Songwriting. Part 1

Natural pros and cons inherently exist with every songwriting process and method -- here is the obvious set of them.

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Most people approach songwriting in the same general way. For those that write music, versus lyric writing only, that process is to go to their instrument and improvise until they stumble upon something that sounds good. They choose to focus only on the goal of having a completed song instead of focusing on the wide range of available processes to compose music. In other words, these people focus on the what (the song they want to write) instead of the how (which processes and methods can be used). Once the decision is made to write a new song, they begin with the one process that is easiest and comes most naturally to them - improvising at their instrument. For the purpose of illustrating the examples below, let us assume your main instrument is electric guitar. Natural pros and cons inherently exist with every songwriting process and method. Here is the obvious set of pros and cons for the process of improvising with your instrument:

This Method's Advantages

  • This is the easiest songwriting process for most songwriters.
  • You can begin immediately (without little or no pre-compositional planning or thought).
  • You can take advantage of the guitar's natural possibilities of tone, playability, pitch range, the number of pitches that can be played simultaneously, dynamic range, articulation, etc.
  • If you are a competent guitar player, you can easily create music that is natural for the guitar. You probably have at least a basic command of general guitar, so playing your guitaristic ideas won't be a major problem in most cases.
  • Because most songwriters (even many pros) write in this way, your musical results may be similar to some of those that have gone before you and written successful hit songs.

    This Method's Disadvantages

  • You are limited by the instruments limitations of tone, playability, pitch range, the number of pitches that can be played simultaneously, dynamic range, articulation, etc.
  • You are likely to repeat similar ideas that you have used before in other songwriting sessions.
  • It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking like a guitar player only versus a songwriting musician.
  • You may discover your hands are doing most of the creating, not your true creative mind.
  • The range of possible musical results is limited when using this single process exclusively. Not necessarily because there is anything wrong with the guitar or you. Any single songwriting process will be limiting. You must really work hard to squeeze as much out of a single process as possible. Of course having multiple processes is better than having only one (I will discuss other methods of writing songs in future articles). Go to your instrument and begin improvising, notice what types of things you do naturally. What is the process that you usually start with? Do you begin by trying to write a melody? Or do you begin with chords? Here is a list of ideas you can use to begin.
  • Begin with Melody first. 01. In this case, decide if the melody you are trying to write will be a vocal or instrumental melody. This is very important because vocal melodies need to have room for a singer to breathe and you must also consider the pitch range - a singer's pitch range is more narrow than most instruments. Keep this all in mind when writing melodies. 02. Consider the melodic contour (shape and direction) of your melodies. 03. Is there a clear climax (high point)? Where should it be in the melody?
  • Begin with Chords first 01. Choose a tonal center (key) to begin with. You don't have to stay in that key for the entire song, but it is wise to at least begin in a single key. You can deviate from the key later if you wish. 02. Think about the progression of chords, where are there moments of tension and resolution? Are these moments placed in the best order?
  • Begin with Chords and Melody at the same time. 01. I like this one a lot. Begin with a single chord and a melody note or phrase, as you add on the next chord and more melodic notes, write them together. Experiment by changing the chord but not the melodic phrase. Experiment by changing the melodic phrase but not the chord.
  • Begin with Rhythm first 01. Consider the types of rhythmic patterns that you normally use. Perhaps one of them is exactly what you need to get into the grove of a new song. 02. Experiment with variations on your favorite rhythmic patterns. Take a common pattern and play it backwards. 03. Create something totally new. Force yourself to disallow any of your favorite rhythmic patterns to creep into your new song idea. Dynamics, Texture and Form are the most often overlooked musical elements among songwriters. Record companies hire producers to improve the quality of the songwriting done by the writers. Most producers have to spend a lot of their time (and the artist's advance money!) shaping the songs in these three areas because songwriters often neglect to spend enough time and effort on them. Most people can write a melody and put chords together, but struggle with dynamics, texture and form.
  • Begin with Dynamics first 01. If you are thinking about dynamics while composing each part of the song, you are already ahead of the game. 02. Plan out what the dynamic range of each section of your new song will be. Which parts will be louder and which will be softer? How can you create smooth transitions between them? Do you want smooth transitions?
  • Begin with Timbre first 01. The variety of instruments you use, and the sounds you get out of those instruments brings color to you music. Once you have written a melody, experiment with how many different types of tone qualities you can use to play it. Even if you are only writing a song for a solo instrument, how can you color the sound with that instrument? For example, on a guitar, playing down by the bridge produces a totally different sound quality than picking over the center of the string (12th fret).
  • Begin with Texture first 01. The density of sound and timbre may influence the types of melodies you compose. Consider how the density of texture may change from section to section. What type of musical effect will result? A single guitar line might lead you to write guitaristic lines, but if you use a guitar to compose a keyboard part, your approach will often be (and probably should be) quite different.
  • Begin with Form first 01. Starting here can do wonders to keep you out of trouble (musically speaking). When you don't think about the form (arrangement of the parts of a song) early on in the writing process, it is easy to paint yourself in a corner later. When you have written various parts for a song but can't seem to piece the individual parts together in a cohesive manner this usually happens because there was little or no thought about form early on in the writing process. Tom Hess is a professional virtuoso guitarist and teacher. He has toured in many countries through out the world. To find out more check out the official Tom Hess web site. See Tom Hess on the HolyHell world tour in 2006. Tour dates posted here. Copyright 2005 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
  • 68 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      kilabasa
      Dude this artical didn't help anyone, if they tell you it did they are just kiding themselves. When finished I asked myself"what the hell did I just read". It is way too technical and doesn't really give you any advise that you can really grab onto. In one ear and out the other.
      blitzballer1
      you can pull inspiration from anything really ( but gettin mad is a great one lol) but wen u write, u hav to realise that u r tryin to convey a idea, but yer its good to try and keep to one topic or idea otherwise u might just confuse urself, but yer the article wasnt really about songwriting, it was about creating the music.....
      About Airplanes
      It was a well-write article. It defianlty brings another perspective on how to create a song. Self-conceiously I think I always used something like this, but it was good to read it in context.
      iliketaskate
      no matter how many song writing articles you read are you realy going to be told anything you dont already know? some magic tip that will solve all your problems. If you want to write songs just go and do it, sure it may sound bad for a while but the more you do it the better you get at it.
      poor_white_boy9
      "i watch my hopes and future blindfolded to stone for a sin i didint care for , but a sin that paid my debts , sin that fed my children burned my smiles and cigarettes." ----- In my opinion , writing lyrics is all about preference. I like lyrics that are metaphorical and have a meaning , as some like upfront lyrics. The main point is to try to have a different aproach on writing lyrics. Embellish your work.
      jojanx
      Thank you so much! I'm somewhat new at writing songs, so this was a big help.
      rockguitarist7
      ^it was a great article, however im very new to song writting and have no clue wat u were talking about in the second half. with the dynamics and timbre and stuff. I also start w/lyrics, but if i knew sum of this stuff's meaning it would still b helpful. ne how to those needing lyric help: go to "forums" then go to "lyrics and songwritting" then post ur lyrics and read others. it helps.
      master travis
      when i write a song i just start playing barre chords until i get a good rhythmn going and then start humming a melody and then add the vocals last.but all my songs suck so i'll try your way
      KurtzFireEagle
      I found this rather useless. Your layout is somewhat messy. But also in each section you give just a definition of each of the words. Eg in the Begin with rhythm section you say smething like, think about the rhythmic structure. Well DUUUH!
      DRoboWHOids06
      Hey jakishere i gotta tip on your lyric writing LEARN HOW TO SPELL!!!!!Oh....good article by the way.\m/>
      nadialeatz_4272
      hey Tom! I'm doing a research project for school & I was wondering if you're an actual expert on this sort of stuff or you're just someone who knows alot about music... thanx!
      Discouraged
      stevo192 wrote: damn that was one boring read. I'm an amateur somgwriter so what the **** is timbre, form and dynamics!? i want to write a song not learn every musical term out there...
      Well that was a pretty ignorant thing to say. You admit to being an amateur songwriter, and then you criticise someone with vast amounts of experience for trying to help you out? Ignorant, and ungrateful. Thanks for taking the time to write the article dude, SOME of us know that you really didnt have to, if you didnt want to. So thanks again.
      Junesongtrigger
      PjX71 wrote: sg-rocker173 wrote: "not to mention improve your control of the english language." That my friend, is something 75% of the population of the internet is desperately in need of. lol u said it.. good article.. 8/10
      That was a very ****ing ironic statement, haha.
      bowletta2
      SteveHouse : Nybb wrote: ... And for those asking for help with lyrics...I can't stress how important it is to READ. It might sound silly, but it really does help. It doesn't matter what, just get out there and read stuff. It will expose you to new ideas, not to mention improve your control of the english language. Poetry is especially good to read. Ignore the last sentence about poetry. You'll end up with these flowery metaphorical lyrics that don't make sense to anyone else. Write about what you feel- something you feel very strongly about, someone who effects you... yeah.
      you are saying poetry is gay? jajaja poetry can inspire you,some of the best songwriters read or make poetry (ex: serj tankian) lyrics are just like poetry,the only difference is the music -.-
      maako
      reading this kinda contradicts the "Go against the flow" point of the article
      SGdude452
      poor_white_boy9: "i watch my hopes and future blindfolded to stone for a sin i didint care for , but a sin that paid my debts , sin that fed my children burned my smiles and cigarettes."
      cool lyrics
      fudge65315
      just write what feels good, and write from your heart, not your head. if a riff doesnt feel right change it. if a lyric doesnt work, change it or put a YEAH!! or something. and theres no such thing as bad music. its just peoples opinions, which are usually bull shit anyway. hope i helped.
      PearlJamania
      ^ crikey Tyor thats alot of anger, perhaps you should write a song with all that anger. to be honest i didnt find the article very helpful either but thats me.
      Tyor
      scousertommy: Thi s is a very accurate article on songwriting. Unfortunately, it is the people who are not good songwriters that are least likely to realise the quality of the article. Good work, nonetheless.
      You Sir, are a moron. The people who don't understand this article are ones who picked up a guitar for the first time this week and just started playing. The people who believe this article is good are beginers like you tommy boy who are writing punk powerchord songs singing about how girls don't like you. The people(like me) who see this article for the true load of crap it is are experienced composers who know what they want out of a song and how to get it. As for you, Tom Hess, you are a moron also. You tell people "Consider the types of rhythmic patterns that you normally use . Perhaps one of them is exactly what you need to get into the grove of a new song." Followed by: "Create something totally new. Force yourself to disallow any of your favorite rhythmic patterns to creep into your new song idea." Heres an idea: Every song is a world of its own. Everythig in it should be there according to its own needs. NOTHING of what you have used before should EVER be put into another song intentionally. That just shows you how plain and uncreative all of you writers today are. Just that tip alone is more useful than your whole bullsh** article. For all of you just starting to write(A.K.A. everyone who actually believes this article is good. Read above to see what I think of you.) disregard anything that you have read by Tom Hess.
      PearlJamania
      and to be honest Tyor you contradicted youself just like tom hess.... "The people who don't understand this article are ones who picked up a guitar for the first time this week and just started playing." followed by "The people who believe this article is good are beginers like you tommy boy who are writing punk powerchord songs singing about how girls don't like you." i would have thought beginners were people who just picked up a guitar last week... meh why do i write
      Tyor
      I meant beginers as in people just starting to write, not play. P.S. Pearl Jam sucks.
      MATTTHEMOP
      so wait. sorry, but isnt the rhythm section still following a melody of some kind?
      Dan Steinman
      hey everybody, just for kicks and giggles i'm gonna define dynamics, texture, and form. they really are relevant elements of composition that are worth being aware of. first off, dynamics are simply variations in the volume, and expecially intensity, of certain parts of the song. dynamic contrasts can be used to build and release tension and make a song less monotonous. secondly, texture basically refers to the density and personality of the sound, for example, if a melody is accompanied by a fingerpicked acoustic part as opposed to, say, driving power chords and drums. rhythm and dynamics are also a big part of texture. last but not least, form refers to the way tension and release are organized within parts of the song, and also how parts of the song flow into each other, contrast with one another, and especially build on one another. the beatles were absolute masters of each one of these qualities by the way, so learn what you can from them. as for an approach to songwriting, i'm no more help than anyone else, but i know for sure that you'll definitely get better at it the more you try, so just sit down and write songs with a vengeance, even if they're bad, because you can at least learn from your mistakes, and i figure the more you write, the more you'll learn... hehe well, whatever that's worth. just don't overthink, just write a song already and take it from there. not to say theoretical songwriting methods are useless, but you can't completely rely on them. gotta get your hands dirty sooner or later. In euphoric gratitude to my most gracious audience, Dan
      PjX71
      sg-rocker173 wrote: "not to mention improve your control of the english language." That my friend, is something 75% of the population of the internet is desperately in need of.
      lol u said it.. good article.. 8/10
      sg-rocker173
      "not to mention improve your control of the english language." That my friend, is something 75% of the population of the internet is desperately in need of. Good article by the way. Might actually use some of the ideas in it rather than print it out and toss it away like the other ones.
      AC/DC Dude8
      good article, but i have more of a problem with lyrics. maybe you can do an article in the future about writing lyrics.
      SixStrings
      AC/DC Dude8: good article, but i have more of a problem with lyrics. maybe you can do an article in the future about writing lyrics. here's a helpful hint with writing song lyrics...stop listening to ac/dc if you want help with writing lyrics, they have some of the corniest rock lyrics ever. for example. tnt im dynamite, tnt and i win the fight, tnt im a power load, tnt watch me explooooode! cool riffs but gay lyrics lol
      SixStrings
      no but really man, read other artists' lyrics that make you say man, i know what they were feeling when they wrote that, look at the way they word something or the ajectives they use to describe something. any metaphores they might use. aslo write about something that you believe in as an individual, and you can never go wrong with writing the truth.
      YarlA
      rockergurl09 wrote: what about people who start songs first with the words? I'm primarily a guitar player, though I've been writing longer. Because of that, I'm apt to start with lyrics. Also, nothing about how to make the lyrics, like what to write about.
      Good point. If u make lyrics 1st, u most certaintly know wut kind of a song u want. But the best way to make a song with a band is the simplest, too. JUst get 2gether n' play. If ur good enough, itll work. This is how gr8s like Van Halen n' Led Zep wrote, the old fashion way. Ofc, u need to have lyrics complete b4 starting.
      rockergurl09
      what about people who start songs first with the words? I'm primarily a guitar player, though I've been writing longer. Because of that, I'm apt to start with lyrics. Also, nothing about how to make the lyrics, like what to write about.
      YarlA
      Hmm.. i got a band n' till now ive written with ur ''what'' strategy. I think ill keep this mind for future. Good tips. Nice work.
      Wasp
      Not really helpful if you actually want to create a song, in my opinion. No great 'good-to-go' tips, really, more of a expanded article on the 'body' of a song. Maybe you should call the article 'song examination' instead?
      thefinalcut
      Great article! It just points out different ways to start writing a song, while acknowledging there's not only one way to do it.