There are only two ways to write a song. Ok, sure, there are plenty more. But what I’ve found is it primarily comes down to these two: you can paint or you can use the GPS method.
The GPS Method
I’m calling it the GPS method because when you’re approaching songwriting this way, you know the destination, you just don’t know how to get there. It’s like a friend sending you the address to a new restaurant. You punch it into Maps, Google Maps, or perhaps by the time you’re reading this it’s some other newfangled technology, and you let the GPS reverse engineer the path from where you are to where you want to be.
In this case, the hook—the memorable part of the song— is the address. And usually the hook is what you have first. The hook could be a title you’ve been wanting to use, or a phrase you overheard someone say. It could also be a melodic shape or a guitar riff. Whatever the hook is, you know it’s your destination, it’s the the thing that’s most important. So you reverse engineer the song to that. Let me give you a personal example.
I had the title “Things I’ve Never Seen” in my Notes app. I didn’t have a melody. I didn’t have any chords or melodic shapes. Just a title, an “address.” I knew the song would be about—yes, things I’ve never seen— but I didn’t know if it was a serious or reflective song. Was it about cities I’ve never been to or places? I didn’t know. I eventually chose to make it a silly type of children’s song about things I’ve never seen; a list of items that ended at my title (destination).
A cow running in the pasture
My mailman in regular clothes
A secret getting past my mother
My father touching his toes
They’re more alike than different
At least they are to me
These are just a few
Things I’ve never seen
Painting is far different from the GPS method because you’re not starting with a hook. You don’t have a title or any concrete lyrics. You don’t have a clear concept of where you’re going or what your destination is.
What you do have is a mood, a sense of what the song should feel like. I call this the painting method because it’s a more elusive process. It reminds me of an abstract painter standing in front of a blank canvas, beginning with a brush stroke here, a brush stroke there.
The painting method isn’t as much about the song as the process of writing the song. It’s an experience. Anything could happen. You unfold the song rather than reverse engineering it.
One song I wrote recently using this method is called “Isn’t It Good.” When I started, I didn’t have any lyrics or melodic shapes. I simply was in a mood, wanting to slow down in life and be more present. I sat on the couch, stared out the window, and started finger picking some chords while humming little bits of gibberish over it. A few hours later the song was finished.
A Quick Note
The two methods can overlap. Sometimes you’ll be using the GPS method and thinking you know the destination. But then you realize you’re going somewhere else. Be open to it. Or sometimes you’ll be painting but realize you have a lot of ideas formed that could benefit from a more structured, reverse-engineered approach. Be open to that as well. A good rule of thumb is to always keep an open mind. Songwriting, no matter what method you use, is still incredibly mysterious. Whenever you finish a song you’ll find yourself thinking, “Well, I have no idea how that happened!”