What To Write
First off lets define exactly what it is that we're trying to accomplish here. Within music there are many different styles of music and many ways to go about creating that music. So it's good to know what you're trying to accomplish. Most of the time we think as music as words and an instrument accompaniment. It can be this and so much more. For this post we're going to define writing as anything from a solo guitar piece to an ambient noise/synth piece, to a pop song and everything in between.
Even though it generally helps to know theory, know how to play a musical instrument well and have some knowledge of how to play a certain kind of music, you don't have to know anything at all to write a song. I used to run a studio that catered to songwriters and single performers. Most of the time people would come in with a lyric and a melody. Some would come in with a good idea of what they wanted but had no idea how to put it all together. There are many ways to go about putting a song together. Here are a couple:
Words and/or Melody
People often ask "what comes first, the words or music?". For me they both usually come at the same time but there's no hard and fast rule. Most often people will get into a habit of doing things a certain way and stick with that. Some people like to start with the music and work on the lyrics later. Others will spend more time putting the lyrics together and worry more about the music later. Whatever method you use, it's good every once in a while and mix it up and try new ways. If this is an issue for you, start with your strength and work from there. If you're good at coming up with a great vocal line, start with that and build from there. You'll find that in most cases, the initial inspiration is wonderful, it's the development and working through the rest of the song that's usually a problem. Inevitably you'll get so far and then get stuck where you just don't know where to go next. This is where the importance of rewrites are invaluable.
Chords and/or Beat
A lot of dance/rap/hip hop will generally follow this method. Often a producer will have the track almost completely done and then add a vocal line/rap and melody at the very end. For some it's usually a beat that starts the song; for others it's a chord progression or bass line. If you're working on a computer sometimes both will develop at the same time. You start with a chord progression or bass line, then add a basic beat. Then you may go back the chords and develop them more. Then go back to the beat and change it according to the changes you just made to the chords. Then, once you decide on the form of the song, once again you may want to change the chords for the different sections, and depending on the style of song, change the beat in the different sections too.
Rough Draft and the Demo
I've heard it say that some musicians don't bother with a demo of the song at all; they'll just go right into the final recording. This isn't always the way it happens. Usually they'll start with a demo but it will keep being reworked until something close to the final is done. I love doing demos and still create them all the time. For one, it's a great way to just get ideas down without worrying about performance. You just want ideas to flow so don't be worried about pitch, time or anything like that. As long as you get the 'feel' of what you're trying to accomplish, you can always come back and tweak later. Often it's the quick and dirty take that you'll love the best that seems impossible to replicate later. This way, you can review songs later and listen again with fresh ears. Some musicians feel the need to do a complete recording of every song they write. This isn't always a good idea. It's better to write a couple and then sit back at a later date and see what works. You'll find that some songs are better than others and if you're really honest with yourself, some just aren't worth going through the expense and time of doing a complete recorded version. Also, you can save these for revisiting later and either rework or just take a great idea and turn it into something new. Much like having a book full of lyric ideas, you can have a file full of demos and ideas to reviewed later. Most writers and composers over the decades have all had a book full of ideas and impressions that they reworked later.
Just Me an' Me Guitar
By far the most popular method of writing songs, sitting down with an instrument, going through chord changes, melody and lyrics is a great way to write a song. Aside from being able to do this anywhere (the beach is great) it's effective because it makes you focus on lyrics and melody and not so much about arranging (initially at least). While it definitely helps being proficient at playing your chosen instrument, it isn't a necessity. Banging out a basic rhythm and singing a melody over top is all it takes. That said, there's nothing like hearing your creation played by a master on the instrument. The same goes if you aren't the greatest vocalist and get a pro to sing your song. In the end though, it's all about creating a memorable song and lyric. Make sure you focus on that first and worry about getting the perfect backing tracks later. If you've gone through the trouble of writing a really great song, it'll just sound that much better when you get to recording your creation..
Just Me an' Me Pencil
According to copyright, to make a song all you need is a melody and lyrics (if you're writing a 'regular' song). You actually don't need another instrument in there. While it does help having a chord progression to sing over, having an instrument sometimes can actually be limiting. When I hear writers getting stuck I tell them that they should try writing a song with no instrument at all. This way you really have to focus on the melody and lyrics since there's nothing else there pushing them along. It's generally good to have a recorder going to get your melody and a pad to write down lyrics. Remember to keep your mind open and work through ideas. Your writing pad should be an idea pad so generally there will be scribbles all over the place. This is how the mind works. It isn't linear so don't worry if ideas work there way in in a variety of ways.
To Each Their Own
You'll find as you go through the different approaches to writing songs some are better depending on the style of music. For example I find when writing symphonies, the piano is simply the best. (Although once you get the sounds of the orchestra in your head, writing without an instrument can be just as effective). I find that the guitar/pad and paper style is best for straight ahead pop/country/rock and starting with beats is great for dance music. Once again though, these are general guidelines and you'll find that writers, while definitely having a preferred method, have experimented with other ways of writing a song. If you produce dance tracks, try writing a song with just a guitar and pad/pencil. You might find inspiration when inserting that melody line into one of your beats. The same goes for singer/songwriters. Aside from trying to write with just pencil and paper, try stating with a beat only...no chords.
Really the best way to write a song is to just get started. We aren't operating a moving vehicle here so don't be afraid to dive in and start making mistakes. The further you get along, the more obvious it will be as what you need to get to the next level. Next post we will be looking into all of the different considerations that go into writing a song, Until then, start writing!