So How Do You Write A Song?

So How Do You Write A Song?

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It’s a question I’ve been asked many times but it’s not something I’ve written about here on the blog so here goes!

I’ll admit it.

I’m a melody and riff man.

I like pretty much straight forward music with a hook in the chorus and a great melody or riff. I stray into prog rock a little with a life-long love of Yes, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, but newer prog bands like Dreamtheater and Opeth? No. They leave me cold. I really want to like them because the musicianship is amazing, but the songs just send me to sleep, and watching them live is a grind. So it won’t come as any real surprise that the first thing that comes to me in a new song is the melody.

I’ll sit with the guitar (or bouzouki, or mandolin) and just play chords, singing nonsense over the top. After a while I’ll sing a melody or a chord sequence that pricks up my ears. I’ll go back and then build on that. Ask questions. Is that a verse? A bridge? The chorus? Decide where in the song it might be best placed, then play it through to see where the melody naturally goes next.

Eventually, I’ll have a verse tune, a chorus tune, maybe a middle eight or bridge to go with it.

Out comes the iPhone and I’ll record it.

The melody might stay on my phone for years before I go back to it, ask the question “what does this melody say to me?” and it might become a song on a new album.

So the melody first, then the lyrics.

Almost all my songs have been written that way apart from two – Only Human and Pagan Ways. Only Human was a rant. I was going to write about what led to that song being written but as I typed it just brought me down. I don’t want you to feel that way reading this article, so I’ve deleted it. But the words of that song came first, then the tune, and writing it was pretty cathartic.

Sometimes, particularly with the songs from the Y Mabinogi albums, the tune and lyrics come together. I already know what the song needs to say because of where it comes within the tale. I also know the feeling I want from the song for the same reasons. So with those songs, it feels like the initial ‘noodling’ is getting ready for a hunt, and then I head off and literally hunt the melody. Some of the lyrics will often arise as that hunt takes place. Writing the Y Mabinogi songs has been, and continues to be, a magical process which has often felt as if another hand is guiding me towards the prey.

With songwriting, you are constantly switching between the left and right sides of the brain. If possible, to keep the flow, it’s important to spend more time in the right side, the creative side. But then come the rhymes. Making rhymes is often a left hand, logical, process. It can influence the entire line of the song and can change it which is obviously a part of the creative process, but that rhyme can sometimes drag you out of the flow if it takes too long. So there is no shame in using a good rhyming dictionary. I always have Clement Wood’s Complete Rhyming Dictionary to hand, just in case.

Some songs take a few hours. Some literally land on the page in what seems like minutes. Others take weeks, months, or years to complete. They’re the ones that need to stay in the cauldron and bubble away until the spell is ready.

The Awen is an elusive mistress. I can’t force a song. If I sit down with the whole intent to write a song I often just spend time looking at a blank screen and flashing cursor. I probably could just write, but songwriting is a part of who I am, it reflects how I see the world, life, my spiritual path, so above absolutely everything else it needs to be honest.

That’s how it’s always been for me, and it’s how it’ll always be.

I hope you enjoyed that, and if it’s inspired you to write a song, get strumming!

5 responses to “So How Do You Write A Song?”

  1. The same question I hear as an author.
    ‚how do you get the ideas?‘ or ‚how can you write a hole book?‘

    I don’t know. I have an idea or a dream, I start and then it’s writing. I‘m often surprised how the story goes on. And sometimes it take years to finish a story.

  2. That’s ever so interesting! It fascinates me that songwriting can take such different forms, depending on personal preferences. For me, it’s exactly the other way around; I mostly start with a word or a sentence, an image or a story that got stuck in my head, and expand from there into writing the lyrics. Then I sit down with my guitar, singing and strumming, finding melody and chords. Sometimes the lyrics get altered during this process. Only very rarely I am hit by a melody and develop the lyrics later. One interesting case was a fully developed piano accompaniment, for which I then wrote the lyrics and the melody at the same time.
    Have you ever co-written with others? That’s an entirely different and sometimes challenging process, because diverse methods and approaches will have to be combined somehow.
    Oh, it is a beautiful craft, the making of songs! 🙂

  3. Thanks for that Dave, as a songwriter myself I am always interested in how others write their songs. I get the melody and lyrics together, normally when I haven’t a guitar – its just all in my head and has to stay their until I can get to a guitar and pen and paper. Once the basics are down I then work on it and in time it may or may not change. Some songs take 5 minutes and are fully formed, sometimes they take a little while to tweak. I rarely go back to an old idea. When I was the songwriter in bands it wasnt unknown for me to be finishing the lyrics in the studio as the song was being recorded. The vocals usually went on last once the backing track was done. I have sometimes when I was one or two songs short for an album gone back to an old song and written a new lyric to it that might be on a completely different subject to the original lyric. However they come out, the songs are always from the heart or my weird sense of humour! And yes I have written a few pagan songs like yourself! (of course they are not a patch on yours!)

  4. Add me to the number of songwriters who are lyrics first, or lyrics and melody together. 🙂 I have carpal tunnel syndrome (RSS) and have to be really careful how much I play my keyboard; I do write instrumentally with no lyrics at all, but not very often. This week I have a solstice song on the clipboard, still tweaking the lyrics but the chords and melody are finally done. I wanted an old-fashioned Christmas carol sound, so it’s pretty simple. Always so nice to hear from other songwriters about the way the music comes through!

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