Meghan McDonald

Sound experimenter, visual poet and filmmaker

Writing Music: The Idea

This is the first part in a series of blog posts on writing music

Some songs stem from clever lyrics that eventually match up with a catchy tune. In other instances, the music comes first. Whether you are primarily a composer or a lyricist, there is no right or wrong process for songwriting — all paths lead to the same product: a completed song.

For me, a song idea may come in a different form each time with one theme in common, no matter the route: There is no start or finish time for writing music.

While some may not be able to fully “clock out” from a job (constantly checking emails, etc.), I am incapable of clocking out from songwriting. But, then again, I would argue that the same goes for poets, inventors, journalists or anyone constantly on the lookout for ideas.

HOW A SONG TAKES FORM (FOR ME)

A lyric may sprint across my mind on the train, at a meeting or on the toilet. My phone’s notes section is littered with potential intros, choruses and bridges to songs that then get dumped into a Google Doc I’ve created, titled “Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts.”

I try to add recent notes to my "Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts" at least once a week to keep my songwriting in order.

I try to add recent notes to my "Encyclopedia of Random Thoughts" at least once a week to keep my songwriting in order.

When a melody (or bass or guitar solo) pops into my head, I use the voice recorder on my phone or the Music Memos app (which is a personal favorite and must-have for musicians).

While this increasingly digital world does have its own set of mishaps, I must tip my hat to the ease technology has provided the songwriting process, especially in the day to day.

There is no ideal setting for ideas to thrive. I have found that I come up with my most useable material when my mind is in a manic state — and to be honest, that’s rarely at home when I’m clutching my guitar, waiting for an idea to pop up. It’s when I’m stressed out, or when I miss the subway train, after getting yelled at, you name it, that the lines or melodies start to rush in.

Although, to me, alone time is a necessity for the compilation phase — for combining which lines go with which melody. (Please note that this is just one way of putting a song together and is a more scattered approach.)

A concrete example of how the compilation process worked for me on a lyrical level was the collaborative song (co-written with Jonny Altrogee) “Nobody’s Postcard.”

Selected lyrics are below with blue lines coming from separate entries in my "Encyclopedia of Random Ideas," with additions from my musical partner-in-crime, Jonny (JA):

See lyric video here for full lyrics.

To put a scene to the lyrics, this song originated from Jonny kicking off practice with a really catchy guitar loop. (Jonny’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to combine strong rhythms with his relaxed guitar methods. He has a neat freak, yet spastic sound to his strumming.)

Once he had an instrumental sound going that we both agreed on, I started sifting through my one-liner entries, eventually piecing together a song that shaped into an ode to disconnectedness. 

AND NOW FOR SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE

A benefit of writing songs with one-liners is that, if an overarching theme can be maintained, the effect is almost poem-like. The lacking aspect, however, is letting go of specificity and a linear storyline.

“Nobody’s Postcard” can almost be applied to any circumstance and person dealing with disconnectedness. Ambiguity is a cape — if you choose to make it part of your songwriting process, eventually you have a cape that can fit any listener who chooses to try it on.

As a side note, for writing poems, working on art or any craft, I encourage you to work with your obsessions. My line “Nobody’s made a postcard for where I’ve been” originated from an obsession I had with postcards.

There was a point last year when I couldn’t walk past the Strand without tearing through their postcards section and buying at least five. Crazy? Eh. Song material? Definitely. Follow your quirks. If you don’t know what your quirks are, ask a friend. I’m sure they’ve had a mental list going for quite some time now.

Also, work with technology. Email the lines to yourself; put them in your notes section. Don’t trust your memory to retain the lines you come up with, say, before bed or throughout the day. I don’t care how great your memory is — there’s something sacred about the material that we come up with in the heat of the moment that should be documented immediately.

I tend to think of my one-liners and melodies as coming from an unworldly muse. If I don’t take care of or use what she gives me, my well of ideas may end up dry one day.