How To Make A Song
Whether music production is a hobby or a profession, being able to finish your musical ideas to a high standard is an important goal. Why? They are your primary marketing tool to show the world what you have to offer. A finished track has emotional value and will be something you can forever be proud of. A great song finished to a high standard also has considerable financial potential.
In this blog, we'll help you take your best songs all the way to the finish line. Music surrounds us. It’s everywhere. Your music has the potential to reach billions of people. But to get in front of this massive audience, you need finished music... So, let’s begin.
What's stopping you from finishing tracks?
If we understand what stops productivity in the studio, we’re better equipped to take action against it.
When you’ve heard your work in progress hundreds of times, you might lose your enthusiasm towards the track. That’s perfectly natural, but keep in mind that what sounds stale to you is novel to someone else. Research has shown that creativity is a state of mind that is often born out of boredom. Moments of inspiration and brilliance can strike at any time in the studio. Perseverance can lead to a breakthrough.
Overworking A Simple Musical Idea Into An Inflated Mess
When something isn’t quite working in your track, you might be tempted to add another element or layer to enhance the sound. Sometimes this can work, but it’s often the case that excessive layers will lead to your production sounding bloated. This will detract from your musical idea and be detrimental to the production quality. Trim the fat from your productions. Use a smaller number of better sounding elements for a focused and high-quality production.
You probably have hundreds of things competing for your time and attention. It’s up to you to make the time to create and finish your music. Try to switch off from any distractions and get into the zone. The University of California found that it takes an average of 25 minutes to fully return your attention to your original task after an interruption. Plan your session, and shut out all distractions to become a more efficient music producer.
You want your track to sound as good as it possibly can, that’s understandable. But endlessly tweaking the minor details will most likely not make a significant difference to your track. Theres a checklist at the end of the book that will help you determine when your track is ready to release.
Don’t postpone finishing your music until you have better gear. By spending time learning new techniques you’ll make the best use of what you have today.
Wherever you make music, make it inviting. Keep it clean and organised for when you do find the time to make music. Remove any barriers that stop you from being creative in your studio space.
Not Knowing The Next Step To Take
When you create a groove, melody or chord progression that you love, you might find yourself just listening to the phrase on loop without progressing the track. This is unproductive and can also lead to boredom towards the track. Working fast and efficiently is a very effective way to stay motivated. To work fast you have to know what the next step is in the music making process. The information in this book will help you push on to the next phase in production when you hit this wall.
Establishing A Strong Musical Idea
How will you form your composition? Will you sit on a beach with a guitar, pen and paper? Or sit behind a keyboard in the studio? It doesn’t matter how you do it, but the first step is to conceive and capture your idea. Find your preferred writing method in which you can be as creative and expressive as possible. At this stage, you should be looking to record the idea in a way that doesn’t interrupt your creative process.
There are no rules on where to begin in songwriting. You might start with a drum groove, a bass line, some chords or a vocal hook. To establish a strong music idea that is worth finishing, you will need chords and a melody at the very least.
To attract and maintain the attention of your listeners, you’ll need a ‘catchy’ chord progression. Your audiences brains are hardwired to ignore familiar sounds and concentrate when they hear something unusual or extreme. So you’ll need a chord progression that stands out from the crowd.
Music theory is a vast subject that can be studied in depth. But there’s enough information in this section to get you going with a contagious, digestible and memorable chord progression.
Chord progressions can be defined as chord degrees of a given scale. Chord degrees are written as Roman numerals, and they tell you which note of the scale a chord relates to. If we were in the key of C major, the fifth note of the scale would be G. G major as a chord degree of C major would, therefore, be written as ‘V’. Chord degrees use capital numerals for major chords and use lower case for minor chords. The infographic below shows the chord degrees of a D Dorian mode.
Major / Minor
Major and minor keys are commonly used in music. This makes these chord progressions very digestible, but not very unique. However, they can still be the foundation of a great track. Here are a few classic chord progressions that have been used in countless hits over the years.
All of the above chord progressions are in the scale of C. But you can use the chord degrees to transpose these progressions to any key using the Key Cheatsheets below. For example to generate a Typical F Minor chord progression, match up the chord degrees with the F minor line. So, i / v / VI / iv becomes Fm / Cm / C# / A#m.
Modes are used less frequently in modern music production, so they’re something of a secret tool to give your chord progression an edge.
Try these chord progressions for a different flavour. The Ionian (same as Major scale), Aeolian (same as minor scale), Phrygian and Mixolydian modes are the most commonly used. Dorian can be described as a little more ‘out there’ and the Locrian mode is the most obscure.
Use the chart below to help you efficiently formulate your own chord progressions based on modal scales.
‘Deep House’ Chords
These chord progressions require the least amount of music theory knowledge and are very easy to program into your DAW (digital audio workstation). Create a chord you like in midi, then shift the chord exactly as it is up or down the piano roll for the following chord.
Sometimes it can feel like your chords make too much of a leap from one chord to the next. It can make your progression feel jumpy and give your track an awkward and unmusical vibe. Using ‘Inversions’ is where you change the octave of some of the notes within a chord to make the note jumps as close as possible. If there are ‘common notes’ between two chords, try to match them up on the same octave. Don’t forget to check the relationship of the first and last chord in the progression.
Here is an example of how you can improve the flow of a i / III / IV / VII chord progression in the Dorian Mode using inversions.
Dorian D progression built from chord degrees. Feels jumpy and lacks flow.
Same Dorian D progression with the note transposed to flow better.
Hooks And Melodies
The most prominent melody in a song is usually the vocal. We call it a ‘hook’ as the idea is to catch the listeners attention and keep them engaged. Attention spans are so short that a lot of music consists of hook after hook after hook. The verse, pre-chorus and chorus all have super catchy hooks to keep the audience captivated.
How do we engage and captivate the audience with a hook?
The melody has to balance out predictability with unpredictability. Familiarity allows the listener to digest your music without too much effort, drawing them into the song and making it memorable. The unpredictable aspect of the hook surprises them which makes them more alert and focused whilst listening. Make your hook stand out with an unexpected twist to the melody and rhythm. This is a trial and error approach where you should give yourself the freedom to be as weird and experimental as you like in the pursuit of something different.
• Could your audience sing along easily?
• Are the melodic phrases somewhat repetitive?
• Does it have both predictable and unpredictable characteristics?
Writing For Your Audience VS Writing For Yourself
Having an idea of how your music will be consumed will help give you direction with your songwriting. If the song is an artistic project and you have no interest in how it’s received by the public, that gives you a lot of freedom to express yourself however you like. If the public love it, great, if not, no problem. However, if you’re hoping to appeal to a wide audience you might want to put more conscious effort into creating an enticing and engaging song.
The vast majority of music producers have the end goal of moving people either physically or emotionally. When you’re forming your composition, think about how it will affect your listeners. If you have no direction when writing your song, you might find yourself with a finished track with no clear message or purpose, and that won’t resonate with your listeners.
Simplicity VS Complex
When we’re in the studio making music, we are 100% focused on our song. This allows us to comprehend more complicated musical ideas. However, music is rarely consumed in this way. It’s often heard in the background whilst another activity is the main focus. Think about the context in which your music will be heard. If you’re making a pop track for radio play, the genre and context call for more simple and accessible musical ideas. If you’re composing a classical piece that will be performed in front of a silent audience, the genre and context allow for more complexity.
Keep the genre and context in mind when creating your hooks. Try to conceptualise the listeners perspective when you’re in the studio to direct your melody writing.
Repetition can sometimes be seen as musically bland, but it has an infectious effect on the listener. It allows the listener to anticipate whats coming up, which can help them participate and sing along; which is enjoyable. However, too much repetition and you’ll have a musically static track which is monotonous to listen to. So how can we utilise the power of repetition without losing our audiences attention?
Our brains are more sensitive to rhythm changes than harmony changes. So you can occasionally switch up the notes but keep the same rhythm to add a surprise.
If you have a 1/2 bar melody, and a 1 bar chord progression, the melody will play twice and feel slightly different over the second half of the chord progression. This different tonality will balance out the repetition and keep it interesting.
Changing the lead melody instrument can add a new flavour to a repeated phrase. For example, a lead synth can play a very close variation of the vocal melody from the previous section.
- You can keep the melody, rhythm and instrument the same but modify the performance and expression used. For example, yo could automate the parameters on a synthesiser to modulate as the track progresses, or transpose the vocal melody by an octave.
Structuring Your Track
The structure of your track is how long each section is and how you order your different sections. This is the musical journey you take your listener on and you can improve that journey by being deliberate and purposeful with your structure.
The most commonly used pop structure is as follows:
intro / verse1 / chorus1 / verse2 / chorus2 / middle 8 / chorus 3 / chorus out. Sometimes written in this format: ABABCBB
There are no rules here, but building your listener up from a catchy verse to an explosive chorus is generally a good idea. Whatever structure you establish, if you’re aiming for a chart hit or to impress an industry decision maker it’s advisable to get to the chorus at around the 30-45 second mark.
A great exercise to help you decide on the flow of your song is to deconstruct the structure your favourite reference tracks. Take a track that you think flows really well from start to finish. Break the song down into sections and then count the bars in each section. You can then use this as a template to flesh out the different sections of your own song. You can use The ‘Structure & Arrangement Cheatsheet’ on the following page (and in the EXTRAS chapter at the back of the eBook) to help you with this. Each line represents a different element within the mix. Mark out where the sections (intro, verse, chorus etc) begin at the top of the sheet. Each of the faint boxes represents 4 bars, fill the box when that instrument is playing.
Arrangement refers to your choice of instrumentation. A great arrangement will convey the musical idea in the best possible way whilst adding variation between the different sections.
Similarly, with the structure deconstruction exercise, we can unpack the arrangement of our favourite songs to decode the building blocks of the music. Let’s look at Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran. As you can see from the arrangement and structure infographic below, there are three main elements playing throughout the track; Vocals, Guitar Percussion Loop and Plucked Chords. Other elements come in and out to add contrast between the sections, but they are secondary. This focus on simplicity keeps the listener engaged to the music without too much effort on their part.
Shape Of You - Arrangement Infographic
What can we learn from this? When we’re producing and mixing, often it’s better to use fewer sounds rather than stuffing the mix with a load of layers. Too many layers can make a mix sound congested and ends up confusing the listener.
The simple arrangement of just three elements in the verse sets a sparse reference point for the listener. The difference in the amount of instrumentation between the verse and drop is considerable. This gives the drop a dramatic lift from the verse and another dramatic change of energy when the verse returns. This dynamic journey is interesting for the listener and keeps them engaged for the whole duration of the song.
We can also see that there are a few minor arrangement changes that differentiate repeated sections. So verse one has a slightly different arrangement from verse two, pre-chorus one is different from pre-chorus two etc. Keeping the melodies and chords the same but altering the arrangement used is a great way to repeat your hook without boring your listener.
In the Shape Of You arrangement infographic, we can see that the kick and bass only come in together during the drop and final chorus. In this instance, they used the arrangement to add tension and release. The verse has dominant mid frequencies building the tension, and when the chorus comes in the frequency range is full and releases that tension.
How Arrangement Affects the Mix
Keeping the final mix in mind even at the early stages of composition becomes easier with experience. Be purposeful with your arrangement and try not to overcomplicate the mix with lots of similar sounds in similar frequency ranges. Add in complimentary layers, not competing layers and you’ll avoid mix problems later. This is particularly important with the lower frequencies. For example, a low bass pad might hinder the impact of the main bass channel. If the pad was a few octaves higher in the lower mids you might avoid this issue.
The digital environment is virtually limitless for the number of tracks you can have. Stay focused on what the song actually needs. Spend time creating and tweaking the perfect sounds rather than adding layer upon layer. This will also help you create a balanced mix in the later stages of production.
Going back a few decades an audio engineer was limited to the number of channels on their mixing console. They’d often be limited to less than 40 in total. This set up required a lot more consideration as to how to use the channels in the most effective way. Any excess was removed and the focus was on doing the song justice. The engineer also wasn't using plugins. They will have had a limited amount of analogue EQs and various other outboard gear. So they would have sparingly used their limited equipment to get the best result for the music. This contrasts heavily with whats available today. Powerful plugins with endless capabilities that have such low CPU that each channel have many instances. It’s common for producers to aimlessly add plugins and spend a long time tweaking and going around in circles. Don’t be a busy fool. Be sure that you’re focused within your DAWs limitless environment, and make each step count towards the final goal of finishing your track.
Where To Start?
Your DAW presenting itself as a blank canvas can be intimidating. These actionable steps will ensure you hit the ground running every time you open a session. This will also help you get into the zone faster and maintain momentum throughout your production process.
Create A Template
A basic template that already has a few synth sounds that you love and a collection of your favourite samples will let you jump straight into working on your idea. You can change the samples and synth patches as you go along, but spending the first 10-20 minutes searching for sounds every single time you go to write a track is inefficient and can stifle your creativity.
Save Your Own Channel Presets
When you’re nearer the end of your production, remember to save your channel settings so you can pull them up again quickly in the future. You may have spent hours on a guitar sound that you absolutely love, use this is your starting point for your next track.
Experiment With Different Starting Points
If you play an instrument, you’ll likely use that as your starting point, as it’s where you feel most comfortable and musically expressive. My preference is to begin by creating the chord progression. I discovered this by taking a number of different starting approaches. Beginning with the drum groove and bass part is also very effective as it sets the foundation for the track. Your starting point is never set in stone and you’ll most likely change some notes or the rhythm later in the production.
Whether you’re recording raw audio or producing an electronic song, your genre possibilities are vast. Being creatively liberated is great, but it can hinder your focus; it helps to begin with a goal. Get inspired by listening to your favourite music in the genre you’ll be working in. Take note of the fundamental instruments and sounds used. This will help you quickly chose awesome and appropriate sounds for your own production.
Recording Audio At Home
Hiring a pro studio with an experienced audio engineer to capture the perfect recording and vibe for your track is tried and tested approach to get an incredible sound. But, that doesn't mean that you can’t get great results at home. It’s not about the gear, it’s about you and your willingness to learn, experiment and improve. Keep in mind that each room has its own sound. If you walk around a few different rooms talking or clapping and listening to the reflections, you’ll see what I mean. Record a few dummy tracks in a number of test locations and see which one sounds best before laying down your final takes. Reflection shields and basic acoustic treatment can help you capture a more defined sound in a non-commercial recording space. It’s a worthwhile investment if you’ll be recording music often. Be sure to leave plenty of headroom when recording, you can always turn it up later.
Midi Keyboards and Controllers
Though not impossible, it’s difficult to get musical results from simply using your mouse and laptop keyboard. Midi keyboards and controllers capture the velocity and energy of your performance, giving your synths and virtual instruments a more musical feel.
Filling In The Gaps
You may find it easy to establish your initial idea, whether it’s a recorded acoustic guitar or a programmed chord progression. But, what comes next? What steps do you need to take to transform this initial idea into a finished backing track?
Once that first idea is down, you’ve got the ball is rolling. Each additional musical element you add should compliment (not compete with) what’s already in your DAW session. Instruments can compete in many ways, such as frequency, rhythm, timbre, energy, stereo width and volume. Some overlap is fine if it’s musical, but you’ll want to add elements that fill in the gaps to give your track a great balance.
You can use the table below to help you identify what instruments would compliment your arrangement. For example, let’s say you started with a piano with the frequencies focussed in the high mids, a basic rhythm, warm timbre, laid-back energy, mostly centred stereo width and a medium volume (these attributes have been highlighted in blue on the graph below). To compliment your piano you might choose to add an element that doesn't conflict with the majority of these characteristics. You might choose a bass with the frequencies focussed in the low end, a complex rhythm, dark timbre, upbeat energy, mono stereo width and medium volume (these attributes have been highlighted in green on the graph below). If you have multiple elements in your mix that are very similar in all 6 categories your music will sound cluttered.
The trick is to lay an idea down and keep moving on to the next stage. Prioritise your creativity knowing that you can always come back and fix things later. If you find you often get stuck listening to the same musical phrase on repeat without progressing it, set a timer for 20 minutes. This will give you a deadline and help you manage your time and stay focused.
Whether you’re starting with your intro, verse, chorus or drop, you’ll want to loop that section and try a number of different variations of your idea to settle on the perfect melodic and rhythmic parts. Remember to move fast. Too long spent listening to a loop can lead to losing perspective and overworking a musical idea.
Once you have a verse and a chorus loop built, the next tricky step is working out how to make them flow from one to the other. Rising sweeps, down-lifters and automation can help blend and glue the sections. Rather than using a different synth sound for each section, use the same fundamental parameters, but change the filter cutoff or ADSR (attack decay sustain release) settings. Subtly introducing upcoming elements will also make the track flow well. For example, you might introduce the chorus bass line and gradually open a filter during the build up. When the chorus drops it won't feel like a foreign musical idea.
Audio has a limited amount of headroom and will clip if over 0dB (decibels). So you have to manage the gain of your audio from the very beginning. When recording audio into your session, it’s crucial that your audio stays below 0dB otherwise it will clip. That damage is irreversible. I prefer to turn down my input volume and give myself plenty of headroom.
As you add channel after channel your overall gain will begin to increase. Keep your master channel peaking no higher than -6dB during this creative stage and you’ll have plenty of headroom later in the mix to make EQ and FX adjustments without surpassing 0dB.
If the peak level of your mix breaches the threshold of -6dB, then you need to lower the overall level to give yourself more headroom. There are a number of ways to do this. My personal favourite is to select all the channels in your session and lower them simultaneously. By keeping the faders relative to each other, you won't change the balance of your mix. Remember to keep the output and master fader at 0dB. Note that this method is only possible if you have no volume automation.
Sound Choices And Vibe
An often overlooked or rushed part of the songwriting process is how the sounds are chosen. When choosing the sounds think about the vibe you want your track to emit. For example, a pop track with a weak kick might lack the energy your listener expects from that genre. If you’re using kick samples, test a number of options in the context of your track before settling on a final choice. Listening to and adjusting synth presets is also best done in the context of the whole mix. If you select your preset listening to the channel in solo, you might find that you choose sounds that are overpowering within the arrangement.
Focus on laying down high-quality source material from the start rather than fixing difficult audio to work with your production. Choosing the perfect samples and synth patches will help push the vibe of your track in the right direction and save you time later during the mix.
Also, consider the sonic range of your kick and bass when you’re selecting or recording the sounds. It’s much more effective to cut and control low frequencies than it is to boost them. Boosting low end that isn't very powerful in the first place sounds feeble in comparison to having full range source material. Keep this in mind when you're selecting your sounds...You’ll thank yourself later.
When you’re capturing a take, be conscious that the delivery is in keeping with the vibe of the track. A powerful snare rim-shot doesn't work in every context and no amount of EQ or compression will fix that.
There is a clear consistency with the sounds used in certain genres. But the tracks that capture listeners attention are the ones that use interesting and unique sounds. If you feel stuck you might use quality presets as a starting point, but tweaking the sonics and making them your own will set you apart.
Use your plugins and virtual instruments in experimental ways to get unusual results. Try exaggerated settings for dramatic effects and work them musically into your track. You can reject dozens of unsuccessful attempts before you stumble across a lucky but incredible sounding setting.
In your personal approach to production, you’ll find that you develop systems. A series of tasks that just seem to work every time. For example, I like to EQ before I compress, and I’ll always follow a reverb with an EQ etc. These systems are there for a reason, they’re fail-safe and get your good results quickly. But every now and then it’s worth coming at the problem with a different approach to see how the results vary. Mix up your systems from time to time in a way that might even sound ludicrous. For example, you probably don't often use auto-tune on a snare. What interesting and unique sonics can that bring to a mix?
Innovation doesn't have to be confined to post-production, there have been some incredibly unique approaches to recording audio too. In Billie Jean, the ‘Don’t Think Twice’ lyric was sung through a long cardboard tube. There was no need for any post-production. When Ant Whiting was recording the kick drum on John Newman’s album, he placed an extra (well wrapped) microphone in a bucket of water to catch deep and wavy sub frequencies. The rich harmonies in Bohemian Rhapsody sound so full as the four members of Queen each sung every single layer.
Whether you sample a fish being dropped on the floor to back up your snare transient or create a synth patch from sampling yourself coughing, the weirder the better.
Performance & Delivery
Injecting emotion into music productions can be tricky in the digital domain, but it’s crucial if you want to connect with people. The electronic sounds and synths available in a DAW can only produce the sounds we program, and if we don’t program in any ‘feel’, we won’t get any out.
A live performance is often dripping with emotion. The performers are feeding off the crowds energy, and it shines through in the way they play their instruments. This is one of the reasons why live performances are often so full of emotion. The musician is also prone to making mistakes, even if they’re minor such as the drummer not playing a perfectly quantised groove. Bringing these emotional and human characteristics into the studio is a great way to make music that resonates with people.
Whether you’re recording a guitar or programming a bass, think about the energy of that performance. If you’re making a dance track, the bass should make the listener want to get up and dance. It should be uplifting, funky, and energetic. If you’re recording the guitar for a sad piece of music, then that should be reflected in the way the guitar is played. The less subtle you are with this the better. Make every performance count towards pushing an emotional agenda on your listener.
The quantise function is a great time saver when it comes to making music, but too much quantisation will suck the emotion out of your music. Humans don’t play instruments or sing perfectly in time, so they find it more difficult to connect with music that has these robotic characteristics. Once you have a midi part programmed into your DAW, you can manipulate it to achieve a well-timed and organic performance. In most DAWs you can set the percentage of quantisation, so rather making everything land perfectly on the beat, you can quantise to around 70-80% to keep things a little loose. Listen to how this sounds in the context of your entire mix and you can quantise any individual notes that are too loose to 90-100%.
The velocity of the midi notes is also very important. When a pianist plays the piano, their fingers don’t press each key with equal pressure. The fingers don't land and lift from the keys at the same time either. Add some velocity and note length variation between the notes of your chord progressions to emulate the performance of a pianist. It can make all the difference.
The statement that a musical performance has a greater emotional effect than a static performance has been scientifically proven and published in a paper titled, ‘Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience’. 29 people were analysed using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology and written examinations as they listened to two different versions of Frédéric Chopin's Etude in E major, Op.10, No. 3. One version was played expressively by a talented pianist, the other had the note length set and quantised to exactly match the original musical notation. The velocity was also set to constant throughout the performance. Below is a quote from the finding of this study.
“These results provide evidence that temporal dynamics of expressive rhythmic performance increase emotion-related neural activations, and that musically experienced listeners are more sensitive in this regard.”
Source: Chapin H, Jantzen K, Scott Kelso JA, Steinberg F, Large E (2010) Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience. PLoS ONE 5(12): e13812. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013812
When stylistically appropriate, a song with a nearly constant volume throughout can have a driving feel. This is very common in hip-hop. Most of the time, however, a dynamic variation between sections will add interest and excitement to the music. A verse that gradually builds will draw your listener in, then the crescendoing chorus satisfies them with the euphoric lift they were hoping for during the build. It’s not so simple as making the dynamic variation as large as possible to have the greatest impact. If your verse is too quiet your listener will struggle to hear the details and might get a shock if the chorus comes in surprisingly loud. What you’re looking for is an obvious but not ear-drum obliterating lift in volume from verse to chorus. Listen to your chorus at a comfortable level and jump back to the verse at the same listening volume to see if it’s loud enough to hear all of the detail.
Keeping It Interesting
Structure and arrangement play a large part in keeping the listener’s interest. But we can use a few other techniques to keep the listener engaged at all times during the song.
Each channel can have its own journey that works within the whole song. Rather than having a constant distortion setting on an electric guitar channel, you might automate the distortion to morph and change as the song progresses. Perhaps a softer overdrive during the verse that gradually builds and becomes a decimated distortion during the chorus. Or you might choose to increase the reverb size of a channel just before the chorus drops. This helps build tension as the listener can sense a change is coming. Solely using static effects across all your channels can make your production sound rigid and motionless.
The focus of your arrangement might be just a few dominant instruments, but the background elements can fill gaps in a production in an unobtrusive way if done correctly. Elements that are positioned far back in the mix can add an atmosphere encapsulating the listener without competing with the main instruments. Light rain sampled or a vinyl crackle can immediately set an emotional tone for the listener, even if they can barely hear it.
Being musical is about knowing when to play and when not to play. Less is sometimes more when it comes to melody writing. The breaks, gaps and silence let the music breathe and stops too many notes being forced into the listener’s ears. If you find your track is sounding too busy, try cutting out a few notes in the hook, or adding some silent space within the chord progression. You might find your musical ideas come across as more coherent once you’ve trimmed the fat.