How To Solve A Very Common Songwriting Problem

by Ryan Mueller


I was recently talking to a friend who was asked me a very common songwriting question which you’ve probably heard many times before, and have likely asked yourself if you’re a songwriter. I’d like to share with you the answer I gave him, so that it can help you overcome this roadblock and as a result help you write songs much faster.

The question he asked me was “I wrote this cool part of a song, but I can’t figure out what to do with it and I’m stuck! Can you help me?”

Before we get into what you can do to solve this problem, let’s first look at how it came about in the first place so you can (for the most part) avoid it in the future. You likely ran into this problem because you were taking the skills you have and trying to string them together to create your own music without any context to the rest of the song. It’s like you’re wandering through a dark, spooky cave without a torch, trying to find the treasure while avoiding the evil monsters trying to hunt you down – in other words, you’re fighting a losing battle.

One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to set yourself up for success by using what’s called precompositional thought. This is where you plan the layout of your song before writing any of the actual music. You can go in as much detail as you feel is necessary (it might not be the same level of detail every time) and the result is that you’ll now have a solid plan which specific goals that will guide you to write pieces of music that are congruent with each other (and you can always change this plan later if needed).

With that in mind, there will still be moments where inspiration strikes and you come up with a great new idea out of the blue. In this case, what do you do with it? Well, most teachers will tell you to let the idea sit and come back to it later, and while I am a firm believer that great music takes time to write and shouldn’t be rushed, sometimes you don’t have time on your side. Maybe you’re in a band with a record deal and have to release your next album by a certain date, or are writing music for a play, your church, or any special occasion where a deadline is involved.

The first thing I would do is check the other songs I’m writing and see if I can alter their structure or plan to fit the new part. If you do that and can find a way to make it work, then great! If not, then create a new song layout with this new part already in mind.

Find a way to record or program this new idea into your computer, phone, tape recorder (if you’re old school), etc. Then, listen to it repeatedly and ask yourself “Do I hear this as a song beginning, an ending, or somewhere in the middle?” - you might end up thinking “yeah this is definitely the beginning/end, or at least REALLY close to it,” but if you’re still not sure, here are some more questions that will help you figure this out, as well as what to consider next:

Beginning:

  • Is this just an intro, or is part of this going to become a significant theme throughout the song?
  • From here, will I transition to a completely new part, or will I build and expand upon this?
  • Can I take a significant element from this part and have it spill over into the next section, even if the next section is almost completely different?
  • What are the other instruments doing, and how can I expand on them individually as the song progresses?

Middle:

  • Is it directly in the middle? Is it in the first half, leading out of the beginning? In the second half, towards the end?
  • Is it building towards the climax, or breaking down from it? How can I use this answer to help me write the climax?
  • How do I want to lead into this? Should I break down the elements into something more minimal and build into it, or should I transition from a completely different part altogether? How can I use this information to help me figure out what comes next?
  • How could I modify its core structure to build or lower its intensity?
  • How will this serve the end of my song?

End:

  • What do I imagine leading into this part?
  • If this is fast and energetic, do I want something slow to build into it? What about vise versa?
  • Do I want to blindside my listener by ending the song in a completely different fashion than it started, or do I want to tie the loose ends together?
  • Can I take elements of the beginning, climax or other parts of the song and present them here in a new way that creates closure?

There are other things you can consider – genre, music theory, dynamics, etc. These questions (and others you come up with yourself) will do more than help you solve this issue of having a standalone riff with no song; they’ll also help you see the big picture as well as the small details and give you multiple ways to approach your songwriting in general, so that you can write creative and unique songs very quickly.

About the Author:
Ryan Mueller gives guitar lessons in Etobicoke that regularly help musicians feel fulfilled by improving their guitar playing and writing their own original music.