By Roger Jaeger, Singer/Songwriter & ROOTS Mentor
As I type this, it’s a Monday afternoon. I’m sitting in a home studio in Brentwood, Tennessee, watching the back of my producer’s head as he mixes a song from the album we’ve worked on together for the last month and a half. Why am I doing this? Well, it’s because 16 years ago I fell in love with writing and performing songs, and it hasn’t left me!
In these 16 years I’ve been writing songs, one thing I’ve learned is there is no one way to do it! There are many different avenues and methods to songwriting. Here are some of the ways that I have found to be best for me:
Often I’ll start a song just by playing different chords on a guitar or piano. I’ll find a succession of chords that I like and just start humming some sort of melody over. That humming often turns into a sort of babbling of words, and before I know it I’ve got a few real words that seem to fit well. I then start putting lyrical ideas together and forming a song out of it.
One road block I run into with this method is sometimes I don’t know what I really want the song to be about. So I have a couple options:
- Just decide on something and roll with it! I recently wrote a song that started with some babbling, and I ended up with the line “as long as you mean it.” I decided to make the song about asking someone to tell me the truth, even if hurts to do so.
- I might play what I do have for a friend and ask them what it makes them feel or think of. This can help give me direction!
For many writers, a song starts with an idea. They hear someone say something in a conversation that grabs their interest, or they want to tell some sort of specific story, maybe that’s inspired by something that’s happened in their own life or something they’ve seen a movie.
Often, in this case, the song begins much like a poem, and music is added later.
Whether I start with lyrics or music first, one method I often like to use is what I like to call “creating a workspace.”
Let’s say I know I want to write a song about a city boy visiting the country for the first time. I would probably make two columns, one with the word “city” at the top, and the other with the word “country” at the top. I would make a list of things that I think of when I think of the city, and things that I think of when I think of the country. For example:
Highways/Stars visible at night
Once I’ve compiled my list, I suddenly have options for lyrics!
“I traded busy streets for open space…” Or something like that!
I used to always write alone, but since coming to Nashville I’ve been able to find a lot of value in co-writing. Often when I sit with someone else to write a song, creative ideas happen that would never have come from just me. It can incredibly helpful to have a second brain around, especially when I get stuck somewhere!
One thing I’ve enjoyed doing is writing about whatever is happening in my co-writer’s life: I’ll ask him or her to just talk to me about a situation, and I listen for words or phrases that grab my attention. They often become important pieces of the song!
Wherever you are in your songwriting journey, keep with it! Try new things; take risks! And know that what you do is important.
I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes that have inspired me:
- “There is something in the spirit of song…that fires the soul in a way that it can’t otherwise be touched or fired.” –Charles W. Nibley
- “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.” –Henry Giles