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The Craft of Songwriting: Finding Your Starting Point

Songwriting is an art form, a way of living life and a personal journey into the heart of expression through music. Every songwriter, whether novice or seasoned, finds themselves standing before a blank canvas, ready to channel thoughts, emotions, and stories into melodies and lyrics.

But… how does one start writing a song? How does a songwriter turn the quiet hum of potential into a compelling piece of music?

In this post I intend to explore the various entry points into the craft of songwriting.

From those who begin with a catchy lyric to those who build around a hypnotic beat, every approach offers unique advantages and sets the stage for the creative process. Understanding these starting points can not only demystify the songwriting process but also inspire artists to try new methods and discover what resonates best with their personal style.

Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block or just looking for a fresh perspective on your next song, knowing where to start can make all the difference.

Let’s start exploring the diverse ways songwriters can ignite the spark of their next musical project, exploring each method’s distinct flavor and how it can shape the path to a finished song.

Starting With Lyrics

For many songwriters, the journey of crafting a song begins with words. Lyrics are the backbone of a song’s narrative, often driving the emotional and thematic direction of the music that follows.

This approach is particularly favored by those who see themselves as storytellers, weaving intricate tales or conveying poignant messages through their music.

Why Start with Lyrics?

Emotional Blueprint: Lyrics set the emotional tone of a song. By starting with the words, a songwriter can define the mood and message right from the outset, ensuring that every musical element added later enhances and amplifies the initial emotional intent.

Narrative Structure: Songs with a strong narrative often benefit from a lyrics-first approach. This method allows the songwriter to map out the story or theme clearly before adding melodies and chords that complement the lyrical flow.

Versatility in Musical Adaptation: Lyrics that are crafted first can be highly adaptable to various musical styles. They provide a flexible foundation upon which different musical arrangements can be built, allowing the song to evolve in diverse directions as the composition process unfolds.

Tips for Writing Lyrics First

Keep a Journal: Many successful lyricists keep a journal of phrases, ideas, and poetic lines that strike them throughout the day. This habit ensures a reservoir of inspiration when sitting down to write a song.

Focus on Imagery and Emotion: Strong lyrics often use vivid imagery or intense emotional expressions to connect with listeners. Crafting lyrics that evoke clear images or stir emotions can make the song more impactful and relatable.

Use a Structured Approach: Starting with a clear structure for your lyrics, such as verse-chorus-verse, can help organize thoughts and maintain focus on the narrative or thematic elements of the song.

Example of Lyric-First Songwriting

Bob Dylan, a master of the lyric-first approach, has created many of his songs by writing the words before any music. His ability to tell profound stories through lyrics alone has made his music timeless and resonant with audiences across generations. You can hear this in his classic “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Beginning with Melody

    Melody is often the soul of a song, the element that listeners hum long after the song has ended. For many songwriters, crafting a compelling melody is the first step in the creative process, providing a musical scaffold that guides the development of lyrics and harmony.

    Why Start with Melody?

    Immediate Musical Identity: A strong melody can instantly give a song its unique identity. It serves as the primary hook that catches the listener’s attention and sets the tone for the entire piece.

    Guides Emotional Tone: The ups and downs of a melody line can express a vast range of emotions, from joy to sorrow, without a single word being sung. This emotional guidance can in turn influence the lyrical content, ensuring that the words match the melody’s mood.

    Structural Framework: Starting with melody allows songwriters to structure the song around a coherent musical theme. This structure can dictate the arrangement of verses, choruses, and bridges, providing a clear path for additional musical elements.

    Tips for Crafting Melodies First

    Humming and Recording: Many melodies come from spontaneous humming. Songwriters often keep a recording device handy (like a smartphone) to capture these fleeting moments, which can be developed into full melodies later.

    Experiment with Instruments: Playing around on a piano, guitar, or other instrument can lead to melodic discoveries. Even simple chord progressions can inspire a top-line melody that becomes the heart of a new song.

    Consider Rhythm and Phrasing: The rhythm of a melody is as crucial as its notes. Varying the length and timing of notes can add interest and expressiveness to the melody, influencing how it will interact with lyrics and rhythm in the full composition.

    Example of Melody-First Songwriting

    Paul McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” famously came to him in a dream as a complete melody. He initially used the placeholder lyrics “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs” before crafting the final, reflective lyrics that resonate with the melody’s wistful tone.

    Using Chord Progressions

      A chord progression provides the harmonic backbone of a song, establishing its musical foundation. Many songwriters find that starting with a series of chords can inspire both melodic and lyrical ideas, helping to cohesively bind the entire composition.

      Why Start with Chord Progressions?

      Defines Musical Mood: Chord progressions set the tonal atmosphere of a song. Whether cheerful, melancholic, tense, or relaxed, the chords chosen can instantly convey the emotional context, influencing all subsequent creative decisions.

      Facilitates Song Structure: Starting with a progression can help define the song’s structure. Changes in chord patterns can signal different sections of the song, such as moving from a verse to a chorus, which helps in mapping out the overall form.

      Sparks Melodic Ideas: Chords often suggest melodies. As songwriters play through a progression, melodic ideas may emerge naturally that fit the harmonic structure, making it easier to develop the song’s top line.

      Tips for Developing Songs from Chord Progressions

      Experiment with Common Progressions: Many iconic songs are built on common progressions like the I-IV-V or ii-V-I. Experimenting with these can provide a familiar yet versatile foundation for further exploration.

      Alter Chord Qualities: Changing major chords to minors, adding sevenths, or experimenting with suspended chords can dramatically alter the mood and inspire unique twists in the melody and lyrics.

      Use a Looper or Recording Software: Looping a chord progression can free up your hands and mind to experiment with singing or playing melodies over it. This can be an effective way to explore how different elements interact within the same harmonic context.

      Example of Chord Progression-First Songwriting

      John Legend’s “All of Me” utilizes a simple and effective chord progression that not only defines the song’s soulful and emotive tone but also supports the powerful vocal melodies and heartfelt lyrics.

      This approach allowed the emotional depth of the song to be front and center, resonating well with audiences globally.

      Building Around a Beat or Rhythm

        In many genres, particularly in pop, hip-hop, and electronic music, the rhythm or beat is not just a component of the song—it’s the driving force. Starting with a compelling beat can set the entire creative process in motion, influencing the melody, chords, and lyrics that follow.

        Why Start with a Beat?

        Sets the Pace and Energy: A strong beat establishes the song’s tempo and energy level, which are crucial for setting listener expectations and defining the song’s danceability or emotional intensity.

        Encourages Lyrical Flow: Rhythms can inspire the cadence and phrasing of lyrics. Rappers and pop musicians often write to the beat, ensuring their words sync up seamlessly with the rhythm, enhancing the overall musical cohesion.

        Stimulates Musical Creativity: A good beat can be infectious, encouraging further experimentation with different sounds and textures that complement the initial rhythmic foundation.

        Tips for Crafting Songs from Beats

        Start with Drum Machines or Software: Modern songwriters often use drum machines, software, or online beat makers to start crafting their beats. These tools offer a variety of sounds and patterns to kickstart the creative process.

        Layer Rhythms: Start with a basic beat and gradually add complexity by layering additional rhythmic elements like claps, shakers, or syncopated percussion. This layering can enrich the texture and depth of the track.

        Collaborate with Producers: Many songwriters collaborate with producers who specialize in beat-making. This partnership can bring a fresh perspective and enhance the rhythmic backbone of a song, especially in genres heavily reliant on beat-driven hooks.

        Example of Beat-First Songwriting

        Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” is a prime example of a song built around a distinctive beat. The iconic tabla beat sets a compelling rhythm that drives the entire song, dictating the flow of lyrics and the dynamic arrangement of the music, creating an unforgettable sonic experience.

        Concept or Theme Initiation

          Starting a song with a defined concept or theme is like beginning a journey with a clear destination in mind. This method appeals to songwriters who want their music to convey specific messages or tell detailed stories.

          It provides a framework that guides all other elements of the song, ensuring that they contribute cohesively to the overarching idea.

          Why Start with a Concept or Theme?

          Focused Message: A clear theme or concept ensures that every part of the song—from lyrics to melodies to chord progressions—supports and enhances the central message, making the song more impactful and meaningful.

          Cohesive Structure: When songwriters begin with a theme, it often leads to a more structured approach to songwriting. This structure can help maintain clarity and focus throughout the creative process, ensuring that the final product is unified and coherent.

          Emotional Depth: Themes can evoke strong emotions and connect deeply with listeners. Songs that revolve around universal themes like love, loss, or social issues tend to resonate more and reach wider audiences.

          Tips for Developing Songs from Concepts or Themes

          Research and Inspiration: Spend time researching your theme or drawing inspiration from personal experiences, literature, movies, or other art forms. This depth of understanding can enrich your songwriting and provide a solid foundation for your lyrics and melodies.

          Mind Mapping: Use mind mapping to explore different aspects of your theme. This can help you discover various lyrical ideas, musical motifs, and emotional tones that fit your concept, allowing for a richer and more varied composition.

          Consistency in Elements: Ensure that all elements of your song align with the central theme. This includes the tone of the lyrics, the emotions conveyed by the melody, and even the instrumentation and production style.

          Example of Theme-First Songwriting

          Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is an exemplary song that started from a thematic concept. Springsteen crafted this song around the theme of a Vietnam War veteran’s challenges upon returning home.

          The powerful lyrics, driving beat, and anthemic choruses all serve to highlight the struggles and disillusionment of the protagonist, making it one of the most resonant songs of his career.

          Crafting a Hook or Motif

            A hook or motif is often the most memorable part of a song—the catchy melody or rhythm that sticks in listeners’ minds long after the song has ended.

            For many songwriters, beginning with a compelling hook is a powerful strategy to ensure their song grabs attention and maintains listener engagement.

            Why Start with a Hook?

            Immediate Catchiness: A strong hook is instantly engaging, making it an excellent starting point for capturing the interest of listeners. It can set the tone for the rest of the song and act as a focal point around which all other elements revolve.

            Serves as a Musical Anchor: A hook provides a recurring musical idea that can be revisited throughout the song, giving the composition a cohesive feel. It can help unify various parts of a song, ensuring that they all contribute to a singular, memorable experience.

            Enhances Commercial Appeal: Songs with strong hooks are often more commercially successful. They are the parts that listeners remember and are more likely to sing along to, increasing the song’s potential for widespread popularity.

            Tips for Developing Songs from Hooks

            Keep It Simple: The most effective hooks are often simple and easy to remember. When crafting a hook, aim for clarity and catchiness without overcomplicating the melody or rhythm.

            Repeat with Variation: Once you have a hook, repeat it throughout the song, but introduce slight variations each time to maintain listener interest. This can involve changing the instrumentation, modifying the rhythm, or altering the melody slightly.

            Test Your Hook: Play your hook for different people to see if it resonates and sticks. Often, the immediate reaction of listeners can give you valuable feedback on the effectiveness of your hook.

            Example of Hook-First Songwriting

            Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” showcases an iconic hook that drives the entire song. The opening bass line immediately sets a compelling groove that is both unmistakable and irresistible.

            This hook not only captures the listener’s attention right away but also supports the song’s narrative and emotional depth, demonstrating the power of a well-crafted motif.

            Beginning with the Song Title

              Starting with a song title can be an incredibly powerful way to focus the direction of a song. A title often encapsulates the essence of what the song is about, offering a glimpse into its theme, emotional tone, or narrative before a single note is played or lyric is written.

              Why Start with the Song Title?

              Thematic Focus: A title can serve as a thematic anchor, guiding all aspects of the song’s development. It ensures that the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements all align to support a central idea or message.

              Marketing Edge: An intriguing title can spark interest and curiosity, making it a vital tool in the song’s marketing. It’s often the first element that potential listeners encounter, influencing their decision to listen to the track.

              Inspiration for Creativity: A great title can inspire the creative process, suggesting moods, stories, or concepts around which to build the song. It can provide a clear direction, simplifying the decision-making process as the song evolves.

              Tips for Writing Songs from Titles

              Choose Impactful Words: Select words or phrases for your title that are evocative, memorable, and expressive. They should hint at the song’s content or the emotions you wish to evoke in the listener.

              Reflect the Genre: Ensure that the title fits the genre or style of the song. Different genres often have different conventions around titles, with some favoring more abstract titles and others preferring straightforward, narrative-driven phrases.

              Use the Title as a Refrain: Consider incorporating the song title into the chorus or as a recurring refrain. This not only reinforces the song’s central theme but also ensures that the title sticks with the listener, enhancing its memorability.

              Example of Title-First Songwriting

              Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a compelling example of how a title can set the emotional tone and narrative framework for a song. The phrase itself is vivid and metaphorical, suggesting a deep, tumultuous emotional journey, which is then beautifully reflected in the lyrics and powerful musical arrangement.

              Improvisation as a Starting Point

                Starting a song through improvisation taps into the raw and spontaneous flow of creativity. This method is particularly favored by musicians who thrive on the organic development of ideas, allowing a song to emerge naturally from unplanned musical explorations.

                Why Start with Improvisation?

                Unfiltered Creativity: Improvisation allows songwriters to bypass overthinking and lets ideas flow freely. This can lead to unexpected and innovative musical and lyrical discoveries that might not occur in a more structured setting.

                Emotional Authenticity: Music created through improvisation often has an authentic emotional quality, as it reflects the artist’s feelings in the moment of creation. This authenticity can resonate deeply with listeners, creating a powerful emotional connection.

                Flexibility in Song Development: Starting with improvisation doesn’t limit the songwriter to any specific structure from the outset. This flexibility can lead to unique song structures that are tailored to the natural progression of the musical and lyrical content.

                Tips for Using Improvisation in Songwriting

                Record Everything: Always record improvisation sessions. Many musicians find that their spontaneous ideas can be fleeting, and recording ensures that no potential material is lost.

                Experiment with Different Instruments: Try improvising on various instruments to elicit different types of musical responses and inspire new ideas. Each instrument can bring out a different aspect of creativity.

                Collaborate with Others: Improvising with other musicians can enhance the creative process. The dynamic interplay between different artists can lead to more diverse and complex musical ideas.

                Example of Improvisation-First Songwriting

                The classic song “Layla” by Eric Clapton (when he was in Derek And The Dominos) was born out of a jam session. The iconic guitar riff that defines the song was a result of improvisation, showcasing how spontaneous creativity can lead to some of the most memorable and impactful music.

                Collaborative Songwriting

                  Collaboration is a dynamic and enriching way to start writing a song. Working with other musicians, lyricists, or producers can bring a variety of perspectives and skills that enhance the creative process, often leading to richer and more diverse musical outcomes.

                  Why Start with Collaboration?

                  Diverse Input: Collaborative songwriting brings multiple creative minds together, each contributing their unique ideas, experiences, and skills. This diversity can enhance the song’s complexity and appeal.

                  Strengthens Musical Elements: Different collaborators often have strengths in various aspects of songwriting. For instance, one might excel in melody creation, another in lyrical content, and yet another in harmonic structure. Together, they can create a song that is strong in all areas.

                  Enhances Learning and Growth: Working with others is a learning experience. Songwriters can learn new techniques, gain insights into different musical styles, and adopt new approaches to songwriting that can influence their future solo projects.

                  Tips for Successful Collaborative Songwriting

                  Establish Clear Communication: Ensure all collaborators understand the song’s direction and each other’s roles. Clear communication prevents conflicts and ensures that everyone contributes effectively.

                  Be Open to Ideas: The essence of collaboration is the blend of different ideas. Being open and receptive to your partners’ suggestions can lead to unexpected and innovative musical solutions.

                  Choose Compatible Partners: While diversity is beneficial, it’s also important to work with people whose musical styles and work ethics complement your own. Compatible collaboration leads to a more enjoyable and productive creative process.

                  Example of Collaborative Songwriting

                  The songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles is one of the most famous examples of successful collaboration. Their combined talents created some of the most enduring songs in popular music history. Each brought distinct ideas and perspectives to the table, but their shared vision and mutual respect facilitated a songwriting synergy that was greater than the sum of its parts.

                  Here’s their classic song “Strawberry Fields Forever” mainly because it’s a cool song.

                  So in conclusion, songwriting is an art form as diverse as it is expressive. Whether starting with lyrics, melodies, chord progressions, rhythms, or through collaborative efforts, each approach offers unique pathways to unlock creativity.

                  Understanding these various starting points can broaden a songwriter’s toolkit, providing fresh perspectives and new techniques for crafting compelling music.

                  The methods we’ve explored provide a roadmap, from the emotionally driven lyric-first approach to the rhythmic allure of starting with a beat.

                  Remember, the key to successful songwriting lies in finding the process that best suits your creative style and the specific message or emotion you wish to convey through your music. Experiment with these different approaches to discover which one resonates most with you and your artistic goals.

                  Now, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try a new starting point in your next songwriting session. Share your experiences and any new songs that emerge from these methods either in the comments below, on social media or contact me directly.

                  Your journey and insights could inspire fellow songwriters and contribute to a vibrant community eager to explore the vast landscape of musical creativity.

                  So get yourself started on writing your next song by choosing any one of the starting points above and remember… All roads lead to a completed song.

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