Writing Great Songs Without Music Theory

By kyrashaughnessy

February 24, 2015

arts, creativity, culture, folk, music, process, singer-songwriter, singing, songs, songwriting

Everyone has their own process when it comes to writing, be it song-writing, creative writing or writing a thesis. As a self-taught musician I’ve never had a very technical approach. I find a lot of people feel intimidated about getting started trying to write songs. We all have moments where we struggle to create anything we find at all interesting. Sometimes learning about other people’s approaches can be just the thing to kick us out of the rut of writers block. What follows is one of the recurring methods to my madness.


Stormy Weather

A day when I am going to write a song will often look like this. I am wandering aimlessly around my home, unable to focus on anything, with no concrete plans to fill my time. Everything on my to do list seems suddenly unimportant and I feel a kind of internal rumble that I can’t quite put my finger on. I have a made a dozen cups of tea, cleaned my whole space up and am now restless in a very particular kind of way that I can only describe as the kind of electric buzz you might feel in the air before a storm. Over time I am getting much better at identifying these moments as the build up to songwriting. Being able to tune in to your inner radar and know when you are ripe for writing, if a key element to making it happen.

When I’m in one of these moods I will, eventually, realize what’s going on and sit down with an instrument. Most often this will be a guitar, but if there’s any new instrument around then I will probably gravitate towards that because in my experience new instruments often inspire a whole new range of creativity. I have written many of my best songs by fiddling around with instruments I didn’t actually know how to play! If you feel blocked when you pick up your regular instrument, you should definitely give this a try!


No Theory? No Problem!

Usually once I’ve settled in to this process of fiddling around, I will start out by making up some repetitive bit of music that I like the sound of. Being self-taught and not very theory-minded, I don’t really tend to approach things in a “this chord goes with that chord” kind of way. I will most often make things up on the spot based on what sounds good to me and what resonates with however I’m feeling that day.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be technically complex in order to be good!

When I have tried writing songs with a more theoretical approach I have rarely been satisfied with the results. That being said, it works for some people, AND I do find it very useful to be able to apply basic music theory in moments of “stuckness” when I have tried all other avenues and can’t figure out where to go with the music. If that doesn’t work then I just give up on the music and write something a’cappella (a vocal piece with no instrumental accompaniment). This is why I call myself a songwriter rather than a musician! I have a very low-level of commitment to being disciplined in practicing an instrument and a very high level of commitment to lyrical content!

Once I have a bit of music going, I end up looping and changing small things in this snippet until some kind of melody emerges for me to sing along with it. This melody then develops words, often just one or two lines at a time which I will then also sing on repeat for a while. Slowly the whole thing builds into something more like an actual song, at which point I might start scribbling some of the words down. The key word in this whole process is slow. While the most common way that I will go about writing a song is all in one shot, I do take a fair amount of time getting it all out! Give yourself all the time you need…

HPIM0761 (Small) Surprise Synthesis

It’s at this point that I realize that what is coming out is something that has built up over however many weeks or months of gestation since a particular thought or line of reflection was hanging out in the back of my mind. It’s a very strange and magical moment of synthesis where a whole bunch of experiences coalesce and blend themselves together through the creative process. And then “poof”. We have a song. Or a poem. It may never see the light of day and be witnessed by the world. But there it is!

I know some people feel frustrated when they write something that they then don’t feel like sharing with the world. For my part, I tend to think that anything I write is part of the creative process whether or not it’s something I want to share. Sometimes we have to dig through a lot of layers before reaching the essence of something. It’s a bit like emotional processing, where sometimes we need to talk through a certain situation or feeling before reaching the core of what we are experiencing and being able to fully articulate it. Above all, don’t get in your own way by being overly critical of every little thing you come up with!

The above is just one of the ways in which I go about writing a song, but it is definitely the most common process for me. Because I work very intuitively it’s sometimes difficult to prescribe a very specific set of steps to people who ask about my practice, but I hope this little description proves helpful or interesting to you!  Happy writing!


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