How do you start a song anyway? It can be overwhelming right? Instantly, the mind locks up as you feel the weight of your own herculean expectations you’ve set upon yourself to come up with something absolutely amazing out of thin air in record time bearing down upon you. You feel the self-imposed pressure and before you know it, you’re paralyzed.
Sound familiar? Oh yeah, I’ve been there many times as well my friend. In my experience as a songwriter, getting into the creative mindset is all about balancing two things:
- taking some kind of action,
- trading expectations for curiosity.
If you’re trapped in your own head about what to do first, you’ll never get anything done, right? The easy response to the question of “How do I start a song” in so many words is simple: “Just start!”
That being said, let’s go deeper. In this article, I’m going to share a handful of approaches you can take to get the creative juices flowing and start writing your next song today.
About the author
Generally speaking, in my observations when working with private students and clients, this issue of writer’s block comes from some kind of fear of taking action for whatever reason.
For me, my lack of action was typically based on the fact that I expected too much of myself right at the beginning of the songwriting process.
I happened to be lucky enough to experience inspired moments that lead to ideas that I was happy with here and there when first starting out, and though these were vital to my development as a writer, they also gave me a false idea about how creativity works.
Because these ideas came to me seemingly out of nowhere, I was under the impression that that is how songwriting worked. That was the only way to do it. You had to go about your day and “wait for inspiration” to come in order to write good music.
This is a myth because though getting inspired in a seemingly spontaneous way is undoubtedly effective and wonderful when it happens, it’s unreliable because it is infrequent.
However, because of this belief that I had in my head at the time, I would put an immense amount of pressure on myself any time I would try to write something consciously.
The standard I set in my mind was that basically every idea had to be amazing right from the get go because I was comparing it to those inspired ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere before.
If a bad idea came out, I would get discouraged, frustrated, and ultimately walk away from the idea and think I was a bad songwriter. I would kill the possibility of these “bad ideas” becoming good ones.
Other times I would have an idea that I really liked but was overly precious about it because I was afraid of “ruining it” so to speak so I would just shelve it. Perhaps sometimes that can be a good thing but if it becomes a habit, you’ll likely wind up not finishing anything.
Does this sound like you?
What I’ve learned over time is that inspired ideas are more often than not the result of letting go of expectations and surrendering to the process without worrying about a specific outcome. The part of the mind that’s responsible for these moments of inspiration has nothing to do with our conscious mind anyway.
That said, there is a way to use both your conscious and subconscious mind to work together to create “inspiration on demand” if you will.
How? By using what are known as songwriting prompts. These are in essence, a set of creative boundaries you can consciously use to take a specific action that will help facilitate the creative process via your subconscious mind. In other words, it’s a specific and practical starting point that will help get you into “the zone” if you allow it.
An important thing to add about this is when you’re getting started, keep things small and simple, and above all, take the pressure off of yourself to make something amazing.
Surrender to the process and allow space for ideas to build.
No matter what, we have to take some kind of action to break that “how do I start” paralysis. Here are a handful of ways to go about it.
1. Start with a melody
Now this varies greatly depending on the genre but if we’re talking about getting some quick wins here, let’s just focus on developing a chorus. The reason for this is because choruses typically have less information both lyrically and musically compared to other song sections (generally speaking) and by design, are usually the most memorable part of the song.
What makes a chorus memorable you ask? In a nutshell, having strong hooks and a concise message.
What makes for a strong hook? Well, in my experience, when it comes to constructing the melody, less is more here. Using fewer notes along with devices like repetition can create irresistible hooks that get stuck in your head. Just ask Phil Collins. More on that in a bit.
If you’re struggling with coming up with a melody in the first place, check out a recent article I did breaking it all down.
2. Start with chord progressions
Chord progressions are the harmonic foundation for your song, and though knowing a bit of music theory is incredibly helpful when it comes to understanding how different chords react to each other, you don’t necessarily need to know all that to get started.
I’ve worked with plenty of students who only knew one chord shape but were able to find a way to make it sound good to them.
Let me explain. There was one student I was working with at the time who was playing a two-chord progression based on the following chords: Emaj7 and Dmaj7.
This student was using a specific chord shape based of the “A” string on his guitar and simply moving it from the 7th position (Emaj7) to the 5th position (Dmaj7).
This student didn’t know anything about diatonic harmony at the time, and yet was able to intuitively figure out a simple progression that sounded good to him (and me) just by using one chord shape and his ear to navigate.
The combination of these two major seventh chords created a very calm, peaceful feeling. To me, it sounded like being at the beach at daybreak.
This student achieved this by using only two chords. At the end of the day, that’s all you really need to get started.
In fact, we both used his two-chord progression to write off of respectively. I heard a love song in my head as I played the two chords back and forth and before I knew it, words and melody started bubbling up.
If you’re interested in hearing a demo of how my song came out to help put this all together, head here:
Let’s take it a step further.
You’re probably thinking at this point, “Okay, that’s great, Aaron, but how can I go from taking a couple chords and start turning it into a song? Give me something I can use!”
Fair enough. Okay, let’s say you have two chords you like the sound off and you’ve been fiddling around with them for a while. You want to turn them into a song but you’re stuck on writing the lyrics and you’re not sure what the melody would be on top of them.
Here’s something practical to try out.
First and foremost, find a specific topic to write about. If you’re not sure, play the chord progression back to yourself and analyze (or simply notice) how it makes you feel. If you can pinpoint the emotions these chords conjure up in you, write them down. Do this for five minutes.
From there, see if you can attach a topic to the words associated with the emotions. Once you have your topic, we’re now ready to move on to the lyrics.
Let’s say, my song’s subject matter is based on a person I know. I’m writing all about a specific person that I know really well. I would start by writing down everything I notice about them to a timer that I’ve set for five minutes.
As I’m doing this, I am once again, letting go of any expectations of things being even remotely awesome at this stage. That is so not my concern right now. All I’m focused on is writing down every single thing that comes to mind when I think of this person for five minutes straight.
After the timer goes off, I would look to see if there are any words or lines that catch my eye. If so, I will circle those lines and words.
Next, I would pick one of the line’s that I’m drawn to the most and see if I can build a melody out of it. Try this out!
Once you have your line, take those two chords, and break the line up in half. Speak the first half of the line over the first chord to see how it fits rhythmically speaking.
Do any notes come to mind as you do this? Try singing the line over this chord. If you’re not getting anything from it, try the line over two chords.
3. Start with a rhythm or groove
As a kid, I would always be tapping my fingers on things. Whether it be on desktops in school, or on the backseat of someone’s car, any flat surface would do really. I would just always be tapping incessantly.
Even though I can’t play drums to save my life, I always considered myself a drummer at heart and would try to emulate the patterns of the greats that I was in awe of.
I even went as far as to assign specific fingers to handle certain drum duties. Being that I’m left-handed, my left index and middle fingers were assigned to snare duty while my respective index and middle on my right hand were responsible for double kick as well as tom rolls.
I was (and still am) always obsessed with what the drummer was doing in the context of a band and was immediately drawn to interesting beats, odd rhythms and even odder time signatures.
I suppose my frantic tapping was a means to channel all the nervous energy running’ up through me at any given minute.
Why am I telling you this?
The reason for my little public diary entry is because more often than not, a lot of my songs would start out as drums only.
Seeing as I wasn’t what I considered to be a “real” drummer, I was severely limited in my technical ability. This was useful however because I was able to push the creativity within my frantic little digits.
Any time I would fidget out a pattern that I liked, I would immediately record it into either my phone or a handheld recorder (remember those?) wherever I was and stash it away until I had time to flush it all out.
When that time came, I would take my device out, listen back to the recordings and begin to construct each beat using a drum machine. This is where being obsessive truly works in your favor, mind you, and there are much easier ways to go about it these days.
Here’s an example you’ve never heard.
A good example of this method of writing is the song “I Am He” from my solo extreme metal project Davola.
Please forgive the shameless plug, but in all honesty, this is the first song that comes to mind when I think about this specific process, and because this is something I can speak about in great depth from my personal experience, I figured I’d start here.
The main riff of the song heard right at the beginning was 100% created by the intricate drum pattern beneath it. It was a beat that I was so excited about at the time that I wanted to make sure that I reintroduced it into the song where I could. It felt like such a strong hook to me and I wanted to make sure to bring it back around.
The song itself was a complete stream of consciousness exercise that caused not only the drums, but the meandering, quasi-prog metal song structure to manifest.
The main challenge with this one was to keep things from becoming too repetitive and boring while bringing attention back to the aforementioned hooks throughout the song.
Despite its numerous peaks and valleys, there’s a consistent ongoing tempo so the only thing that changes regarding the drums themselves are the patterns and the feel.
If you have a listen, you’ll hear how the drums really steer the song and even dictate what the guitars are doing.
I have created entire albums this way. A lot of songs would start out as drum and vocal demos before knowing what I was going to do about the guitars and would in essence use the drums as a stencil of sorts where I could color in the riffs in a “paint by number” fashion.
Here’s an example you’ve most likely heard.
Another much less obscure example that comes to mind when I think about a rhythm first approach when songwriting would be “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.
In his own words, Collins had started using a Roland CR-78 drum machine after Roland gave three of them right off the assembly line to him and his then bandmates in Genesis while on tour in Japan back in 1978.
When Collins arrived back home from said tour however, he soon learned that his then wife was leaving him (ironically, due to touring). With CR-78 in hand, writing ensued. The end result being Collin’s first solo album Face Value including the haunting first single.
4. Start with lyrics
If you’ve got a tasty line you’ve written, you can squeeze a lot out of that lemon that can build up into a sumptuous bounty of notes. Words have a natural rhythm to them. Even taking your line and simply reading it out loud can conjure up a melody on a good day.
Doing this can give you a sense of how to phrase your lines by paying attention to where the syllables, vowels as well as consonants will land. This of course is even easier if you already have music to test this lyric out over.
5. Start with a title
Immediately, I think of the Beatles when I think about writing from the title. Notable examples include “Help!” and Sir McCartney’s solo effort “Maybe I’m Amazed.” An honorable mention goes to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”
Each of these songs not only set the tone for how the rest of the song was to be written, but also served as their respective songs’ strongest hooks. How many of you just sang each song in your head after reading this? Yep. Me too.
So, how can we implement this into our own writing?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to keep things simple and allow space for ideas to build.
If there is a title that grabs you, my suggestion once again is to see if you can gently steer this title towards the path of becoming a chorus seeing as including the name of the song inside the song itself already has a bit of pulling power on it’s own.
Of course it is up to you at the end of the day. Let your instincts dictate where the title best fits within the context of the song.
If you happen to be stuck getting started though, I suggest going for the low hanging fruit and use the title in a shortened chorus so that there are lest words and accompanying notes to worry about.
If you’re able to combine the song’s title with a short, catchy melody to support it, then you’re on your way to crafting a memorable chorus which can then inform how you write your more descriptive verses that tell the story.
6. Start with a riff
Riffs can be (and often are) the focal point of most if not all guitar-based songs in genres ranging from rock to metal and everything in between.
I think of a song like “Smoke on the Water” from Deep Purple and think back to literally every private guitar lesson I’ve given where I had a young student. They seemingly had never heard of (or remembered) the name of the song, but they sure did recognize that signature guitar riff as soon as I started playing it.
That is how effective and memorable a great riff can be.
There are so many iconic riffs out there in the world these days. From Pantera’s “Walk” and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pixie’s “Where Is My Mind?”, it’s overwhelming to think about.
Even as I write this, each of the aforementioned songs’ respective titles conjure up the memories of the riffs before anything else in my mind.
As a guitar player, riffs are my reason for being. There’s nothing I love more than plopping down on the couch and noodling away on my guitar first thing in the morning without any conscious creative objectives.
I’m just waking up and I know my hands aren’t warm yet, so I know things are not going to be perfect starting out. What I’ve come to observe is that because of this, I once again, take the pressure off of myself.
I begin to explore each string (often feebly as I’m just waking up) with the same curiosity as a child would. That childlike curiosity is not only integral, but a vital component in creativity.
If you think about it, a young child is completely open to the world and with that, open to receiving all the information that surrounds them. We as songwriters must remain open in this way too. We must trade our expectations for curiosity.
Anyway, as a result of this passive, childlike exploration, I wind up coming up with all kinds of riffs, melodies, and motifs that I otherwise would not have had I not adopted this approach.
Sometimes I’m playing guitar to a backing track, sometimes I’m just paying attention to how I feel first thing in the morning and simply react to that.
If this approach grabs your attention, here’s a step by step way to try it:
- Grab your instrument first thing in the morning.
- Search for a backing track. I personally like drones because they’re more soundscapes than anything as they rarely have a steady beat. For me, this is great because I want to feel as free to explore as possible during this time of day without stressing about working on my rhythm. (That comes later in the day.)
- Start with two or three notes. Let your fingers land where they want to and keep things very simple in terms of how many notes you play against the backing track. It’s a great place to start and chances are, you’ll soon get “bored” and want to immediately find ways to make the melody sound more interesting.
Additional ways to write riffs
This isn’t the only way I approach riff writing mind you. Inspiration can be found in a myriad of different ways from implementing the aforementioned drum beats discussed in Part 3 to dialing in a killer guitar tone and just playing around with rough ideas in front of the amp or computer.
Of course, you can always take it a step further and jam with other humans in a room. (I need to start doing that again.)
7. Start with a location
I’ve always admired songwriters who can spin a compelling narrative around a specific place which also happened to be the title.
Though I’m not necessarily a fan of the Eagles, “Hotel California” is a tune that I can’t help but think about when it comes to a song whose title truly reinforces its message.
Though it’s said that the working title for this one was actually going to be “Mexican Reggae,” I always think back to how the idea of a specific location perfectly tied the song’s storyline together in my mind as a listener.
The song’s reoccurring theme of the building itself being the central location for where each tale of American hedonism and self-indulgence would unfold in the verses. The line “We are all just prisoners here of our own device” comes to mind as I think of this. I’ve always love the idea of taking a location and telling stories about what happened in said location throughout each verse.
Some other great examples of this type of songwriting device can be found on the fantastic album Purple Onion by bassist, singer, songwriter extraordinaire and Primus mastermind Les Claypool. “Barrington Hall” for example, is a tribute to the UC Berkeley student housing known in the 1960s-1980s for counterculture as depicted in lyrics such as:
“They drink up all the wine
Some opiate the time
No hands are free from grime
Here at Barrington Hall
They care not wrong from night
They electrocute the night
And it’s always quite a sight
Down at Barrington Hall”
The inclusion of the song’s location (and title) at the end of each verse further solidifies some powerful imagery in my head when I listen back.
“D’s Diner” from the same album also uses this “location” method, albeit in a slightly different way as the song’s title and location are reserved for the choruses exclusively while the verses go on to describe what is actually going on in the diner.
Here’s what I mean.
Who wants to go to D’s Diner? (I do)
Who wants to go down to D’s? (me)
There’s a place just off the Gravenstein
Where the milkshakes flow like wine
The best damn breakfast Burrito
You can get anywhere anytime
When I think of them fried egg sandwiches
Well, my mouth starts watering’ hard
And them sweet potato fries
And onion rings taste just right
‘Cause they don’t fry in lard
If this method of writing strikes your fancy, I suggest starting out with a structure similar to “D’s Diner” first before you navigate the more intricate, folk-like stanzas of something like “Barrington Hall”, but that’s just me.
How I would approach this style would be to:
- Pick a location.
- Make that location the chorus.
- Find ways to describe the chorus throughout the verses.
I could go on and on about how to start songs, so perhaps there will be a “part 2” to this article, and of course if you’re interested, please feel free to drop a comment and let me know.
In the meantime, I’m going to cap it off here as I think you’ll have more than plenty to explore.
Remember! When getting started, keep things simple and allow space for ideas to build! (It was worth saying a third time.)