7 Unusual Ways To Write Better Songs

Tommaso Zillio

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Have you ever written a song? Are you in a chronic state of writer's block? Or maybe you simply don't think you "have it" so you never even tried? Either way, I can help you spark you inspiration. Keep reading.

It's incredible to think about it but most people - even professionals - have never thought about how to write a song. That is to say: where do you start, what part you write first, what parts you leave for last, how do you connect verse and chorus and all the other sections, do you write the song on the piano or guitar alone or you do it with the full orchestration in mind?

Some people are lucky enough to stumble on a process that works by complete chance. Others are left to fend for themselves. And some others too (and I guess many here will think this way) do not want to think about how to write a song because they believe that songs should spring out of your mind "naturally".

The truth of course is that while songwriting is a personal process, there are ways to write song that work and ways to write songs that do not work at all. If you do not find a process that work for you, then you will never ever be able to write songs with fluency and ease.

So if you prefer to believe that songwriting is just a matter of inspiration and there are no techniques to it, please do not read further - I do not want to disillusion you. On the other hand, if you need some help you will find it here. Having a definite process is a great way to stay on track and of course if your inspiration goes in different directions you can abandon the process any moment :-)

In the following I review 7 unusual ways to write songs. Those are not the only ways and in fact they're not even the only unusual ways: I am just giving you a sampler of how artists work. Keep what is useful and discard the rest.

The Standard Way

The textbook way of writing a song is to write two chord progressions: one for the chorus and the other for the verse. Then sing on them until you find a decent melody. Try to arrange the song as: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus, then write "connecting" parts ("bridges") so that the transitions between sections is not too jarring. Add a guitar solo/instrumental break after the second chorus, and after that repeat the chorus 2 or more times. Optionally you can write an intro and/or an outro.

Pros: this is a time-honored system to write pop hits and a good starting place. Cons: after you write a few songs with it, your music tend to become stale. You may come back to it occasionally, but it should not be the only weapon in your arsenal.

Write The Intensity Line Of The Song First

Rather than starting by thinking of chord progressions and such, a radically different approach is to focus on how the "intensity" of the song changes from beginning to end. You may want to start out loud and then quiet down for the first verse... or maybe you want to start little by little, making the song grow and grow until the first chorus.

Ask yourself: is the chorus going to be more "intense" than the verse? Are all the choruses going to be at the same intensity, are you raising the intensity or taking it down? Where is the climax of the song?

Take a piece of paper and draw a graph of the intensity of the song from beginning to end. Start actually writing the chords and melodies only once you have done this. Remember that you can express "intensity" in different ways (higher pitch, higher dynamic, more instruments, more aggressive tones...)

Write The Lyrics First

Should you write the lyrics first or the music first? Most songwriters start from the music and invite the lyrics in a second moment. But that doesn't mean that the other way is bad. Many famous song where written starting from the lyrics - the first one that comes to my mind is "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John.

The reason why most people write the music first is because it's easier to change the lyrics than the music. This means that doing the opposite presents some interesting challenges to a musician: you have to write music that follows the lyrics. The challenge is usually in making the rhythm fit the lyrics - which means that you will be forced to be original.

If you are a prog rock/metal player, you have to try this technique at least once. You may need a lot of odd time signatures, but the song will definitely sound "different" than what you normally do.

Steal The Lyrics From Unsuspecting Bystanders (Money For Nothing)

You don't know how to write lyrics? OK, then steal them. No, I am not suggesting to copy them from another song (that's plagiarism... and it's also lazy). Rather I am suggesting that you go and start a conversation with someone you don't know (on the street, on a bus, in a cafe, in a shop...).

Then take note of what they say. If you REALLY pay attention to them, you will realize that everyone you meet can be song material. Mark Knopfler wrote "Money For Nothing" by listening to a clerk in an appliance store and transcribing some of his sentences.

This technique requires no special ability... just the willingness to listen to the people you meet.

Decide When Instruments Come In Or Out First

Rather than start form chord or melodies, this time we can start from the orchestration. I suggest you write it down, lest you forget.

Think along these lines: "in the intro I will have a string section coming in and some sound fx... then the first time the verse is played I will have the string section and an acoustic guitar. The drums and bass come in only at the chorus, but stay for the second verse. The second chorus I will have a brass section too..."

Starting your composition this way is easy and fun, and even a beginner can do it. Once you know how to orchestrate the song, just imagine it in your head... and transcribe the chords and melody from your mind. Done!

One Person Write The Music And The Other The Lyrics (In Any Order)

Why work alone? Composing with other people is a sure fire way to compose more, since the other one(s) will keep you accountable.

One of the most common way to divide the compositional tasks is to have one person writing the lyrics and the other the music. Either one can be the first to write (and it's a good idea to try both ways), and once the first person is done they give the fruit of the work to the other one to complete.

Once the second person is done, you should meet and listen to the result (a rough demo will do). You'll see that ideas will spark naturally and after 2-3 interactions you will have a great song in your hands.

Decide On One Situation/Emotion And Associate From That

This is one of my favorites. Start by imagining an emotion or a situation, the more precise you make it easier your job will be. For instance "sadness" is way too vague a concept, "I'm sad because my girlfriend left me" is marginally better, "my girlfriend left me on a rainy morning, by writing me a letter and leaving it on the windshield of my car, the ink spilled all over and I could read only half of the words" is a much better starting point.

Now take a piece of paper and start writing down every kind of musical element that will fit with this idea. Will the song being the major key or minor key? We need to have lots of instruments or only few? Will it be fast or slow? Will it feature guitars or trumpets or Bulgarian choirs? It's going to be an instrumental or there's going to be a male singer or a female singer?

Decide on all those elements before you write a single note. Fill completely at least one sheet of paper. Once you have all those elements down, writing the song will be easy - but only if you actually write all those elements down. Pretending to do it will not work. Thinking about doing it will not work either. Commenting below that this system doesn't work before you even try it will work even less :-)

Watch this video to see how you can do this:

Start Writing

OK, now you have a number of interesting ideas. I suggest you do the following:

  1. Pick one of the procedures above - one of them will speak to you more than the others
  2. Close your browser. Yes this point is absolutely necessary :-) Since you are there, get off the internet completely
  3. Start writing

Try to complete your first song in an hour or so. Don't try to make it perfect just do it. Repeat everyday for a week. At this point we have seven songs and one of them (statistical speaking) will be pretty good -maybe good enough the post on YouTube (send me the link: I want to hear it)

Happy writing!

And if you need more help, check out how to overcome writer's block and get these creative juices flowing.