Songwriting processes

songwriter sitting in front of an open notebook on an easel, listening to something on headphones and holding a pen

© iStockphoto.com/Ken Cameron

There is no one set process to songwriting and different songwriters use differing processes depending on how they are used to working, their musical background, the musical style they are working in and what they are trying to achieve. The order in which songs emerge is also varied: some write the music first, others start with lyrics, or music and words can emerge simultaneously.

Some formally trained songwriters for example will begin with written musical notation and have a particular idea about melodic and harmonic development before they put pen to paper. Other musicians will work through trial and error, selecting and discarding as they experiment with chord sequences, melodic phrases etc to build the fundamental elements of a composition.

In other cases lyrics might come first. A songwriter might start out with an idea for a lyric or for the feel of a particular song and then make the music fit that idea. In some cases music and words are entirely separate. The hugely successful songwriting partnership between Elton John and Bernie Taupin, for example, relied upon Taupin delivering a complete lyric, which John would then use as a basis for musical composition.

In many cases songwriters take inspiration from existing music, whether a song-structure, lyrical theme, tempo, feel or a particular sound. In some cases these elements might provide a vague starting point for creativity whilst in others they may be more directly instrumental. For instance, the composition process might begin by taking an existing song and adapting it by changing the chord sequence or altering the melody until something catches the ear of the songwriter. Paul McCartney recalls that when writing the song 'In My Life' he took John Lennon's lyrics and;

"sat there and put together a tune based on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Songs like 'You Really Got a Hold on Me' and 'Tears of a Clown' had really been an influence. You refer back to something you've loved and try and take the spirit of that and write something new." (quoted in Womack, 2007: 171)

Other songs involve a direct lift from an existing piece of music. For instance 'All Together Now' (the enduring hit by the Liverpool rock group the Farm) is based around the same chord progression as the canon from Johann Pachelbel's 17th century baroque composition 'Canon and Gigue in D Major'.

Songwriters can also start out with a concept inspired by other music but adapt it to suit a particular set of circumstances. The Real Thing's Eddy Amoo for example, comments that he was inspired the overtly political songwriting of African American soul singers of the 1970s but wanted to directly reflect the Black experience in Liverpool:

"I started to feel that I wanted to... really project what had happened to me and the people that I'd grew up with in my songs. I wanted to come up with something that would really stand up against what the Americans were doing, you know, people like Curtis Mayfield and people like that." (Interview for The Beat Goes On exhibition, April 2008)

In many cases the process is less obviously inspired by existing musical material. A songwriter may come up with a kernel of an idea by coming into contact with something that other people might consider very small or inconsequential. An overheard phrase, fragment of melody or snapshot of visual imagery can provide the spark of an idea which is then expanded on through the trying out of differing ideas. These different ways of working can have a fundamental affect on what gets written. In the 'lyrics first' mode, for example, the rhythms of particular lyrical combinations can govern the rhythm of a tune, suggest a particular tempo, or even suggest the beginnings of melodic lines.

Some songwriters will use set techniques or rituals to kick-start the creative process. These include object writing where a songwriter will freely associate words around a particular object. Many famous musicians (such as Van Morrison) have used a stream of consciousness approach. This involves the songwriter writing down an unedited flow of words without trying to consciously think about the content. The results are then edited into a coherent lyric. David Bowie famously used the cut-up technique (taken from the Surrealist art movement and writers such as William Burroughs) whereby an existing text is randomly cut-up and re-arranged in forms that seem lyrically or rhythmically apt.

Others start the process more casually by attempting to develop brief ideas into the finished product. Bill Drummond from the pop group KLF, for instance, comments that ideas come to him in a variety of situations:

"Often, often walking down the street and I've got a line goes round and round my head and I have to try and remember the melody of that and get back home, pick up the guitar and work out what kind of key, it's in A or it's in C or G or whatever and to take it from there. And then other times I'm just messing around with the guitar and you come up with something and you think, 'Right that sounds okay'." (Interview for The Beat Goes On exhibition, May 2008)