Hi everyone! Guess what? I have exciting news! I’m almost done with my first original song! I haven’t been posting very often because I’ve been working on a big project: writing and recording my own song. It’s been taking up a lot of my time, so I haven’t been able to catch everyone up on how it’s been going. That’s why today, I’m going to walk you through what I’ve done since the very beginning.
At the beginning of the 2015 spring cycle at Sunset Media Wave, I’d already planned to start writing my own music instead of only sticking to singing and posting covers. I could do a balance between the two. However, in the process of recording a new cover, the recording/editing was taking up more time than I’d anticipated, which wasn’t what I wanted. I thought, “If I keep this up, I’m just going to get sucked into making covers again and not have any time to even start on writing my own music.”
Based on this realization, I put away the cover-making and decided to put all my time and effort strictly into my first original piece.
Before coming to Sunset Media Wave, I’d written little fragments of music and done some composing, but never seriously. I found myself lost about where and how to begin.
I decided to sit in front of a blank piece of paper, pencil in hand, and just let my brain wander for a while, scribbling down anything that came to mind. My starting point for the theme of this song was for it to be more of a thankful, cheerful, and friendship-oriented vibe, as opposed to a song about love. I thought of one of my best friends and all the things she’s done for me. Anything else that came up as I thought of her, I put down onto the paper. Sometimes it was in words, sometimes it was in an awkward-looking drawing that only I would probably be able to decipher, and sometimes I would get sidetracked and wrote about something completely irrelevant. Two hours later, I hadn’t moved, but I was no longer staring at a blank piece of paper — it was now completely consumed by lead and my chicken scratch!
Alright, so I was done with the first step. The doodling got kind of personal, which was surprising to me. I had a big collection of general ideas I might want to put into my song. To narrow things down, I picked a couple of phrases and pictures from the paper — since a lot of it was irrelevant, but could be used in a future song — and got to work. Jotting my ideas down on paper for a first draft seemed like the classic way to go. As a starting point, I settled on making the two verses inspired by a couple of interesting sleepover experiences with my friend, so they would be attention-grabbing, fun, and somewhat relatable to the listeners. The pre-chorus and chorus would be based off my feelings toward our relationship and how I wouldn’t be lonely anymore because of her. I spent a lot of time tinkering around with the pre-chorus and chorus a lot because no matter how hard I tried, it seemed as if the words just wouldn’t fit well with each other or the rhythm I was going for. Hours later, my recycling bin had gone from zero to 100 real quick!
During the songwriting process, I felt the need to remind myself several times that composing music and writing lyrics isn’t a one-day kind of thing. I was always impatient about finishing the song because, I mean, what’s so hard about writing some words that rhyme and coming up with a tune? Well, considering the fact that I’m just finally writing this post after an entire cycle of working on it, that’s exactly what was so hard.
For the bridge, I made notes to make sure that in the end product, I would include a slower part of the song, with minimal music in the background. While working on the bridge, I’d already decided on steering the song towards a happier, more upbeat direction. I wanted it to be a song that could make people smile. Once I finished the general layout of how I wanted the song and the lyrics to go with it, the following weeks would immediately be dedicated to playing around with the words, making sure they rhymed where I wanted them to and suited whatever beat I had in mind, meanwhile coming up with a melody for the song. This was the third step of my song-creating process, right after the first two — the brainstorm and the general lyric-writing. This was also probably the most time-consuming step.
“How am I supposed to come up with a completely original melody?” was my biggest question. I don’t consider myself the most creative person, but I’ve thought about creating my own tunes before, and my biggest worry has always been that I’ll come up with a tune, thinking it’s original, when it’s actually from a song I’ve heard before and forgotten about. Wouldn’t that be unintentional music plagiarism? Regardless of my concerns, I had to start somewhere. I went home, sat in front of the piano, and dabbled around the keys for a while, making sure that my phone was recording the whole time so that in case I accidentally stumbled across a melody I liked, it wouldn’t slip from my mind forever by the next day.
Two and a half hours later, not only did I come up with a melody, but I also had a good general idea of how I wanted the whole song to sound. I got it all down on a recording too (at the expense of my phone’s battery life), so the next week or two I used in order to adjust what I had to fit my taste. Since such a large amount of time was going into working on the piano part, I had to do it at the Sunset Media Wave space. But we didn’t have room for a piano, so how was I supposed to write piano music without a piano?
One of my supervisors (also the miracle-worker of this song), Jon, brought in an electric piano keyboard the following week. Perfect. I got straight to work. Using the electric keyboard to practice and compose music was such a great way to make use of my time at The Wave, not to mention, this was when I took a break from piano classes because of my busy schedule, so getting to practice piano and loosening up my fingers while I was working was super ideal.
Another issue I had while writing the music part of the song was deciding how I was going to document it. I started off with simply writing the notes and chords down on paper and matching each one with the corresponding lyric, until my paper got too messy to be legible. I then switched over to writing the letter of the chords/notes on the computer, which looked kind of funny but was at least neater.
I considered writing actual music notes on music staff paper, which wouldn’t be too hard since I was pretty good at it when I took music theory in middle school. But, being the lazy potato I am, I ruled out that option because it would be too time-consuming to physically draw music notes along with all the other music symbols. The ironic thing is that once, I tried to save time by drawing mini music staffs next to my lyrics on paper and adding music notes onto the page, which actually took way longer than if I had just printed out a couple sheets of music staff paper and drew it out.
In the end, by the time I decided to stick with doing the music notes typed as comments on Google Docs, I’d already had the tune embedded into my brain because of how much I’d been practicing and repeating it to myself. In the midst of being irritated at how much time my indecisiveness had taken up, I went home and recorded a quick demo of how I felt like I wanted the final product to sound. It has already been a few months since I started on the song, and it was really about time I stopped being so anal about perfection. It was time to move forward!
I had no professional equipment whatsoever, but I reminded myself it would be okay since I was just recording a “rough draft” to show Jon so he could tell me what he thought of it. Turning on the voice recorder on my phone, I sat in front of the piano and sang with the tune I created and practiced. This was a good experience because being able to sit down and focus specifically on singing the song as a whole. This made me recognize which parts I liked and which ones I wanted to change. Several takes and an hour later, I finally had a finished product that I was somewhat satisfied with. I emailed it to Jon and waited for him to listen to what I had so far.
The following day at work, Jon took a listen to my demo and made two different drum beats on GarageBand that he thought suited my song. I familiarized myself with the two beats and picked out the one I liked more, only to find out that it didn’t fully match with the piano part. Because I recorded my piano demo without a set beat or using a metronome, the rhythm was off in several places of the song. Listening to the simple beats Jon created for me was a good way to tweak the piano parts a little bit so it would sound more in sync.
I spent the next few days speeding up and slowing down certain verses accordingly, so that the finished product would sound more smooth. After doing this, I took the beat I chose home with me and practiced playing my song on a piano along with it. I tried to squeeze in a little time each day to practice the song, so I could get familiar with it, but knowing me, it turned out as more of a “no piano for a week and one day for three hours straight” kind of pattern.
When I felt like I was ready, I took my laptop downstairs to listen to the beat with earphones, so I could record a final version of how I wanted the song to sound with my phone. I tend to get nervous when I know something is important, so of course, I kept messing up and couldn’t get a single take from start to finish. Then again, that’s what music editing programs are for. I did multiple takes, recording the audio of myself playing piano and singing along with the song, while listening to the drum beat through earphones so I could have just the raw audio of my piano and my voice on the recording.
After recording, I took what I had and imported it all into a music editing program called Audacity. It wasn’t as fancy as what we use at Sunset Media Wave, but it worked fine, since all I was aiming for was to put all my audio tracks together. That said, I first used the original beat Jon made me as the first track, then put the better takes I had of my piano and singing and matched it with the beat. This took a relatively small amount of time (surprisingly) and it was nice to be able to get to know how to use Audacity a little better. Once everything was put together, I exported the audio and sent it to Sunset Media Wave.
The next day when I went to work, Jon asked me, “Hey Jenn, I saw that audio file you shared with us yesterday and I took a listen to it. What is it, exactly? Is it a song you want to make a cover of?” It turns out that Jon had thought the demo sounded so good, he mistook it for a modern pop song that I was planning to do my next cover on (which was flattering, of course). Once I reminded him it was my original song, we both got pretty excited and planned on scheduling time at the recording studio to get started on the real thing!
Working on making a high quality instrumental, and recording my voice with that instrumental at the recording studio was the following step, and is also the step that I am currently on. I’m almost done, and once I finish, I should be able to publish the song soon. I’ll finish taking you through my process of songwriting next time, and end the walkthrough here for today. Hopefully the next time I talk to you all, you’ll be able to be listening to Jennifer Zhang’s first original piece while reading my post. Thanks for reading. Bye! 🙂
Words and photos by Jennifer Zhang