As discussed before, I’ve written music for over a decade. But in recent years, I’ve put my time into other important areas: career, writing, and coding. And while my 2017 was solely dedicated to writing, I’m dedicating my 2018 to writing a new collection of music.
Here’s how my songwriting process works.
How I Write Music
My process for songwriting begins in one of two ways: semi-randomly entering notes into Guitar Pro sheet music software or by simply playing around on my guitar. The former has led to hundreds of short sound sketches that I’ve kept around for years.
After latching onto an idea, I’ll move my writing process over to Guitar Pro to begin forming a cohesive song. While the idea always begins with a short section of guitar, I eventually transition into adding other instruments like drums and bass.
Throughout this process, I listen back to my progress hundreds of times. Guitar Pro includes a Realistic Sound Engine which applies real-world sounds and effects to instruments. This gives me an idea of what my song will sound like when recorded with real instruments.
After finishing up the writing process, I’ll spend a bit of time learning each of the guitar parts and adding flourishes (production value). I’ll also export the song as an MP3 and seek feedback from friends.
Once the song is complete, I move over to Pro Tools to capture a more authentic sound.
After writing music for so long, I had a long backlog of music sketches to draw from. I spent several hours in late December scanning through these old files in search of a nugget of inspiration to pull from. Eventually, I came across a group of riffs from late 2014 that I felt needed a song built around them. On December 30, 2017, I created a fresh 2018 folder in Dropbox, copy/pasted a few old guitar riffs into a new file, and began adding a few new guitar passages. This became the bedrock for my first draft of for “Song One”:
What you’re hearing above is an export from Guitar Pro featuring some fake, overly-distorted electric guitar and a metronome. The first twenty seconds came from those 2014 sketches. I’ve always loved the feel of that fast guitar run.
The sections from 0:23 onward are new as of December 30th. They’re somewhat erratic, but in later drafts, I tried to nail down an underlying melody to flow along with those runs. You might hear the light, melodic guitar ambiance in the background of the run from 0:23–0:45.
Forming a Song
Over the next eight days, I wrote dozens of new guitar sections, most of which I tossed in the trash.
I’m not a classically trained musician outside of a few lessons in high school. I learned bass from playing in bands and drums from playing thousands of hours of Rock Band. I have a minimal understanding of music theory, I know a pitifully small amount of guitar scales by memory, and I can’t quite describe why I feel that certain pieces I write work better than others. My process for finding happiness with a piece of music I write is to simply listen to it dozens of times over the course of hours or days to get a good idea of how it makes me feel. If I start to cringe after a few listens, I know that the song isn’t working and needs revisions or rewrites. Also, I seek out regular feedback from friends.
The one thing I can rely on is the fact that, throughout my adult life, I’ve listened to a monstrous amount of metal music of almost every flavor in the genre. What this leads to is almost every first draft I write sounding generic. I kick myself when I inadvertently ripped off a passage by an obscure Norwegian YouTube guitarist, or I ventured too closely to the sound of a French Djent band that I’m into at the time.
Over those next few days of expanding on my first draft, I wrote dozens of generic passages that gave me headaches. I knew that to move forward, my next draft needed a beginning and a chorus. In digging into past song clips and catching a few lucky breaks, I worked out a few new passages that I felt worked well with the vibe of that first draft. My experiments led to the second draft of “Song One”:
Finishing a Song
The next few days were the hardest. I was stuck. I listened to the above 2:45 clip hundreds of times on my phone, hoping a new passage would form in my head and make its way to my computer.
Finishing songs has always been difficult for me. I strive to balance the right amount of tension and payoff in any piece of music so that you’re neither bored nor completely confused at the end, if you’re into my brand of music. I also hate repeating sections in my songs, though I know it’s important to do so to reinforce themes or give weight to certain sections. My original holdup in finishing “Song One” was in trying to avoid any repeats. I wrote an entirely different second chorus. With a guitar solo. It felt interesting at the time. But ultimately, it didn’t fit. It undermined my original chorus and changed the entire feel of the song. To finish the song, I decided to ignore this fear of repeats and end the song with another chorus segment.
(Here’s that chorus that didn’t make the cut)
I’m still not sure about ending the song using the intro riff; future revisions will probably change this. But for now, “Song One” is done until I learn to play it on guitar and pass it over to a drummer for further writing. In the coming months, I’ll begin the process of recording this and other new songs with real instruments.
Here’s the Guitar Pro (digital instruments) version of my first song written for 2018. Enjoy.