The best way to think about it is to surrender to the reality that there really is no perfect process for writing music.
But there are a few guidelines to help you capture the midnight inspiration and transform it into something memorable, playable, toe-tap-able, and maybe marketable (if you care about that). Here goes.
- Honor inspiration when it strikes. Carry a notebook with you at all times to jot down lyric ideas as they pop into your head. If you’re noodling on your guitar and stumble on a riff, chord progression, or even just a mood that resonates with you, RECORD IT IMMEDIATELY! You might remember it later, when you’ve mustered the initiative to begin a “recording session,” but the odds are that if you don’t capture the inspiration right now, it will be gone forever. You have to be willing to drop what you’re doing to honor the moment when it shows up. Why? Because moments of inspiration rarely show up on demand, and the muse of inspiration usually visits while you’re driving, showering, cleaning, or sweating on the treadmill.
- Writing music, like all art, is an iterative process. Your spark of inspiration will experience many changes on its way to becoming a full-fledged bona-fide song. I’ve written and recorded songs that I love, from idea to near-final mix, in under three hours. I’ve also wrestled with an idea for weeks before it finally found its way to a form that I liked. The second thing happens MUCH more often than the first. So surrender to the process, and get comfortable with the idea that it’s going to take a few dozen passes through your new masterpiece, making major or minor changes each time, before you end up with something you’re proud of. Just enjoy the process of making music, and don’t put pressure on yourself to arrive anywhere quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to start the writing process with an uncomfortable part of your repertoire. I grew up playing guitar, so it’s natural for me to pick up the acoustic and start plucking away on new ideas. But one of the songs I like most in my catalog was written starting with the bass line. I wrote the entire song’s bass line, then tightened up the drums, added some scratch vocals to guide the guitar tracks, tracked the guitars, then spent time laying in the final vocals. The point is, inspiration for that song came from an unusual place for me, but I ran with it, and I love the results. Sometimes songs I really like start out as complete lyrical ideas before they every have an inkling of rhythm, harmony, or melody. And the song that went from idea to completed track the quickest just began as a mood. More on that in the next tip.
- Say something. My art comes from many places – social critique, political angst, personal tragedy, love, relationships, lessons in life, and so on. Yours can come from wherever you like, but the important point is that the writing process goes more smoothly when you have a general idea of the mood and feeling you want to communicate. It’s always subject to change as your song “grows up,” of course, but knowing the general feeling you want to express is a great way to conjure ideas that “fit” more easily with the other parts of your song. This is true not just of the lyrics you write, but also of the melody, key, and rhythm as well.
- Don’t be afraid to get technical. For under $2,500, you can equip yourself with a home studio of a quality that cost major music labels over $1,000,000 just a couple of decades ago. Yes, you can still spend a million bucks on a top-of-the-line studio today, but the difference between the quality of music you can produce in a well set-up home studio and a fancy pro studio isn’t nearly as great as you might think. But it does take a little time to figure out what you’re doing in order to make all that great software (and a few pieces of hardware) work well for you. Some people are afraid of diving into recording and mixing, but I’ve found the process to be extremely rewarding. When I’m done writing a song, I’ve also performed, recorded, edited, mixed, bounced, and mastered it to a demo CD. Obviously, it takes a bit longer to do all of that than it would take to scribble some notes and lyrics on a lead sheet, but it’s an extremely satisfying process. I love the artistry involved in every step – from dreaming up the ideas, to learning new instruments and honing my performances, to recording vocals, to editing tracks, mixing the music, and ending up with a product that I’m proud of. And I save thousands of dollars by not having to hire a studio to put together a demo of my music.
- Take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Work on a track for a while, hours maybe, then take a break. When you think you’re done with your new song, put it away for a week, then come back and listen to it again. You may hear something that needs tweaking. If after a week, you listen to your creation and feel it doesn’t need anything else, put it away for another week and repeat the process. If it “passes the test” again, then it might be time to take the next step with it – send it to someone whose musical judgment you trust, give it to your agent for her input, etc.
- Commit to the process, but don’t demand results. Art isn’t business, schoolwork, housework, or yardwork. It’s one of the highest forms of human expression. It shouldn’t be squashed into a productivity mindset, where a certain amount of time is supposed to yield a certain result. We do that in other parts of our lives, but we don’t have to do that to our art. Just build the space in your life to spend time pursuing your art, and enjoy the time spent engaging in the creative process. Don’t put yourself on the clock to produce a hit single in ten minutes (although writing music quickly is a useful exercise to help hone your skills from time to time).
- Love it. That’s why you’re making music, right? There are much easier ways to get rich, if that’s your goal. So making music feels the best when it’s just done joyfully, for no other reason than because you love it. A side benefit of approaching things this way is that you’ll stick with it for the number of months and years necessary to get good at it. And, if it’s your dream to “make it,” you’ll be much better prepared if you put in the time. But everything of value in the music world, from Dylan to the Beatles to the Doors to U2 or any other great, iconic creation, was born out of love of music.