Most people approach songwriting in the same general way.
For those that write music, versus lyric writing only, that process is to go to
their instrument and improvise until they stumble upon something that sounds
good. They choose to focus only on the "goal of having a completed
song" instead of focusing on the wide range of available
"processes" to compose music. In other words, these people focus on
the "what" (the song they want to write) instead of the
"how" (which processes and methods can be used). Once the decision is
made to write a new song, they begin with the one process that is easiest and
comes most naturally to them - improvising at their instrument.
For the purpose of illustrating the examples below, let us
assume your main instrument is electric guitar. Natural pros and cons
inherently exist with every songwriting process and method. Here is the obvious
set of pros and cons for the process of improvising with your instrument:
This Method's Advantages
is the easiest songwriting process for most songwriters.
can begin immediately (without little or no pre-compositional planning or
can take advantage of the guitar's natural possibilities of tone,
playability, pitch range, the number of pitches that can be played
simultaneously, dynamic range, articulation, etc.
you are a competent guitar player, you can easily create music that is
natural for the guitar. You probably have at least a basic command of
general guitar, so playing your guitaristic ideas won't be a major problem
in most cases.
most songwriters (even many pros) write in this way, your
"musical" results may be similar to some of those that have gone
before you and written successful hit songs.
This Method's Disadvantages
are limited by the instruments limitations of tone, playability, pitch
range, the number of pitches that can be played simultaneously, dynamic
range, articulation, etc.
are likely to repeat similar ideas that you have used before in other
is easy to fall into the trap of thinking like a guitar player only versus
a songwriting musician.
may discover your hands are doing most of the creating, not your true
range of possible musical results is limited when using this single
process exclusively. Not necessarily because there is anything wrong with
the guitar or you.
Any single songwriting process will be limiting. You must
really work hard to squeeze as much out of a single process as possible. Of
course having multiple processes is better than having only one (I will discuss
other methods of writing songs in future articles).
Go to your instrument and begin improvising, notice what
types of things you do naturally. What is the process that you usually start
with? Do you begin by trying to write a melody? Or do you begin with chords?
Here is a list of ideas you can use to begin.
Begin With Melody First
this case, decide if the melody you are trying to write will be a vocal or
instrumental melody. This is very important
because vocal melodies need to have room for a singer to breathe and you
must also consider the pitch range - a singer's pitch range is more narrow
than most instruments. Keep this all in mind when writing melodies.
the melodic contour (shape and direction) of your melodies.
there a clear climax (high point)? Where should it be in the melody?
Begin With Chords First
a tonal center (key) to begin with. You don't have to stay in that key for
the entire song, but it is wise to at least begin in a single key. You can
deviate from the key later if you wish.
about the progression of chords, where are there moments of tension and
resolution? Are these moments placed in the best order?
Begin With Chords And Melody at The Same Time
I like this one a lot. Begin with a single chord and a
melody note or phrase, as you add on the next chord and more melodic notes,
write them together. Experiment by changing the chord but not the melodic
phrase. Experiment by changing the melodic phrase but not the chord.
Begin With Rhythm First
the types of rhythmic patterns that you normally use. Perhaps one of them
is exactly what you need to get into the groove of a new song.
with variations on your favorite rhythmic patterns. Take a common pattern
and play it backwards.
something totally new. Force yourself to disallow any of your favorite
rhythmic patterns to creep into your new song idea.
Dynamics, Texture and Form are the most often overlooked
musical elements among songwriters. Record companies hire producers to improve
the quality of the songwriting done by the writers. Most producers have to
spend a lot of their time (and the artist's advance money!) shaping the songs
in these three areas because songwriters often neglect to spend enough time and
effort on them. Most people can write a melody and put chords together, but
struggle with dynamics, texture and form.
Begin With Dynamics First
you are thinking about dynamics while composing each part of the song, you
are already ahead of the game.
out what the dynamic range of each section of your new song will be. Which
parts will be louder and which will be softer? How can you create smooth
transitions between them? Do you want "smooth" transitions?
Begin With Timbre First
The variety of instruments you use, and the sounds you get
out of those instruments brings color to your music. Once you have written a
melody, experiment with how many different types of tone qualities you can use
to play it. Even if you are only writing a song for a solo instrument, how can
you "color" the sound with that instrument? For example, on a guitar,
playing down by the bridge produces a totally different sound quality than
picking over the center of the string (12th fret).
Begin With Texture First
The density of sound and timbre may influence the types of
melodies you compose. Consider how the density of texture may change from
section to section. What type of musical effect will result? A single guitar
line might lead you to write guitaristic lines, but if you use a guitar to
compose a keyboard part, your approach will often be (and probably should be)
Begin With Form First
Starting here can do wonders to keep you out of trouble
(musically speaking). When you don't think about the form (arrangement of the
parts of a song) early on in the writing process, it is easy to paint yourself
in a corner later. When you have written various parts for a song but can't
seem to piece the individual parts together in a cohesive manner this usually
happens because there was little or no thought about form early on in the
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording
artist. He teaches guitar players around the world via online guitar
lessons, Visit http://www.tomhess.net to
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