A songwriters blog

Added on Sunday 11 Jan 2009

Millie McTernan emailed me after listening to my CD to say that - as a songwriter herself - she is interested in hearing about the process other songwriters go through - and suggested I should write a songwriting blog.

Hmm - this might - or might not - turn out to be that blog. For now though, I'll give it a go.

Thinking about the last song (a very very simple song based on a fairly traditional chord progression) - this is how I remember it evolving:

Writing a song: the first thirteen steps

1. Picked up the guitar and played - with no intention of writing anything - just messin'; at some point an interesting rhythm and feel caught my ear.

2. I developed a basic chord progression that seemed consistent with the style of the rhythm.

3. I played through the chords absent-mindedly - over and over again. When my brain decided to spit out a line of nonsense lyrics, I scribbled them down. I'm not trying to make any sense of anything or trying to write a song about anything in particular - just waiting to see what comes out - with little sense that I'm in control of the process.

If I was being airy fairy I'd say I'm trying to open the door to my sub-conscious mind - in the hope that it does the work or writing this song for me. Or perhaps it's that classic idea that I've heard other songwriters mention; trying to capture as song that already exists out there - and just transcribing it.

4. I forgot about those first lyrics (I usually lose them) - and repeated step three for a few days - scribbling down different lines.

5. Kept banging away at the chords until I seemed to be singing the same couple of lines - lines that somehow feel good in my mouth - and reflect the feel of the chords and rhythm. Wondered what the song was about - I didn't know at this point.

6. Came up with a few more lines that seem to follow on from those I have. Looked at them - still didn't know what it's about.

7. Let my wife Pat hear my idea for a new song. She asks me 'what is it about?'; this helps me focus more on the subject matter of the song. I often use Pat as a sounding board for new song ideas.

8. Pat - being a 'let's get it done' kind of a person encourages me to do more work on it - and we start to work on the lyrics together.

9. At this point in every song I have ever written I go through a period of 'is this a crap song or a good song, is this song worth writing, does it have any magic in it, should I stop wasting time on it right now.' I go through a period of liking it, not liking it, thinking it's crap, thinking It's got potential, thinking I don't like the words, thinking there are some words I do like and so on ad-infinitum. I also think - 'would I sing this song live and would I record it - is it in a style that is consistent with who I am - is it in a style I'm comfortable playing and putting my name to.

10 At this point - many songs hit the skids and I don't take them any further - say 1 in 10 or more - don't get past this stage. As we are talking about the last song written - clearly this one got beyond stage 9.

11. Play it over and over again - getting a clearer sense of the song - and changing the words accordingly. Also changing the words so that it feels nice to sing, has words that I'm happy to have written (or co-written as Pat is now helping with words for this particular song) - and are stylistically consistent throughout the song.

12 While this a going on I was developing the chords and the melody. I never think about developing a melody; the melody is just whatever I sing; it's formed by the words, the style of the song; the chord structure; my likes and dislikes; my singing style. None of this is done consciously - the melody just develops as the song is written. The chords usually arrive - as I develop the idea of what type of song this is - and what chord progression is consistent with this type of song.

My 30 years of playing my guitar and writing songs - probably comes in to play here. The building of tension, releasing tension idea, that is part of blues music (which I listened to and played a lot when I was younger) probably plays a part in helping develop the chords. So does a knowledge of chords that go together in a particular key; which from my point of view is drawn from experience not from any technical knowledge or musical study.

13 I know that forever more there will be lyrics in this song (and every song I've ever written) that I will never be completely happy with, and bits of the music that I'll never be happy with. But - there comes a point when I'm no longer writing the song, no longer changing the lyrics and no longer developing the chords. The creative tension that led to writing the song has dissipated; the song has been written; it's finished.

The song this blog describes is not at this point yet - it's still being written - though it's nearly finished; most of the words are written and all the melody and chords are done. I'll post a rough demo of it when it's finished; after what I've written above I'm sure it will be an anti-climax to hear this particular song - as I said it's the simplest of songs; and quite light in tone and subject.

All the best,

Click this link to download two free tracks plus a unique ringtone

Songwriting blog archive

» Click here to get two free tracks and a free ringtone.

Enter your name & email
address and get your free
copy of Down by the Wildwood

You will be added Jim's acoustic music adventures mailing list.

What the critics said about 'Every day is sunshine' by Jim Byrne.

  • "a heady and exotic mix. " Q Magazine.
  • "..full of cinematic turns of phrase, dressed up in alluring melodies delivered by some of the most respected players on the modern-day Celtic Folk scene." UNCUT
  • Album of the week on Celtic Music Radio
  • Added to 'God's Jukebox' on Radio Two Mark Lamarr show
  • "A beautifully produced collection of Americana" The Daily Record. Four Stars
  • "Great record... a complete, compelling listen. ", Adam Levy (Songwriter/artist, guitarist with Nora Jones)
  • "ten beautiful, atmospheric songs..", Folk, Blues and beyond
  • "a fresh, original album", Eilidh Patterson (singer songwriter, vocalist with Beth Nielsen Chapman)
  • Sounding like Johnny Cash never left Folsom prison...meditations on life that'll soon sound like old friends. Spiral Earth

Buy from iTunes today