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Write Songs Like a Project Manager


Writing songs always seems like an extremely complicated process to most beginners. And this is partly true, because even some of the simplest songs are written in complex musical arrangements, which sound great in the end.


But does that mean, that writing music is only for »super-humans«, who are able to create complicated things out of thin air? Definitely not. A song can be a challenging project. But so is every house that has ever been built, and people keep building (and finishing) them. How is that possible?


The first thing that comes to my mind are blueprints. We need to know what we want to achieve first. Then we can break the building process down into multiple steps, so the workers can focus only on one thing at the time. Each step is in order and the project is worked-out in such a way that each task is very simple. Not everyone can build an entire house by himself, but anyone can put one brick on another.


Let's write songs like we would put one brick on another

Songs can be written in simple steps, too. It's very rare that all instruments for a song would be written at the same time, because the process would be way too complicated and frustrating. Despite that, many young musicians are prone to thinking that all ideas must sound great by themselves right away. And they are most likely to quit, if things do not go exactly as they wished. Does that sound familiar?


I was there myself, but through time I found, that we need to be extremely patient when writing music.


Where to start and how to keep writing?

First, we need to start with our way of thinking. Thinking about writing an entire arrangement beat by beat needs to be ditched. Instead, let's take the principle of building a simple house.


A rough outline of the building process, that I (not an engineer) would describe would be:


  1. A Blueprint

  2. Foundations

  3. A Rough Structure

  4. Fittings

  5. Furnishing

  6. A Facade


Notice how the house is being worked on as a whole, and in each step only some elements are added. It would never happen, that we would build, furnish and finish the living room first, before even building a structure of other rooms.


We can use the same principle in writing music.


Step 1: The Blueprint


First, we need a blueprint. What will the song be about, what will be the feeling of the song? Will it be a ballad or a groovier tune? Once you have a rough idea about these things, you can sketch the song on piece of paper. You can write out how many parts you want and what will be the purpose of each part. Will the song be following a simple structure of verse and chorus, or do you want something more sophisticated? This step is usually overlooked by many songwriters, but it can be extremely useful, especially if your goal is to write music as expressively as you can.


Step 2: The Foundations

Then you can start laying the foundations. These are musical ideas, that will composite our song. They can be melodies, guitar riffs, licks, chord progressions, lyrics, etc. It's completely up to you where you want to begin. Some people like to start with lyrics first, others with the instrumentals. I like to have a lot of variety in my writing; thus, I start some ideas with lyrics, others with the main melody and some with guitar riffs. And I can tell from experience that the element you start with is often the strongest one in the song. So, if you want to have a catchy chorus, it's best if you begin with the main melody of the chorus. The same goes for lyrics and the same goes for riffs.


Step 3: The Rough Structure


Once you have gathered the ideas, you can start arranging them and slowly building the structure of your song as we planned in the beginning. If we failed to create ideas for some parts of the song, you can just leave a blank space there or come up with something on the spot (yes, even if it's terrible). Don't let that stop you! That blank space will be just another task on your project, and you can always go back and work on it later. Keep working on the song. Maybe you'll be inspired, when you start adding other elements to the song later, as it'll be way easier to know exactly what you want in that part of the song.


Step 4: The Fittings


The song will now start to take shape, but it probably still won't sound like something you'd like to hear. That's where »fitting« the other elements comes into play. If you've just laid out your chords, you can continue by adding vocal melodies, to which you can later add lyrics. Again, don't be stopped by the lack of »good« ideas. Leave it blank, if you need to, and leave the task open for later.


Step 5: The Furnishing

Once instrumental and vocal ideas are mostly laid out, you can start »furnishing« your song.


You can start adding other instruments like drums, bass, keyboards, guitars etc. This is completely up to you and your creativity. But remember only that each instrument is yet another task in your complex project. Don't be held up by trying to make one part perfect and write all the possible instruments for it. If your song is already structured properly, imagine you overlay the entire piece with a new instrument and try to improve it as a whole. Go over the entire arrangement, even if you don't have any idea for some part of the piece. Leave it blank and come back to it later.


Step 6: The Facade


If you are recording your ideas using computer, don't bother mixing it yet in any of the previous steps. That’s the color of »the facade«, which should always come up last. Trying to make it sound good right from the start, will most likely distract you from finishing the actual song. Focus on writing your song and leave the mixing and mastering to sound engineers (or save it for later if you do everything yourself).


Try not to be distracted by other things in any of the steps above. Take one step at a time. Don't judge the ideas until the song is actually finished, because you can always go back and improve on things.


And remember, perfectionism is the killer of creativity.


About the author

Janez Janežič is a creative guitarist from Slovenia. He spends his time writing music for his bands, learning his craft and teaching it to his students. If you want to learn more about songwriting on guitar in his local area, be sure to find him at Dream Music – School of guitar in Novo mesto.

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