Writing A Song From A Single Phrase

Written by Tommaso Zillio

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Have you ever had an epiphany for a great song, but found it was gone before you could complete it? If you’ve ever written down that perfect set of chords, what did you do with them? Is it possible to revive it now?

When people are first getting into song writing, this seems to be the most prominent issue they face. I, along with many of my students, also had to overcome this issue when I was first learning how to write music myself. In fact, it’s perfectly normal if you’ve found yourself stuck in this situation. This is extremely common, and there are many ways to solve it.

If you’re going through this like I did, then there could be plenty of recorded melodies hidden away on your laptop, or even written down on boards and in notebooks. From time to time, you might take a look back and see just how good they actually are, although you’re still not able to finish the song, and might even be feeling frustration. And this certainly isn’t because you aren’t finding inspiration — it just doesn’t seem to last long enough to make it into song.

if you’re having trouble getting over this hump, the good news is that there are simple measures that can be taken. How would it feel to be able to go back and finally complete a few of those gems stored in the recesses of your hard drive or gathering dust on your bookshelves? For those who need a bit of help, here are some simple and effective solutions.

Step One: Ask The Right Questions

Take a step back from your work to get a step ahead. Just take a moment to examine the work you’ve created. Is there an idea behind the work? Does it possess an emotional quality? And lastly, what do you want the listener to get when they hear it?

Now that you’ve asked these questions, the hardest part of this entire process will begin. Do you think you’re ready? Let’s go.

Step Two: The Hardest, Most Difficult Thing You Will Ever Do In Your Entire Life 🙂

Open up a note book, grab a pen, and write down the answers to the questions in the first step.

Okay, maybe it’s not that difficult on paper, but for some reason, people refuse to do this. It must be difficult in practice, because when I advise people do it, they just don’t. I’ve even handed them a pen and paper, and they make excuses or explain their way out of it – it’s actually hilarious to see regular adults squirming out of it like children desperately trying to get out of eating all their vegetables.

No matter how difficult it is, this is a very important step. Believe me, this is a big part of the solution, and like everything, you have to try it to see it work. And do you really have anything to lose? If you’ve got time to write a song, you can spend a couple minutes and a spare sheet of paper.

Step Three: Break It Down

Now that you’ve answered the questions on the sheet of paper in front of you, it’s time to break them down. The best possible outcome is to end up with a single sentence describing the theme of your song. Make it as simple as you can.

This theme will be your lighthouse beacon guiding your song to shore — so it’s worth taking some extra time fine tuning it so it can cut through the fog. if you’re not sure what to do, then look to what others have done before you (even if it doesn’t have words) and break their song down into a single-sentence summary.

Here’s a couple examples: "Me and Your Momma" off Childish Gambino’s R&B album "Awaken, My Love!" is about the torment felt when trying to get closer to a forbidden love; Michael Rault wrote a song called "Too All My Friends," about his unconditional love for everyone who keeps him going on a tough tour schedule; and "If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You Then I Will" by Pup is about the disdain and patience for band mates lost when in close quarters for long periods of time. Now it’s your turn!

Step Four: Start Exploring

The next step is to think about ways which you can turn that thesis into an expressive song. What sounds and instruments can you build it with? How will you develop a rhythm? Does it need to be fast, slow, loud, quiet, aggressive, or melancholic?

If you need lyrics, how will you use language to express the thesis? And from what angle will you tell the story?

Once you’ve figured it out, write it down. Honestly, keeping these thoughts in your head will hold you back from creating new ones. So get it on paper so your brain can keep doing the heavy lifting! Don’t pick up that guitar at this point — keep focusing on what you’re doing.

Step Five: Get Composing

Now you’ve gotten this far, and scribbled all of your answers on paper, we’re about ready to get started

Try to make this idea into music in any form. A chorus, a verse, or even an entire song. If you lose your train of thought, go back to the that main line, and compare what you’re writing to that original thought, and if you need to make any changes to bring it closer to the original. Keep working at this.

Although this part of the process might not seem like a big deal, once you put it into practice you’ll see just how valuable it is. Once you start doing it, you’ll begin to notice just how simple it is to write a completely cohesive song. Don’t knock it until you try it!

Why Not Just Write What Comes Naturally?

That’s certainly one way to do it! There are certainly those who don’t need this, or more commonly, those who have gone through this process so much that it becomes instinctive. But if that sounds like you, then why are you still reading this?

Now To Finish Those Unfinished Songs

Now that you’ve come this far, there is a simple process to get those done efficiently:

  1. Begin with Step 3, breaking down some of your favourite songs on paper. It doesn’t sound important, but trust me, you’ll learn a lot more than you anticipated when you’ve actually done it.

  2. Go back and do all five of the steps, and write down your answers. After you’ve done that, see if you can get a cohesive song written today. And really, if you can get through those first four steps in half an hour, you’ll be able to write a song before an hour has passed. And that length of time will only get shorter when you keep doing this.

  3. Unpack those unfinished songs and go through these steps again. You will be some that you don’t finish, but you’ll have major strides to writing the music for your debut album!

A wise man named Larry Niven once said "No technique works if it isn’t used." So get writing today!

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about how to write music