our drummer bought that cd. We listened to the entire album and thought the whole thing sucked. He tossed the cd out the window as he was driving down the road just minutes after he bought it. And Creed is a copy of Pearl Jam. So is earlier Stone Temple Pilots. That whole "grunge" era was presumably dead for a while and rock bands are still emulating the same formulas that worked for those particular bands. Maybe Evanescence is a copy of the worthless crap they put out in Europe, I don't know... I'm still waiting on an apology for Oasis, The Cranberries, Sinead O'Connor, The Hives, and Jet... at least Canada has apologized for Brian Adams and Alanis Morrisette. A lot of these "modern" bands are dumber than a 3-legged dog trying to bury a turd on a frozen lake. If you watch MTV, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's not just outside America's borders, it's all around the world. Record execs don't care if you have musical talent, you just have to look cool. How do we know what cool is? Just watch MTV, they'll show you how to look cool. And, yes, I am being sarcastic. How do you think Ashlee Simpson got a record deal? I'm currently teaching a chimpanzee to play harmonica, and she's gonna be HUGE! Now if I can just get her to stop throwing turds at the camera I think I might just be onto something. Ouch! Cut it out, J-Lo!
    Dear Biohazardous59, ..I apologize for the earlier apology for M.C. Hammer. The M.C. Hammer we all know and love worked very hard to get where he was at the pinnacle of his career. He was sincerely devoted to his family and friends and for me to make a mockery of his persona was completely unacceptable. I spoke with M.C. Hammer yesterday and he assured me that he will make a comeback as soon as he possibly can. He asked if I would consider changing my last post so that instead of reading "M.C. Hammer" it would read "Modest Mouse" and I swore an oath to the Hammer himself that I would replace his name. Then he asked me if I wanted "Ketchup" with my "Fries", to which I replied, "PROPA!". ..Sincerely, ..Dogwillhunt P.S.: M.C. Hammer doesn't really work at a fast food restaurant, I made that up. P.P.S.: He actually works at the 7-Eleven up the street.
    to Sensate: Do NOT... I mean do NOT stereotype Americans as ethnocentrics who refuse to become cultured in other societies. Here's what I agree with you upon: Blink 182 sucks and they are reduntant and unoriginal. Good Charlote is horrendous. Evanesance, I don't know their story or that type of music. What everyone has to realize is rock is a truely American thing. I know this may SEEM like an ethnocentric comment, but it is fact. Take a look at Led Zeppelin. Take away the distortion and Plant's genius voice. What do you have? BLUES. Blues came from America. Clapton, argueably the greatest guitarist ever, even covered Robert Johnson (Mississippi Delta Blues artist/guitar master) in Crossroads. Led Zeppelin combined blues and hard rock. Jimi Hendrix (an American) took blues, psychadelia, and hard rock to make his own style. Grunge, my favorite era of music, was derived from 80's rock as well as classic rock, with a splash of heroin. It's not that Americans refuse to listen outside our boarders. It's just that many of us (ones like me) refuse to listen in the present. 95% of modern music sucks. I show no disrespect to you, I'm just trying to get you to realize that many Americans such as myself do not value America over other countries, and so on. Yay for music
    i don't have the time nor the patience to read this. i think good riffs just come...you can't teach people how to make a riff. it's not like anyone actually sits down with a guitar in their hand and this article in front of 'em and think: "today, i shall make the best riff ever!!!". the best riffs ever were created just by playing around with different chords (ie: Slash - the riff for sweet child o' mine). that being said....this is quite useless. if you're a real musician...you don't need this article! i'd rather hear and/or make a crappy, yet original song than a rip-off of something great.
    Outside Octaves
    To the first poster, and to everyone who took that to heart...: NEVER EVER EVER EVER!!!! throw out a riff, even if it "doesn't work". It may not have worked for that song, or the next 50 songs you write, but one day it might be perfect for the one song that get's you airplay the world over ... take Satriani for an example there .
    I think SOAD are getting into more of a political mindset because of the latest cd... I could be wrong, but with songs like B.Y.O.B. and Cigaro... obvious political compositions and Steal This Album and Toxicity had some political overtones on them as well. I also think that a lot of right thinking people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. What is everybody's overall thought on Ravi Shankar's contrapuntal rhythmic inversions? Personally, I find them to be sublime, yet tastefully not roccoco. Any thoughts?
    this is completely irrelevant (appart from the fact that both bands are quite original) but doesnt it seem that SOAD are kinda adapting the atitude that RATM once had about like dropping bombs and stuff, system , in my opinion , are kinda taking over what rage started, what do you guys think??
    this aritcle has its ups and downs ... ... u could of summarised this in a paragraph... but then again, i couldnt be bovered writing that much... newaiz.. its an aiight article...3 stars
    this conversation slightly shifted... it's still a matter of opinion when it comes to bands... i can't say i like a lot of christian bands....
    Project 86 and Norma Jean rock! If you think Andrew Schwab has no talent, you are sadly mistaken.
    Underoath, ZAO, Norma Jean, Dead Poetic, Stretch Arm Strong, The Agony Scene, Demon Hunter, Blindside, Chevelle, Project 86, Beloved(US) these are all great christian bands... and i know i even left out a few... so dont give that "Christian music is copyed music off of other great bands" because these are all great bands that i have seen secular bands give props to
    id like to say personally that article sucked, yea, creed is good, and all, but still aint rock and metal all about the cool guitar solos and drum solos, i mean when i play i will write solos before the actual song, i mean come on, think about it..
    I'd just like to say that personall,y I don't follow any formulas or anything of the sort. I write what I'm feeling, and I just fiddle with it until I'm happy with it. To make a song good, just make it your own. Even if it's not the best in the world, at least you can say you didn't copy some one hit wonder.
    its sumthing that just happens like art work.. depends on how you view your writting proccess, a contemptory methord or classic.. for me im always writing diffrentely and love to experiement!
    if u wanna write an orginal song lock yourself in a room for 2 months, then get someone to throw a guitar in for you to fiddle about with for a while, and i garrantee you will have a few original songs by the time you are freed from the room
    6_String_Addict: SelfImmolation: I don't consider myself a rap fan. But there are many rappers that are extremely respectable, that have talents you can't even touch. While some rap is definetly mindless, can't you say the same thing for some rock songs? Bottom line, dissing rap as a whole is a bad idea.
    dude are you ****ing kidding me. rap is complete ****. all it is is a 4 note progression thats sounds horrible, and then theres a gay drumbeat that even i do. theres nothing do respect, and it sounds gay. all they do is write about sex too.
    Copying is the same now as it was 200 years ago. The Romans copied the ancient Greeks. And now for the last 15 years, all bands sound like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, Metallica, or Green Day. Sweeping generalization, I know. Every artist steals from other artists and combines into a finished conclusion. I see a red house, I see an apple, I paint a red apple. Some just do a better job than others, as to be inconspicuous concerning musical theft. For example: The Exies. Bad ***ing job. Nirvana. Good job. Just write music that sounds good. Don't write music that sounds original. Original without good is just wierd shit.
    Forgive me if im wrong but music is music, to someone it may be thier life and to others something to nod thier heads to but thats all it is... We shouldnt argue over who is better at guitar or drums or even singing, we shouldnt start wars and fights because we think differently from one another. There are too many people taking this stuff to seriosuly and thier even killing others because of it!
    Ugh... another "rule preacher"... fine... I'll stop writing my 30 minute long prog rock fantasies and go to writing bland, repetitive rubbish for MTV and radio. Is that what you want?