"In order to compose, all you need to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of."

January 10, 2012 2:14 PM

What is your ideal tool for sketching/planning a song?

Me, I usually just wing it. I'll just sit down at the piano or my guitar or the computer and just start writing. It's a very organic process and often yields good results, but sometimes I think need more structure.

Sometimes I try to visualize the whole song from start to finish with pen and paper, kind of like this:

4/4, Medium Tempo, "Rainy Night Scene"


Drums - Dry Acoustic Brush
Lead - Jazz Guitar, slight distortion
Bass - Upright bass

Or something to that effect. I've been thinking it might be fun to come up with an even more organized, graphical way of doing this, like some kind of HTML5 webapp or something. I mean this is essentially what you can do in most DAWs from the get go, but I think it would be fun to have a lite version of that concept.

What do y'all think? If you could make the ultimate "quick and dirty" musical brainstorm tool, what would it be?
posted by Doleful Creature (11 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

What I actually use is Tapedeck on the mac. If I'm sitting around noodling on the guitar or piano and something pops out that I like, I immediately hit record and play whatever I have. I'll then keep working and recording subsequent iterations as new things develop... usually three or four, seldom more. Once I have three distinct parts and one of them sounds like a chorus, it goes into the 'make it into a song' pile. Then when I feel like making a song, I go to this pile, listen to everything in it, and pick one.

Next thing I do is pull up a DAW, usually Studio One these days but maybe Logic or Garageband, and figure out a tempo and a basic drumbeat which will work for the whole song. I loop the drumbeat for about five minutes. Then I play whatever I've got so far of the song into the DAW on piano or guitar. Then probably add a simple bassline and maybe a second part of some kind.

Then I chop it up into sections -- intro, verse, chorus, bridge etc -- and make something that looks like a plausible structure, a big loose baggy overlong one.

Intro-double verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-instrumental verse-chorus-fake ending-reprise to fade

Then I just start overdubbing stuff, basically throwing stuff at it that I can sort of hear in my head. Maybe a string part, or a funky guitar, or a melody -- really anything.

THEN I do a mixdown of this which goes in my 'singalong mix' playlist on the iPhone, the only purpose of which is to play in the truck and wail along to when I'm driving. This is where all the vocal lines and words come from, basically.

Quite often I keep a running note of all the chords and whatever lyrical ideas I might have, using Notational Velocity, also on the mac. Both Tapedeck and NV are synced to all my computers and my iPhone so whereever I am I can just sit down and start playing.

The thing that would help me most is kind of what you describe, which is a musical outlining tool which allowed you to name and move around blocks of song more easily than most DAWs do. I guess I could make a folder of all my tracks and then edit that -- that might work. But most DAWs do not make marking sections, notating chords or adding lyrics very easy, and that would actually be quite a help.

It would be nice to have something like a word processor for songwriting, which could produce a song in standard format -- chord sheet, lyrics, and melody.
posted by unSane at 3:11 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nice, unSane! I really like your workflow, it sounds pretty productive. Yeah basically I want pretty color-coded blocks I can shuffle around in a nice snappy interface which I can then output to like a basic DAW-of-choice template/project file or a PDF songsheet. That would be killer.

You know, lilypond almost does this, and it's what got me thinking about it. All that lovely structured markup that let's you output to a nicely typeset sheet of music.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:22 PM on January 10, 2012

Also, this old thread on Edward Tufte's site (with suggestion by him as well) is pretty interesting.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:36 PM on January 10, 2012

It would be nice to have something like a word processor for songwriting, which could produce a song in standard format -- chord sheet, lyrics, and melody.

Finale is awfully good for composing (input via keyboard or Midi, or probably other choices) and prints it out very nicely, but it's spendy. NotePad is cheaper, and might do everything you need. If not, it writes the same format as Finale.

I worked on Finale back around the turn of the century.
posted by DaveP at 4:08 PM on January 10, 2012

Yes, I have Finale. Probably my favorite thing about Finale is the little song building wizard at the very beginning. Finale as an overall piece of software is really clunky and terrible, though it is nice for getting down mostly correct notation. I prefer lilypond's typesetting to Finale's as well.

Ultimately I only use Finale for when I do choral/instrumental arrangements for church or stage productions. What I'm talking about here is something a little more high level...just basic building blocks of songs...again the Final song builder dialog is pretty neat for this, except that it only outputs to a Finale project and doesn't ask all the right questions. It would be nice to have something similar that ultimately outputs to a Logic Pro project file, for example.

Thinking about this is seriously making me want to see if I can reverse engineer a Logic Pro project file and build something out of that.

In the end, I suspect, pen and paper will still be king.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:19 PM on January 10, 2012

Oh, I should add that after I've sung along with my singalong mix for a week or so I usually know exactly what the structure should be and the vocal melody even if I don't have the words, and I will also have worked out a few different drum loops for the different sections. So I duplicate the song file, and re-organize it to the way I want the structure to be, chopping bits out and getting it to length. I also at this point get a rough mix going with all the parts that I don't want muted or deleted. So by now I have the final structure and I know what all the parts are going to be, so I now take a deep breath and delete EVERYTHING except the guide drums, and I start tracking it all again for real (maybe putting down a guide guitar and vocal if I need it).

The vocal and backing vocals are usually the last things to drop in on top of that.

The advantage of this way of working for me is that by the time I come to doing the final tracking I know in enormous detail where everything goes and what all the instruments should be playing, so it makes it very easy to double parts accurately and weave parts together, which seems to be the way these things go for me.
posted by unSane at 6:30 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have no idea how to write a song.

I just load up a synth that I like the sound of and start a loop in ableton with it and move notes around on the piano roll until it sounds like something. Then I keep looping it while I preview drum loops or one-hits and synths and keep adding parts.

Then I try to figure out what an arrangement would look like by arranging the clips into scenes, bringing in parts, etc...

Then figuring out which parts I actually want to keep and start working on them, maybe adding more parts, etc..

Recently I've been starting with just some kind of saw wave pad or strings and just laying in some chord changes so i have something to work against, even if I don't actually keep it in the song...

I also write everything in A-Minor so I don't need to touch the black keys :)
posted by empath at 6:09 AM on January 11, 2012

You know empath I do the same thing more often than not, though I tend to prefer D minor (only one black key!). I'm really digging unSane's "singalong playlist" idea, I think I might start doing that.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:38 AM on January 11, 2012

I don't do much song writing, but I've done a fair bit of composing\arranging in the past.

My general work flow for a big complicated piece goes something like this:
I get an idea
I do a bunch of sketches: I figured out the melody, worked out the harmony, and wrote 4 or 5 background lines.
Then I do a visual graph of what I want to happen. This is a little hard to explain, I basically take a big piece of paper, divide it into sections like "Intro" "Head" "Head1" "Solo" etc. and and draw a big red line under that represents the overall intensity of the piece the higher it is the more intense. From there I figure out and write down what I want playing, what theme I want them to play, etc. any developmental tricks I want to pull. I also do dynamic marks in blue. (Otherwise I don't see\remember to put them in the score).
From there I actually sit down at the piano, and make any small changes to the themes, and write the filler material\transitions, and put everything into Finale.

So maybe a Scrivener type utility with music notation. Color coding would be nice, either by theme or by instrument.
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:34 AM on January 16, 2012

I would pay a lot of money for a Scrivener for music.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:45 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

this is a really great question. I usually write down any lyrical ideas or snippets I can think of in a notebook. Then, when I'm sitting around playing guitar and i come across an agreeable progression, I look up phrases in the notebook to see if anything works. If it does, I make notes on a fresh page of what chords correspond to what phrases. Then I'll try and create a chorus and maybe a bridge that work with that idea, and go from there. if I'm worried I'll forget the melody or phrasing, i'll fire up the h4n and record whatever snippet i have in mind, then transfer it to the mac and give it a file name that I can find later (this is very important!)

Then, when a song is kinda "done" I'll write the whole thing out, words and chords, in a different notebook. I'll demo a quick version in Reaper, guitar and vox at the same time, and then just leave it alone for a couple days. I'll listen back and see if the tempo feels right, or if it needs adjusting... sometimes I just turn the mic on and do a bunch of takes at different paces or with different strumming patterns or what have you. Then listen a bunch of times and pick the one that feels about right, and work off that as a template..

I used to write and record at the same time, but ultimately I felt like that didn't make for the strongest material. whereas working over something a bunch of times before starting to track seems to work better for me.
posted by dubold at 2:19 PM on January 20, 2012

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