If you’ve got a short, catchy hook, here’s what you can do to find the rest of the song.
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Most songwriters have a large collection of song snippets stored away — ideas that sound good but that never developed into songs. Most of the time these ideas are “hooky” in the sense that they’re short and catchy. But writing a song with a hook as your sole fragment is like trying to decorate a living room by using a beautiful vase as your starting point: it’s a nice vase, but what do you do next? If you’ve created a catchy little riff, but you get stumped when you try to think of ways to expand it into a full song, here are some ideas.
Creating a complete song from a short musical fragment starts by identifying where you think the fragment belongs. Most of the time, ideas that pop into our minds will be either intro ideas or chorus ideas.
If you find yourself repeating a 2- or 3-chord pattern with a particular feel or rhythm, you’ve likely got the makings of a song intro. If you find that the fragment has a melodic shape that you find appealing, you’ve possibly got a hook that can serve as the main component of a chorus.
So figuring out where your musical idea belongs is going to be an important first step. Let’s take a look at each possible scenario and see what we can do to expand your idea into a full song.
Intro Ideas. An intro has the main task of setting the song’s mood. And so that 2- or 3-chord pattern you came up with was likely appealing to you because it established a mood. But you can use an intro to do more than that. To develop it into a full song, try the following:
- Chord progressions: Allow the 2 or 3 chords of your fragment to serve as at least the beginning of a verse. Two chords moving back and forth will usually establish one of them as sounding like the tonic – the chord representing the key. So try developing another progression that uses that tonic chord either as a starting point or ending point. That will give you a full verse progression. Now develop a 3rd progression, one that ends solidly on the tonic chord. Don’t feel you need to use a lot of chords here. Many good songs use 4 or 5 chords, and there’s no need to complicate the process with too many chords. As you develop your chords, it’s time to turn your attention to creating melodies…
- Verse and chorus melodies/lyrics: Keep in mind that verse melodies often sit lower in pitch than chorus melodies. Also, chorus melodies tend to be simpler, comprised of longer notes than verse melodies. Many songwriters find it easier to start with the chorus melody, creating something that’s got a good hook. See what you can do to relate the rhythms of the chorus to the rhythms of your intro. In other words, use the intro as a kind of “seed” from which other ideas develop.
- Gluing it all together. You can use your intro as a kind of glue that you return to at the end of a chorus. Many pop songs do this, with “Somebody That I Used To Know” as being a great current example.
Chorus hook ideas. If your song snippet feels like a chorus hook, it will be because it’s short and has a catchy melodic shape along with chords and rhythm. So try the following.
- See if it work’s as a song intro. You’d be surprised how well a catchy chorus hook can work as a song intro. Just because it’s catchy doesn’t mean it actually belongs in the chorus. As a good example, listen to Linkin Park’s “Numb”, which has a song intro that could have worked as a chorus, but they found an even better chorus.
- Complete the chorus melody. If your idea is a short one, you’d be amazed how much mileage you can get by simply repeating the idea. Also, try singing the idea while changing the chords underneath. Many song choruses are simple ideas that get repeated over and over while the chords change. Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” (start listening at 1’26″) does this to a degree.
- Develop a verse melody. Try using rhythmic and melodic ideas from your chorus melody, but create them to be lower in pitch. Then it’s a simple matter of connecting verse to chorus.
Most of the time, once you get started creating anything, the floodgates will open, and the rest of the song happens quickly. But don’t be surprised or disappointed if your completed song takes days, weeks, or even months to happen. Just because something takes a while doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.
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