7 Different Songwriting Methods, And Why You Should Try All Of Them
Time to get out of your creative comfort zone.
I'll be the first to admit that I've developed some pretty strong habits in the over ten years that I've been writing songs. I tend to use some chord progressions more than others, and I tend to focus more on lyrics than melody. But the biggest habit I've fallen into is writing songs the same way every time: by sitting down at my piano or with my guitar and my lyric book and writing the song from start to finish. I write the melody, the harmony, and lyrics at the same time, from verse one to the last chorus.
And that method's great, but sometimes it can be good to get out of my comfort zone and try something a little bit different.
There are plenty of songwriting methods, but today I'm going to go over seven of them. A big reason I think all songwriters can benefit from trying all of these, and others, is because every song we write is unique, and the method can be a big part of that. A lot of times when I'm stuck on an idea and can't make it work, changing how I'm approaching the song can help. Another time that changing your method comes in handy is when you have writer's block. Sometimes changing your songwriting method can lead you to write a song you never would have written otherwise!
1. Melody First
This is something one of my songwriting teachers at Berklee College of Music had me do, and I found it really helpful. I'm a very lyric-centric songwriter, so focusing so heavily on the melody and avoiding writing any lyrics or harmony was really eye-opening for me. If you're like me and tend to focus more on the lyrics, this might be a great way to get you more comfortable focusing on melody. Starting with melody can look like singing to yourself until you find a melody you like or playing on your instrument until you stumble on something you want to work on. This is a method I find more helpful for breaking writer's block, and it always results in songs I wouldn't have written if I'd used another method.
2. Harmony First
I'll be the first to admit that, though I have a sweet spot for it, harmony just isn't my strong suit. Conceptually I understand a lot of it (due to being forced to sit through two years of it in college), but I struggle with the application. If, like me, you find yourself resorting to the same chord progressions and harmonic rhythms over and over again, this can be a great way to challenge yourself. Of course, this songwriting method does require you to have a little more experience on a harmonic instrument. Try writing the chords/instrumentation to the entire song before you start writing melody or lyrics. Try to use chords you usually don't or write in a mode you're not used to writing in!
3. Lyrics First
The last of the trifecta. If you have a lyrical idea floating in your head, it might be a good challenge to focus on making the lyrics strong without having to worry about fitting them to a melody. This is also a great songwriting method to try if you find you struggle with lyrics. I get being hesitant to try this method if you do struggle with lyrics, the same way trying melody and harmony first is hard for me, but it's a great way to work on the weakest part of your writing. By stripping away what you're good at, you're forced to focus on what your weakest at. For me, that's the more musical things, and there's nothing wrong with that.
4. Worksheet It
Okay, truth time: I hate doing worksheets. Generally, when I write a song, I find that worksheeting hinders me more than helps. Part of this is that, when I already know what I want the song to be, the act of doing a worksheet can be enough of an exploration of the idea that I no longer feel excited about writing the song. But when I have an idea that I need to work on a little more before starting to write, this can be an indispensable tool. A worksheet is like a guide for your lyrics. Essentially you start with a lyrical idea (often the title) and come up with related words, and find rhymes for those words and your lyrical idea. This can lead you to themes and ideas you never would have come to if you'd sat at the piano for hours trying to figure out what you wanted to say.
5. Write To Track
Having trouble finding inspiration? Writing to track is a songwriting method that can help break your creative rut. There are tons of tracks online you can write to, or you can ask a friend who produces if they want to collaborate. Maybe you're savvy enough with a DAW (digital audio workspace, like Logic ProX or ProTools) to make your own track! Because you have to fit your melody and lyrics to locked-in harmony and timing, you're challenged to write within these parameters. Plus, the mood of the song is predetermined by the production. Just make sure you have the rights to the track/permission from the producer/an agreement with your friend before you release it!
6. Write to a Prompt
This is a surefire way to end up writing a song you never would have written otherwise. This is a great songwriting method to try if you're lacking inspiration, or if you're just looking for a fun challenge. Songfancy is a great source for songwriting prompts; a few times a year, Sarah, who runs Songfancy, does a week-long songwriting challenge where you write to prompts! Definitely worth checking out.
7. Give Yourself A Challenge
This is one of my favorite ways to get songwriting when I don't have anything to write about. There are tons of options here, but some of my favorites are trying to write from a perspective other than your own (ex: writing as a mother to her daughter when your only child is a 3-year-old cat), writing a song about a story you saw in the news, or trying to write a song in a form you don't usually write in, like AABA.
There you have it!
Of course, there are tons of other songwriting methods and challenges I could go into, but these the most common ones I find myself going to. Hopefully, you give them all a try and write some killer songs!