Writing a song: Part I

Writing a song: Part I

Merry Christmas! This post is in some respects a continuation of my previous post, “What goes into Chiptune music?”, but it’s far more generalized. And of course, a warning: it’s heavily opinionated, but insight is never without some degree of bias.

Although I started playing music around the age of 12, I didn’t really start composing until I was about 23. What I’ve learned over the last three years of writing my own music is that composition is not like the process we have heard/seen from biographies or movies about famous composers. Not that many people get to have their very own masterpiece flow through their mind’s ear while sitting and doing absolutely nothing. What might happen on a very infrequent basis is that a melody does come to you, but it rarely comes neatly packaged with context (rhythmic, harmonic, bass components, etc). There are things you can do to make this process happen far more often (such as doing interval ear training, functional/solfege ear training, transcribing), but for the most part, composition is an active process, not a passive one. More after the jump!

The 80/20 Rule (aka Pareto’s Law), as applied to music

The most important thing you need to accomplish during a composition session is to make something that immediately inspires you. More often than not, you’ll find that the things that do inspire you don’t have much forethought put into the theory. Note that I’m not advocating complacency or laziness, here — if you’re playing boring chord progressions or absurdly simplistic melodies with no flow, it’s going to show. But the idea is this: 80% of your music is written with your gut, and the remaining 20% is written with your mind. One process never usually follows the other. They’re always complimenting one another all throughout the writing process. The trick, then, is knowing just what the heck you’re going to do when you’re sitting at a blank screen and nothing’s been recorded or written down yet. This article, and the ones that are sure to follow, will help you listen more to your gut instinct. Plus, if 80% of your results come from a solid gut instinct and knowing what sounds good/natural, then theory isn’t a top-priority.

So, how do you start?

This process will always differ from person to person, but the way I kick things off is by immediately going to my piano or getting my guitar out. At that point, I begin to noodle on the instrument. If you know some theory, this is a good time to impose some theory as a constraint to keep you focused and on task. Ask yourself questions about new, exciting musical challenges you’d like to make for yourself. You might think like this:

  • I want to compose in E Lydian (E F# G# A# B C# D#) …
  • I want to create a song in a 7/4 Time Signature …
  • I want to write a melody that’s made up entirely of sixteenth notes split into four note chunks, with sixteenth note rests between them … (1 2 3 4 r 1 2 3 4 r 1 2 3 4 r 1 …)

But if you don’t know much theory, that’s okay. Keep working at it until you find something that sounds good. If at any point you suddenly feel like you’ve had an “aha!” moment, you need to make a copy of what you just played immediately. It’s important that whatever you choose to record your ideas can reliably help you reproduce those ideas again, as you’ll inevitably forget it. Don’t ever think you’ll remember every single idea you’ve ever come up with (unless of course, you have photographic memory). I have the equivalent of a warehouse full of lost musical ideas, and I’ve had a lot of heartache trying to recover what I lost because I never took the time to take an inventory of what I came up with.

I have an idea recorded … now what?

Depending on dozens of different factors, you might find that the first musical idea is the only idea that you like. Maybe you’re able to come up with a bunch of other great ideas, but none of them fit. When in doubt, your greatest tools are as follows:

  • Repetition: literally repeating what you just played, to highlight this melody/rhythm as being the central component of the current section
  • Variation: the repetition of a previous musical idea, with an altered melodic or rhythmic component
  • Development: taking simple melodic or rhythmic ideas and fleshing them out — adding more harmonic color, for instance, or adding fills between notes that previously had none
  • Deviation: completely new melodic/rhythmic idea with no similarity to the previous section … often best executed when the previous section is “tagged” with variation or development, to hint that the energy is going in a different direction
  • Transposition: taking the melodic ideas you came up with in a previous bar and applying them to a new set of harmonic rules over a different chord (etc., Cmaj7: 1 8 7 3 5 4 -> G7b5: 1 8 b7 3 5 #4)

I’ll talk more about these methods in full in Part II. If you’d like to keep up to date on my blog posts and hear about exciting new music, please consider subscribing to my mailing list below! Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and good luck with your songwriting!