My Songwriting Process

This is an excerpt from an assignment I wrote for Berklee College of Music’s “Developing Your Artistry” course that I felt would be applicable to my website. I may occasionally make external references or sidetrack relating to the specific assignment given. The prompt was “to describe my practice routine”.

I am a bit different than the rest of the people in this class, and in this school, for that matter, in the fact that I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I am a musician by definition – I have a fundamental knowledge and an above-average playing ability in several different instruments, but I would not call myself a “professional” musician. There’s no instrument I really excel at, and I’m certainly not the best technically.

I know that if I did put in the time, I could be an insane drummer or an amazing pianist, but quite frankly, I have little interest in performance. I don’t mind it, and I would do it if it was in line with my music career, but it’s not where my passion lies. I’m not a musician to be a musician – I’m a musician to be a songwriter, a composer, and a producer.

So I will be deviating from the plan a bit in this assignment. I will be describing how I practice for my real instrument: my composition and production. After years of struggling without anything to show for my work, I now believe I have the “process” down to get a song from the beginning to the end, so I’ll detail that.

1. The Main Idea

Sometimes I don’t have to schedule time for this. Most of my ideas just come when I’m playing on a piano or a guitar at another time. However, every now and then I do sit down with the intention of writing something. Either way, I always start with the hook of the song. The melody comes first, as it is the definitely most important part (particularly the melody to the hook). Next I’ll add chords, and sometimes some arpeggiation or other very brief ideas at this stage. Then I’ll record the idea, usually consisting of a melody with chords on a piano, or a guitar riff, and stash it away on my phone for a couple days, weeks, or sometimes even months or years.

2. Filling the Song Out

This can be one of the more difficult steps. I take the idea (chords and melody) that I wrote earlier and try to build the rest of the song out of it, including verses, intro, bridge, solos, and anything else you can think of. Sometimes I am able to do this quickly if I really have a vision for the song already, and sometimes it takes more time. When this is done, the song is usually in the form of chords and melody, and leads and rhythm riffs if it is a rock song. Usually I’ll write the solo in this step of the process as well.

3. Demo Recording

This is the first time I get my idea into the computer. I simply track through every instrument with almost no regard for sound quality, mixing or any of that complicated stuff. I just want to get the whole thing in the computer, so I can look at it all visually from now on. Now that I have it down in the computer, I will add other counterpoint melodies, background instruments, and samples that are not as prominent. Usually I will write and add the drums and bass during this stage as well. This is one of the funnest parts of the process for me. At the end of this step I will also write lyrics, if applicable. Because I believe composition is more important to the development of a song to hook the listener in, I will always write my lyrics to match the music rather than the other way around. If applicable, I will send the composed demo recording to my lyricist, if I am outsourcing them.

4. The Actual Recording

If I am doing this project on my own, I’ll just slowly replace the rough demo recordings I made with the real recordings on guitar, piano, or whatever else is applicable. If I am working with another singer, I will have them record in the studio. This step is pretty straightforward.

Side Note: During the days that constitute the recording stages of a song that’s almost finished, I’ll often spend some time going through all of the short ideas I pre-recorded and pick one I want to develop and proceed with more as my next project. However, I usually have at least four or five songs that are finished with the demo recording process ready to move to immediately after. In this way, my production process almost works like an assembly line.

5. Mixing / Mastering

This is another pretty straightforward step. Sometimes I will outsource this step to someone who can do it better than me, but if need be, I have done it myself for a lot of my recordings. In the future, this is something I would like to improve on and learn how to do because it is really the only step I haven’t mastered yet.

6. Official Release

I’ll get some custom album art made, format the song correctly, and then release it digitally on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, and basically everything else you can think of. Thankfully, I have a distributor that takes care of this for me so I don’t have to upload to each one individually myself.

By the time this song is done, I’ll usually have another ready to go to immediately after. I like to be very organized with my projects, so here’s the breakdown for where in the process all of my songs are right now:

200+ songs in step 1 – This includes any short idea I’ve recorded onto my phone with intent for later use.

~15 songs in step 2 – I have about this many songs that are done with the composition, and maybe some lyrics, but still need to be recorded as a demo. I hate leaving songs in this step, because I fear I might forget some things about it.

8 songs in step 3 – These are songs that have been recorded as a demo, but still need to be officially recorded. I usually get held up here because I can’t proceed without a singer to sing my songs. Lack of an appropriate singer for my songs has always been a huge blockage in my career.

1 song in step 4 – I have one song that is finished with all of the recordings, but just needs to be mixed, mastered, and released. Usually songs will pass through these last few steps pretty quickly, so there won’t be many songs in these final steps.

0 songs in step 5 – As soon as a song is finished, I will schedule its release date so there is really no reason for a song to be stuck at this stage in the process.

2 songs in step 6 – These are songs that are 100% completed and recorded, but I don’t know what to do with yet. The songs in this category are usually just ones that I composed for video games soundtracks that have not been licensed out to a developer yet. (which you can listen to here)

I really have a respect for the process of writing and releasing my music. I know everyone works differently so another’s plan will likely look vastly different than mine, but hopefully I gave some helpful insight here.

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