How do I make songs?
January 6, 2008 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I can make music. How do I make songs?

I have no problem coming up with neat chord progressions, melodies, beats and all of that, but when it comes to fleshing things out into full-fledged compositions I start drawing blanks. I tend to come up with something that sounds good when looped, but any elaboration or development on that basis usually seems to fall flat. Have any of you songwriters out there grappled with this problem and conquered it? Give me tips. Ableton-specific advice is welcome but not required.
posted by squidlarkin to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
First, embrace the verse-chorus-verus-middle 8 sort of structure with gleeful abandon. That nice loop you've made? Well make a completely different one, and make it the "chorus", rather than just trying to develop the original tune. You can go back and smooth things over later, come up with transitions between the two themes, but starting off with different distinct melodies within the song is a good way to give the song structure.

Secondly, don't fear the "truck-driver's gear change". This is a sudden leap up in key of the whole song. It is an amateurish technique, to be sure, but damn if it doesn't work. So, try changing the key up a tone at some point in your song and see if it makes things more interesting. Of course, there's lots of theory to learn about how to do a properly resolved key change if you want to do things professionally.

Have you tried a breakdown of some sort? Kill the beat, or kill the melody. Create a quiet, empty section of the song, then use this to introduce a new melody.
posted by Jimbob at 9:45 PM on January 6, 2008

(I should also state the bleeding obvious - sometimes it is actually a hell of a lot easier to come up with melodies and chord progressions on a real instrument, guitar or piano, rather than starting the composition process electronically. Jam until you find the chord backing that will make a good chorus, rather than trying to search for it note-by-note in your software.)
posted by Jimbob at 9:48 PM on January 6, 2008

A great book to check out would be Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb.

His personality (in the book at least) is a little grating, but the information it contains is excellent. If you absorb it, it will almost certainly get you past the the roadblock you describe.
posted by quarterframer at 9:57 PM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm struggling with the same thing. My only revelation so far: Don't change one thing at a time, change two or three. So don't introduce new instruments one-at-a-time -- it's just too obvious what's going on -- but throw two or three disparate things into the mix at the same time. (Or take them out, or whatever.)

I also try not to listen to the same loop too many times. It's too easy to just tinker with it until it's absolutely perfect, and then have nowhere else to go. Set yourself a time limit and keep moving.
posted by xil at 10:19 PM on January 6, 2008

Please take this with all the respect it deserves (very little) since I am in no way a musician. I did however take an interest in lyric writing as a kid, and wrote lyrics for some neighborhood amateurs, and came up with a dozen or so (probably lame) songs of my own, unheard by anyone but me.

Disclaimer out of the way, listen to Elton John. Verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - verse - chorus... or something like that. Listen, and read along with the lyric sheets. You may have heard that he has been a tiny bit successful, so studying his structure, and Taupin's lyrics would surely be instructional.
posted by The Deej at 10:25 PM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

It will be easier to write a song if you play an instrument. Looking at that software, I am unclear whether or not you are using the software to create all of the sounds, and play no instruments, or just record into it.

Your problem is as follows--you want music and lyrics to work together.

First, structure-wise, just start writing bits first. The songs will come later. Start with two-part songs, a part A and a part B. Play the A part twice, the B part once and the A part a final time-= AABA.

Start easy with the I, IV, V chords mixed up in a progression, plus a related minor-=G C D Em.

Now the words. First, start reading poetry. Out loud. All the time. Next, listen to things people say in general conversation that sound cool. I take some material from things I hear people say.

Play a lot using what I call the na na's. That's where I play guitar and just sing sounds over it, not words like, na, na na na. You get used to understanding how the voice can be melodic. See also: easy bridge.

Getting started is hard. I would always have a notebook around. Don't start out by saying "I'm going to write about x." Let the music and the words come out together. Make up a new progression and start making up words. Sometimes I do weird things like have people pick out three objects and I sing about them, or randomly put my finger down in the bible, read the verse and just start making stuff up off of that.

For me, the rest of the song comes from that. I first sing the words and then think about what they mean. I will come up with a meaning for the first line that suggests the development of the rest of the song.

Start easy. The program is a means, not an end. I'd just play a guitar into it to start out and do it low-fi so you can learn how to be productive before doing crazy stuff.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:53 PM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might find a rhyming dictionary handy when you start writing lyrics.
posted by wsg at 11:42 PM on January 6, 2008

I have to throw my two cents in with the 'put the away the software' crowd. Any creative process is different for everybody, so ymmv wildy, but for me I take walks.

I put away my mp3 player, and I take long walks with my dog. Eventually, I get some weird thing I've been thinking about rolling around in my head, and I think of different ways to sing it and different music to go with it.

That's just my process. Good luck.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:07 AM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: See, lumpenprole, that's another frustrating thing. When I'm away from any musicmaking equipment, I can come up with all these elaborate, evolving compositions in my head, but as soon as I try to transcribe it, it's lost. I might be able to capture one element, but the context is gone and I can't recreate any of it. I suspect this might be partially thanks to my lack of proficiency with an instrument (I have a keyboard I can sort of play, and a guitar that I can barely play).

Another detail that might narrow things down: I'm making instrumental music. I can't write lyrics at all.
posted by squidlarkin at 1:23 AM on January 7, 2008

I can come up with all these elaborate, evolving compositions in my head, but as soon as I try to transcribe it, it's lost.

Carry a little recorder with you. Sing your ideas into it. Once you start transcribing, you're being analytical and you're cutting off your creative half. (I know how this goes -- I can't play anything with enough proficiency to just sit down and play my ideas. I sketch them vocally and go back later to try and figure out how to execute them.)
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 1:50 AM on January 7, 2008

Stating the obvious... how about studying songwriting? There are a ton of 'how to' books out there, including doing lyrics.

If you've got tunes, great. Your approach may be to match some lyrics to the tunes. It's an iterative process, involving starting out with something that sounds like crap. It almost always sounds like crap and often stays that way until you figure out why and change it. Get used to your work sounding like crap for a while.

Unless you are a real dolt, you'll be able to identify rhyming errors, timing errors, stuff that doesn't quite work. Once you can do that, you can fix it. Using your brain and some trial and error.

Most songwriters I know start with a theme, decide on a 'tone', rough out a structure, create the tune with the rough lyrics.... At a point, you can perform it for someone for feedback.

Join a songwriter's group if you can find one. Watch how other people do it.

Try a bunch of stuff and keep what works.

It's easier if you are clever, have a good vocabulary, and have a message. (The old joke is that you need three chords and the truth, according to Bob Dylan.)

Have you ever been in love? Pissed off? Are you passionate about anything? Get a good case of the red-ass and write a song about something you HATE. Write about your cat. Write about your dead mom, even if she's not dead yet. Write about something absurd, like George Bush doing math. Or Cheney masturbating. About how Falwell and Hitler are enjoying playing cards in Hell.

The trouble with software is that it masks the fact that most music is hard work, just like most painting, writing, sculpture, dance. If you want to be any good at songwritiing, the biggest thing you have to do is to write songs, lots of them, and get progressively better.

For some creative folk stuff, listen to David Wilcox. He writes a ton of original material, and even if you don't like his genre, pay attention to his song writing. He uses non-standard guitar tunings and does a lot of experimenting. He has a wide variety of approaches. His lyrical devices are interesting.

Above all, don't despair. Unless you are Mozart, you're not starting out competent. So what? It's not about talent, it's about WORK.

Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 4:39 AM on January 7, 2008

it took me a while between wanting to write songs and actually writing and recording them (two years?) but please don't despair.

don't throw out your little bits of music - some songs actually come about when two or more bits which might not necessarily sound congruent are pasted together, and come out sounding great as a song. i'm sure somebody who has a better knowledge of music in general can name some examples...

i find it hard to write melodies for essentially finished songs, but haven't found an easy way around it other than sitting in front of my program and racking my brains. but i once heard a songwriter mention that the easiest way is to come up with a melody first, and then build around it.

i like combing youtube for weird comments to turn into lyrics. and there's nothing to say you can't adopt a cut and paste approach like sonic youth. lyrics don't have to mean anything, despite what people say. you can be as damn well obtuse and ridiculous as you like.

in a similar vein, anything can be a song, and you don't have to follow nice chord progressions either.
posted by sardonicsmile at 4:44 AM on January 7, 2008

Ableton Live is a very handy as a songwriting tool because you can think of each scene (in session view) as a structural part of your song (e.g. verse, chorus, bridge, intro, coda, etc.). If you have a loop you like in your first scene, let that be the intro. Then create a new loop using the same instrument for the second scene, letting that be your verse. You can even copy/paste your loop from one scene to the next and let a copy of the intro be the basis of the verse, etc. Even if you write instrumental music (I do), you still need to think in terms of structure.

Live is also very flexible in that you can easily rearrange scenes before you record an arrangement. So, if you later decide that the intro would make a better chorus (or that it should loop eight times instead of four), making that sort of change is dead easy (it's not in plenty of more linear recording packages).

I'd also say spend some time with your guitar and try mixing audio recordings of that along with whatever you're doing with the synths. The guitar is a fabulous songwriting tool. And you don't have to be a great player to write great songs with it.

FWIW, I had the same issue as you at one point. I was showing my friend all these cool bass parts I had written, but complaining that I couldn't combine them to make songs. He said, "you've got some nice parts here; now you need to focus on arrangements for them." And that, for some reason, brought it all home to me. Writing parts and arranging them are too fundamentally different tasks, at least for me.
posted by wheat at 6:50 AM on January 7, 2008

Progressions are the building blocks of songs. When you come up with a good one, sit on it and play with it for a while. Put it away and work on other progressions. Then, try stringing different ones together (you may need to transpose keys or change tempos for this to work). Combine two or three progressions = song!

I tend to write on guitar, even though it's not an instrument I play well-- it's easy to sit at the computer or watch tv and idly strum away. But playing on the keyboard a fragment originally thought up on guitar makes it easier to come up with different ways to think about that fragment and where it should lead to. And you don't need to be particularly proficient at an instrument to use it to write songs-- as a writer, you may be better off by not playing well.
posted by andrewraff at 7:30 AM on January 7, 2008

Crash random into structure. Hit a random note, choose a random word. Play with scrabble pieces. Pick the color of the next car that goes by, then pick the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of that color. Things like that. Then, after you write about and around the random thing, cut the random thing out and keep the rest. Knock a bird-shaped hole in your idea without, in the end, mentioning the bird.

Collaborate. Where you are stuck, another may come unstuck.

Steal something and improve it. Find mediocre lyrics (maybe from a hundred years ago -- collaborate with the dead) and fix them. Rewrite a traditional song, maybe just taking the chord progression from a book without even knowing the melody. Scrounge a great rhythm.

Write a story first. Simple prose. Or steal a good story and pretend it's yours. Then cut it to its essentials and translate it into lyrics and music.

Draw the song with a pencil. Then figure out how to make a sound like that.

Write a good melody for a simple chord progression, then change the chord progression to something entirely different and much less likely that nonetheless fits the same melody. Then do it again, same melody but another progression going off in another direction.

Imagine different instruments, different players. Write a tuba solo for a dwarf, an oboe and harp duet for angry chicken farmers, an alphorn trio played by a blind lesbian love triangle trapped on three remote peaks on a warm summer evening before the war.

Keep a notebook of all the things you'd like to write about but can't yet. You'll get to them.
posted by pracowity at 10:08 AM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The more you transcribe the easier it will get. Learn to read (and write) music, or least come up with a system that you can get whatever is in your head on paper or recorded. Also play your instruments. Keyboard doesn't require much technical ability to play simple lines, and if you mess around with them you'll probably see where they might go.

I will usually take some of these pieces (i had/sometimes-have the same problem) that seem like they should be in a song together. Then I work on the parts that will bridge those sections and make it a song. Often the parts I write to bridge the original material take the song to places I hadn't intended, and sometimes when the song is done it doesn't even include the original parts.

Works for me anyways.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 11:51 AM on January 7, 2008

I second FauxScot, software gives many the impression that creating a well written song is much easier than it actually is. At least 80% of the software musicians I know struggle with this exact problem.

It's easy to forget that any CD/Mp3 library is full of examples of how complete songs are made. Listen through and figure out how long each section goes for, when / what kind of instruments appear, how parts flow into each other, etc. Formal music training isn't needed, just take note of what you hear and implement it into your own material. Co-opting another song's structure won't be noticed by anyone else listening to your track, and it will familiarize yourself enough with arrangements that you'll eventually be able to do it without reference songs.

If you're wary of being too derivative, just mimic the structure of something in another genre.
posted by yorick at 3:21 PM on January 7, 2008

A lot of these responses seem to be addressing issues tangential to your question. You want to learn about song structure, and you start learning song structure the same as with anything else related to composition -- imitation. Choose some music that you like and would like to imitate and diagram the form. Make note of when each new idea is introduced, how many times that idea is repeated, and what changes over each repeat. Make note of what differentiates one section from the next.

If you're at all into The Beatles, you will probably find it rewarding to read Alan W. Pollack's Notes on The Beatles Canon. He's already done what I describe for all of their songs. You can skip everything but the parts where he talks about form if you like, although the bits about melody and harmony and such are all instructive as well.

And be careful not to close yourself off to the full range of formal possibilities just because some are currently more common. You don't have to use I IV and V. Songs don't have to have a verse and a chorus. As Pollack shows, a lot of the great early Beatles songs were verse/bridge rather than verse/chorus. The distinction goes like this: in verse/bridge form, the musical and lyrical hook goes in the verse, often in the first or last line. The verse stays close to the home key of the piece. The bridge then follows the verse and exists to create contrast, often leading away from the home key. In verse/chorus form on the other hand, the verse exists to build up to the chorus, which contains the musical and lyrical hook of the song.

As I've just touched on, it's helpful to keep in mind what you intend to accomplish with each section of a song. Generally the point behind having different sections at all is to create contrast and variety. Therefore, if you've used one kind of idea in your A section, do your best to get away from that in the B section. A common mistake for inexperienced writers is to fail to sufficiently differentiate one section from the next.

Generally you'll achieve contrast via rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, or some combination thereof. For instance, maybe your A section is very major-sounding and uses a lot of short phrases, so your B section can be more minor-sounding and use long phrases. Or maybe you'll emphasize different beats, change time signatures or create the feel of a different time signature, or change to a busier or sparser rhythmic pattern. Or you might use different instruments, put the instruments in different registers, or relegate instruments to different roles (foreground, middleground, or background). You can also create contrast by altering the harmonic rhythm, which means how often the chords change. A section with chords that change every two beats will feel different and more active from a section that changes chords every four beats; doing things on weak or strong beats is also a consideration.

And not all songs need to have clearly delineated contrasting sections, either -- an example that comes to mind is the critically-adored All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem. The entire song is an A section. Interest is created by the melody line, which gets higher in pitch and more active as the song progresses, and the backing track, which gets gradually busier and builds in energy. But there's nothing like a verse and a chorus. The shape of that song is a wedge: a < shape. Some songs start small, get bigger, and then recede again, making a < > shape. I can't think of a good example right now, but there are probably songs out there that start big and then get smaller, making a > shape. And more complex pieces will have many such shapes nestled within a larger structure.

My last piece of advice for the moment is to use repetition, but be mindful to avoid exact repetition. You'll write a section that you'll use more than once, but find something that you can alter each time you repeat it to ensure that it's worth listening to more than once. And don't overstay your welcome -- your song should be exactly long enough to say what you need to say and no longer.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:46 PM on January 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also, I have to disagree with these two comments:

Don't start out by saying "I'm going to write about x."


My only revelation so far: Don't change one thing at a time, change two or three. So don't introduce new instruments one-at-a-time -- it's just too obvious what's going on -- but throw two or three disparate things into the mix at the same time.

Deciding on a subject and then writing about it is a perfectly good method of creation, and there's nothing wrong with adding elements one at a time.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:51 PM on January 7, 2008

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