What Makes a Great Songwriting Workflow

March 2, 2020

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Will Marshall and originally appeared on Flypaper, the Soundfly Blog.]

Every successful writer/artist has their own unique approach or approaches to workflow. While there isn’t a single right way to tackle your own workflow, the goal should be to have a consistent process that helps you finish songs in a way you’re happy with, without tearing your hair out.

What is “Workflow?”

Workflow, fundamentally, is about:

  1. What things you do, and
  2. The order you do them in.

Your workflow is the overarching structure of your compositional process, a framework to support time management, and a way of building confidence in your process. It helps you break your songwriting into smaller tasks, prioritize these tasks, and focus on each one in turn.

So what does a good workflow look like?

It’s focused. Bigger goals are broken up into smaller tasks, allowing us to focus on one thing at a time. For example, a task like “Come up with three ideas for a verse melody” is concrete, defined in scope, and can be achieved relatively easily.

It’s structured. You know what you’re working on at any given time. Songwriting is such a complicated, multi-dimensional process that it’s easy to get lost or waste time doing lots of work without achieving much.

It’s well-ordered. Some tasks need to be completed before other tasks. It’s a good rule-of-thumb to start with the big-picture tasks, and slowly work your way down to the finer details, so you don’t do things like waste time on an amazing pad sound you end up throwing out.

One great example of an effective workflow is film composers. Film composers often start by simply sketching out initial themes or moods using a single instrument. Then, they might record a demo using fairly basic orchestral sounds to get feedback from the director. Only once things are finalized will they book an orchestra and record the thing with live performers because it would be a costly fiasco if they jumped right to the recording or mixing stage without getting sign-off on the ideas first.

The Importance of Sketching

We can’t overstate the importance of developing a workflow that allows for sketching, or experimentation, to find and develop interesting ideas for your songs. Another way to put it is keeping things flexible at the start.

A good analogy is painting. Painting is a time-consuming process, but sketching with pencil or charcoal is quick and easy to change. That’s why painters typically spend a long time sketching out different ideas before putting any paint on the canvas.

Similarly, when working out a part, it’s not uncommon to test out several different ideas and play with variations on those ideas until you find the right one. If you’re working with simple and limited tools — a piano + paper, voice + guitar, DAW + stock sounds — this is pretty straightforward. These allow you to try a bunch of ideas quickly, keeping the good ones, and discarding everything else. Once you start committing to details, you lose flexibility.

A great example of sketching in action might be how you approach drums in a track. You can spend hours on a carefully detailed and mixed drum part early on, but then you’re unlikely to want to change it later even if it turns out to be wrong for the song. Instead, if you use a MIDI-driven sampler or stock sound, you can get the general vibe you’re going for and move on to the next part — coming back to replace the drums later when you have the whole piece fleshed out.

Capturing Your Ideas

In those early stages of your workflow, you might want to make sure you have some ways to capture your core ideas quickly. There are a bunch of common approaches songwriters and composers use, including:

  • Voice Memos or Recorders
  • Loop Pedals
  • Chord charts
  • Lyric sheets
  • Lead sheets
  • Sheet music
  • Guitar TAB
  • Graphic Score
  • MIDI
  • Demos

We’re not going to teach you how to write out full notation in this course, but it’s worth knowing some of the options. The biggest advantage of working with paper and pen or a quick and dirty recording is that you can keep track of musical ideas without having to program them in your DAW. This keeps ideas more fluid before your commit to them.

Let’s break down these ideas a little further.

Voice Memos & Loop Pedals

Michael Jackson famously wrote many of his songs by singing the different parts to his songs one by one to the various players he was working with. You certainly don’t have to sing your parts, but getting a quick recording of an idea on your phone or a recorder can be a great way to capture your initial ideas before bringing them to the DAW.

Once again, we’re big fans of exploring and sketching ideas before you open your computer, whenever possible.

Chord Charts

Chord charts are quick, simplified diagrams of the chords in a song, which can be quickly written by hand. They’re a handy way of keeping track of the chords in your song, particularly when you’re writing progressions on a piano or guitar.

The symbol marked by the orange arrow is a repeat sign, indicating that the progression is to be repeated.

They don’t offer much detail, but as a quick way to notate things, they’re very handy. They’re also the default notation for most bands since they quickly communicate most of what a band needs to play.

Lyric Sheets

Lyric sheets are basically just chord charts written over lyrics. These are incredibly useful since you can quickly match the lyrics and the chords, and can easily learn the structure of a song.

The lyrics and chords are a great combo together, but there’s no real indication of how the song sounds in time. That’s where more complete notation has an advantage.

Sheet Music & Lead Sheets

Sheet music is the “standard” form of notation — ubiquitous in classical music, but not widely used in popular production flows. It’s extremely detailed and can convey parts very precisely, but is slow to write, requiring special software or extensive practice to write by hand.

Lead sheets are a combination of sheet music, chord charts, and lyrics — a hybrid of all the notation we’ve looked at so far. They’re commonly used in jazz fake books and are a super convenient way to communicate the structure, lyrics, harmony, and melody of a track. The melody is written as a single line of sheet music with the chord symbols above and the lyrics below.

This format is fairly easy to write, extremely easy to read and communicates most of the important elements of a song. Even if you don’t invest much time in sheet music, learning enough to read a top line will be super useful!

Demo Production / MIDI

Most producers like us are probably pretty used to turning to the DAW right away to capture your ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t get lost in its technical possibilities. Recording a demo, or rough version of a song in your DAW, with programmed MIDI and quick instrumental recordings, is a great way to get an idea of your song without having to invest time in production.

Whether you lean on MIDI or simply record everything in, a demo recording is a quick & dirty recording of an instrumental or vocal part, basically as a placeholder — without any particular attention given to the performance or recording quality.

You’d be amazed at how many demos you can find online!

In Summary

Getting into the habit of working on ideas with pen and paper can make it much easier to spend more time in in the conceptual stage of writing. 

Even these different forms of notation are more or less fluid than each other: chord charts are almost disposable, whereas a full jazz lead sheet only makes sense for a finished piece. Moving slowly from the simpler, easier forms of notation towards a full recording helps you slowly solidify a song while keeping things fluid as long as possible.

What form of notation do you think works best for you?

Will Marshall is a singer, composer, producer, pianist, synthesist, engineer and educator. Will has engineered for artists such as Oscar-nominated film composer Nicholas Britell, Grammy-nominated jazz musician Patrick Gleeson, R&B singer Vudajé, experimental composer Augur Duende, and electronic acts Ill Gates, Freq Nasty and the Fungineers.

Tags: chord charts demo production notation songwriting theory