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Songwriting Process: Part 1(The Foundation)

Coffee is key.

I've always been fascinated by process. The mechanics of craft: the little details, the ins and outs, the tiny moving parts behind the finished work. It doesn't matter if it's a talented songwriter, or a potter, or a painter, or someone who's got exceptional knife skills in the kitchen— I'm a sucker for process. Everyone has a different approach to their own craft. That's the art part, I think. Maybe.

Anyway, today I decided I wanted to break down my own songwriting process. How do I end up writing a song? Where does the melody come from? From where do the words and chords and rhythms flow? Hopefully attempting to break this down will help me understand my own process a little better, and perhaps provide some fun for other writers.

First of all, disclaimer: I have no music education. I don't formally know anything about music theory or the language used by people fluent in it. I'm borderline illiterate when it comes to reading music. If you're into that stuff, though, I can offer a completely different perspective!



Where does a song start? For me, that depends. It often starts with one of three things. Either a melody gets stuck in my head and I have no idea where it is from OR I hear a song that I kind of like but the melody sounds wrong. That is, the song doesn't sound the way I want it to, and the only way to get it out of my brain is to write it differently, the way that I think it should sound. The third beginning is just interactions of notes. I like to shuffle my fingers around to new chords on guitar, and the interaction between notes often creates an intriguing seed for a melody.

In songwriting, I almost always write chords and melody before writing lyrics. It's an important framework for me to guide the words, to help me understand what the song is about. I've experimented with it outside of this, but for me personally, it just doesn't quite feel right. If I'm not starting off with the music, I'm better off just writing fiction or poetry.

For this exercise, I'm going to explore a couple things I've been putting off for a few months. It starts with the half-step beginning of "Hungaria", by Django Reinhardt.

It's so simple! Just a little half-step, the easiest change there is. Loads of songs have this movement, sometimes all over the place. But it occupies a central and identifiable role in "Hungaria".

So, I'm going to use that.

After I've played through this half-step a lot, it sounds silly. It sounds like a joke, much like words sound when you repeat them over and over. It's the musical equivalent of semantic dissociation. So I decide to play with that. How can I play with the sound of that half step? I'm certain that the music theory buffs out there have many ways, but this is what sounded right to me.

I wanted to draw it out, to extend the joke. Beat a dead horse, so to speak. Just hammer it home a few extra times. This felt right without getting stale, but who knows. Also, there's a flat five chord at the beginning that might need to be subbed out— a couple of the notes sound a little weird. But it also might be fine.

Once I'd gotten these two ideas down, the rest of the song's foundation came easily. A couple of common turnarounds at the end of the A and B section, an easy upward progression of chords at the beginning. Ok. This is the beginning of a song, I think.

The next step is usually to let it simmer. Usually just letting the chords bounce around in my head for awhile and intermittently picking up the guitar and humming/whistling/yowling along will bring the song to a steady boil. Then once I've got a general idea for the notes and rhythm of the melody, I'll write lyrics depending on how the song makes me feel.

It's important (I think) to allow for these early steps to be crap. It doesn't matter one bit if it starts off any good. Once it's been started, it can always be changed. Furthermore, who cares if it sucks? Once it's done, if it sucks, you can always start anew.

That melody and lyrics will come soon, in the second installment of this post. For now, I've got a solid framework for both.

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