When you’re constructing a song, think of it in relation to the human body. You build the skeleton first, which can be a melody, and develop your song from there.
As diverse as music is, popular songs in most any genre have some basic common elements, so when you’re putting a song together, starting with something fairly traditional and linear is a pretty good idea. Even as the human race has evolved to include a beautiful diversity of skin tones, hair textures, and proportions, we’re all built on the same reliable skeletal frame — and for good reason.
Once you’ve created a melody and basic frame for the parts of your song (the skeleton), you can start to construct a three-dimensional expression with layering, panning, and other production techniques that will distinguish your song’s muscle, skin, and external features.
We’ll use the song “Take It As You Go,” by SsasS, to demonstrate this process.
Like we mentioned, and in keeping with our anatomic analogy, you can start with a skeleton of a simple melody: it’s what everyone will ultimately remember (if it’s good) and it’s the most rudimentary element of a song. You might stumble upon it while tinkling on your keyboard, noodling on your guitar, or it may just arrive, fully formed, in your head. Whatever the medium, if you want to keep it, record it immediately on your mobile phone or whatever device you keep handy — as long as you can hear the notes and the cadence, audio quality doesn’t matter. Once you’ve got it recorded, put it away.
Go back to your melody a few days later and piece together a basic chord progression to accompany the melody on guitar or piano. While you’re at it, begin to feel a rhythm. You may have written the strongest melodic part for your new song, which should be the chorus, so begin to build a supporting melody for the verse and pre-chorus leading up to it. Then you’ll have an “A” part (verse), a “B” part (pre-chorus), and a “C” part (chorus). As these elements evolve, you might subdivide and differentiate sections of your verse and give it an “A” melody and a “B” melody that change over a generally consistent musical bed.
Your pre-chorus, which usually functions best as something like a bridge, could begin at a non-resolving place like a IV chord and end with a V chord or some kind of leading tone walk-up or walk-down that helps intensify the payoff when you get to the chorus.
Coming up with some lyrics might help you remember the rhythmic and phonetic structure of the melody, or they may arrive as a result of it — sometimes words just fit perfectly into rhythmic spaces — and that can be a big help. You may or may not keep them (you are familiar with how Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” started out as “Scrambled Eggs“), but at least you’ve got some good placeholders that are more sonically evolved than “La-La-La.”
If you’re working with audio editing software, set a click-track at a tempo where your melody and accompaniment feel comfortable. As you build your recording, include extra measures at the beginning to give yourself a count-in. Find a few drum loops to stitch together or build a beat for your verse/chorus or verse/pre-chorus/chorus structure. Build something that’s not too busy or too thin — you can always adjust later. Play, hum, or sing what you’ve got, live, over the loops as you construct different parts for your song sections. When you’ve found the right tempo and general drum track density, save your project.
Now play around with some bass arrangements. There are thousands of bass loops you can find to work with from libraries that came with your looping/recording program or from online resources like freesound.org, including acoustic, electric, and synth basses. Use existing loops if they work with your tune, or you can painstakingly re-create a bass part you’ve already composed on the guitar, bass, or piano (as was done here). If you have a MIDI keyboard or other direct-wired instrument set up, you can use whatever soft-synth basses are at your disposal or track live bass. Whatever the process, these might be your final bass parts or you may ultimately replace them with live bass in a full studio environment.
Once you’ve got your working rhythm section down, along with some rhythmic chords on the guitar or piano, you can cut and paste whole chunks of your idea-in-progress and construct your song into the verse/pre-chorus/chorus (A-B-C) structure. You can start to flesh out bits of the background with loops, rhythms, or arpeggios at this stage and see what you like, and maybe even compose some vocal harmonies in opportune sections. In the clip below, the live guitars and vocals were recorded later in a commercial studio, but are provided to show how they contribute to the composition.
At this point, you’re going to need a bridge, a connector that takes you on a brief detour away from the familiar repetition, then returns, either back to your familiar chorus or into an entirely new section that probably feeds into a quick but different outro. A bridge can be a crucial part of a song and can really be the place to display a breadth and diversity of melodic and harmonic skill, even if it only lasts for a few seconds.
Your skeleton and basic musculature are now complete, and it’s time to smooth out the surface of your song. We used tight, compressed bass, crisp guitars and vocals, and doubled and tripled some tracks to give them vast stereo projection. At this stage, the tracks for “Take It As You Go” were transferred to a full commercial studio to record live instruments and vocals. If you have a good enough home setup, you may not need to do this, but it’s often valuable, even if only for the new perspective that comes from listening and working in a different space.
As you near completion, it’s time to beef up transitional phrases, add instruments that reinforce vocal melodies (essentially by doubling the vocal melody on an instrument), and lay on “ooohhhs” and “aaaahs” in the places where your song might need some sonic ligaments or chunks of aural cartilage. If you’ve gotten well and truly lost in the Brian Wilson wing of your creative mind (and why shouldn’t you?), you can also brush on additional keyboard parts, percussion, organs, wind instruments, string sections, and sound effects, but you should also consider cutting swaths of sound with your virtual machete to create things like breakdown/rebuild sections.
All the while, particularly if you’re writing to communicate with other people — put yourself in the place of your listener. Add it, listen. Cut it, listen. Double it, listen. Pan it, listen. Compress it, listen. All that’s needed is some inspiration, ideas, and time.
And don’t forget to listen.
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