One of the most exciting things about creating new things is that there are lots of ways of creating new things.
As I talk about in The Art of Songwriting, a song is made up bit by bit and piece by piece. It doesn’t matter which bit you start with. It doesn’t matter which bit you end with. As long as you keep going until all the bits are in place and working together, it’s all good.
That’s why most writers hate the question ‘What is your creative process like?’.
Because as any of them will tell you, there is no the process or my process or your process or the one true process to rule them all. There are as many different ways of creating something new as there are new things to create.
And it’s in your best interests to keep that process different. It helps you write differently every time. It keeps you fresh. It keeps you interesting.
And while personally I’m a big fan of figuring out what your song is about before you start to put the rest of the pieces together, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to write. Here are five different jumping-off points you can try when you start your next song.
1. Start with a title
Write down thirty or forty different words or phrases. See which ones sound intriguing. See which ones start conjuring up a world beyond just that word or phrase – and see where they lead you.
Let the one word or phrase grow into a couple of lines of lyric. Keep building from there. Soon enough you’ll have a chorus. Then maybe a verse. Then maybe a second.
Lots of writers keep a ‘hook book’ – a notebook (or more likely a note on their phone) of words and phrases they come across that capture their attention – for this reason. Keep your eyes open. There are great song titles all over the place.
2. Start with a melody
Focus on your song’s chorus and try and craft a great melody for it. You’ll probably end up figuring out a groove or harmonies that fit with that melody as you go, but focus on the melody and see what happens.
As you write, you’ll probably find different parts of that melody suggest words or phrases that could fit with it. Of course, depending on whether your melody sounds upbeat, emotional or expressive will influence the words and phrases that your brain starts to associate with the melody. And, as usual, you might have to try a ton of different words or phrases before you settle on something. But that’s OK.
3. Start with a drum loop
Download a drum loop app on your phone or computer – something like Drum Loops HD or Drum Beats+. Find a loop that’s not necessarily your go-to mood or genre and set it playing. See what that helps you come up with – it might be a groove or a title or a melody. Then build your song from there.
If you make a demo or full recording of your song, you might keep that drum loop in, you might adapt or edit it, or you might throw it out completely. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a prompt to get your song going, it’s done its job.
4. Start with a chord progression
It’s a bad idea to steal someone else’s melody. It’s a bad idea to steal a line from someone else’s lyric. Sure, getting in trouble for copyright infringement is pretty bad. But being too lazy to come up with something original is even worse.
But the good news about chord progressions is that they’re generic enough you can lift them as is from someone else’s song and play to your heart’s content. So try it. See what melody you can create over the top. See what other parts of the song those chords suggest to you.
5. Start with a groove
Get out your guitar. Sit down at your keyboard. Open Ableton or Pro Tools or GarageBand. Play around until you have something cool. Anything cool. Even just two measures of cool.
See what kind of world those two measures pull you into. Does it suggest a song title? Does it suggest a melody? Does it suggest what the next two measures might sound like? Go where those two measures lead you.
You’ve probably spotted the pattern here. A song has a lot of moving parts, and all you have to do is make them one by one, in whatever order you can.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
A five-hundred-page novel begins with a single word.
And a song begins, well, with whichever part you feel like writing first.