The most popular question when people find out you’re a songwriter is, “What comes first, the words or the music?” and the answer is, “It’s different every time.” Is writing great melodies and lyrics an innate talent or is it something you can learn? Are there tricks and methods that you can adopt to help open the doors to melodic mastery and words that capture listeners’ hearts?
1. A very popular method for having somewhere to start when it comes to the writing process is to keep a list of potential “song titles” that you add to when something of interest pops into your head or you hear a sound bite or read something that jumps out at you. Having a title or a “song concept” to begin with, can be a great way to start your lyrical and song expedition — then every line has to walk towards that concept or “central idea”. How interestingly can you journey to the title concept with every line? How originally can you deliver or reveal the meaning of your story
2. Melody is all around us. I’ve heard of people recording birdsong and then using the bird’s melodies to inspire their own song melody (there are probably some birds flying around that are owed some pretty big royalty checks). I was walking past some wind chimes during a break from writing the other day and loved the motif that they were playing. Of course it never repeated, but I sang it into ‘voice-notes’ on my phone so I could remember it.
I recall hearing of composers that sprinkle rice over the manuscript and draw musical notes around where they fell on the stave. Record yourself singing some made-up melody and then reverse the audio … you may find something even more surprising. Let the melodies around you inspire you. Even just now while writing this on the subway, there’s a motif that’s played when the doors close … good opening to a verse!
3. When I am searching for words and melodies, the thing that works best for me is just facing the blank page or new voice-note and singing, saying, playing anything with no inhibitions or concerns — just trying to let stuff flow. I do think that a sense of play is important. A sense of wonder.
No doubt people have a very different take on this. For some, it can be very strategic and mapped. I personally find that the more interesting things arrive when I am not over-thinking or forcing them. Just let gibberish fall out of your mouth. Just sing some silly melodies. So many of the greatest song melodies are very simple, almost nursery rhyme-like. Then you have to trust your instinct when you feel like you’ve landed on something that speaks to you. It really becomes about your own taste. Be sure to record all the nonsense so you can listen back to the accidental magic.
4. “Cut-ups” was a lyric writing technique I heard about when I started writing songs as it was something Bowie reportedly explored. This sort of involves cutting up single words and sentences from your notebook and just picking them randomly out of a hat … Maybe that will lead you to lines like “Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird!”
5. Visual stimulation can be a great way to start a song journey. Put a classic movie on silent and write what you see. Describe each move and expression in your own words. There are so many people that were inspired by a movie or story to write a song. We don’t just have to write about what we are experiencing inside, we can also find creative ways to explain what we see around us. Yes, it may be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.