2: Writing Songs

Once you have the bones of the song, or at least an idea that excites you, it’s time to start fleshing it out. I don’t like using the same formula for each song, or even for most songs, but many very successful bands find one that works and rarely deviate from that formula. It certainly would make the arrangement easier if you do that! For me, I try to listen as if it wasn’t my song and transition whenever I get a little bored with the repetition. Sometimes I have a short bridge, sometimes a break with just one instrument, sometimes I have multiple bridges, anything to keep the main riff/chord progression from getting tiresome. Sometimes it’s just verse/chorus three times and done. I try to stay open and flexible to whatever feels to me is working best for the song.

One thing to keep in mind with these transitions is how easy it is to perform. In the studio you can punch in on the chorus, but not live. Also, I think it sounds better in the studio if you don’t have to punch in (unless that is part of the hook), usually a listener can tell when that happens and it breaks the illusion that you are in the room with a band. Since I usually compose on a guitar, at this point I spend some time (1-3 hours - sometimes over 3 days) performing the song on the guitar, editing it if necessary, but mostly to figure out where a bridge might go and how the song begins and ends. I also take this time to make sure the key is working for my voice. Can I hit the right notes with these chords? Usually it’s yes, but occasionally I realize the music and lyrics just don’t work together so I choose one and save the other for some other song.

For lyrics, I go "fishing". I'm fishing for lyrics that work. I will record myself improvising vocals while listening or playing the guitar for at least twice as long as the song will actually be, trying different melodies and phrases. Then I'll spend time listening to these improv demos of the song and start typing out the lyrics as they were in that recording. You can use paper or digital, whatever you like better. For years I didn’t leave home without a mini notebook in my pocket, but I switched to digital and it works for me. I like that I don’t end up with a recycling bin full of scratched out lyric sheets. Also, I can just make a quick edit and have it show up in my vocal booth (more on that later) without having to print a revision. The method that works for you may differ from my practice, but what I try to do is type out any discernible lyrics from the recording without being too judgmental. Even if the lyrics don’t quite work, they hint at the rhythm the lyrics need to fit in. If they don’t sound good at all, I just type a dash (-) and Enter so I know there is a line there that I just haven’t figured out yet and I will return to it later.

Whenever I get time, I grab a guitar and try singing out the song. Sometimes the lyrics that seemed okay, need tightening up to fit with the rhythm and this is where that is really noticable. Or maybe they don't fit all all with the song and just need to be cut. I try to record those edits immediately before I forget. These play throughs also give me time to work on the melody. This is NOT my strongest skill. I'm good with rhythm and decent with lyrics, but melody and harmony are things I have to work hard at. Everyone is different. A rare few are amazing at all four of those things. After I've been able to get through the song all the way and I don't hate it, it's time to record a demo (I'll get into that on the next entry).