As someone who never misses a meal, I take pleasure in the daily routines that offer comfort and a sense of familiarity. My songwriting process is like that. When I write, I predictably follow a writing process that is most comfortable and familiar to me.
Let me explain: Lyrics come first, along with melody, due to years of piano practice within a classical environment. Left to pure inspiration, I tend to gravitate towards melodies that accommodate longer, lyric-heavy lines. My harmonic ideas tend to be derived from my melodic ideas, and remain more conservative if I do nothing to push them outside the box. All I ever knew about groove I got from Mozart, which is to say, not much. Aside from a chord on a downbeat or an arpeggio, groove is the last thing on my mind.
If I write only on inspiration according to the process that feels most natural to me, I overlook elements that can grow my style and result in new songs. I write, in fact, the same song over and over again. In fact I’ve even written an article about that to remind myself to stop doing it! The alternative is to think consciously about doing something different. For me, I have to put effort into writing a melody that is more driven by its rhythms than its pitches. I have to get inspiration from the grooves of other songs and productions, (and yes, by “get inspiration” you could probably also say “steal”) to write songs that are groove-oriented. I have to use the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical tools that seem comfortable and familiar to other songwriters when I want to do something experimental with my own writing.
Over the course of four articles, published every Monday this month, I’m going to suggest 20 activities to help push outside the writing process that may be familiar to you. Some of these activities will be things you already do. Some will not. The power of a new approach is that though unfamiliar or even uncomfortable at first, it results in new musical and lyrical possibilities. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”
Day 1: Write a Verse and Chorus over a ‘New’ Chord Progression
Try copying a chord progression from a song you enjoy. If you feel you can’t shake the old song, change the strumming pattern or groove by slowing the tempo way down, or speeding it up. Or, try taking a chord progression you like and inserting a borrowed chord in place of only one of the chords. Another idea is to keep it simple and try writing over a chord progression that is just two chords. The more minimal the chord progression in the verse, the easier it can be to write a contrasting progression in the chorus.
Give yourself 10 minutes to find the progression, and 20 minutes to write the section. Then, give yourself another 10 minutes to find the progression for the contrasting section, and 20 minutes to finish it off with melody and lyric. Remember that repetition and simplicity can be the key to finishing songs. Over-complication can lead to paralysis.
Day 2: Jam for 15 Minutes while Recording
You don’t jam, you say? Now you do. Play around on your instrument while recording. Set the mood in the room if you like: dim the lights, light a candle, throw on your favorite pajamas. The key here is to find a space where you can enjoy the sound of your instrument, voice, and feel free enough to hum and sing nonsense words. When you’re finished, listen back to your recording and pick out a few moments that carry some weight, musically, lyrically, or both. Spend another 15 sketching out some more song ideas around that moment.
Day 3: Start (and End) with a Two-Page Free-Write
Free-write with sensory language in mind: Use taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement to generate images around a keyword or concept. You might choose an object like “waterfall,” a place like “jail cell,” or a person like “cashier on Tuesdays at check-out station 5,” or a concept like pulling an all-nighter for the boss. Lock into any images that pop up, and write with abandon. The key here is to write without judgment, and simply allow whatever flows to make it onto the paper or screen. End your day with another two-page free-write. The next day, sift through every line and phrase. Circle the words and phrases that could be titles to a song.
Day 4: Find a Beat on YouTube or GarageBand
There’s nothing novel about this idea, but it’s amazing how much pressure we put on ourselves to come up with every part of a song on our own. Painters don’t design their own paint colors before painting. Neither should we make ourselves responsible for innovating on a groove or tried-and-true chord progression. Give yourself a break and start with a foundation that works, so you can layer your strengths and talents on top. Write the whole verse-chorus in just 45 minutes. To do so, you’ll need to commit to your ideas instead of doubt them as you move further through the song.
Day 5: Record 15 Minutes of Melodies
Press record and start singing! Even if you don’t sing. Play a simple chord progression and experiment with all the things you can do with your melody. Start singing phrases on the downbeat of the measure. Then wait a few beats and try singing the same lyric phrase late in the measure. Try it as short high pitches. Try it as low, longer pitches. Try using internal repetition where you repeat portions of the lyric before finishing out the phrase. Try using lots of rest space or very little between your lines. Sing nonsense words or sing lines of lyrics that pop up as you go. Try starting on the root, then the 3rd, then the 5th, experimenting with the starting tone of the melody. Then try starting on pitches that aren’t part of your chords underneath: these are the passing tones, and they can bring wonderful tension. Listen intently to how the message of the lyric changes, and the overall emotion that results (or doesn’t result) with every new choice you make. Finally, speed up or slow the tempo you’re playing within to arrive at new melodic feels.
One final thought as you move through these suggestions for the week: define the time you have to spend each day, and stick to it. If you’ve got 20 minutes, write at least one section in that timeframe. If you’ve got one hour, finish a verse and chorus. Trust the instincts that told you an idea was good when it came to you, and don’t doubt it later. About 90 percent of the song we write isn’t our best 10 percent. But one thing is sure: 100 percent of nothing is no song at all.