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Improve Your Songwriting Workflow

Are you writing your songs as effectively as possible? Is there a better way to catch and edit your song ideas, so you don't forget the great ideas you get?
Improving Your Songwriting Workflow

Table of Contents

I want to capture my musical ideas, record and edit and finish songs… what should I do?

I’m always figuring out better ways to write songs… I checked into research about handwriting vs typing but the results were uninspiring! 

If I want to save ideas without forgetting them and stay in the flow while I’m writing.

  • How do I write songs faster?
  • How do I catch my lyric ideas at the speed of thought?
  • As I create ideas, through improvisation, imagination… how do I remember the musical ideas… play with patterns until I complete a song?

How do I transform the sounds and words in my head to a format that is useful for:

  • Remembering
  • Editing and improving the ideas
  • Sharing the song with others, even before it’s finished
  • Collaborating while I’m working on them
  • Sharing when the song is finished

… while creating the best songs possible!

What if my songs get stuck because of my songwriting workflow?

What if my songs are stuck because of how I write songs?

What if I’m writing the wrong way?

What if I’m doing it all wrong?

we have a plan right? two bordercollies sitting in the front seats of a car, songwriting meme

What’s The Best Storage Medium For Song And Lyric Ideas?

After failing to find supporting research for all of the articles about handwriting is better than typing, I decided to dig into my own songwriting for answers.

To capture lyric ideas in a format that is useful for remembering and editing, I evaluated these four methods for their advantages and disadvantages. After the analysis, I included some action steps to help you improve your songwriting workflow.

Handwriting

Typing (into a computer)

DAW recording (using a Digital Audio Workstation or a computer to record sound) 

In Your Head

The Advantages of Each Songwriting Workflow:

Handwriting your songs

Handwriting Lyrics

I prefer handwriting because it feels messy and random and free…

Flow

  • Handwriting is the easiest for me to get into a flow and stay there while I write. 
  • It’s a smoother interface, I can put my pen anywhere on the page and it’s more flexible for me
  • Handwriting feels like rough drafting, typing makes me feel like it has to be good copy

Big Picture

  • I can spread out several pages and see everything at the same time 
  • Ideas can bounce, I don’t get stuck thinking linearly… I can think “randomly”

Permanent

  • It’s permanent, pen doesn’t change like text on a screen, so I feel like I am committing to the words I write even though I can still change anything later

Tactile

  • Writing is more tactile, I can feel it in my hands
  • Paper is tangible, I can feel it with my hands
  • It’s harder for me to lose paper… my harddrive is full of files I’ve forgotten about 

Price

  • A year’s worth of pens and paper costs less than $20, a few extra for file folders, binders or notebooks

Disadvantages of Handwriting

  • Handwriting feels slow compared to typing.
  • After handwriting, I still end up typing, even if it’s not until the final draft.
  • I still type the final draft to make it presentable or for copying and pasting into a post
Typing Your Lyrics

Typing into a Computer

I usually type the final draft, but many songwriters use software and apps instead of pen and paper.

Faster

  • Typing is faster than handwriting, sometimes faster than I can talk
  • Faster (for getting words on a page)
  • Speech to Text software can be helpful, but sometimes there are more mistakes than correct words

Mutable

  • Words can be changed later, nothing is permanent
  • Cut and paste (great for changing the order of entire lines or sections)

Portable

  • I can sync between devices, using a cloud or google docs
  • Everything is in one place, with some songwriting apps and computer programs you can store audio files with the text you’ve typed
  • Backup your work or cloud it, my hard drive permanently crashed before I learned that lesson

Final Copy for lyrics

  • Printed text is neater than handwriting
  • The final draft needs to be typed

Price

  • You need a device (that you probably already own), whether a laptop, desktop, tablet or smartphone. Optional: printer.

Disadvantages of Typing

  • The computer/device requires its own format, you adapt to the computer software
  • I find it hard to ignore typos… I feel I must correct them immediately which breaks my flow.
  • You need to be able to touch type (or effective speech to text software) otherwise it’s slower than handwriting
Recording Audio into Your Computer

DAW Recording

You can record your musical ideas directly into a DAW (digital audio workstation) or use an app on your phone to record a rough guitar and vocal demo.

Toplining, Backing Track

  • Great if you are writing lyrics to music that you’ve already created
  • Write lyrics and a melody in real time, to a background track
  • If you’re working with loops and beats you can build a song and arrangement relatively quickly
  • I can sing along with the track and improvise variations until I find the best version

Sound

  • Recording sound gives you more musical information, inflection, details that aren’t recorded in music notation or text
  • I write pitch and melody at the same time
  • I can remember everything about the performance I want
  • It’s closest to the final song demo I’m going to record anyway

Melody / Harmony 

  • You can include the sounds of the accompaniment and the arrangement as you build the song
  • You hear the lyrics and melodies in context with the whole track

Work at Your Ability

  • Create according to your skills with performing and singing, recording, mixing and mastering… take it as far as you want to….
  • Record rough mixes or build a professional quality mix depending on your recording and mixing skills
  • I test my songs with voice memos on my iPhone. I record a chord progression then work on the lyrics and melody, or record a rough mix of guitar and vocals to test a song that’s almost complete

Price

  • This is more gear intensive. You can get started with GarageBand on an iPad or iPhone. Add a guitar interface, midi interface and a better microphone when you can.

To start a home recording studio you need:

  • Laptop
  • DAW 
  • Audio Interface
  • Microphone(s) and XLR Cables
  • Headphones (and studio monitors)
  • Recording Space

Disadvantages of DAW Recording

  • Creating a track to sing to can be labour intensive
  • Reviewing multiple recordings is time consuming
  • If you’re freestyling it can take a long time to review the recording and then transcribe the words and then edit them. 
  • When you are singing into a computer DAW it can be slow or awkward to record several takes and then figure out which to keep.
  • Home recording has a steep learning curve that is frustrating before it becomes fun and exciting
  • Recording solid vocals is difficult until you learn how… it’s not just about your singing voice
Working Out the Music in Your Head

Working Out Lyrics in Your Head

Remembering

  • It’s closest to how I perform the final song, from memory
  • The ideas start in my brain, why not keep them there while I work on them?
  • When I learn to do this properly I’ll never have to write anything down again… no more grocery lists!

Impermanence

  • Trust your memory
  • You can change your song anytime

Imagination

  • This is what I already do when I’m writing on the side (working on a song while doing something else, like driving, in the shower, watching television that I’m not really paying attention to….)
  • You can write anything you can imagine (and remember)

Price

  • No monetary cost
  • Time and practice memorizing
  • Forgotten songs and forgotten ideas

Disadvantages of Working It Out In Your Head

This is a tough one for me: I don’t trust my memory for song lyrics. I’ve forgotten song lyrics on stage, even to songs I’ve written. I need to spend time practicing to perform from memory I don’t forget what I’ve “written”. 

  • It’s hard to keep long sections in my head. 
  • How do you hold ideas so you can work on them at another time?
  • How do you train your memory?
I forgot what I wrote again

Improving Your Songwriting Workflow

What’s your songwriting workflow?

How can you add or change things to make your workflow more:

  • Efficient?
  • Faster?
  • Easier?

And how can you finish more songs that you start?

Start with:

What are your strengths?

Where are you strongest with the four workflows above?

What are the easiest ways to improve, considering your strengths?

What are your weaknesses?

Where are you weakest with the four workflows above?

What skills do you need to build to improve, considering your present weaknesses?

There's more than one way to write a song, Alternate Ways to Write a Song

Action Steps to Improve Your Songwriting Workflow:

1. Outline your typical songwriting workflow in point form. Here is my songwriting practice… to give you a model as you write out you own workflow:

My Songwriting Process:

Typically, I write lyrics first. Writing music is very fast for me, so I intentionally work out the story of the song and most of the lyrics before I add music. I choose a chord progression and find the melody from the rhythms and accent patterns in the lyrics. There’s more than one way to write a song, it’s best if you figure out your own songwriting process.

  • Start with a Title / Lyric Hook / Theme
  • Outline ideas for each song section and create the narrative and the emotional journey
  • Brainstorm with a pen and paper, create more ideas than I will need
  • Edit, circling the best words, phrases, ideas
  • Brainstorm again… emotions, imagery, sensations, 
  • Edit more
  • Rewrite (handwriting) the best ideas onto a fresh page
  • Choose rhyme scheme
  • Brainstorm rhyme words, synonyms for key words
  • Brainstorm more ideas and phrases
  • Edit more
  • Start fitting fragments and phrases into sections
  • Record rough phone demos as I experiment
  • Finalize a draft of the lyrics (sometimes I write the chorus before starting on lyrics for other sections or I set the first verse to music before writing the other verses) 
  • Choose key, tempo, and the chord progressions for each song section
  • Record an instrumental demo, usually acoustic guitar so I can sing melodies as I write them
  • Create melodies for each song section
  • Create the song structure… the order of the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge
  • Add introduction and ending, add transitions between sections if needed
  • Finalize a guitar & vocal version of the entire song
  • Arrange the guitar part through each song section
  • Record a rough demo, both audio and video versions
  • Arrange the parts for a full band version
  • Record a band demo

What Should I Do Differently?

After considering everything, I intend to spend more time working things out in my head. Instead of completing a “final” draft of the lyrics, I’ll start setting lyrics to a melody and chord progression sooner. 

Instead of fussing over word choice, I’ll make more lyric decisions by singing along with the song… and creating in context with the music.

And I’m continuing to explore ways to memorize lyrics and music, so I don’t feel dependant on lyric sheets… this includes handwriting the lyrics, spending time creating associations (emotional and visual) with the lyrics to help me remember words, practicing songs without looking at the lyrics. Here’s a great way to learn and memorize songs: The Fastest Way to Memorize Songs.

Action Steps (Continued)

2. Decide where you could improve your workflow as you start your next song, or with the song you’re already working on….

3. Also consider:

  • Where do your songs usually get stuck?
  • What songwriting results do you want, that you aren’t already getting?
  • Where can you be faster or more efficient?
  • What do you need help with, that you can’t do for yourself?

Leave a comment and help other songwriters:

What’s your biggest takeaway from this article?

Or

What other workflows would you add to these four?

More Articles to Improve Your Songwriting Craft

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff has taught, played and written music professionally for the last 25+ years.
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