The subject of scales and musical modes is complex, and deserves an entire article or book chapter to cover it properly. (For example, Wikipedia offers this lengthy discussion of musical modes.) But you don’t have to understand this rather arcane subject in any depth at all to take advantage of it in your songwriting. Let me walk you through a quick (well, fairly quick) exercise that may just open your eyes. (For best results, follow along on a piano or keyboard.)-->
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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.-->
A lot of popular songs are built on standard chord patterns (see my article Standard Chord Patterns For Basic Song Segments for some examples of such patterns). The reason these patterns work in songs is partly because they are familiar. For music to be interesting to the listener, it must combine elements of the familiar with unexpected twists on those familiar elements. If a song sounds too familiar, we say it is “cliched.” If a song sounds too unfamiliar, we say it is “inaccessible” or even “arty” (gasp). Somewhere between these extremes lies the right combination of old and new.
All of this applies to your songs too! If the verse of your song is four lines of A D E A and the chorus is two lines of D A D A plus an E7 chord, well, that probably sounds OK, but it’s a little bit boring. Everything that happens in the song chords-wise is totally predictable. Patterns repeat; there is no chord outside the three chords in the key of A (no minor chords even!); the chorus is higher by an interval of a fourth compared with the verse. You know what’s coming next the first time you hear the song. Ho hum.-->
People like to joke about “three-chord songs,” the implication being that a song containing only A, D, and E chords must be too simple-minded to bother thinking about, much less listening to. And what kind of songwriter only knows three chords?
It’s obvious that there are plenty of great songs that have only three chords! But it’s also true that a really sophisticated melody is likely to need a really sophisticated set of chords - and more than three - to go with it. Being kind of simple-minded myself, I sometimes go in the opposite direction: how few chords can I use in a song? For me the answer is always the same: “One.”
I consider it a challenge to craft a song based entirely on a single chord and still have it be interesting and compelling. The objective is to have nobody actually notice that it is only one chord until you point it out. “Oh yeah,” they say. “I guess it is all one chord!”-->
If you’re someone who enjoys making up their own songs and then recording them, like I am, you’ve probably had the experience of wanting to write a brand new song, but coming up dry when you actually sit down to do it. I know I have! Maybe it’s because everything you come up with to play seems familiar, like you already made up that pattern. Or maybe the chords are OK and you may even have a “la la la” melody part, but nothing is coming to you for the lyrics to actually be about.
Sound familiar? Well, before you get frustrated and start wondering whether you will in fact ever write another original song, here are four tips that might help get your creative juices flowing the way they should.-->
Beginning songwriters sometimes get stuck in the “3-chord stage.” Once you find out that you can write a normal-sounding song using just A, D, and E (or perhaps C, F, and G), it’s tempting to just write lots of choruses and verses using just those three major chords, in familiar sequences like A-A-D-A or A-D-A-E. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Plenty of great songs have just three chords.
What I want to suggest here is a way to move beyond the 3-chord stage by using appropriate minor chords in your songs. Ah, you might say, and exactly which minor chords are “appropriate” for my song? I’m glad you asked!-->
When I sit down to come up with a chord pattern for a new song, I usually just start playing whatever pops into my head. When I hear something good emerge I keep playing that and gradually expand on it. Eventually I end up with the chords for a whole song. Great! You probably do this too. But sometimes I have a sneaky feeling of familiarity, like, how different is this really from that other song I just wrote? Could I be in a writing rut?
For me, the critical point is right at the beginning, the part where I play whatever pops into my head. The problem is, I tend to automatically start playing in one of a few “comfortable keys,” and as a result too many of my finished chord patterns are in A or D. But it’s not just the key itself that matters. There are habitual changes from one chord to another that I tend to follow if I don’t catch myself. After a Bm I tend to go to a G, and so on. Some of these personal habitual changes inevitably find their way into my songs.
What to do? Elementary, my dear Watson. Force yourself to start out in an unfamiliar key, like F#m or even just B. Then play whatever pops into your head. Deprived of your comfortable Bm-to-G-type changes, you will likely write a new song that really is new!
[An expanded version of this tip appears in my eBook, Cheap Advice On Songwriting.]-->
Every songwriter has a treasure trove of ideas for song lyrics all stored up and ready to be tapped, namely his or her own life story! Most of us have written songs about specific things that have happened to us, like falling in or out of love, or specific situations we have been in, like feeling trapped in a dead-end job or relationship. We can summon forth the emotions we felt at the time and capture them in lyrics that have the ring of truth.
The problem with using your own experiences and your own feelings when writing lyrics, though, is that you are not really using your imagination. You are mostly using your memory. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with musically documenting events and emotions from your own life. But imagination lies at the heart of creativity, and the more use you can make of it in your lyric writing, the better.
Another problem with writing about your own life is that you are just too close to it. You know too much! Not only that, but you are ego-involved in the situations in question (otherwise they wouldn’t seem important), which can prevent you from taking a broader view that would make for much better lyrics. Writing about someone else’s life removes the subjective element that can easily result in whiny-sounding, self-indulgent lyrics. (Do I need to name names here?) The desired result: less autobiography, more imagination.
One way to increase the IQ (Imagination Quotient) of your life-story lyrics is to practice (or at least think about) writing songs as if you were that person in the newspaper article you read this morning, as if you were that homeless man over there or the woman who had that problem in that movie. Whoever! Just so it’s not you again.
As a songwriter, you must always be aware of the life stories being played out around you. Put yourself in the place of the guy who’s looking worried as he waits for the bus. Snag some details. Is he smoking? Has he shaved? Make up a story for him that would explain what you’re seeing. Then write a song about that story, from his point of view. Now that’s using the old imagination! Read the rest…-->
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