Are you stuck with a 4 bar loop that you can't turn into a finished song? Read this article to find out 3 effective ways to turn any loop into a full song.
If you prefer to learn from videos, watch the video above.
Unfinished ideas and neglected projects
Did you come up with an idea — maybe it's some chord progression, a 4 bar loop, a melody or even just a riff — and you know it could turn into a nice song?
Maybe you don't know how to go from there, to finish the song, because the creativity is gone?
I've been there many times.
As producers, we have lots of unfinished ideas that we save then forget about for months, even years.
We all have that folder with 200 projects we've neglected, right?
The problem is usually one of these things:
- Lack of inspiration that can be solved by listening to songs you appreciate or — even better —, recreating those songs;
- Lack of music theory background, which can help you figure out the many ways to express your ideas and emotions through music.
But there are ways to change that, and I'll show you.
How to actually turn any loop into a full song
The truth is: everyone develops loops in a different way. So I'll share my process and some tips I learned over the years.
It doesn't matter what DAW you use, if you produce pop music like me or a different kind of music. It works for any style.
Quickly write down as many ideas as you can
When you start your session, don't overthink. Don't loop your ideas over and over again.
Just try to work fast and write down as many ideas as you can — and see where it leads you.
That initial inspiration is what keeps us moving forward.
Lay out everything you can hear in your mind, all the instruments and parts. It may sound terrible but that's OK for now.
It's also OK to delete stuff and start over.
Don't spend a whole day on a loop that's not working. Not every song is going to get finished. And not every part you write has to be in the final product.
With that in mind, I'll show you 3 practical ways of developing your ideas into full tracks.
Then I'll take one of my songs as an example of how it goes from nothing to a full arrangement.
1. Actively listening to music for inspiration
If you get short on ideas, the best thing you can do is take some time to actively listen to music, looking for inspiration.
Sometimes the weirdest things will inspire you, like it happened to me when I heard this clicking sound on a song by Justin Bieber called "What do you mean".
It sounded like a clock ticking — which intrigued me. Then I sat down and wrote this whole song about procrastination.
2. Remaking songs you enjoy listening to
Another thing that always inspire me is trying to recreate other artists' songs.
Not to copy them. It's just an exercise.
First I try to replicate their sound. Then I start changing things, messing with the rhythm patterns, chords, melodies and timbres.
You can pick a song you like that has a similar vibe to what you're aiming for and use it as a reference.
And if you love music like I do, your ideas will start flowing. They'll take you in a different direction that's very unique and has nothing to do with the starting point.
There's this book "Steal Like an Artist" that opened my mind to that possibility.
Want a shortcut to go from a 4 bar loop to a full song easily? This is it.
It makes you realize pretty much every piece of art is derivative. So don't be ashamed of having references and being influenced by other artists' music.
These are some ideas of how to modify it:
- Change the chords, the melody, the rhythm;
- Change the placement of some drum beats, the tempo, the key;
- Use different instruments;
- Split phrases into more than one instrument;
- Pan things differently.
You'll end up making a song that's 100% your own and no one will ever be able to tell which song you referenced.
3. Don't sleep on music theory
Another thing that people don't usually talk about in electronic music production tutorials is studying music theory. Isn't that weird?
It's funny how every time I sit down and learn a new concept in music theory — or go deeper in a concept I already know — I immediately get ideas of how to apply what I just learned in my songs.
But beginners often try to become music producers and they're told they don't need to learn music theory to be able to make music.
Then they're always suffering from writer's block — opening empty DAW sessions or staring at a loop that never seems to go anywhere.
Well, maybe they could use some music theory.
Of course you know some artists that never learned music theory and still came up with great songs.
But I guarantee it's not a waste of time. It's actually a huge time saver if you intend to make music for a long time like I do.
And it doesn't have to be hard.
Some VST plugins can help with that, like the Scaler Plugin.
It's like a shortcut to music theory. It's not the same but it works for some people.
Practical example of turning a loop into a full song (step by step)
Below you'll find the exact process of how I take any idea and turn it into a full track.
I used my original song "Silence Hurts More" as an example.
The first step is to find something interesting — which you probably already did when you came up with your loop, chords, melody or song idea.
In my case, I wrote the lyrics first. My initial idea was just a story I wanted to tell.
What's the story you're telling? That's a good starting point.
At first, I had no idea of what the melody or chords would sound like.
I just pictured an arrangement with a string section that kind of reminded me of a song by Adele — with those high energy choruses against quieter verses, so lots of dynamics and tension.
The Melody-First Approach
In my opinion, the best approach is melody first, even though I know many people start making songs with chords or drum beats. It's a personal choice.
So I turned my MIDI Controller on — the Linnstrument.
And I started playing notes, trying to match them to the lyrics — with some degree of call and response, tension and release.
Don't rush this segment.
I spent a long time trying different combinations, using the guidelines I've already covered here: how to write emotional melodies.
At that time, I was just writing the melody. Not yet worried about turning the loop into a full song.
I didn't think about chords, drums or anything. It was laser focused on writing a catchy melody.
In terms of song structure, I usually like to start my melody writing with the chorus so the best ideas get the spotlight.
But this time the sequence was: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge — following the natural progression of the "standard" pop song.
In this initial phase, all I used was a piano sound.
You can hear what the melody of the verse ended up sounding like on the video above.
Writing a memorable melody
For this part, having a MIDI controller is really helpful. I couldn't imagine writing songs without at least a 2 octave keyboard controller.
It would be too easy to forget good melody ideas because of how long it takes to place the notes in the DAW by clicking with a mouse.
So make sure to get really comfortable with your MIDI controller. Then improvise and experiment with the notes that kind of match the vibe you're going for.
Always have that in mind:
- What type of mood do I want to create?
- Does this match the emotion of the words and my story?
- Does this melody resemble the tone of voice if these words were said in a real conversation?
Don't be afraid of hitting "wrong notes" — notes outside of the key you're working on. Sometimes they're inspiring.
Figuring out the chords to harmonize the melody
After you find something that makes sense to you, find chords that reinforce that mood.
Nothing fancy for now.
Just look at the notes of your melody and figure out if you want to make them sound more unstable — depending on the meaning of the lyrics — or more stable, if that fits the vibe you're creating.
Whenever you want a phrase to sound unstable, use chords that do not include the melody notes.
Whenever you want it to sound more stable, use chords that include the melody notes.
The reason why I like to choose chords after writing the lyrics and melody is because I produce pop music and believe everything revolves around the singing.
But if you make another style of music, like some EDM genres, it might make more sense to start with the drum beat, chord progression or bass.
Whatever is the main component in you genre.
Writing the Rhythm section
After I was done writing lyrics, melody and chords, I started working on the rhythm section. To me, that's the next logical step to go from a loop to a full song.
And the drum section is definitely not the focus in this song.
Before I started, I listened to several songs by Adele to hear what the producers did. At some point, I even recreated the instrumental of one of her songs.
This is what I found would be a good fit for the narrative:
A simple drum beat that won't steal the show — but has enough variation so it doesn't get boring.
The foundation of the song was almost ready. But there's no foundation without a bass.
The bass is the soul of any song. So that's where I shifted my focus next.
Writing the bass line
There are different approaches to writing bass lines.
The easy way is playing the root notes of each chord for the bar's duration. Another option is writing more intricate basslines.
I chose the latter — the bass walks, moves fast, it's almost hyperactive and anxious.
I kept playing this chord loop over and over again until I came up with something.
Most importantly, have fun playing in loop mode and improvising. Don't reject your ideas at first — see what you can come up with.
For that bass line, I even deleted some of the notes because, at some point, there was too much going on and it didn't match the overall mood.
Less is more
In fact, I've noticed that, with music producers, it's far more common to have too much going on in our songs than to be out of ideas.
If your loop has too much going on — more than necessary — start deleting some notes. Often times, in music, less is more.
Have the self awareness to recognize that.
If it doesn't help build a groove or a harmony, if it feels like it doesn't belong, then it doesn't.
Don't let your affection for one piece of the song hurt the rest of it.
Simplicity should be the goal. You don't want to add more and more elements that will just clutter the mix.
Turning a piano progression into a full arrangement
This section is really fun: finding the timbres.
Take the chords from the initial piano progression and find the instruments that will play them.
Distribute the notes among a few instruments. In that case, I chose a cello, a viola, a violin, and even the piano got to stay.
I also made changes to the rhythm patterns — to add some movement, instead of just having static chords that just last a whole bar.
The trick here is to take one or two notes from each chord and assign it to each instrument.
Then make sure they don't all move up or down in pitch simultaneously.
That way, the listener can place the focus on each one of them, separately, and that will keep things from getting blurry.
The human brain can't process too many notes moving at the same time.
Also, avoid having too many instruments competing in the same register.
They should support one another and pass the spotlight around. And all of them should support the lead vocals instead of getting in the way.
Subtractive arrangement: from 4-Bar loop to full song
Now, I'm going to show you a very simple method to turn a loop into a full song. It's called subtractive arrangement.
It's time to make a decision:
What's going to be your song structure? Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, or a different structure?
Once you decide that, make sure to set up the locators in your daw so you can visualize each section easily.
A properly organized session will help you stay focused.
Subtractive arrangement is like sculpting something.
You take a busy section you already made, duplicate it for as many bars as you want, then start deleting elements from each section.
Effective arrangements are emotional rollercoasters
Think about this process in terms of how a song progresses, like an emotional rollercoaster. For example:
In this story, the verses start light on emotions, then build up energy until they get to the chorus, which is a huge tension release.
Then there's a second verse and things start getting tense again. Then another chorus releases the tension from the second verse, and so on.
Ups and downs, like a rollercoaster. That's how effective arrangements go.
If every section of the song had all the same components, playing the same things, it would get boring quick.
That's the reason behind introducing instruments slowly, removing them from the arrangement for some sections, then reintroducing them again.
With crescendos and swells for dynamics.
At some point, the song hits the climax — with almost every part playing at the same time.
Step by step: subtractive arrangement
If you decide to use subtractive arrangement, you'll want to build the busiest section first, like the chorus.
Then duplicate the section and start deleting parts to create less busy sections, like the verses.
That's one way of doing it, and it's guaranteed to turn a loop into a whole song.
Then all you have to do is work on the transitions, fill the gaps with ear candy, and make some changes so it doesn't get too repetitive.
Final adjustments to the arrangement
In the example song, the chord progressions in each section are different to match the melody. So I made sure to adjust that.
Different chord progressions can help you develop new ideas but there is no problem in using the same progression over and over again.
As long as you keep things interesting in your arrangement — for instance by swapping instruments that play those chords for contrast.
Many pop songs do that.
Ear fatigue and taking breaks
If you get to a point where you feel stuck, it's time to take a break.
You've been working hard, you deserve that.
Take your dog for a walk — that's exactly what I do.
Maybe you've listened to your loop many times and it's starting to bore you.
Or you're getting ear fatigue.
Rest your ears.
Later, listen to the song away from the studio, with a fresh set of ears, and take notes of anything that could be improved.
Next time you go back, fix it. Then repeat this process.
Go turn your loop into a full song
Build the habit of finishing what you start.
To make it easier, give yourself a deadline. It makes you work faster and stay away from perfectionism.
Nothing beautiful is perfect.
Once you're done with this project, save it as a template. It will make the next ones so much faster.
Does that sound good?
If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below.
For more pop music production resources, visit my website.