There are so many tools out there for music making, I thought I’d put together a list of my own favourite songwriting tools that I regularly use that are either completely free or very cheap. Here goes…
The old pad and pen
For me, nothing comes close in songwriting sessions that match the efficiency of quickly jotting notes and scribbling down ideas with a pad and pen. Perhaps it’s the tactile and visual learning styles that I gravitate towards, or the throwback to reading every inch of all of Pearl Jam’s album sleeves as a teenager and loving the aesthetic that the hand written lyrics provided.
Sure, I have had plenty of writing sessions where a word processor on a computer has done a great job but I’ve found, in longer sessions especially, once that delete button has been pressed on that prechorus lyric that you thought was no good at the time, and the session progresses half an hour, there is no going back to that lyrical gold that you prematurely erased half an hour ago. At least there is more longevity in the handwritten notes in your pad.
Mobile phone voice recorder
So I’ve gone and spent 10’s of thousands of dollars on recording gear, preamps and microphones and you’re telling me that all I needed was an iPhone voice recorder?! Well, yeah. For song writing purposes, absolutely!
This is a fantastic tool and one of the fastest ways to get the ideas out of your head into a recorded format, so you can come back to it later and not take up valuable brain real estate. Everyone has one of these in their pocket and is a great tool to get your ideas down - BEFORE YOU FORGET THEM!
These recordings aren’t being critiqued by record labels and you and your writing teams will probably be the only ones that ever hear them, so there is absolutely no need to have hi fidelity recordings of initial ideas. Spend the time saved working on more ideas to keep the session moving, not setting up and getting lost in the physicality of hi fidelity recording.
Red hot tip. Always take your phone with you into the bathroom when you shower. It’s astounding the amount of songwriting ideas that come to you in there and trust me, you want to remember them. My phone is full of lyric ideas, riffs, bass lines and drum beats that i’ve sung into my phone when the inspiration hits - in the shower - that have gone on to become integral parts of songs, if not full songs. Dunno what it is, but I guarantee you, I’m not the only weirdo that does this.
Use the cheapest instrument you have when writing the skeleton of the song - YOUR VOICE
Some songwriters can really get bogged down when writing by noodling on their guitar trying to come up with new riffs or chord progressions, especially in the early stages of the writing process. This can be a major distraction away from what you are really there to do. To me, especially in pop based streams, it’s all about the lyric, the melody and the hooks, so the main focus should be on these elements right from the start. This is often called ‘topline first’ songwriting and I find it really opens up creativity as there are no harmonic or rhythmic boundaries that a melody has to fit inside of.
You can make a lot of different timbres with your voice and you can do a lot with it melodically and rhythmically. Some of the greats did this so well. Michael Jackson would often sing all of the parts that instruments would eventually play, plus harmonies, plus rhythmic elements - Google his ‘Beat It’ demo.
This isn’t for everybody, but it might be something new for songwriters to open up some new creative avenues, and I urge songwriters to try this technique. If nothing else, it won’t cost you anything!
Talk to your co-writers
Simple conversation is one of the most vital parts for co-writing sessions that I work on. I need to understand where the artist is coming from, understand the story and put myself in the shoes or eyes of the person in the story. As we talk, I am constantly writing down key words and phrases that my co-writer is saying, or anything that I am thinking at the time (with my old mate, the pad and pen), often writing page upon page of potential lines and themes. This info then becomes a pool of information that we can draw from at any time during the session. And again, it is absolutely free!
The conversation also helps to create a much more relaxed environment in the studio as you create rapport with your co-writer/s. Get to know each other and brainstorm ideas of what you are going to write about. Sometimes, it’s the very personal elements to a person that create the greatest connection with their audience and most people will only reveal that side of themselves with people they trust, so be respectful, put the kettle on and have a good ol’ (free) chat!
Collaboration is one of the most enjoyable parts of the creative process for me. Having someone to share those sparks of creativity and those magic moments when everything seemingly falls into place makes it so much more enjoyable. I find it also helps to speed the process up quite a bit as I spend less time in logic world wondering if something is good or not and more time in creative world. It also means that you have multiple heads working together and the back and forth can produce results that you may not have reached had you done it yourself. The instant validation of feedback and having someone to bounce ideas off is an attribute I really love in a session.
The best part is, the collaboration doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything, other than your time. Work with your mates and mates of mates and people inside your musical community, and those better than you, and those you aspire to work with. For the cost of a coffee or two - or a couple of tins :), a collaborative session can reap many rewards.
So there you have it. 5 free, or close to free, songwriting tools that I use that may help you in your next songwriting session. Let me know what you think.