Every songwriter has their unique way when they write a song. Some songwriters like to write some lyrics and let someone else write the music. Some write in a DAW and go for the most innovative sound. And some just play around on their guitar until they find something that sounds pretty.
The problem with all of these is that all of these approaches have shortcomings, blindspots if you will. Write only the lyrics and your melodies will often be busy, breathless lyrical chains. Focus on the sound and your song will lack lyric-less storytelling. Write on guitar and you’ll always be limited by your playing habits and what you can do on your instrument.
I’ve been working on the following approach for over a decade now, and I’m still constantly refining and adding techniques to create an efficient path to creating emotional, commercial songs. So without further ado, here’s how to write a song on commission:
Write every day. Even if that means going for a walk and letting nature inspire you – which doesn’t sound like work but it is. We often come up with our best ideas when we least expect it, when our minds are free and clear. This is something to strive for. Take time off in which you don’t Facebook, twitter or chase Pokemon. Browse your mind for ideas and freestyle with them. Let go, it’s ok.
As long as you have some way of recording or notating your ideas, you’re at work. To an outsider it may look like you’re just lazy, but you know that really you’re lazy… with a notepad. The notepad makes all the difference. Trust me. No one writes their best lines in a cellar with the curtains drawn.
Set yourself goals and work towards them. “Today, I’ll write a verse for this song”, “By noon, I’ll have written the lyrics to this verse”. If you have an actual deadline by which you have to deliver a finished song, plan your time. The following is a suggestion for a 7-day schedule.
Day 1: The Hook
Whatever anyone says: Hooks are where the money is.
While it’s certainly not be the only thing that’s important to writing a hit song, it’s what everyone will be talking about, what everyone will be singing in the car and… what your client is interested in the most.
I come up with all my hooks walking/riding/driving from point A to point B. On my way to the grocery store, when I visit friends, any chance I get to be away from my computer and social media I take to turn off my iPod and sing. And I sing loads. On a 10 minute bike ride I’ll come up with about 5 ideas for new hooks. Not all are great, but I’ve been doing this for such a long time that usually, all of them have potential.
Understanding structure helps when first coming up with hooks, but even if you don’t have the experience, it shouldn’t take you too long to come up with something that has a nice ring to it. At this stage, that’s usually what I go for: Something that just sounds cool, interesting or groovy.
Everything I come up with I sing into an old-fashioned tape recorder I carry around just for this purpose. If for some reason I don’t have my tape recorder (let’s say for the purpose of this story that I’m naked), I’ll ask someone for something to write and I’ll notate my melody out.
Unfortunately, coming up with a hook is only part of the deal. I thoroughly believe anyone with some interest in music could come up with a good idea for a hook. But as with all writing: The magic is in the polishing.
Here’s a couple of quick points to consider when refining your hook:
A good hook…
…is memorable. This means there is a lot of repetition and motivic work going on. You also don’t want too many lyrics. Keep it short and sweet. Your hooks are not for storytelling, they’re for making a point.
…is easy to sing. In other words, choose a comfortable vocal range that isn’t challenging to sing. Don’t write too many notes and don’t write notes that must be held for more than 1,5 bars. Use rests – let your singer breathe.
…has a great first line. When I go to concerts, I like to watch the people in the audience and study how they behave when they hear a song they know. They usually shout out the first line, then it appears as if they think most of the lyrics to the song are “duh duh duh”. What does this teach us? The first line is what people remember, so put your best foot forward. Write a defining line here and your audience will thank you for it.
How do you accomplish all of this?
One word: Structure.
Structure is the secret to memorable, singable hook-writing. Yeah, yeah, I know, boooooring. You were hoping for something that sounds much cooler, like the triple G approach or the inversion principle. Problem is, while these may sound cool (note to myself: use these to describe a technique in songwriting), they won’t help you nearly as much as understanding commercial structure.
“Structure” actually means a boatload of things all working together at the same time. The more ways in which you structure your hooks, the more memorable they will be. This is the key principle I talk about in-depth in the Hook/Melody Master Files. I explain the full process of professionally structuring a hook using Motifs, Base Pitches, Groove and Base Lines.
These are all rather complex themes to talk about and if you’re interested in writing hooks, please refer to the Master Files for a full explanation – I don’t just teach you the techniques, I show you concrete songs from the Billboards (incl. Songs by Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and Maroon V) and how they use structure.
Once you’ve refined an idea for a hook, move on to your next idea. Work through everything you recorded on your little walk. At the end you should have at least 5 polished hooks. From these 5, choose the best 3 and record your vocals to a click in your DAW.
Congratulations! You’ve just completed Step 1.
In the next blog, we’ll talk about – you guessed it – Step 2, which is all about Groove and Choruses.
9 Great Ways To Start A Song
QUESTIONS (Comment Below!):
- What element do you start with in your songs?
- Where do you come up with most of your hooks?
- What’s your process when refining a hook?