My Songwriting Process in 10 Steps

Earlier, I posted about using Soundslice to write my latest song, “Two Trees”. Today, I’ll give you the origin story of “Two Trees” as a case study for how to generate lyric ideas and to develop a song.

I recently joined a women’s songwriting circle. As the first assignment, each of us were challenged to write a song with the title “Two Trees”. Besides the title, there were no other rules or guidelines. I was a latecomer to the group so I had only one week to write the song before the next meetup.

I had never started writing a song “title first” before. Usually, I have a theme in mind, or a short phrase that becomes the central nugget that the song forms around. The title is usually one of the last things I write down.

I felt some anxiety that I wasn’t going to come up with anything interesting for this project, especially given the tight timeline. However, I like working with constraints so I was up for the challenge. I also thought it would be a good chance to try some new techniques. I gave myself permission to write a lightweight, throwaway song and plunged right in.

Turns out, I’m really pleased with the resulting song and the new techniques. I’ll definitely be using this process again.

Here’s the process I followed.

Step 1: Brainstorm

I realized quickly that “Two Trees” didn’t actually give much information about the subject of the song. Besides the obvious idea of two trees standing in the woods, Two Trees could be a place, a tattoo, the name of a person or any number of things.

I set a timer for 10 minutes and wrote down everything I could think of relating to “Two Trees”. I wrote longhand with pen and paper. I let my mind wander and kept my hand moving for the whole time, writing without editing or crossing out. When the timer was up, I went back and underlined the phrases that I particularly liked: carved initials, growing together but standing apart, lightning, sharing secrets in the rustling branches, and rings. I saw the trees as a metaphor for a relationship.

Step 2: Create a mood board

If you’re redecorating a room, you might create a scrapbook of colors, shapes, and materials that evoke the desired mood. Do you want hard steel and angles for a modern, edgy look? Or warm woods and wool rugs for something classic and cozy? I think about songwriting the same way. What is the mood of the song? Warm? Hateful? Hopeful? Rebellious? What genre do I have in mind? Metal, Folk? Is there an artist or a song that exemplifies this feeling?

For “Two Trees” I gravitated towards a Van Morrison feel. I wanted a jazzy bluesy groove like Days Like This. I jotted these mood ideas onto the page with my brainstorming notes.

Step 3: Notate

As I established my mood board, I started hearing Van Morrison sing the lyric “Two trees in the starlight/ standing for eternity” in my head. I was curious if notating my songs in sheet music would help my songwriting process, or if it would be so cumbersome to use the editor that it would stifle my creativity. I decided this was a good project to find out.

Soundslice is a free online sheet music editor so I had nothing to lose from trying it. I started a Soundslice project. With my basic knowledge of how to read music, and plenty of trial and error, I notated what I heard in my head.

Step 4: Establish chord progression

Before I went further with the song lyrics, I wanted to establish a chord progression. Looking at the first line of lyrics I notated in Step 3, I established that D and G would work nicely.

Here’s one place where Soundslice came in quite useful. I realized I was singing an F# on the word star-light. An F# is not in the G chord [G, B, D] so I considered changing the melody. However, when I played a G chord and added an F#, I really liked the sound. A bit of googling revealed that I had “discovered” Gmaj7. Music theory at work! I may never have noticed that chord change without doing the work of notating the chords and melody.

Realizing that my song seemed to be revolving around the key of D, I used the Circle of Fifths to look at what other chords might work well. I played a few combinations and I settled on Em and A. This gave me the chord progression: [D, Gmaj7, D, Gmaj7, Em, A, Em, A] or [I, IV, I, IV, II, V, II, V].

I now had the foundation I would build my song upon.

Step 5: Improvise chorus and a verse

I copied the [D, Gmaj7, Em, A] sequence to a few bars in Soundslice. I looped those bars while I experimented with lyrics. I looked at the list of phrases that I had generated from the brainstorm phase and tried to work them in. In this way, I improvised the rest of the chorus and the first verse. I notated the melody and lyrics in Soundslice.

Step 6: Build structure with cut and paste

To build out the rest of the song, I cut and pasted the chorus and verse into a pattern I liked:

  • Chorus
  • Verse 1
  • Verse 2
  • Chorus
  • Verse 3
  • Verse 4
  • Chorus

I played this in Soundslice and sang along. It worked pretty well.

At this point, I was happy with the lyrics for the chorus and verse 1, and with the overall song structure. Now, I had to find words for three more verses.

Step 7: Finish the verses & construct the bridge

I used my brainstormed images from Step 1 to generate lyrics for verse 2, 3 and 4. I didn’t really like Verse 4 so I cut the first two lines and made it into a two line bridge. Using the Circle of Fifths, I found the Bm chord worked nicely to break up the chord pattern that’s used everywhere else in the song. Now I had this:

  • Chorus [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Verse 1 [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Verse 2 [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Chorus [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Verse 3 [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Instrumental [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]
  • Two-line Bridge [Bm, A]
  • Chorus [D, Gmaj7, Em, A]

Because I changed the chords in the bridge section, I improvised to find a new melody to fit. I notated all the new lyrics, chords and bridge melody in Soundslice.

Step 8: Add a bass line and a rhythm line

Up until this point, I had one ukulele line playing 4 quarter notes per measure of one chord, and another ukulele line simulating the voice melody. Pretty boring. For inspiration, I looked at some Van Morrison piano sheet music to see what rhythms he uses. I tried out a couple of jazzier rhythms and settled for one from Moondance. I liked how the second chord on the off beat gives a groove to the song.

I changed the ukulele line to use the right hand piano rhythm and added a bass line using the left hand piano rhythm. I changed the notes to align with my chords.

Soundslice was extremely helpful in this phase. Although I could not play all these parts at once by myself, I could play them back in Soundslice to see how they sounded all together. It was easy to tweak the melody and the notes and then play them back again until it all worked.

I liked that the bass line, melody line and rhythm line all had different rhythms. The song grooved much better. I gave it the thumbs up and moved on.

Step 9: Lead guitar/ukulele line

For the final step, I wanted to add in a “lead guitar”/ukulele part to fill in the instrumental part and the other gaps where there is no singing. To build this part, I had Soundslice play the song while I improvised melodies with my ukulele. When I discovered a lick I liked, I notated it in Soundslice and then copied it to all the appropriate parts of the song. I did the same in the “instrumental” section.

After discussing the song with Kevin, he suggested it would be interesting to have some harmony on the chorus. Based on that feedback, I updated the lead ukulele line to double the rhythm of the melody with notes to make a harmony.

If I were to continue to work on this, I’d add some drums, and to make it sound more like Van Morrison, horns.

Step 10: Final tweaks

I’m continuing to fiddle with “Two Trees”. I’ve added a 4 bar instrumental introduction and I’ve moved the bridge closer to the middle of the song to break up the monotony of the repetitious chord progression. I’m considering how to expand the bridge. Kevin says the bridge is usually the “middle 8”, meaning it is 8 bars long and falls in the middle of the song. If I were to follow that guideline, I should insert the bridge before Verse 3 and make the bridge 8 bars long instead of 4. However, the bridge’s lyrics don’t work as well there so I’m still considering if and how I want to make that change. I don’t need to be a slave to rules!

Note – the changes mentioned above may not yet be published to the soundslice file I’ve linked to below.


It can be hard to generate ideas for lyrics, especially when you are required to write about a certain subject. The process I followed above would work well for all kinds of songs. I especially liked the ten minute free association longhand writing approach to brainstorm ideas. It successfully generated imagery I used in the final song. Notating in Soundslice was also a helpful technique. I believe notation helped speed the songwriting process along. I really liked being able to play back the music in Soundslice while I improvised new sections. I will use both techniques for future songs.

I hope this was helpful to you. Let me know your favorite techniques and tools in the comments!

Soundslice link:


Two trees in the starlight,
standing for eternity.
One glance I know we’re alright
they look like you and me.

Let’s add another ring my dear,
beneath the rustle of the leaves we hear.
As we sway throughout the night
sharing secrets and small delights.

Life is short but life goes on.
Holding hands until the dawn.
We’ll be just like those two trees,
you and me, rooted for eternity.

Two trees in the starlight,
standing for eternity.
One glance I know we’re alright
they look like you and me.

We’ll stand tall against the lightning.
Standing apart but growing together.
Your initials on my skin.
Songbirds sleeping in.

If they ever want me to leave you,
they’re gonna have to cut me down.

Two trees. Two Trees.

Two trees in the starlight,
standing for eternity.
One glance I know we’re alright
they look like you and me.

3 responses to “My Songwriting Process in 10 Steps”

    • Hi Clive, thanks for having a listen to my song! Yes, there is a vocal line, but since Soundslice is generating the music, the lyrics sound like a clarinet instead of a voice. If you watch the soundslice screen, you can see the words that correspond to the notes. I’m working on developing the courage and the video skills to post myself performing the song. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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