Starting a new song can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there, sitting at our DAW, head in hands, wondering just how to start our next musical journey. Even for myself, after completing many works, sometimes I sit down with the intention to create, and wonder just how I was able to do it in the past…
Well, the good news is I’ve made a list of a few ways that have helped me in beginning new songs. I am sure these tips will help lubricate the creative juices and get your songwriting process on track…
What To Do Before Starting a Song
There is no ‘best’ way to start a song. But there are definitely a few things that will help get you in the songwriting mindset before you even approach the song.
1. Start with an idea already in your mind/ears
We can’t just sit in front of our DAW without any ideas of what we want to create. This is the imperative first step of any creative process. At least have an idea of what genre you’re looking to explore. This will determine which of the following tips you’ll want to employ in your song germination.
This may evolve in the creative flow, but at least I have the vision already established for the story I want to tell.
I’d recommend looking at this like you are a creative writer. Have your song’s environment already solid. Is it set in the desert, beach, jungle, city? All these environments can be recreated using field recordings etc, but furthermore, this will also give you a direction of the density of your reverbs and delays, which in turn will assist in the instrument/sound selections.
And this brings up the next point: make sure you have your instrumentation palette already somewhat set. Add these to your template, like a painter would to their palette. Reduce the noise of potential colors (instruments) you want to have available for use. You’re not going to create an earthy realism with U.V active fluorescent paints.
I like to split up sound design sessions and creative compositional sessions especially if I’m using the ‘Short Method’ (see below). Having a bank of presets, sounds and raw material already created and at hand will really help you stay in the creative flow.
2. Start with something definitive
I always recommend starting a project by making a definitive decision, it pulls the song out of the “infinite possibilities” stage and gives an immediate and decisive direction.
One shortcut here is simply to set your tempo (beats per minute). This is obviously genre specific. If you don’t have a certain genre already branded to your music project, analyze reference tracks that inspire you.
Tempo is one of the key defining characteristics of any genre or style of music. Some genres will obviously have a wide range of potential tempos, however the vast majority of EDM genres will be within a fairly specific range.
Dubstep for example would be focused within the area of 130bpm – 150bpm, but most dubstep tracks are around 140bpm.
3. Set your song title
Setting your song’s (working) title will really help you when writing. It gives you a reference idea and direction, that will guide the creative process and keep the work within a set vision. This (working) title should be in keeping with the tone and vision you have already developed.
Now that these pre songwriting things have been taken care of, we can jump into the more creative side of things.
Two Creative Approaches – The Short Way and The Long Way
I know what you’re thinking from this title… “why would I ever want to take the long way”, well bear with me, because both approaches have pros and cons. Ultimately, I prefer the long way, but the short way is the best one to start with.
1. The Short Way
The fast method for getting out a song revolves around the concept of developing a single section, usually the climax or drop, and then basically removing elements or taking out parts to create the intro, build-up, etc.
This is a very quick way to get a track really underway. With this method, you can build a track and finish it in a single (long) session. Playing around till something sounds great is a rewarding way to get into the flow.
This is by far the most commonly used method to start a song in the EDM realm. The best part about writing this way is that you can build up elements until the creative flow expresses itself through you – you don’t necessarily need to have a complete vision before you start.
2. The Long Way
The long way is far more complex, as it really needs to be driven from a vision. This method involves starting at the beginning and working your way through till the end. This is obviously a far slower method, and I would say it is almost impossible to finish a complete track in a single long session if you choose to go the long way.
This then introduces a need for discipline to actualise the vision, and the problems associated with hearing your project so many times that you lose perspective and passion for the work.
For this method, vision and discipline is the key to success. Many of the tips below will not be particularly relevant as there is already a song playing out in your mind, so attempting to find that initial spark is not required.
Short vs Long Methods
The short method is a very quick way to develop and (potentially) finish tracks, as you really only need to create a single section that really bangs, and then work backward from there to create the complete song. This method is what is employed in the vast majority of EDM, and especially evident in genres such as Dubstep, DnB, House, etc.
It takes into account the very formulaic structure of most EDM. For example – intro, build, drop, breakdown, drop2, outro. However, the short method is generally much more limited in song structure and compositional freedom.
My personal gripe with this method is that it usually precludes composers from creating groundbreaking and expressive masterpieces. For me personally, I aim to make songs that I will want to listen to forever and will always be proud of. The upside to this is that audiences too will feel the same, and the long approach is more conducive to creating an emotional connection to your music. After all, emotional connection is key to making something memorable.
Using the longer method reduces the composer’s dependence on formulaic structures and allows for much more creative freedom. It also makes it less likely to fall into the ‘loop trap’ (where all elements are basically the same loops repeating throughout).
You can develop each section as its own process, which usually inspires the audience to want to re-listen to the work because they couldn’t digest everything on the first listen.
Ok, now with all that said, let’s jump into some songwriting tips.
7 Tips to Help Start Your Next Song
Here are some approaches you can try next time you find yourself in a creative mood but don’t know where to start. While starting with a beat, melody, chord progression, or lyrics may seem obvious, what’s really important is learning how each approach can lead to different results.
1. Start with a beat
Most electronic forms of music are based around a beat, so it makes sense to start a song here. Find a nice kick and snare, draw or play in the beat you want to start with, then build up from there.
A great way to get your pattern out is to grab your mic and beatbox the elements, then record and loop them adding new elements each time. Once you’ve got the groove happening, you can model your drum loop from it using your previously designed drums.
Hats and shakers are more important than many give credit to, as they help to define the track’s groove. If you get these right, everything will flow much more easily. You can extract a groove you really like from a reference track (or your beatbox-ed loop)…
From here you can move to the melody and chord progressions.
2. Start with a melody
Melody is the focal point for the vast majority of listeners, and for this reason it’s often referred to as the ‘hook’. This starting point can really set the tone of your track. If you’ve found yourself humming a melody, then be quick – record it before you forget it. This is where phones are invaluable creative tools – we can always jot our musical ideas down whenever they strike.
I often find that starting with a simple piano preset is a great way to work out a melody, and then I’ll change the sound later. Once you’ve got the melody down, find what chords work well and then build up from there.
This approach is great for instrumental musicians as they get to start with something organic, before moving on to riff development, sound design, and processing. For people writing for film, developing the melodic motif enables consistency in the melodies spanning an entire work. This is the crux of coherent and successful film scoring.
3. Start with the chords
Songwriters often start with the chord progression, especially if they are singers, pianists, or guitarists. Much of the emotion in music is conveyed in the chord progression – it sets the foundation for the musical expression of the other elements. Often the melody and chords flow out together this way, like they were just meant to be with each other.
Once you’ve decided on the chords, you’ll need to get the rhythmic pattern, or riff, set. This will help the melody part to flow.
If you’re not comfortable with music theory, Google and YouTube are your friends – but we also have plenty of helpful articles you can read as well (I’ve listed some at the end).
4. Start with lyrics
If you already have some ideas for lyrics, start here. Even if you’re someone who’s doesn’t consider themselves a singer, getting down some lyrics (or even just some descriptive words) will help solidify an idea.
If you’re not finding flow from the lyrics alone, try recording a beatbox loop (as in tip 1) and see if the rhythm helps to set the meter of the song, sparking some lyrical ideas. Getting a lyrical hook happening will really help the creativity flow and you’ll find building the other parts easier.
If you’re into pop music, you already know how important lyrics are. A catchy phrase or clever line can really make a melody memorable.
5. Start with a preset or sound
Sometimes all you need to pull in the rest of a song is a single, awesome, sound. So mess around and be creative, with synths, recording techniques, or tweaked-out processing.
When you find a sound that makes you think “ooooooo yeah”, that’s your ticket to starting a song. If you’re unsure where to take it, or it’s not quite what you’re after in the moment, save it so you can come back to it later. You should be making a bank of your favorite sounds and know when to call them up.
You can even reuse these sounds in different songs – it’s all about what you do with them.
If you’re not a sound design wizard, it’s never too late to start. Find a synth you want to use and learn it inside out. There are also plenty of tutorials on YouTube that will help you here.
Reference tracks can be a source of songwriting inspiration. Get a track that you are really enjoying currently, or just something powerful and memorable from the past. Then ask yourself what elements in it provoke an emotional response from you.
Is it the melody, lyrics, hook, riff, or the “feeling” in the singer’s voice? And then you can reverse engineer that but with your own twist that really shakes things up.
Although it’s not technically a way to start a song, collaborating is a very powerful way to get from that initial spark to a complete song. When there are more musicians in the writing process, songs just seem to come together quicker, and it’s heaps of fun when you’re working with the right people.
Just ask Sir Paul MacCartney (The Beatles) and hear what he has to say about the power of musicians collaborating:
Stay In The Flow
Make it so that you have minimal distractions and a solid amount of time to dedicate to the creative process. Creative flow is a fragile thing – the tiniest distraction can pull you out of it, and sometimes it may be a long time before you get your groove back.
So take care of it. Turn off your wifi and your phone. Have your DAW template already established, with all your gain staging and group processing already in place. If you don’t yet have a template, make one. The easiest way to do this is to go back into a previous project that you were really happy with the grouping and processing and simply delete the MIDI and audio tracks, leaving the basic template.
Save it so you can always come back to it, and if you find things that work better on new projects you can just repeat the process and update your template.
As a producer, the only thing I love more than starting new projects is finishing them. I find that every song I start with a vision and intention, I always finish.
It may take a while, especially for major works, but seriously, I always finish them! And you should too. It frees up mental space when we complete a project, even if it’s subconscious. But the pride (and relief) of finishing a song is such a powerful reward that it should inspire you to see the process through till the end.
What we, as creative people, are looking for when starting a song is getting to the point where the songwriting just flows out on its own. This is the most exciting part of the journey, and it’s what keeps us coming back to create songs.
You’ll never know exactly where the inspiration will come from, but once you’ve hit that moment where the song just writes itself, your mental activity (the part that feels like work) can take a back seat so you can enjoy the songwriting ride.
Make sure you check out our other articles for songwriters!