Songwriting process

The elusive method that works?

In short. I dont have a working songwriting method. Which frustrates me to a degree because without a song, there is nothing.

My singing and guitar playing are at peak levels (and still getting up)…but, I couldnt really prove that to anyone since im not really laying down songs to show what I think I can do lol

Up to this point my “method” has been:

  1. program a drum track with EZ Drummer. I put the structure right in the drum track, whatever it may be. Lets say: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/solo, chorus (maybe 2x), outro. That would be pretty typical

  2. Lay down all the rhythm guitars, generally one track left and one track right more or less playing the same thing.

that might lead to something like this

now, the problem is, this is generally where that method ends. in general the drums would be programmed on one day. Then all the guitars would be done in one sitting, maybe taking 1.5 - 2 hours.

The thought process being that I would then add vocals and lastly bass (or vice versa). But so far the vocals just arent getting added. Sort of a mental block going at this point because I literally have upteen dozens of these rhythm tracks laying around unfinished

Would a better method be to 1) program the drums 2) Come up with an intro and verse guitar part. 3) add verse vocals to see where it leads. 4) then continue on adding the next guitar part??

or…try to come up with chorus hook first with chords and vox etc??

In any case, what I am doing atm isnt really working

thoughts? Thanks, JJ

I sit down with a piece of staff paper and no instrument and try to hear it in my head.

hear what though? vocal melody? chords? a melody without chords is weird etc

The whole thing. Everything.

I found that I write better when I’m not constricted to where my hands naturally move on an instrument.

So- muscle memory. Right? Technical habits. If you only ever write melodies on top of riffs you can physically play, your writing will never exceed what you can play. The only way to free your mind from your physical and technical limitations is to not rely upon them in the writing process. This way your imagination is driving the composition, not your instrumental disposition. Not your ‘chops’.

Also, experiencing the music through a visual and intellectual means gives you insight you wouldn’t have if you were purely relying on what you can only hear right infront of you. For example, if you’re writing counterpoint, or have harmonies that cascade over various rhythmic irregularities, its easier (for me anyway) to see it on paper and weed through problem areas before I get anywhere near Finalie or Sibelius.

Think about it like this: If I can think it, then I can write it, and its someone else fucking problem to figure out how to play it.
If I can’t write what I can’t sing, and I’m not a very good singer, then well…I don’t got shit.

The trick is hearing sounds accurately in your mind. I used to discourage students from using Finalie, Sibelius, or a DAW to compose. The reason is that they automatically balance the instrumentation of the song in a way that sometimes doesn’t work when you actually hand out the music for people to play.

Your track above: What do you want to hear? Why are you not hearing it? Can you fix the problem IN YOUR MIND before you send yourself on a wild goose chase trying to troubleshoot the song in your DAW?

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Maybe try this very different approach…

Let’s say that songs are all about emotion. That they’re about expressing emotion, communicating something and getting the listener to feel it as well. If that’s the case, I’d recommend starting with the feeling. Forget about the music. Go inside yourself and ask yourself, “what is something I feel strongly about?” Make it personal. As an example, I somewhat-recently wrote a song about moving back to the town I grew up in. I started with the feeling, and the song emerged from that.

Once you have your topic, do some free-writing about it. It could be random lyrics that occur to you, or maybe sit down with your guitar and feel that feeling while noodling around. See if you get something you like. You could even just free-write some thoughts about it. Things you want to say. Don’t worry if it sucks, just let it come out. Don’t stop ideas from coming out–just be the judge once they do.

This is how I write songs. I use emotion as a compass. If something gives me chills, makes me cry, or gives me some other strong feeling, it’s a keeper. If not, eh maybe I keep going until I find something better. It can take a little time this way, as I do like to allow my subconscious time to chew on the ideas once I’ve started working, across several days, but it works for me. Music is just the means of communicating; it’s the ideas and the emotions that are most important. I know that’s not how everybody goes about it, but there’s an idea for you anyway.


This is a really good piece advice from @Cristina.

I don’t win every chess match I play. But if I learn something from the matches I don’t win, I gain experience, and at the end of the day it was worth playing. Experience songwriting accumulates the same way everything else in life does. By doing it over and over and over again, as long as you make some effort to grow from your process. If you get an idea out, and its not gonna be a hit, or maybe not even heard by anyone…you still wrote a song. And that as that process becomes a part of you, you grow.

Yeah, that’s how I work too. I have to feel strongly about something. My only problem is that I usually don’t get detached enough from my daily worries, stress and such to let the lyrics and music come to me. I need to have a lot of energy and focus. Usually it only works after a week or two of vacation.

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That’s an interesting thought! I recognise falling back on well engrained patterns. Breaking the pattern sounds like a good idea. I recently bought an orchestral sample player, and was (again) inspired by the orchestration on some of the Beatles albums. Till now I’ve tried it once as a backing for my acoustic guitar. Maybe I should try starting out with composing an orchestral part first and work from there?

Baroque music is a great example of stuff that doesn’t fit very neatly in your fingers as a pianist. Unlike Romantic era literature, Baroque (think Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti), wrote the stuff on the page, got the notes write, and just simply told whoever was playing the piece, so suck it up and deal with it. So the fingering is brutally asymmetrical at times, but the structure of the phrases, the harmonies, and the continuity within the form of the piece is ALWAYS perfectly intact. Because those guys never let their 10 finger physiology tell them what they were/weren’t allowed to do.

I REALLY like to write orchestration with a pen and piece of paper. And I’m faster writing by hand than a lot of people are with a computer. Ya know…hmmm. I don’t know if I’m on board with starting with an orchestration. I tend to think that the orchestration (if there’s gonna be one) and the GBDK (guitar bass drums keys) need to be all accounted for in the same pass. Elton John has a few tracks that come to mind (Barbra Streisand too) that have a call-response between the guitars and the strings. Or maybe between the piano and the strings. Its hard to make that work properly if you’re writing one then the other, opposed to both at once.

Brass is a different story. The horn arrangements tend to function like accents on a keyboard. Where their purpose is to supplement the GBDK section, not necessarily to be a foundation the entire composition is built upon.

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I am with Cristina here. She must have been my sis in a past life…
If we de-formulise ourselves and hold on to the emotion, expanding to express it…
Then, within the realms of our technical proficiency, a landscape starts rising from the sea.
It can be a slow process, islands connecting with outposts.
Is your life a formula?


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no, but people do use formulas for things. There are right brained approaches and left brained approaches.

As soon as we make a RULE we are wrong anyway because we can then find dozens of our fave artists who do what we say shouldnt be done.

some say they ALWAYS start with a song title and they have no idea how anyone else doesnt.

Some start with music.

some start with vocal melody

Some start with lyrics…for others lyrics are an afterthought.

Eddie and Alex VanHalen used to write instrumentals and hand them to David Lee Roth who would then add lyrics and vox.

Bernie Taupin would write lyrics and hand them to Elton John who would then add the music and vocal melodies etc

I just wanted to hear what some others did

Don’t bore us, get to the chorus :stuck_out_tongue: haha. As I’m am more a fan of progressive music, they do make a great point in this stupid video.

If you want to get started, and make some songs, just think of a catchy phrase that has some meaning to you. Make it into a chorus. Put some guitars on it, or a simple bassline that indicates the chord progression.

Then start jamming, like he said for example. Just play the chorus chords as sort of an intro thing, then drop the volume:intensity, and maybe do something relating but simpler (more open) to the chorus, and build up to it. Maybe even drop the guitars and let the bass and drum do all the work, just work them cliché’s, but if you do this a few times, you’ll get into that zone more easily and can evolve your writing on the way. Make a clever bridge maybe. But just focus on that chorus, and work around that. At least you’ll get some songs done. Maybe you will find them to easy and cliché, but fuck it mate :slight_smile:

I’ve taken the other way around, and was always trying to write progressive stuff. Although I find that there are some good songs in it, I never really learned how to pull in an audience into it that didn’t know the music. Now that I started a new project where I’m gonna sing and play guitars at the same time, it forced me to start writing a bit more “organically” or some other hippy term, but you get the point. And now I’m getting more comfortable in writing “cliché” stuff with my own twist on it.

Have fun !


As you say, everybody has their own methods, so what works for some will not necessarily work for others.

I will say this though, the ‘songs’ you are writing aren’t songs, they are chord progressions or. at best, arrangements. It’s not a song until you have a melody and some lyrics, so I suggest you find a method of working that encourages the vocal melody to be the priority in your efforts. Everything else is just ear candy.

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isnt that explicitly stated in the OP?

Id program drums then lay guitar over it and I said thats where the process ENDS

I have maybe 12-15 songs under my belt and about 150 chord progression jams. Pretty sure I understand the difference but thanks for pointing it out to me. Obviously I am trying to improve my efficiency for completing songs

You asked for thoughts man. Those ^^^ are my thoughts.

It’s all about the melody. If you’re trying to improve efficiency, as Jonathan says, give the melody priority in the process.

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Life’s a bitch!
Of course Dave Grohl is right: it’s about the hook, and usually that coincides with the chorus. Still though, don’t underestimate the ease with which he churns out the basis for a viable hit in less than a minute: few have that skill.

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There’s nothing wrong with starting out with a melody and lyrics, but there are more approaches to songwriting. In what I write the chord sequence (and all the included riffs) are more important than the melody: the melody is a result of the chords, not the other way round. Take for instance Penny Lane by the Beatles (or almost any other post 1965 song of theirs). If you listen tot the melody alone it’s quite simple. It’s the amazing chord sequence that makes it the evergreen it will long remain to be. The chords are so much more than “ear candy”. I very much doubt Paul McCartney wrote the melody first. Either he started out with the chord sequence or he did it all in one go: chords, lyrics and melody.

yeah, this is sort of where I am coming from…im just not good enough to make it work yet lol

Interesting chords themselves can have the foundation for some beautiful songs…even if the melody laid over them is somewhat simple.

LET THE CHORDS DO THE WORK. That part I have a handle on…ive just been too lazy to sit long enough to work out the nice fitting melody lol

Pretty sure on some of the Beatles outtake stuff on youtube you can hear this actual process taking place. They are noodling with the melody trying to find the right note to fit the chords

In my mind, a melody by itself is simply nothing. For the most part, without chords u dont even know if its major or minor etc

you can take a melody and reharmonize it with different cords and it sounds 100% different

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side note, thats why a band the like the Beatles had a HUUUUGGGGEEEEE advantage over a guy sitting at home alone. You got one guy experimenting with the melody while another one OR two guys can suggest and try chords etc

And not just any guy either. Such a combination of compatible musical minds is a very rare occurrence. I’ve played with lots of musicians who were better than me in a technical sense. But playing with someone who you can actually create something new with you, rarely. At best someone who can play his part, and play it a hell of lot better than I could (in my case bass guitar and keys in particular). The home recordist misses all that, and I’m acutely aware of it… That’s why my recordings can never be anything more than a demo.