Writing about song writing is a bit weird!
As I’m sure many other creative people will tell you, song writers (unless they are also teachers) don’t usually have to analyse the mechanics of what they do. In general, I don’t really think about how I write songs, I just do it!
When I first began teaching singing and performance, explaining how I sing and perform came quite naturally, as you could argue that teaching itself is a form of performance. But song writing…mmm?
Song writing (to me at least) is a rather personal endeavour, generally involving copious cups of tea and choccy biccies and executed behind closed doors in a small, airless studio.
The process of creating a song is something akin to alchemy....mysterious and secret!
When you decide to share how you do it and write it down, you actually have to sit down and deconstruct the process because it’s not something you consciously think about. So, like I said, it’s weird.
But I'll give it a go.
Enough waffle…let’s get to it!
The right method?
The first thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to write songs – however you do it…hey, if it works for you, then keep going! There are however, certain practices and tried and tested methodologies that will definitely help you along the creative way.
So, if your way of writing is not working for you and you’re unhappy with the results of your efforts, then that’s the time to seek help and support from other writers.
I hope that sharing my writing process will shine a small light on the process and maybe provide you with some tips of what to do (or not!) possibly even demonstrating that whatever you are doing is not wrong!
I write songs in a few different ways, often in a jam/improvisation session with my song writing collaborator Neil Harvey. This is a brilliant way to write, I have to say, as ideas can just flow when you work with someone else.
If I'm writing for a client then, depending on the brief, I will work from set lyrics and write a melody or vice versa. This type of composing requires a slightly different skillset, so I won't go into this now. It requires a post all of its own.
However, when writing my own songs, I would say that about half of the time, I generally tend to start with a melody and a lyric combined, when I’m on my own. That’s just the way I work. It could be just a saying or a phrase that comes into my head and I just start singing it over and over. I may have been reading something that's inspired me or watched a film perhaps. Maybe I've been talking to someone or feeling something myself; a happy or sad experience that I've had or witnessed. There are numerous events that provoke me in to writing a song. Life is an infinite source of inspiration for songs. That's the beauty of what we do.
Usually, (as soon as humanly possible!) I record it on my phone or my voice recorder, just in case I have to leave it to do something else. There’s nothing more annoying than thinking up a great melody and then forgetting it and, let me tell you, I've had inspiration for a tune at the most inconvenient times (steady on now!). So, if I’ve recorded it, even mega roughly, I have it filed and I can go back to it later. Some composers and writers notate their ideas (write them down as sheet music... same process, different filing system!) Sometimes, I will do this, but very rarely and, before you budding writers out there panic, it isn't necessary to be able to read/write music to write songs, at all!
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, so, sometimes, when I listen back to the idea, I’ll think, yep, it’s got potential and get really excited to work on it, but then sometimes, I’ll think, ah, not so good after all and I disregard it, or at least leave it for a while. I have many, many, half recorded ideas that started out as a hit! Some writers don’t record their ideas, but I have to, as my mind is like a sieve! Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork once remarked that she never records her ideas; she just waits to see if she forgets it! If she does forget, she says, it wasn’t any good anyway. I tend to take a more pragmatic approach to writing and I record absolutely everything I write (if possible).
The nitty gritty!
So, if I decide the idea is good enough to work on, I’ll sit down at the piano and carry on singing it to see where the tune wants to go. Then I’ll try to add more melody and play around with some chords. So, for example, I’ll take it into a chorus, or if I’ve written the chorus part first, (this is quite normal for me) try to work in a verse type melody. Sometimes, this is easy and it all fits and flows fantastically and, sometimes, it’s a bit trickier, depending on the melody I’ve initially come up with. I would say that I mainly write from ear rather than notating music, although like I said earlier, I have done this for a few songs. Generally, I’ll have something in my head and I can ‘hear’ the basic arrangement that I want for the song. I then take my rough melody and lyrics to my song writing partner Neil Harvey and we start working on it properly, trying to flesh out the structure and instrumentation. We decide on a key and then add the chords to accompany the vocal melody. Much of the time, we get stuck on the middle 8 (termed the 'middle 8' as it's usually the 8, or so, bars of instrumentation or vocal melody, that come after the second chorus in most pop/rock songs, that differ from the main melody of the song).Often a bugbear! (More on Middle 8’s in another article)
Once we have a basic arrangement we record a guide vocal and probably a guitar accompaniment or a keyboard, depending on the type of song. This is where it starts to get really exciting, as you can hear your song coming together. Also, the song can alter radically at this point, for example, changes in vocal melody, lyrics, arrangement, all sorts of things. Or, it could stay very close to the original idea. Like I said earlier there is no one way to do this. Just go with the flow and do what feels right to you. Obviously, it also depends on what genre you are working in. For example, garage or house/hip hop writers generally tend to start with a beat or some beats, building a song or track around a strong rhythm and working from there. Other writers, say.. rock writers for instance, may come up with a great guitar riff and develop a song that way. Like I said at the start, there is no right or wrong way to write songs, this is just how Neil and I do it. I tend to be melody driven as I’m a singer and the voice is my primary instrument to work with. I suppose that I would be considered in the industry as a top line writer; that is to say, someone who writes the vocal melody of the song, termed the top line in sheet music. Although, I do have significant input into the instrumentation as well. Sometimes, I’ll kind of ‘write’ the string parts or woodwind etc. on the spot while we’re recording and Neil has to decipher what I mean with all my hand movements and weird melodies.
Solo writer or team player?
I am extremely lucky in that I have a collaborator to work with. Working with someone else is awesome. Although, it too, can have its challenges when egos become involved. The best thing is to leave your ego at the studio door and embrace any and all ideas. There was a time though when I worked alone and I wrote my songs on my own (hence all the tea & biscuits!). I just recorded my ideas and maybe put a few chords (from my keyboard) underneath to support the melody. Then, when I could afford it, I went into a recording studio and recorded the song. Many studios offer an arrangement facility. This is when you take a raw song in, for instance, a rough melody, lyrics and a bit of an idea of how you want it to sound, and the arrangers work with you until it’s finished. It can be expensive but at least you get your song done professionally. This is invaluable if you don’t play well enough to do it yourself and/or you don’t have recording facilities at home. Of course, nowadays, with the advent of home studio set ups, most people can record everything themselves. However, if that’s not possible, there are literally hundreds of studios offering help with recording your fledgling song nowadays, from everything to co-writing, providing instrumentation, producing and arranging, mixing and mastering. You can find one to suit most budgets.
In fact, we now offer songwriting and production services ourselves.
If you’d like to hear more details, do drop me a line.
If you do need help with recording your song, but you’re seriously broke, (yep, we’ve all been there!) then sometimes music tech students are generally willing to work with you for the experience. Alternatively, you could throw out a call for help to other budding producers or songwriters on social media. This is a great way to meet like-minded musos! And you never know…a new hit-making partnership may be born!
Just be careful to make sure your song is/has been copyrighted before sending any rough recordings/tracks to anyone. It’s also advisable to decide/agree upfront on terms, if any collaborators/producers ask for rights in the composition. If this is freaking you out a little, fret not, I will cover this at length in another post.
The subject of song rights/publishing and its corollaries is a minefield and can a major headache for many creatives. As a general rule, although there are exceptions, we artists are not usually too savvy when it comes to copyright, rights assignments and so forth.
Neil and I have learned the hard way, how not to go about all this, through bitter (and expensive) experience.
So, I will be posting a detailed 'how to' on this rather thorny topic very soon.
So, this is how I write songs…warts and all! There are no secret tricks involved, just commitment and perseverance. If you’ve been hitting a wall, then, hopefully, it’s inspired you to experiment with your own writing process. Consistency is key here.
'Practice makes permanent' as my old University professor used to say.
So, keep going. Keep experimenting with the creative process. If you're struggling, then try different approaches, reach out to others for collaborations, read or watch movies, talk to others for ideas and inspiration and you will get there. Don’t give up. It gets easier with experience and if you have a passion for your music, then you will find a way.
Above, have fun and enjoy it. To be able to write/make music, sing or write songs is a gift and a blessing.
It has enriched my life beyond measure.
I wish you good luck, happy writing and see you next time.
Keep the faith.
Cheerio for now!
Love & music,
Ps. If you'd like to work with Caitlin & Neil, or would just like more info on our music production services, drop us a line here.