Song Writing Basics: Starting From A Single Idea

When was the last time you came up with a great idea for a melody, but for some reason just couldn't finish the song? When that moment happens what did you do with the song? Is it still possible to finish it later?

In my years as a teacher, this is one of the biggest problems my students go through. Even I have struggled to break this cycle time and time again. For anyone lost in this cycle: don't fret. With a little work, there are many simple ways to get through these tough moments.

If you're in it as deep as I was, then there's a chance you have too many unfinished songs sitting on your computer, or maybe even on your bookshelf for those who still prefer analog mediums. Every now and then you'll go over them and find some true gems, but still won't be able to figure out how to complete them. This can be a frustrating time for anyone. Because it's not like you're lacking inspiration — but it just doesn't seem to last when you do find it.

How would you like to be finish the songs once you've started, and get back to the ones you've left behind? It felt like a load off for me, and I'm sure it will for you, too. Here is one of the simpler solutions to this problem.

Step One: Ask The Right Questions

Take a step back from your work to get a step ahead. Just take a moment to examine the work you've created. Is there an idea behind the work? Does it possess an emotional quality? And lastly, what do you want the listener to get when they hear it?

Now that you've asked these questions, the hardest part of this entire process will begin. Do you think you're ready? Let's go.

Step Two: The Most Important And Avoided Step

Grab a sheet of paper and jot down your answers.

Okay, it doesn't seem all that complicated, but it's the most difficult because people just don't seem to do it. So it must be difficult, because when I show people the reason to do it, they often stop before getting to it. I've ever handed students a pencil and a sheet of paper, only to hear that it isn't necessary — it's actually kind of funny when these adults up in arms because they don't want to scribble down some quick answers.

The thing is, you need to write these answers down on paper to finish an elusive song. Believe me, this is more effective than you think, but only if you commit to it. And really, if it doesn't what did you lose? No more than a couple minutes and some paper.

Step Three: Get Ready to Simplify

Now that you've been through this process, the next step is to break it down into simpler ideas. The best way is to break down the main element into a single line, or a verse at the most. The fewer the words, the better it will be.

This single line will be the backbone of the song, so you're going to have to spend time fine tuning it. If you can't quite get it perfect, get some practice by listening to a song with or without lyrics and summarizing their ideas.

Take for example, "I'm Writing a Novel Father" by Father John Misty is about the irony of writers taking drugs for inspiration; The Zolas' song "Escape Artist" is about that longing need to chase dreams while being stuck at a dead end job; and "Numb" by Gary Clark Jr. is about that lack of feeling towards a significant other just before a breakup. Now try doing a couple of these yourself.

Step Four: Delve Deeper

Now that you've simplified the music, it's time to start working on how you're going to express the music to an audience. How are you going to use sound to convey that message? Which instruments will fit the bill? What rhythm will you use? Should the beat be fast and aggressive, slow and mellow, or should that tension build?

If you need to use lyrics, then how will you connect with the audience? Will you use rhythm and rhyme, or will you rely on word play? From which viewpoint will you express the idea?

Now it's time to bring back that elusive pen and paper and jot these ones down, too. The worst thing you can do is hold these thoughts in, blocking new ones from forming. Put it on paper, and new ones will continue to form. And no, now is not yet the time to pick up that instrument — that will come soon.

Step Five: Start Making A Composition

Now that you've got all of this down on paper, it's time to get started.

Try to make this idea into music in any form. A chorus, a verse, or even an entire song. If you lose your train of thought, go back to the that main line, and compare what you're writing to that original thought, and if you need to make any changes to bring it closer to the original. Keep working at this.

Although this part of the process might not seem like a big deal, once you put it into practice you'll see just how valuable it is. Once you start doing it, you'll begin to notice just how simple it is to write a completely cohesive song. Don't knock it until you try it!

Why Wouldn't I Just Write As It Comes To Me?

This is absolutely possible! There are writers out there who don't have to do this, because they're practiced writers in other ways, or they've been through a process like this so much that they just do it intuitively. But if you're one of those people, why did you read this far?

Now To Finish Those Unfinished Songs

Now that you've come this far, there is a simple process to get those done efficiently:

1. Begin with Step 3, breaking down some of your favourite songs on paper. It doesn't sound important, but trust me, you'll learn a lot more than you anticipated when you've actually done it.

2. Go back and do all five of the steps, and write down your answers. After you've done that, see if you can get a cohesive song written today. And really, if you can get through those first four steps in half an hour, you'll be able to write a song before an hour has passed. And that length of time will only get shorter when you keep doing this.

3. Unpack those unfinished songs and go through these steps again. You will be some that you don't finish, but you'll have major strides to writing the music for your debut album!

A wise man named Larry Niven once said "No technique works if it isn't used." So get writing today!

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio