Songwriting can be hard work. Like any other hard thing, it takes motivation to keep at it and maintain diligence. Methods help us to maintain diligence by giving us a familiar structure to work in. Instead of being lost, we know where to start and where to go from there.
How Do I Start
I like to start with a hook. Ask ten different people and you may get ten different definitions for the term hook. I define it as the main thematic idea of the song. This idea can be lyrical, instrumental or a combination of both.
Most of my hooks tend to be lyrical. In this case, they are usually the title of the song. People debate over whether the title should be the first or last line of the chorus. I don't think there are any absolutes here, because every song is different (although not so much today - don't get me started). Most titles seem to be the last line, although some songs manage to use it as the first and last line.
The main factor is whether or not a stranger can listen to the chorus and clearly determine what the title of the song is. That level of clarity is developed by more than just the placement of the line. Every other part of the songs should be pointing to this main idea or hook. Every other lyric should be explaining or expounding on it. The rhythms and melodies should be helping to express it. That is why I like to start with the hook. I usually weave my other song components out of it.
Sometimes I will get an idea for an instrumental hook. These usually take the form of a memorable solo melody. Lead guitar is the typical instrument to receive such a part, although not as much in my songs since I don't play guitar. For me these lines usually are assigned to the piano or saxophone. I have also written melodic hooks for cello, bass guitar and human whistling.
Instrumental hooks can also take the form of chord progressions or drum beats. The piano chord progression to Sara Bareilles' Love Song and the guitar chord progression to Smoke on the Water are examples of progressions that instantly cause you to think of the song. The same is true for the beats to songs like We Will Rock You or Come Together.
After discovering a hook I usually develop the rest of the song around it. If the hook is the lyrical title, I expound outward to develop the rest of the chorus. I use to write lyrics and music separately, but now they seem to come out at the same time. Lyrics cause me to hear rhythms, chord progressions and melodies. In the same way some instrumental ideas cause me to hear lyrics.
Usually I develop the verse or verses after the chorus is done. Sometimes an idea for the verse will jump into my head while working on the chorus. If so, I just skip to that part of the song and work out the idea while it is flowing.
Finally, I take a few days (or weeks) to think and pray about revisions. I continually examine the flow, expression, ease of interpretation and other aspects of the song. This is the final polishing stage that ensures that I have expressed myself clearly and effectively.
Of course this method is just a guide for me. Not every song I write follows this order of construction. I have had moments where God imparted complete songs to me in a dream. Other times I have stored and unfinished songs away for a while and come back to it later. However, I have found that most of my songs come out of the method that I described above.
Now this post did not get into the technical musical aspects of writing a song. I mentioned that words, melodies, chords and rhythms seem to flow simultaneously for me. Several years of private instruction, song writing clinics, college studies and writing/performance experience have brought me to that point musically. Next week, I will discuss the musical ingredients that form a well written song and the ways to combine those ingredients.