The Songwriting Process

 
       
 
May 26, 2018, 11:55 AM

Having recently dragged a song, kicking and screaming, into a phase I like to call, despite all evidence to the contrary, “finished,” I thought it might be fun to compile a needlessly long list of the steps we go through to get there. It really just describes my process, but I have to assume that if you’re not doing it the way I do, then you must obviously be doing it wrong.

Did I miss anything? Do you do it differently (i.e. wrongly)? MAB would probably add the “committee stage” of sitting around with other writers, because if it doesn’t have co-writers, it ain’t a real song :) 

1. Wake up with an idea in your head, thinking, “That would make a good song.”
2. Lie in bed letting some lyrics form in your half-awake brain (because it is smarter than your awake brain)
3. Frantically write down all those lyric ideas, terrified you will forget them.
4. Get annoyed because, as you were writing down the first lyric ideas, you forgot those in the middle.
5. Write down the last lyric idea you had, because you still remember that one.
6. Get a cup of coffee.
7. Walk the dogs/mow the lawn/go to the grocery store, constantly repeating the lyrics and hoping a melody forms in your head. Smile apologetically at the lady in the grocery store who thinks you’re talking to yourself because you’re drunk, and it’s not even noon.
8. The germ of a melody forms as you absent-mindedly mow your driveway.
9. Go inside and pick up your instrument of choice to tinker with the melody. If it’s a piano, reconsider attempting to pick it up. If it’s a guitar, proceed.
10. Tinker with the melody.
11. Completely change those brilliant lyrics to fit the melody.
12. Completely change the melody to fit the brilliant lyrics.
13. Completely change both the lyrics and the melody. That’s much better.
14. Stop for a beer.
15. Do whatever you normally do to create a recording - play all the instruments yourself, call a few friends, direct the elf orchestra in your computer.
16. Have another beer to lubricate the tonsils.
17. Attempt to sing into your microphone. Reckon you made a pretty good job of it.
18. Discover you forgot to hit record.
19. Try again. It sucks. Wonder why you even try.
20. Another beer.
21. Try again. Your dog comes in and the absolute best vocal performance you have ever done is ruined by the jingle of a collar and the patter of feet.
22. Take the dog out and shut the door, grabbing a beer as you pass the refrigerator.
23. Notice that it’s dark outside and wonder how long you’ve been asleep.
24. Record ten more vocal takes.
25. Discover each vocal take has about twenty seconds that doesn’t suck. Of course, those are not twenty consecutive seconds but three second snippets scattered at random through the recording.
26. Cobble together an acceptable combination of those snippets.
27. Go to bed.
28. Wake up with eight new ideas to completely change everything.
29. Realize those ideas are actually another song.
30. Listen to that combination of the best bits you put together. It sucks. Why do you even try?
31. Make two little changes. Listen again. Still not great.
32. Turn to your vocal coach, Mr. Mel O’Dyne. That’s a bit better.
33. Apply EQ, compression, reverb, etc. with the aim of making your whiny voice sound as little possible like itself.
34. You are the greatest vocalist that ever lived.
35. Post the song to SW101.
36. Wait a week until you receive feedback from one of the very few people who does more than just post their own lyrics, hoping to be told how great they are. Those other folks don’t realize that the purpose of this forum is to afford them the opportunity of telling YOU how great you are. Read the comments.
37. That person made a suggestion for improvement. Are they crazy? This is the best song ever. How could it possibly be improved?
38. Realize that person was in fact being kind. This is the worst song in the history of songs. Resolve to give up. Go to bed.
39. Wake up with an idea…
40. Repeat steps 2 to 38.

 
     
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Gavin Sinclair Joined Dec 02, 2014
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May 26, 2018, 06:40 PM

“Did I miss anything? Do you do it differently (i.e. wrongly)? MAB would probably add the “committee stage” of sitting around with other writers, because if it doesn’t have co-writers, it ain’t a real song :)”

Not exactly Gavin, I just think most songwriters could USE co-writing to learn what they are doing. Would allow them to skip a few dozen of your steps here. More likely:

#1. Find the center of the idea, develop the twist on the idea.
#2. Find the musical center, build the hooks, the most important thought, write to the hook.
#3. Make your song singable and instantly understandable.
#4. Know the intended audience for your song and the genre you are working in.
#5. Find assistance (co-writer, producer, arranger, critique) to help you tweak and review what you do.
#6. Review it after space and time to make sure it continues to stand up. FINISH It and don’t leave it lying for months.
#7. Perform it live to get a genuine feel from people outside your family.
#8. Do various stages of recording to listen to it on a variety of sources, home, car, good stereo, cheap stereo.
#9. Write more songs and review the current song against those.
#10, if it fits all your criteria, do the best recording you can afford, and get it out in as many ways as possible.

As far as co-writing, the song I’m about to release as a “single” with a video, “THAT’S THE TIME I THINK OF YOU” on my CD,
“A LIFE WELL LIVED” Is a solo write. And the majority of the other 9, I wrote 85-98% of, so they are close to a “solo write.” I can write by myself very well. Just don’t enjoy it as much as co-writing.
And for songwriters wanting to enter the “COMMERCIAL world” of songwriting. they are going to have to learn to co-write, or they won’t be in the COMMERCIAL WORLD.

MAB

 
     
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MBarne4908 Joined Jul 29, 2010
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May 26, 2018, 06:48 PM

I was just pulling your leg about the co-writing, MAB.

The fact that you wrote 85 to 98% of all the co-writes on the album could open up the debate about co-writing, but I think we (especially I) beat that to death on another thread.

 
     
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Gavin Sinclair Joined Dec 02, 2014
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May 26, 2018, 08:13 PM

Got cha Gavin,

I do push co-writing a lot, mainly because I think it is the best way to learn. And different people can play off of each other’s strength. If nothing else, they can keep some boundries on those 5 minute songs. On my upcoming CD, there are a couple of songs that I wrote with hit writers that they did a majority of the writing. I was pushing in the musical development, and arrangements. Didn’t do as much in the lyrics, except general ideas. I was writing with my own mentors who were showing me what to do.  In most of them, I was TEACHING it to others who were my students. I write a majority of the songs based upon their general ideas, and usually about THEIR lives. That keeps the reality in the songs and makes it more personal to them. Therefore more passionate about their music. But I am the more experienced writer and also having it finished in a two hour session. That is the PROCESS of songwriting. All about craft.
Then, on one song I am doing a cover. TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS, an Otis Redding classic.

All in all it is a pretty good retrospective on my career.

MAB

 
     
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MBarne4908 Joined Jul 29, 2010
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May 26, 2018, 10:03 PM

Hey, nothing wrong with those five minute songs. Well, of course there is if you expect them to be played on mainstream radio. But if you’re just trying to write the best song you can, sometimes it just needs to be a wee bit longer. “Jungleland,” surely one of the best rock songs ever written, is almost 10 minutes long. Hearing it performed live, it feels too short. You just want it to keep on going. “Backstreets,” also on “Born to Run” is over 6 minutes. I ain’t going to argue with the Boss, LOL.

American Pie goes on for about ten years, or at least it seems that way to me, but it did OK;)

 
     
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Gavin Sinclair Joined Dec 02, 2014
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May 27, 2018, 01:13 AM

See, I am completely the opposite. I have never liked long songs. I would rather hear MORE songs than long songs. In my rock era, (the 1980’s) I HATED the guitar, keyboard, drum and bass solos, because they took the focus away from ME, the lead singer. But I always believed in the “less is more” approach. Most of the people I liked, The Beatles, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, etc. all had very short songs. Dylan ushered in that long self indulgent thing, so I tended to tune him and those songs out. Even as I learned to play guitar better I never wanted to do solos.
So I have always done shorter songs, but more of them.

Today, I am known throughout this town as a “bigger bang for the buck” writer/artist. I do mostly “features” which are thirty minute solo sets. Most people do good to get through 5-6 songs, and many times closer to four in a thirty minute set. Of course they are talking half of that time. I get a minimum of nine in. I play this one club every Wed. and the past two weeks people have challenged me to see what I’ll do off the cuff. I get a lot of requests for different songs of mine, so finding a way to please as many as I can is always a challenge. Last week I was doing my set and asked if they had requests. Someone started this chant, “Twelve more songs.” and the crowd picked it up. (This was after I had already played six. I looked at the clock on the wall and had only played about 17 minutes. So I said “Here’s a medley and promptly did verses and choruses of twelve more songs. Sometimes it pays to keep them short.

My new CD features 11 songs and most of then clock in at around 2 minutes and 40 seconds. I believe in writing very tight, and not waste too many words. One of the weaknesses I see in many writers are that when they get into those three and four verse songs, with a couple of bridges, they are simply repeating information. They tend to just say the same things in different ways. They also use too many musical interludes and dead air. There is a lot of musical redundancy, where the chord pattern is exactly the same all the way through the song with little or no dynamics or changes throughout. And most don’t support their hook either. I’d rather have 2 and a half minutes of things that actually SAY AND MEAN something than five minutes of redundant information I’ve heard ten thousand times before. Not to mention BORING THE CRAP out of myself by writing anything like that. I just don’t have that much to say in a song.

With the audiences we have now, and the incredibly short attention spans, if you go past about 3 minutes, you have already lost them. That brings them to the “glow songs” I always talk about. Where they pick up their cell phones and start texting or tuning out whoever is onstage, and the “Glow” in their faces are all over a room.
And it is not just live. People now have the “Amazon dot” stereo system where people can call up millions of songs by saying “Alexia, play….” And they can have anything they want at a voice command. And many people don’t listen to the whole song, just a verse and a chorus and then play something else. If you have a party, you will be hard pressed to find one song even listened to for long.

It’s the same on Facebook or any social networking sites. People are so quick to tune out ,and they have THOUSANDS if not MILLIONS of things coming at them every hour. They no longer listen to what is on. They want to know what ELSE is on. They do the same thing with television, and streaming movies, view something for a few minutes and then on to something else. All while multi tasking.

For songwriters of course, this comes down to money as well. Part of the reasons no one is getting paid anything are that not only are people not BUYING music, they don’t even want to OWN it anymore. Which is what streaming is. You stream it in and then move on to something else.

So, yes there used to be some long songs. But if you know your history, and I suspect you do, there were also RADIO versions of songs. American Pie is a seven minute song. But there was also a three minute and thirty second version as well which cut out about three verses. And the main reason the longer version was played was that it was in the beginning of FM music where they didn’t play as many commercials. DJ’s liked to go to the bathroom, do drugs, eat, have sex, and they would play the longer songs to be able to do that.
How else do you think a 12 minute drum solo on a 17 minute song, “INNA GADDA DAVIDA’ actually managed to survive. The longer songs allowed for some hanky panky.

So you can keep the five minute songs. I can get three in the same space.
MAB

 
     
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MBarne4908 Joined Jul 29, 2010
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May 27, 2018, 01:39 PM

Yes, I know there was a radio version of American Pie. I don’t actually like that song very much, so even the radio version felt pretty long to me :)

Anyway, I take your point about the appropriate length of a song. To some extent, I suppose, it depends on the type of song and where it is being sung. Also, a song full of redundant information and repetition of the same information in different ways is not going to be worth listening to all the way through, whatever its length.

I also take your point about attention spans. When I used to listen to that 10 minute Springsteen song, I would often turn the lights out, lie on my bed and let him paint pictures in my mind. Clarence Clemmons’ sax solo just added to the atmosphere. I doubt that many people would do that these days. Not that anyone is writing songs worthy of that kind of attention.

I agree with you about lengthy drum or guitar solos when they are just self-indulgent and contribute nothing to the song. When a solo is intrinsic to the song and helps create atmosphere, it’s a different matter.

 
     
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Gavin Sinclair Joined Dec 02, 2014
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May 27, 2018, 03:42 PM

Gavin,

Like everything, there is a historical perspective for shorter and longer songs. First of all, “three minutes” were always the mark, because that was about the time that a basically out of shape person could expend energy for a dance. So most of the waltzes, and dance music, was right about three minutes. In the 50’s with the “teen agers” and the advent of ROCK AND ROLL” the 3 inch disc (45’s) allowed for about three minutes of music before they ran out of space. And you could sell a TON of them for 45 cents or a little more. They fit into jukeboxes and the “top 40 countdown was begun.” again, mostly dance oriented. That was the primary form of music until, you guessed it, those four guys from Liverpool, decided to do a “concept album” (which it really wasn’t but was presented as such) called Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. and the “long playing record” (LP) started exceeding the 45’s in sales.

That began the psychodelic era, and due to the usage of drugs, people would put an album on, and it would play for 22 1/2 minutes. before flipping it over. Put a bunch of those on the turntables, and you didn’t have to get up to go to the changer for an hour or so. Bands became more experimental, and were signed for the musicianship. People like “Cream”, Jimi Hendrix, and other progressive groups were signed and expected to go longer in all solos, effects (Pink Floyd) etc. This all started in the “Summer of Love” 1967. From there it was a long progression of longer and longer songs. FM radio loved them, kids loved them, concerts were great, and everybody “tuned in, turned on, and Dropped out.

This led to the DISCO era in the 70’s where the same beat was employed to keep people on the dance floor. And yes we all tried to emulate our heroes as we learned to play the intracacies of STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN and FREE BIRD. Long live the Les Paul, Full Stack Marshalls and LOUD STUFF!!!

During all that there was still AM radio, where most cars, and average people got their music from. And like every trend, slowly but surely, after about 10-15 years, it started drifting back to the shorter song.

So the “longer five-ten minute songs, were an abberation, not the rule. Now we are back there with a vengance because people simply don’t have the attention span due to all the ways we get information.

For my own part, again, I have never been INTO the longer song format, so music has sort of spun right BACK into the direction where I was all along.

So like everything, what goes around, comes around. LESS IS MORE.

MAB

 
     
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MBarne4908 Joined Jul 29, 2010
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May 27, 2018, 03:45 PM

I will always make exceptions for HOTEL CALIFORNIA by the Eagles, as the twin guitar solos were a very intragel PART of the song itself.

There are exceptions. That is 6 minutes and 55 seconds well spent.

MAB

 
     
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MBarne4908 Joined Jul 29, 2010
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Jun 23, 2018, 11:48 PM

I know I’m late to the party… but I just had to say this was thouroughly entertaining, and educational at the same time.  Thanks for both gentlemen!

Life is short, Do what you ❤️!
To check out my 365 Songwriting Challenge click the link:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR-VlTrsAFM3gYnlAdk4Ucw

 
     
Miu Joined Jun 18, 2018
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