Sometimes I wish there was a specific formula to song writing that worked flawlessly every time. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are times when Rick comes to the band with a chorus line, including lyrics and melody, and the band sits down and writes the music around that. Other times we have a subject that we want to write about, so we come together and write lyrics before coming up with melodies or music.
With other songs, like “On Top Of The World”, the music comes first. Like the other situations, this presents it’s own set of challenges. “What emotion does the music reflect?” “Do we have a song idea that would fit this music?” “How do we expand on the lick?” These were questions that we had to answer when Dave brought us the guitar picking part that is now the main theme in “On Top Of The World”. Here are a few techniques that we used that you should keep in mind:
The first, and most obvious step in writing a musical piece that will launch a new song is to, well, write a musical piece. Make time to practice on your own, and during that time, have time to “Free Play”. Just play whatever your fingers decide to. Don’t worry about time signatures, or what key you’re playing in. Just play what sounds good to you. It also doesn’t hurt to keep your phone, computer, or something that can record your ideas near by. Record the ideas, and then go back to them after a few days and fine tune it. If you find you’re having trouble coming up with something to play, pull out some of your favorite music, listen to it, and then imitate it. I find that inspires me.
Be a Match Maker
Now to start the process of marrying that music up to lyrics and melody lines. In the same way that Dave played and recorded different guitar riffs, ALWAYS be coming up with new song subjects, lyric ideas, and melody lines. Have your phone near by and record your ideas, no matter where you are (just ask Rick how many recordings are on his phone with traffic noises in the background!). Go through that list of ideas and see if you have a match made in heaven, or at least something that remotely makes sense. When Dave brought the guitar part to us, we did just that. Fortunately, Rick had a recording of a song idea in his phone that went, “I lean against the hood looking over Hollywood.” That’s all it was, those lyrics and the melody that you hear in the song today. Now, the melody line that Rick had did not match perfectly with the music Dave had. But we were able to take his lick and tweak it just enough to make it work. With that said, another piece of advice, BE FLEXIBLE!!! Remember, we are trying to marry this music to lyrics. In order to do that, it cannot be married to you!
Go Fishing For Melody Lines
So, yeah, we got pretty lucky with Rick’s song idea and how well it matched with Dave’s part. But, that was literally one line of the song, AND it wasn’t even the chorus. Coming up with melodies for the rest of the song (Pre-chorus, Chorus, Bridge) seemed pretty daunting for us. The easy part was to expand on Dave’s beautiful guitar part and write the music to the whole song from front to back, adding drums, bass, and orchestration. After we had demoed all of that, we did something that, for us not so talented singers, was really intimidating. Each one of us went into the vocal booth, put one part of the song on repeat, and just sang nonsense into the Mic. A lot of it was, well... let’s just say it wasn’t going to earn us any Grammy’s. But after we had recorded what felt like hundreds of takes, we all sat down, suffered through the worst, and picked out parts that we actually liked. That was exactly how the Pre-chorus for “On Top Of The World” came to be.
These are just a few techniques that we used in the writing process for “On Top Of The World”. Though, like I said at the beginning of this post, there is no set formula for writing, I found that these steps got us pretty far. What is really fascinating about this process is that they are interchangeable. Whether the song idea starts with music, lyrics, melody, or just an idea, these steps can help any concept take shape.
- Michael Neeley