We don’t need much other than an instrument and our desire to make music during the writing process, but we do need some things. What you have in the room with you while you write can absolutely have a big impact on the music you end up creating. Some of the items on this list might seem obvious, but their importance and benefit to your writing process really can’t be overstated. Nothing on this list should be too hard to get your hands on, and if you make sure to have these items out and ready when you write, your musical life will be a lot easier and more productive.
Pencil and paper
Note that the preferred writing tool is a pencil, not a pen. You’ll need to erase and rewrite things. You can also write down chord progressions and lyrics on your laptop, though that’s a major distraction to avoid because of social media notifications and emails. When you write and think you can remember what you’re doing later, this isn’t typically the case. Whether it’s an interesting riff between sections or a lyrical idea you liked, these ideas tend to slip through our fingers. This is why you need to document your ideas as you create them. It’s so easy to do but also so easy to forget to do.
Recording device or DAW
If you like something you’re working on, you need to record it immediately. Doing this not only helps you remember what you were working on so you can develop it later, but it also helps capture the emotional and creative urgency of the moment. This urgency is critical for transforming a vague idea into a song you truly love, so this is vital. Some writers like to start recording and producing their ideas straight into their DAWs right from the beginning. There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you’re not posting selfies on social media instead of writing. Either way you go about it, make sure to record the ideas you intend to develop into songs or even just fragments of ideas you like.
Is having a metronome handy while you write essential? No, definitely not. But it’s a nice tool to have. If you’re working on a beat or synth line for example, playing to the steady click of the metronome will help shape and solidify the idea. We often create and practice our ideas thinking we’ve got them down only to find we’re shaky when it comes time to record. Getting the metronome involved from the start will keep you from having to learn and master your ideas later.
Virtually everyone reading this writes songs using a main instrument like a guitar or piano or by experimenting with a sound library within a DAW. However, I think you should have two or more instruments in the room with you when you write. When you have multiple instrumental options to choose from, you can pick and choose different ways to approach your songs that work best. Often we start on one instrument and push forward without realizing an idea might be presented a better way on another instrument. Early on in the process, try your ideas out on multiple instruments to see which direction you like best.
Things that are comforting or inspiring
This is another item on the list that’s not essential, but it’s definitely helpful. Whether it’s your favorite painting or your favorite chair, add things that are inspiring and comforting to the room you write in. Doing this is a luxury, but it will help you feel more focused and at home with your process. Taking a little extra time and money to bring inspiration and comfort to your space will make it a place you’ll want to write and spend time in.
Writing music can be really, really hard. This is why it’s so important to focus on the things we can control in the writing process, like what’s in the room when we create music. The good habits you embrace in your career now will help you be productive and engaged well into the future.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.