How To Write A Meaningful, Complete Song

Tommaso Zillio

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Does it ever happen to you to put together great little musical idea, but you have no clue on how to continue it? Once you have the perfect melody, what do you do with that? How can you write something else that really works with it?

This seems to be THE issue that affects most people who just began to compose... and not only. It was definitely one of the big problems I had to wrestle with when I was learning how to write my own music, and I see it in many students I taught too. If you too are in this situation, my first message would be: don't feel bad. It's totally normal, and there are many solutions to it.

If you are like I was, you have dozens and dozens of unfinished songs in your hard drive (or score folder, if you are old school). And periodically you revisit them and think that they are actually good... but you cannot find a way to complete them. And, frankly, you are frustrated. It's not that you don't have inspirations, it's that inspiration seems to dry up too soon.

Wouldn't you like to be able to write COMPLETE songs... and also to get back to the song fragments you already composed and finally complete them? I guess it would feel good, wouldn't you agree? As I said there are many solutions to this problems, let me share with you one of the simplest and most effective.

Step 1: Questions

The first thing you need to do is to take a step back. Ok, you have a musical idea. But what is this idea communicating? What emotions it does express? What feeling you want the listener to feel?

Ask yourself these questions... and then prepare for the hardest step of this solution. Are you ready for it? Good.

Step 2: The One Most People Don't Do :)

Take a piece of paper and write down the answers to these questions.

I guess this is the hardest step of this solution, because it's the one that most people don't do. It must be really hard... every time I explain it, this is where people stop. Even if I give them pen and paper, they complain that they don't need it, and they don't see how this is going to help them... it's quite funny to see all these grown up people protesting because they refuse to write down a few words :)

Here's a hint: you ACTUALLY have to write this stuff down on paper if you want to finish that song. Trust me, it works... and like everything, it works only if you do it. What do you have to lose in trying this? Worst case scenario, you wasted 5 minutes and a sheet of paper.

Step 3: Simplify

Once you have the answers to these questions in front of you, start simplifying them. Ideally you want to write the main idea of the song in a single sentence, one paragraph at most. The shorter the better.

This sentence will be your guide in writing the rest of the song, so spend some time on it and make it better. If you have no idea how to do make it better, then try listening to a song that you like (wether it has words or an instrumental) and try to summarize it in a single sentence.

For instance "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi can be summarized with "life sucks at the moment, but we won't give up"; "Enter Sandman" by Metallica with "What is a kid afraid of in the dark before sleeping?"; "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits with "Band of amateurs playing in a London pub, and their stories". See, it's not hard :-)

Step 4: Associate

Now it's the time to ask yourself: "how can I express musically the idea of my song?". What instruments/tones can you use? What rhythms? Is it more appropriate to make the song fast or slow, aggressive or not, loud or quiet?

For songs that require lyrics: what words and sentences will express the idea of your song? What point of view is more appropriate?

Write down all these answers too. Seriously... holding all this in your mind will prevent the formation of new ideas. Write your ideas down, free your mind, and new ideas will keep popping up. Do not touch your instrument yet... just write down ideas.

Step 5: Compose

Now that you have done all this AND written the answer of your results on paper, then you are ready to go.

Use the ideas you wrote down to compose something - Anything. A verse, a chorus. Every time you get lost, come back to your "one sentence" summary of the song, and ask yourself how what you are doing compares to that, and how you can change it to make it more connected to that sentence.

Any idea that does not express your "one sentence"... needs to be eliminated. You can use it for another song later if it's a really good idea, but it's not a good match for THIS song. Stay focused, don't get distracted.

This procedure looks like it's not necessary, or too much work, or it does not really work... until you actually do it in practice. Then you realize how easy it is to compose a complete, cohesive song. Don't take my word for it... but don't discount it until you actually try!

Can't I Just Write Spontaneously What Goes Through My Mind?

Sure you can! Some people don't need to go through that, either because they are naturally more "in tune" with their feeling or (more likely) because they have gone through this procedure so many times that now it feels natural. But if you are one of them... why are you reading this article? :)

Ok, What Do I Need To Do Now?

I suggest you do a few things to get started (in order):

  1. Start by doing Step 3 ("Simplify") with some songs you like. As obvious as this step is, you will be surprised at the amount of information you can gather and how fast you will learn if you actually do it

  2. Take a piece of paper and go through all the 5 steps. See if you can write a song today. In fact, if you spend 30m doing the first 4 steps, the 5th step is going to take less than an hour. Seriously... and the time can get shorter and shorter.

  3. Get all the unfinished songs on your Hard Drive, and give them the full treatment. Maybe you will not finish ALL of them... but you will still make major steps ahead in completing that album.

And always remember Larry Niven's rule number 17: "No technique works if it isn't used". Now go and DO it!

If in implementing these ideas you are experiencing writer's block, check out here the course on How To Put An End On Writer's Block and get those creative juices flowing!