I don’t know how to transcribe music into musical notation. Few people do. I wouldn’t have the patience. There are computer programs that will do it for you, but I find that to be so cumbersome. I usually write my ideas on paper by laying out the basic structure of the song I want to compose, consisting of the chords I intend to use and the skeletal components of the song. And sometimes I just come up with a riff and record a video of myself on my iPhone, just to keep a record of it. If I really like it, I might post it to Facebook in order to gauge people’s reaction to it.
The next step is to try to arrange it into a song. I don’t play drums very well and the drummer I typically work with lives three hours away so I usually rely on canned drum tracks to support my embryonic song. I suppose a good drum machine would help me but there is so only much gear I can afford to buy, considering I also have to support the video side of my venture, which as you might imagine, is not the most inexpensive of endeavors I could undertake. The DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or recording software I use, fortunately has quite a lot of them to choose from. Most of them do natively and many offer additional plug-ins that you can download for a small fee. The funny thing is, the drum track will often force you to involuntarily change your song slightly, just to match the tempo and rhythm of the drum track. That is not always such a bad thing – it corrects little errors in timing for you.
I consider that the essential initial step. The following tracks (or layers) are up to you and how you work best musically. Personally, I prefer to start the next step with the rhythm guitar and build up around that. Being a fan and specialist (a guitar teacher told me that once) in acoustic guitar, almost all of my songs contain quite a lot of acoustic guitar. It’s an instrument I really love to hear being played and that I love to play. I am very strongly drawn to the acoustic guitar. If one of my songs doesn’t contain an acoustic track, there is almost a 100% chance it was written on the acoustic so the song will sound very much like an acoustic guitar is included in the song, even if one is not. The subset of the rhythm track is the intro, which I sometimes include as part of the rhythm track and sometimes record as a separate layer. It just depends on the song and how the intro fits with the rest of it.
I then normally follow that with a bass guitar track. I am a pretty good bass player and usually have quite a lot of good ideas when it comes to accompanying a rhythm guitar with my bass. In my band, I play bass for at least three quarters of our set-list. Some guitarist would see that as some sort of demotion. Not me, I love playing bass. Drums, rhythm guitar, and bass are the foundation of the song – the rest is just filler.
While laying these tracks down, you just have to be mindful of all the elements of your song and how you want them arranged. It’s best to play it the way you want it ahead of time because if you rely on cutting and pasting, you will spend twice as much time as just playing right the first time and you will be faced with a lot more frustration than you realize.
My typical arrangement would be an intro, a couple of verses, a pre-chorus, a chorus, one or two more verses, another pre-chorus and chorus, possibly a bridge, then a guitar solo, repeat the chorus (or repeat the first or second verse, then the chorus), and then some sort of outro. It’s fairly basic stuff and a formula that has worked very well since the early days of rock and roll. Even harkening back to the days of Delta Blues, you can hear this type of arrangement, or something similar.
Just bear in mind that this the demo phase and you are just laying down your tracks as a creative and iterative process. When you play it back to your close friends, bandmates, or other musical partners, changes will likely end up being made before you record the final version of the song. For me, nothing beats the experience of recording the final product in a professional recording studio. It’s a fantastic experience. Part of the reason that I go to so much bother in creating the “perfect” demo is that studio time is wicked expensive and goes by phenomenally fast. Kind of like sitting in the back of a taxi cab, in heavy traffic.
Songwriting is one of my favorite aspects of being a musician and I consider great fun. As always, if you have any comments, critiques, and criticisms, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a message if you have any reaction to this or any other of my articles.
Below is the link to a video I made showing my creative process in creating a demo. Have fun as you learn, practice, and do.