There are as many different songwriting methods in the world as there are chicken dishes at your average Chinese buffet. It doesn't matter if you prefer General Tso's chicken, chicken on a stick, or black pepper chicken, you're going to reach the ultimate goal of stuffing yourself 'til you're sick no matter what.
Now, if I had marketing savvy, I would probably label this as "5 guaranteed steps to write a hit song!" but that's ridiculous. There is no formula, no matter what anyone tells you. As with Chinese chicken, don't limit yourself to one set of rules or one method when it comes to songwriting. Pick your chicken... I mean method. Pull from here and there. Find what works for you. Just get writing. Here's what works for me.
I think of songwriting in terms of building a (very simple) house:
Step 1: gather the materials, let's say it's lumber
Step 2: build the frame
Step 3: take care of the internal stuff: pipes, wires, furniture, whatever
Step 4: get it inspected
Step 5: live in it
STEP 1: GET THE LUMBER
QUANTITY THEN QUALITY
Songwriting, like any other skill, demands practice. Lots of it. If you only write 2 songs a year, you're going to get very tied to your precious little gems of creative expression. You won't want to change the parts that aren't working. You'll worry so much about making it perfect that you'll never actually finish it. You won't be very open to feedback, because you've invested so much time in it. You may spend 6 months or a year polishing a turd. To hell with that.
When I'm in songwriting mode, I might bang out 2 or 3 in a sitting. Not 2 or 3 per month. Not 2 or 3 a week. A sitting. At this stage, you are Paul Bunyan, chopping down trees indiscriminately, and piling the lumber high on your big blue ox. You're not worried about the walls of your home yet, and no one's giving a single thought to the light fixtures or the kitchen sink. You want rough sketches of music and lyrics, not finished masterpieces.
DON'T YOU DARE EDIT (YET)
Like I said, this phase is about the RAW materials. Don't worry about a little issue here or there. That chord at the end of the first verse sounds weird? Circle it, and come back to it later. Stay in the big picture. Let it all out. Editing at this phase will kill the creativity, and we don't want that. There is no judgment in brainstorming! Come up with a chorus and two verses, then move on to another song. Don't sweat the lyrics, don't freak out about where the organ solo is going to go.
SAVE THE BRIDGE FOR LATER
I almost never write my bridge during the lumber phase. I intentionally save that for another day. I want there to be enough space between me and the song that I can come back with fresh ears and make the bridge a wholly separate part. I've noticed that when I've written bridges the same day as the other sections, it ends up being too similar to the verse or chorus.
WRITE IT DOWN
It is greedy to assume the universe will send you a gift a second time.
Some people like to just fiddle around with chords or lyrics for a few minutes, and just see if it goes anywhere. Then they go about their day without writing down their idea. Then, surprise! They can't remember what their idea was. Or, they wake up in the middle of the night and think "ooh, I just dreamed the perfect melody!" and then they roll over and go back to sleep, without humming the melody into their phone's voice recorder app. The next morning... no more idea.
That is foolish. Brains aren't too good at the whole remembering thing. Remember that "the dullest pencil is better than the sharpest mind." If you get a creative idea, it is a gift from the universe, and it is greedy to assume that the universe will send you these gifts a second time. When fate hands you a present, appreciate it. Put it somewhere safe so that you can get back to it later. You can determine if the universe gave you gold or a pile of donkey crap tomorrow.
STEP 2: BUILD THE FRAME
EDIT THE CRAP OUT OF IT
Yesterday, you wrote two verses and a chorus. Today, it's time for you to go back and and play through what you have. Inspect your logs. Which ones are rotten? What logs are perfect right from the get-go? What logs are in pretty good shape, but might need some more chopping, or shaving, or whatever it is lumberjacks do? These logs are the supports for your home - you have to be brutal. Re-write the entire verse if something's the least bit out of whack. If a lyric feels rushed, deal with it now. Don't wait.
Think of the bridge as, "Oh you liked the chorus? Well, you're gonna LOVE this!
If everything is working, come up with a bridge. Try to make it a wholly unique part that could stand on its own. It should have its own hook. It is not just a pause to get back to the chorus. Think of the bridge as, "Oh, you liked the chorus? Well, you're gonna LOVE this!"
If the song just isn't working, see if there's any parts worth saving. Put them somewhere safe. Then shelve the song and move on. Don't trash it. You may decide that it's worth revisiting a few years later.
I had a song that wasn't working in 2007. We recorded it (at great expense, mind you), and the producer just wasn't feeling it. I shelved it, and we replaced it on the album with another song. The band and I revisited it circa 2009. Still wouldn't come together. Oh well. Back on the shelf. Skip ahead to 2012. The band (now with different members) and I were tinkering with stuff, and for some reason I pulled out that old non-working song. It immediately clicked. It went on our new album, and it got decent radio play. You just never know.
PLAY IT THROUGH (THE WHOLE WAY)
In terms of the song's overall arrangement or flow, the best way to see if it's working or sucking is to play the song all the way through. Is there a smooth, natural transition from the intro to the verse to the chorus to the second verse to the bridge to the outro? Or are there awkward moments where you can't quite get to the next section without stuttering? Play through from start to finish as many times as you possibly can.
STEP 3: THE PIPES AND THE WIRES
CHECK YOUR SECTIONS
Do you have a(n):
- lyrical hook
- melodic hook
- instrumental hook
- bonus options:
This is a checklist of essentials for any song. If something is missing, go back and add it. You might think that having all of these parts is formulaic. Well, every house has a foundation, walls, a roof, and a way to get air and people in. That being said, there's a million different ways to construct a house, and those same fundamental components make up everything from a hermit's mountaintop shack to the palace at Versailles.
RECORD IT AND PLAY IT BACK
Make a rough recording however you can. Use your phone or a digital recorder. Hell, use an 8-track Tascam for all I care. Just get it out of you, and onto something else. Play it back. What does it sound like? Does it sound like a real song? Is there something that sounded great in your head, but sounds like crap on the recording?
STEP 4: GET IT INSPECTED
If you've done the necessary work of writing the song's various parts, editing it, re-writing, re-working, checking the structure, adding in the missing components, then you'll probably start to get a bit bleary-eyed. You will also start to develop emotional attachments to various chords, phrases, or sections, etc. You're no longer impartial. So, it's time to get your home/song inspected by a professional to make sure everything is intact.
Whether you play this song for a friend or a professional is up to you. But, you need to get it heard by someone else. Someone who can give you clear, objective, honest feedback. Write down what they tell you. If you decide to integrate some of their feedback into your writing, don't trash or write over the old version. Start a new Word document. Get out a clean piece of paper. You want options to fall back on later when you're more objective.
STEP 5: LIVE IN IT
This step is the simplest. Once you've written the parts, hacked them out and replaced them with better ones, fine-tuned the best stuff, and played it for someone that you trust, you now need to get out there and play it for the world. You need to go to open mics, or songwriters' circles, and play it live. Lots.
Do NOT get up on stage and say "I just wrote this song this afternoon"
Do people pay attention when you play? Do they mentally check out? Do they pay attention for the intro then start talking to their neighbor when you hit the verse? Does anyone compliment the song when you come off stage? If they comment on it, do they sound genuine, or are they just being kind?
In order to be able to read the audience like this, you need to know the song well enough to do it from memory. Do NOT get up there on stage and say "I just wrote this song this afternoon." You need to know that song cold. No sheet music. No crutches. You burn that song into your brain and hands until your muscles and voice could play it without your help. Say nothing about when you wrote it. You don't want to give yourself or your audience any reason to forgive the song's flaws. Either it works, or it doesn't.
The key to this phase is repetition. You should never make an expensive recording of a song before you've played it live a number of times, if you can possibly avoid it. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will test the quality of a song like playing it live.
SERVE THE SONG
You have to remember that songwriting is about WRITING THE BEST SONG POSSIBLE. It's about serving the song. It is not about serving your ego. It is not about showing off. It is about making a song that will stick in people's heads so that they will want to hear it again. The ultimate test of the song is what I call the hum test. You play a song for your friend. When you're done playing, go and do something else for 20-30 minutes. Play ping pong, or do the dishes, eat a burrito, I don't know.
Then, without warning or preparation, stop in the middle of whatever you're doing. Point at your friend, as if to accuse them of something. Ask them to hum the song back to you. Can they? Ask them if they remember any lyrics. Any part of the melody or lyrics will do. If they can't remember ANYTHING, if they can't even get close... you've got a lot of work to do. BUT, if they've got something, anything from what you've played them... you've got something to build on.
Be a Mensch
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This article generated a lot of discussion, so I wrote a companion article to respond to some of the issues it raised.