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How to Approach Songwriting Prompts (and Soundfly’s Course Prompts)

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By Joseph Capalbo

Songwriting prompts serve the function of providing direction to a songwriter or producer on what to write about. A record label might give a creative suggestion to a songwriter about an artist’s next big hit song, and what it should sound like. Or, a music supervisor might give a brief to a songwriter on the music they’re looking to use for a film or commercial sync.

These are different types of creative prompts that you might get externally. But they can also be useful internally, if you are looking for inspiration, looking to get yourself out of a nasty bout of writer’s block, or if you’re the type of writer who works productively within a strict set of guidelines in your creative process.

In this way, it’s good practice for songwriters to actively challenge themselves to respond to these various songwriting starter cues. Here’s how they typically work.

A prompt will typically supply you with the genre of music to write in, the subject matter of the lyrics, the desired tempo, qualities that may inform the functions of melody, chordstimbre, or arrangement, the overall emotion (which may correspond to the drama in a scene), and sometimes reference songs.

When responding to songwriting prompts, it’s important that you take any and all information mentioned into account when you’re writing your song. So let’s explore some helpful approaches to get you started working on your first, or next, prompt. And if you’d like to test your skills out even more, subscribe to Soundfly and get access to all of our premium online courses, inside of which, you’ll be challenged and pushed creatively!

1. Analyze the prompt.

Songwriting prompts can usually extend anywhere from a single sentence to a few paragraphs long. Being able to dissect a brief by pulling anything musical out of the language is key in accurately executing it.

I like to start by underlining any key words in the brief that will help me establish a direction in my songwriting and production. I find that doing this allows me to really dig into the emotive foundation that is being asked for, so that I can start writing effectively and quickly. We’ll get into an example of this using a sample prompt from one of Soundfly’s courses below.

2. Always write with the artist in mind.

Whenever possible, I recommend that you think through where your song will ultimately end up. What works for one artist might not necessarily work for another. The same goes for brands and agencies, filmmakers, orchestras, collaborators, different types of visual media, etc. The point is that you can’t always send the same tracks to a hundred briefs; they’ll have to be customized each time.

Here are some of the main things that you should consider while writing:

  • Key – This is important for songs with vocals where you can write in the artist’s most comfortable key to sing in, but your key will also dictate the emotive backdrop of the song in general.
  • Tempo/BPM – This one is crucial for creating a distinct vibe. Are you looking for energetic and pumping or something more wistful and contemplative?
  • Time Signature – How the music flows in time, whether it’s a straight pulse or a waltz, or something polyrhythmic.
  • Dynamics – Will your track be loud or soft, and will it feature big changes in volume or intensity, or stay relatively the same throughout? Listen for where the music might need to build and where it should drop down.
  • Harmony – Chord qualities (such as major, minor, seventh, inversions, etc.) can play a hugely important role in establishing the emotion of a song. Also look at how you want your chord progression to unfold.
  • Melody – Not only are you looking for the right pitches and octaves for your melody, but also its rhythmic and timbral properties.
  • Rhythm – Rhythm doesn’t just have to mean drums and percussion. You can analyze melodic and harmonic rhythm, too, and make use of other repetitive elements.
  • Instrumentation – This is always something to keep in mind when it comes to genre and synching to media. A song can take on a completely new identity when it’s played using electronic instruments, a chamber quartet, synths, or acoustic guitars, for example.
  • Lyrics – The subject matter is going to inform your lyrics, whether you take them as your starting point or add them in later. During your writing process, you’ll need to consider rhyme schemes and line lengths in each section as well.
  • Production – This might include stylistic elements as well as effects used.

Now that you’ve got a solid basis for approaching sample prompts, let’s apply some of the things that we went over above to a brief courtesy of one of the courses.

Soundfly’s “Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords” Week 3 Course Prompt

The following is an original prompt as it appears in Soundfly’s Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords course.

Come up with your own take on an ad for the Olympics that is appropriate for a Morgan Freeman voiceover. We’re looking for something anthemic, that has a sense of movement to it. It should be both optimistic but also convey a sense of struggle. Make it dramatic but celebratory.

Now, let’s underline the key words and phrases.

Come up with your own take on an ad for the Olympics that is appropriate for a Morgan Freeman voiceover. We’re looking for something anthemic, that has a sense of movement to it. It should be both optimistic but also convey a sense of struggle. Make it dramatic but celebratory.

Then, let’s analyze the keywords to see how we might want to approach these in our songwriting.

“Ad for the Olympics”

This might be a good time to revisit and analyze some of the advertisements from past Olympics! In the very least, start experimenting with chord progressions or melodies that sound “triumphant.”

“Appropriate for a Morgan Freeman voiceover”

Since there’s a voiceover, you’ll want to leave enough space for the talk-over spoken word without being disruptive. You can also mix knowing that a voiceover will be going over your music, so leaving room in the frequency range for the voice would be a very smart approach. (*Check out this great article on EQing human vocals of different styles and ranges for more info!)

Morgan Freeman’s voice sits somewhere inside the 100-5k Hz range but predominantly  tends to be between about 500-1k Hz. Here’s a video in which Morgan Freeman reveals the secret of his deep, calming voice. (Turns out, he just yawns a lot!)

Here’s a graphic EQ analysis of Morgan Freeman’s voice.

“Anthemic”

To me, something anthemic in songwriting is a melody that is memorable — something simple, repetitive, and catchy. On the production side, anthemic usually means big sounds. Something that pops into your listener’s ears. Go through your DAW’s sounds to see what works best for big lead melodies and big drums, such as taikos or toms.

“Has a sense of movement”

You can do this by adding in instrumentation as your song progresses. Another way to create movement is to speed up your melodic or harmonic rhythms and tempos as the song progresses.

“Both optimistic but also convey a sense of struggle”

Remember that major scale melodies will generally reflect optimism and minor scale melodies will have a darker, sadder tone. The clash between the two, commonly found in blues music, might help give you a musical sense of struggle.

“Dramatic but celebratory”

Let’s face it, drama is needed on film and we need to support that in our music. Celebratory sentiments can come in the form of a faster tempo or by using more optimistic chords in your progression. Ultimately shoot for resolution and reaffirming the tonic at key moments.

Challenging yourself with real-life creative prompts is a great way to improve your songwriting abilities and get your workflow operating quickly and at a high quality. Soundfly’s courses can help. Whether you’d like to hit subscribe and sign up to go through our courses on your own, or dive deeper with personalized feedback and accountability from a mentor, the options for improving your music are endless.

Tell us what you’re working on, and we’ll find the right mentor for you! 

Joseph Capalbo, Mainstage Mentor for Songwriting

Joseph Capalbo is a songwriter and producer whose work has been played on major networks all over the world, including NBC, ABC, MTV, E!, Oxygen, NHL, Hallmark Channel, global non-profit organizations, and more. He recently wrote the theme song for E!’s new docu-series, Reunion Road Trip. He’s one of the primary mentors for our Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords course.

Joseph Capalbo is a Soundfly Mentor. Click here to work with him to achieve your next musical goal.

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