Sometimes the best way to learn is through practical example. Reading the articles on this blog has probably given you a few ideas to help you write songs, but I think what would be more useful is to take you through the end-to-end writing process. So today’s article will be the writing of “Sparks”.
The lyric sheet is available here.
Sparks started as an instrumental idea rooted in the song Tenerife Sea by Ed Sheeran. I really liked the guitar arrangement of Tenerife Sea so at the time I thought it would be fun to learn how to play it. The song is played in EADEBE tuning, which for lack of a better term I call “Triple E” tuning. After a short session of playing the opening phrases to Tenerife Sea, I played around with my guitar while it was in the same tuning.
Tuning your guitar differently is a great way of opening up new musical possibilities. Despite the delicate, tentative nature of the guitar parts in Tenerife Sea, Triple E tuning can be quite dark. The Em chord (022000) in this tuning has to be one of the most ominous sounding chords you can play on the guitar. I played around with different ‘classic’ chord shapes and found Em7, Cadd9, Dsus4, A7sus4 quite pleasing. So I created a straight arpeggio based on those chords and then used some hammer-ons and pull-offs to make it more organic. It is this finger picking part that became the main guitar part in the verses of the song.
When I come up with a cool instrumental idea, I usually create a skeleton of a song right away so that I can flush out the musical ideas and structure more fully. Using some light drums, I created the skeleton and then overlaid the guitar parts for the verses. I needed guitar parts for the chorus and since the verses consisted of finger picking, it made sense to use strumming.
Now that I had the instrumental, I composed a topline using the piano. Composing a topline (IMHO) is relatively easy. Composing a topline that is interesting and relatively unique is hard. I wrote a lot of garbage / generic toplines but eventually I came up with one that I thought was interesting and emotive enough to keep.
Why did I compose the topline melody first? The guitar part for the verses felt very deep and dark, so I had to ensure that the melody resonated with that vibe. In this case, it made more sense to compose the melody first so that I can be certain that all the musical elements are conveying the same emotional message.
With the instrumental + topline ready to go, I put a copy on my iPhone and then temporarily shelved the project. I call this “letting it bake”. I will listen to the instrumental periodically, either on the go or at home when in the mood, just to get a deeper feel for the song, allowing it to bake into my subconscious. I find this helps generate more interesting ideas when I finally sit down to write the lyrics.
A few weeks later I decided to have a go at composing the lyrics. I played the tracks a few times and what popped into my head was a personal experience from about 10 years ago that fit the instrumental perfectly.
In part 2, I’ll go over that story and how the lyrics came about.