Creativity should not equate to chaos in practice. A well-organized plan of execution is crucial for any creative project, as well as allowing oneself the freedom to brainstorm openly.
But often, when composing a song or a piece, it is so easy to get stuck on insignificant, trivial details along the way, only to watch your initial inspiration die a slow death at the hands of frustration.
The solution is probably a bit easier said than done, but the good news is that we can totally help; and all it takes is a bit of time and a commitment on your part to design your own workflow that allows you to work through a process of tasks in a sequence of priorities. The basic idea is to get stuff done in the best way possible by allowing adequate time and energy for each task, so no one item becomes a stumbling block.
Let’s learn a bit more about what to consider when designing such a workflow—unique to your own preferences, skills, and goals.
Firstly, what classifies a good workflow?
A good workflow is classified as a consistent process that helps you to:
Work most optimally to get songs done within a set time
Stay inspired and motivated throughout
Keep frustrations and setbacks at a minimum
Designing a healthy workflow means breaking the practice of songwriting into smaller sub-tasks and arranging them in a way that is manageable. The tasks should be very clear, very specific, very detailed, and logically ordered to address the fundamental parts first and the finer details later.
A starting point
There’s no single tried and trusted way to start a song. Many musicians start by picking up an instrument and composing a chord progression, some start with coming up with a vocal melody in the shower, whereas others start with putting lyrics to paper, and so on.
Once you have your first seed idea defined, decide on a song goal and list your inspirations and references for the style and sound you would like to achieve; this will help you kick off in the right direction as well as help you later on in the process. And remember, if you decide to change direction somewhere during the process, that’s totally okay!
Capturing your ideas
Everything you need to develop and capture your ideas should be at arm’s length and ready to make magic—as soon as you start.
Whether it’s through your DAW or your phone’s voice memo recorder, you want to have everything technically ready and set up so you can lay down some rough recordings whenever inspiration strikes. Writing chord charts and lyric sheets also work well in this phase.
This is why, if you are creating your song in a DAW, you should prepare a few templates in advance that contain all your favorite instruments and processing chains. Having to first choose instruments, add effects, and tweak sounds takes a lot of time and energy, and can zap your productivity to shreds.
When setting up a template, pick four default MIDI instruments with a vocal audio track as your fifth channel. Consider a chordal instrument, a melodic (solo) instrument, a rhythmic instrument, and a bass instrument. Add in any EQ or reverb settings that you’d normally use with your instrument channels like acoustic guitar or piano.
Having everything set up in advance will help you jump into the creative process without inviting technical irritations into the mix.
Now for the fun stuff! Give yourself enough time for experimentation; it is important to grow your song from a flexible stance, so try out a number of ideas for rhythm, melody, bass, chords, vocals, structure, and work out a number of variations of those ideas all in free-flowing playtime.
Go crazy. Really! Give yourself the freedom to try multiple things knowing that it is not the final product. Don’t get distracted by production elements during this phase. Remember, a cool synth sound does not necessarily make for a cool synth line.
You’ll need to stop and assess what you’ve come up with at the end of this phase—keep what works, alter what could work, and discard what doesn’t—but this initial freeform experimentation will become the foundation of your song, and a basic yet strong foundation serves as grounds for great possibilities.
Once it is time to start building your song on the foundations you’ve laid, it’s important to define exactly what those building blocks will be. This means separating the various parts of your soon-to-be song into digestible segments and allocating a task, or multiple tasks, to each.
And this could mean anything: separate instrumentals, rhythmic elements, compositional elements, song parts like your chorus and verses, sound design, mixing, etc. Just make sure you allocate space to deal with each block in its own time. This makes the process feel less overwhelming and more manageable.
Production and mixing
Focusing on production should follow once you’ve had ample time to develop your song. Only then should you start compartmentalizing tasks to “decorate” it. This is the time for choosing sounds, tweaking them, and cleaning up your mix.
This might also be a good time to refer back to your list of style and sound references that you initially put together.
Active listening and reassessment
At some point, it becomes important to take a mental break from your song and clear your head, so you can return back to it with fresh, rested ears. “Sleeping on it,” as they say, will give you just enough distance to make any tough choices without getting emotional about them.
Here’s where you should practice active listening. In short, active listening is attentively listening to the various elements that make up a song for the purpose of analyzing whether or not they are successful in conveying your desired message or reaching your desired goal.
Set up a list of questions for yourself to help bring certain elements to your attention while you listen. Those might include:
Does every section in the song serve a purpose? If not, should something be cut?
Are your hooks strong enough? If not, should something be added?
Does the song feel too busy or crowded?
Do you need to include more instrumental breaks, such as a bridge or a solo?
Does it feel like there's something missing in any particular frequency area (low, middle, high)?
Asking for feedback
It might feel scary to expose your brand new song to criticism, but it’s important to collect the feedback of others so you can gain some new perspective on it.
It is up to you to decide at which phase in your flow you’d want to ask for feedback—some musicians wait until they have a near-finished product while others prefer the earlier phases to get some input before delving in too deep. When you do ask for feedback, pick your critics carefully, and remember that the critic’s word isn’t law. You are allowed to disagree with the opinions of others. It’s your song after all.
Calling it “complete”
It’s up to you to decide what your final phase will be. It can be a number of things, yet clearly defining it, and sticking to it, is what’s important. It’s also crucial to set a deadline.
I’ve heard many musicians say: “A song is never really complete…” This is just an excuse to allow the artist to carry on tinkering forever and it could lead down very unproductive paths. So pick a date and time to throw down your headphones and hit that “Export” button, and move on to the next project—you’ll be thankful you did.
Patience and discipline
Finding your workflow will not happen overnight. It’s a long process that requires your time and focus, as well as a commitment to docum enting what works and what doesn’t.
Try various methods until you pinpoint a process that suits you best. While working on your music, be very conscious of where obstacles creep in, and how you can apply some of the abovementioned solutions to conquer them. Once you’ve figured out a workflow suited to your needs, stick to it. A plan of execution will serve little purpose without disciplined follow-through.
Working according to a carefully contemplated workflow allows you to focus on one thing at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by a thousand things at once. Songwriting will never feel like hard work again if you find a flow that works for you.
Carla Malrowe is a vocalist, songwriter and music industry blogger from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the lead vocalist, keyboardist and contributing songwriter for industrial-rock band Me’ek. Malrowe is excited to announce that she is currently working on the debut EP of her new dark electronica project Shiver Kiss.
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