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48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Try Writing the Lyrics First

6:00 am Songwriting

I’ve written hundreds of songs during my career as an amateur songwriter, some good, some bad, some really good, some really bad, but there is one thing that almost all of these songs have in common: I wrote the chords first, then I came up with lyrics and a melody to go with them. It seems very natural to me to get out the guitar, or sit down at the keyboard, and just sort of “noodle around” until some rhythm or chord change catches my ear. From that starting point, I spin out some more chord changes, repeat a few sections, and voila! I end up with a fully written out chord pattern for a new song, all ready for me to think of something to sing along with it.

Or, more likely, all ready to be put in the “New Songs” folder for later completion (i.e., maybe never). My New Songs folder is filled with chord sheets for would-be songs, usually with working titles like “No Idea” or “Rocker In G”. Why does this happen? My theory is that it happens because lyrics are harder to write than chords. Chord patterns are fun to write; you just play. To write lyrics, you have to think. Since thinking is harder, I tend to put the lyrics off, sometimes indefinitely, and often end up with nothing. Now, I have finally realized that at least some of the time I have to bite the bullet and write the lyrics first.

First Things First

Although it is a more difficult approach (at least for me), writing the lyrics first offers a number of advantages over the lazy-man method I have preferred over the years:

1.  With the hard part done first, more songs get finished.

Think of it. You sit down for a songwriting session, pull out the guitar, and select from several sets of already written lyrics for your new song. That’s new! This way, you have a big head start. In fact, you are just one fun-to-make-up chord pattern away from having a shiny new song, ready to record! Believe me, fewer songs will be left in the Perpetually Unfinished file with this approach.

2.  The new approach can lift you out of your songwriting rut.

If I pick up my guitar and just start “noodling”, I tend to “noodle” in ways that are similar every time. Without realizing it, over time I have drifted into a rut, or actually several ruts. For me, uptempo noodling often starts with barred G and C chords and a rock-n-roll strum. Slower songs tend to have lots of major sevenths, minor-chord songs often have an Am-Dm-E or Am-F backbone, and so on. (Your ruts will be different, but no less predictable.) If you use my “melody second” method as discussed below, the last thing you will do is figure out what the chords are. Hence, no ruts.

3.  The lyrics will be better.

When you write the lyrics first, you are free of the constraints that come with writing word patterns to go with an already-recorded backing track. If you want one line to go on much longer than the others, go ahead. Some lines just have one word? Fine! You’ll figure out how to make it work later. Freed of constraints (aside from basic rhyming and scansion, in most cases), you will find yourself being much more adventurous in your lyrics. While writing, your focus is on the words and the message, not what will fit over those triplets at the end of each verse. The result is better lyrics.

4.  You can always outsource the chords and melody.

If you have any music buddies or recording partners who write songs, they would probably be thrilled to have a well-formed set of decent lyrics “drop from the sky”, ready to be put into any kind of musical setting they can come up with. The hard part’s done! Sometimes I write a nice set of lyrics but then find that every chord pattern I come up with for them sounds cliched or like some other song. When this happens, I just give them to Jack, my music buddy. Because he comes to them with no preconceptions, he invariably comes up with melodies and arrangements that I would never have thought of in a million years. But they’re still my words!

Second Things Second

Even with the lyrics written and approved and ready to go, there is still a danger of slipping into one of my chord-pattern ruts once I start “playing along” with the words, trying to generate melodies and hooks. To eliminate this possibility, I sometimes use what I call the “Melody Second” approach to creating the musical side of the song. Here’s how it works.

First, put down the guitar (or back away slowly from the keyboard). This is a vocals-only approach! Simply start singing the lyrics out loud, a cappella style. Experiment with different melodies or rhythms in the different segments of the song. Don’t worry about what chord transitions or tempo changes are involved - add or remove beats or bars wherever you want, use triplets, sing improbable melodic intervals, add spoken sections, whatever. Again, you will find this to be amazingly liberating!

Once you have settled on melodies and vocal rhythms for each part of the song, make a recording of yourself singing the song from beginning to end. Now you have a solid set of lyrics with an interesting, original melody and rythmic pattern. The only thing left is to come up with the chords (the thing you used to do first)! Now pick up the guitar (or go back to the keyboard) and play along with the sung melody, seeking out the right backing chords as you might with any unfamiliar tune you wanted to know the chords to.

The difference here is that you get to make choices, in that a given melodic fragment can be backed with any of a number of candidate chords, some simple, some complex. Just as a simple-minded example, say you have a bar or two where the melody moves from an A (note) to a D, perhaps with a quick intervening note or two. It might be that an ordinary D Major chord would sound good here. Or, maybe a D Minor chord, which also has the notes A and D in it. You might try a D7, Dm7, or Dmaj7 chord for a slightly more complex sound.

You needn’t stop with these basic chords, though. Lots of other, fancier chords also contain A and D notes in their definitions. Chords like G9, D7sus4, E11, and F13. Heck, try ‘em all! Using more sophisticated chords at key points in your song can make a big difference in the mood - and impact - of your new song.

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