1. Start With A Melody
What songwriter hasn’t experienced the torment of hearing a melody in your head and struggling to bring that idea to fruition. It’s always fearful that the new melody you’re hearing in your head is actually recycled from something you’ve already heard.
Leaving chords out is a great way to help composing in your head, especially if you don’t have a dense knowledge of chordal harmony. I oftentimes hear a cool chord progression in my head that I would never just play if I was at the piano/guitar.
It’s a great feeling when a chorus melody that you’ve been working on for hours suddenly shines light on itself that it should be a verse melody instead. I’ve even experimented with changing up the order of notes and reversing the entire phrase for a new effect.
Even just adjusting a note by a third or one scale tone will give you a new sound and feel for your melody. An underrated technique for all of this though, putting your instrument down and walking around humming or singing that melodic idea. It’ll put everything into perspective.
2. Start With A Progression
Chord Progressions have to be one of the most common methods for starting a song. A writer like John Legend, has the means to create almost any emotional response through his use of chords, unlike me sitting here trying to come up with something half as interesting. It’s important to be careful here though since some of the most memorable songs are done with the simplest of chords.
Most songs created in the fifties and sixties were almost all written over a four chord progression. Usually these began with a root major, followed by a 6 or 3 minor, then a 4 or 2 minor 7 and hard to forget that pivotal 5 chord. These were great ways to supporting the vocal lines of the times, but eventually all these began to sound exactly the same similar to a lot of the pop progressions of today.
Now as we’ve seen with the Axis of Awesome video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I), we realise that many songs can be written over the same progression, but the key is to learn what works in these progressions and change and embellish them to create something more unique and more you. Try starting a song with a chord you wouldn’t normally use, this will force a different style of melody then you’re used to. Try using chordal patterns that have minimal chord movement. Use dynamics in creating something that may be really busy chordally into something that is really simple. Whatever you’re comfortable doing try and switch that and keep yourself guessing and coming up with new solutions.
3. Start With A Groove
For those who are confused by the term “groove”, it is used to describe the rhythmic pattern of the song that is present under the chords and melody, usually played by multiple instruments.
This personally has been the method I have found more useful than anything for getting me out of “writer’s block”. When I wanted to work on a groove that I couldn’t actually play, I will always start by either attempting to write out the pattern on a drum programmer, or using a drum idea that I was listening to recently or really enjoy. It’s totally fine to use another song as inspiration to start your idea, especially since only melody and lyrical content is copyrightable.
Taking this inspiration further and learning some new grooves will be massively helpful for your writing, I can’t tell you how many times hearing a more ethnic or foreign groove/beat inspired me to write something that ended up being way more unique and interesting then what I’d normally come up with.
4. Start With A Form
Using predetermined forms was one of the easiest ways I found to teach students who were still learning about form. It allowed students to not stress out about how the song should progress but rather on each element of the song.
One example of a form like this would be your classic, into verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus out. Once the forms were explained and simplified it was easier to work on each section individually, and allowed songwriters to branch out and really trust their own instincts.
When I had joined an indie band I wasn’t really that comfortable with the idiom, so what I did was I went for walks around my neighborhood near the water and would spend time dissecting the arrangements of indie hits and classics. Along with this I was able to pick up on the differences in basslines, progressions,intros,outros, popular drum grooves, and the melodic content. I then just sat there and tried to emulate what I was hearing.
Once an understanding of form is established, and for many it is automatic, a songwriter can break the rules and branch out, trusting his or her more seasoned instincts.
The main point here is again to try and change up the ways you tend to write in and instead go with a method you’re not comfortable with.
5. Winging It
This is my favorite way of coming up with ideas, it feels the most natural and it allows for the most in original ideas. When I’m just jamming at the keys, throwing in random drum grooves, tossing in unique/foreign samples, or singing it to the mic to start a track. I find that my muse will usually show up eventually and then the more technical aspects of creating a track come out.
The best part of this method is that you aren’t going into the session expecting anything, you’re free to just be in the moment expressing something that you’re feeling at that exact time and place. When you’re in a session with someone and you’re trying to come up with something, you’re doing exactly that, using your brainpower to come up with an idea. Sometimes this works naturally, but sometimes it adds more stress to the session since everyone’s TRYING to come up with that great vocal hook, or wicked chopped vocal melody.
I have a ton of friends who are really accomplished guitar/piano players and can play a huge repertoire of styles accurately, but it’s funny because a lot of them tend to write in the same tempo, feel and style when working on their own music. Now it’s great to have a signature sound or style, but making sure you are versatile is going to allow you to create the most opportunities for yourself.
Hopefully these ideas are helpful and help you get started, work on an existing idea, or kill that pesky writers block.
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