I often get asked how to start composting pop music from aspiring songwriters. The best place to start is by playing and singing pop music. I’m going to lay out some rough steps. This should help you not just end up with a random little snippet that isn’t complete and doesn’t fit into anything. Lots of people have ideas, but developing them into a full song is the real art and the hard part!
- Use chord lyric sheets and label the song form (intro, verse, chorus etc.) for some of your favorite pop songs that you would like to write in the style of.
- Decide what you want to write about. I find that most writers have to have a burning desire to communicate or be heard. It’s what drives them to write. If you don’t know what you want to write about you need to do a little soul searching. When I’m trying to help a student who doesn’t know where to start, I usually start with asking them, “What’s been on your mind lately? What have you been thinking about a lot or feeling?” If you can answer that question, you probably have a place to start.
- Brainstorm everything thing you can about your idea or story. Allow yourself to go on wild tangents. Put it all out there on paper. It doesn’t have to sound beautiful or be coherent yet.
- Sort through your brainstorm and decide what direction to take your idea. Try to pick out all of the ideas that can work and especially the unexpected little gems.
- Do a Rhyme and Synonym Sheet. Come up with as many rhymes and synonyms for any words you can think of that relate to your idea or story. Yes, definitely use words from your brainstorm sheet. You can use rhymezone and Dictionary.com – The world’s favorite online dictionary! to help you find rhymes and synonyms.
- Try to do a song map. This is simply mapping out the main sections you need to make a complete song work. (this is why you want to have been looking at other pop song structures!) I’d probably stat with the following structure: Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus. For each section you should jot down what needs to be said in that section. You can put it in prose or poetry later. For now just get down the idea. It should be a different idea that relates to your story or topic in each verse. The chorus should some how sum up the verse. The bridge should be a different idea that relates to everything else. It could be a realization etc. This is an important step that can help you not fall in love with an idea that you don’t have enough content for or make you flesh out an idea that is incomplete. You may have to add sections later to keep it flowing but you want a rough plan to start.
- Start writing either your verse or your chorus. A lot of people come up with their chorus idea first. Use all your prep work to help you start crafting your lines. Make sure you set up a structure that you can repeat with different lyrics for your verse. Pay attention to how many syllables, the rhythm of the words and the rhyme structure.
- Choose a three or four chord progression in a key you like. You can take some right from a song you like. (Chord progressions aren’t copyrightable. If they were no new music could happen! )
- Play around with your chord progression and try to sing some of your lyric to it. I find that melodies already have a lot of suggestions in rhythm and pitch with our natural speech patterns. If you use them as a guide, you usually don’t end up with a melody that is awkward or horrible. You can start with your melody first, just be careful you don’t end up drifting back to the same chord for each line. If you do melody first, your melody note should be in your chord. Figure out all of the different chords that have your melody in them and try it out to see what you like best.
- Once you get some sections done, start running it front to back. Try to get in listening mode. It’s always more interesting to do something yourself that to listen to someone else. This stage is about putting yourself in the listeners shoes. You want to make sure that you’ve created enough contrast in sections (especially verse and chorus) to keep the listeners attention. You also want it to have enough familiarity to be catchy and flow nicely from one idea to the next. Pay attention to how the whole thing unfolds. Notice areas that get boring. When you find those spots, change it up. Create some contrast.
One of the things that I like to do when I song write is treat all of the pieces as a puzzle. That means I keep rearranging pieces until I get the most interesting order and structure. I’ll even do this at the lyric writing stage. I try rearranging the order of the lines in my verse or my ideas to see what order is the most interesting or reveals the story in the best sequence. I do a lot of editing. I also like to give my ideas the overnight test. If I still think an idea is brilliant tomorrow, it’s probably pretty good. It’s easy to get excited about something in the moment when you’re in a completely subjective state. Try to look at it later like it is someone else’s idea so you can look at it more objectively. Also, try to only look at what’s on the page. It can be easy for us to imbue meaning into our work that no one else has access to. The whole goal is to transmit that meaning to someone else. Help them feel or see what you do.