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Starry Night – One Way To Be Creative

A few posts ago I wrote about creativity, and decided the definition of creativity I liked best was Ken Russell’s: ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’

I also listed a few of the characteristics of a creative songwriter (Take a look at the post for more detail):

You’re not afraid to fail
You make unexpected connections
You challenge the listener
You have a wide musical pallette
Your style changes
You’re childish

This post is going to look at how you might use your skills of creativity to find inspiration from a given source. It takes inspiration from a teaching exercise I’ll tell you about below, but also from this blog post about creativity and how limitations can help.

Starry Starry Night

The Vincent Van Gogh picture at the top of the post famously provided inspiration for Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’. It was also used by my head of department at work to challenge us to be creative. We were shown the picture and asked to come up with teaching tasks, for any subject, based on the picture.

There are lots of obvious tasks – in music or art you could use the picture for inspiration as McLean did, painting in the same style, or writing a piece inspired by the scene or painter.

Once we’d exhausted the obvious list we were challenged to go further. Ideas we came up with included:

Music – split the piece into horizontal strips and play it like a graphic score.

– You could plot the stars and other points onto a score and use those points for the contour of a melody or rhythm.

Maths – Draw triangles between the stars and use them to teach about triangle theory

Science – Astronomy of course, but also something about colour perception or synesthesia

PE – the shapes could be used to plot an obstacle course

Food Tech – Design and cook the menu that Van Gogh might have eaten while looking out at that scene


Now to Songwriting

How could we apply this exercise to songwriting? As we sat staring at the picture I found myself doing some very clear and simply things: I systematically went through the possible subjects we teach at our school, attempting to find an activity for each of them. I also turned the picture round to see it from different angles, treating it sometimes as abstract shapes, sometimes making use of it’s possible meanings.

To generalise that to music, rather than subjects we might use different elements of the song and ask, how can we get a melody from the picture? A chord sequence? A structure? A lyric? A rhythm? An arrangement?

As well as the musical ideas I’ve already mentioned, here are some more ideas:

You could have a musical idea to represent different parts of the picture. So a regular, structured back beat or riff could represent the buildings, a swirling melody could represent the swirls of colour in the sky and lush unexpected chords could punctuate that melody as the stars do. If I was to compose that I’d probably produce a loop based piece with different layers appearing to represent the different parts of the picture.

Moving left to right the stars follow this sequence – 1 low, 1 high, I low, 2 high, 3 at the same time, 1 high, pause…. high low high. That could easily be turned into a loop or melodic idea that could be developed.

Chords? Rotate the picture 90 degrees clockwise and take just the top portion – there are five patches of colour, the third and fourth of which are a very similar shade of blue. Perhaps each patch of colour is a different chord, darker shades minor and light shades major, with the two similar sections representing the same chord?

Lyrics? Of course there are all sorts of characters who might be looking out at this scene – Van Gogh might be well known but you could always imagine another character and tell their story. You could describe the scene, or get more creative and take inspiration from the names of the things painted: Building, sky, star, blue, tree, hill, church, spire.

The possibilities are endless, and will be coloured by the attitude you have to music. For me, being as far from a visual thinker as one can get, this was a real challenge but a rewarding one. It forced me to think and to find ideas in places I usually wouldn’t look.

How would you use this picture to inspire you?

Ben Walker – Technical Songwriting

Ben Walker, who I interviewed a while ago, has written a blog post asking the question ‘Does technical thinking ruin songwriting?’.

Here’s a quote:

There’s no such thing as a conceptual songwriter. As an artist you are free to choose from all sorts of funky media and part of the game is to work outside the box and provoke thought and criticism. Songwriting isn’t like that. Composition is like that, but songwriting isn’t. As a songwriter you’ve signed up to write songs, and the popular song isn’t a very flexible form. It’s not quite as restrictive as being a sonnetwriter, but it’s closer to that than, say, a novelwriter.

There’s nothing to stop you exploding the confines of the form and writing 15-minute one-chord freeform poetry, but that’s not a song. You could argue that it is, but you’d be wrong (the word song refers to a pretty specific musical form, and let’s assume we’re talking about popular song, even late 20th Century popular song to keep things simple).

I don’t want to get into the semantics of whether we use the word ‘song’ just for short vocal forms, or for any piece of music with vocals but I do want to both agree and disagree with Ben.

I agree that no songwriter can avoid the technical aspects. Any long time reader of Songwright will know that I’m all for educated songwriters who understand the craft and know how to create well formed, interesting songs.

Where I disagree is with the apparent implication that songwriters should stick to the limits, confines and conventions of popular song forms and not try to push the boundaries and ‘think outside the box’.

Sorry Ben, that’s wrong. If you’re a songwriter, you’re a composer and if you’re not trying to do things that push the envelope, that do something new and fresh (Not necessarily revolutionary, just new, interesting, exciting) then what’s the point of writing your songs at all?

We are composers, we have a duty not to bore our listeners with conventional derivative songs. The only way to do that is to understand all the conventions and possibilities of the craft and to then try and move beyond them in a way that works.

Songwriting is a craft and an art.

10 More Tips for Songwriters

On Sunday 18th July, I was guest speaker at the London Songwriters Meetup. I spoke about 10 Tips for songwriters, and shared some of my favourite tips with the lovely songwriters in attendance. I also heard some fantastic songs and had a really good time.

Here are the notes I wrote before speaking:

1. ( A tip from Edwin Songsville) Write bad songs

Edwin says:

It’s more important to write lots of songs that it is to spend ages trying to make one perfect one.

You look at all the good songwriters and you realise they’ve written hundreds of songs. That’s how you get good at it. As Diane Warren,possibly the world’s most successful songwriter says: “My secret? I show up. That’s it.” Six days a week, she writes songs, and has been doing so for 30 years. Her very earliest songs? “They all sucked”. So write often, a song a week is a good start.

Mark McGuiness at www.copyblogger.com says:

“Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Robert Weisberg discusses statistical research into the proportion of masterpieces to minor works among great and not-so-great composers.

The researchers concluded that the rate of hits to misses was pretty constant between major and minor composers. The truly great composers produce more masterpieces than the others, mainly because they produced more work overall.”

This is a tip made by a lot of songwriters in 10 Tips for Songwriters, in different guises and the basic point is an obvious one.

If you’re going to be a songwriter, you need to write songs. We’re very good at distracting ourselves from that but actually one of the most important things to do is write songs. Lots of them.

2. ( From Gary Jugert) Know the difference between bourbon and whiskey – A songwriter needs the proper tools.

3. (From Helen Robertson) Freedom is Slavery

Helen Says

Constraints are your friend. If the tempo, or the key, or the genre, or the subject matter, or anything else are already decided before you start to write, you have much less messing about to do once you get started. It’s like the difference between trying to find a needle in a haystack and trying to find a needle in a field.

I think there’s a lot to be said for this – creativity thrives with limitations, it’s easier to be imaginitive when some choices have already been made. I’m in favour of limiting yourself in some way.

Now usually I write lyrics at the same time, or after I’ve written the music. So as a challenge to myself last week I wrote a set of lyrics before I had any inkling what the music was going to be and then had the challenge of composing the music to them.

The Beast of the Air

Things to take away from this song – the structure of the song isn’t verse chorus verse chorus, I saw no point in coming back to the verse material later.
The chorus is a blatant steal from the Radiohead song ‘There there’

4. (From Gary Jugert again) Practice your offended face

Sooner or later somebody is going to call you a songwriter, and you’ll need to say, “I’m a composer,” with your offended face.

5. Constantly expand you pallette

Music theory is your friend. If you only use the same three chords then you are limiting yourself. As a guitar player, if you only use standard chord voicings, well to be frank stop it put some effort in. You should know at the very lest all the chords available to you in the major key – which if you include sevenths, sixths and their inversions is roughly 70 different chords.

I remember very distinctly however, a guitar lessons from my old guitar teacher where he showed us how to harmonise the major scale to see which seventh chords you get in that. And that was interesting, but nothing very new. But then he did the same with the harmonic minor scale – and this was the first time I’d ever considered that you could have a minor chord with a major seventh, and the first time I’d ever heard of an augmented chord.

This opened my eyes to all sorts of new harmonic ideas that I’d never used before. I’d heard them in music before but never realised what they were. Since then I’ve always tried to expand my pallette and learn new things, and I sincerely think you’re doing yourself an injustice as a songwriter if you don’t continously learn new things musically.

Here’s a song that uses some of those ideas:

Things to take away :- there’s a couple of different time signatures used rather than just one, and I use some of those harmonic minor scale chords as well.

6. (From Gary Jugert again) One word: Guitar – The other instruments are for losers.

7. Songwriting is not lyric writing

Lyrics are important but they are only one element of a song. Sometimes when I say this, people reply ‘of course, there’s music too’ but there’s more to it than that. A song is not a 50/50 spilt between words and music. Your melody, your use of rhythm, groove and tempo, your choice of chord and scale, the instruments and timbre you use, each of these elements has equal importance to you lyrics.

There are writers out there who claim to write about songwriting, but only talk about lyric. There are songwriters who could talk at length about poetic meter but couldn’t tell you what the dominant chord in D major is.

One of the main reasons I started www.songwright.co.uk was my frustration at the lack of songwriting blogs that addressed songwriting, rather than just lyric writing. Melodies matter, interesting music matters. In fact interesting music is far more important. Lyrics are very often hard to make out at first listen, and even when they can be made out they don’t do much to express the meaning of a song.

What?

Yes, your lyrics are not even the primary conveyors of meaning in your song. Just as tone of voice can dictate whether speech is sarcastic or genuine, you choice of musical ideas will colour what your lyrics mean.

Which brings us to tip 8

8. Consider the meaning of your chord progressions

And while you’re at it, the meaning of the scale you’re using, the meaning of the structure you’ve chosen.

For me every chord you play is layered with meaning depending on context and relationship to what’s around it.

I could go on at length about the meaning of the various modes, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead I’ll make the simple point that this chord progression – V to I – which has been the basis of Western music for a couple of centuries now is hard to justify. Using it makes you sound corny as far as I’m concerned.

You might disagree with that example but the basis of that point is simply this:- everything you use, melody chords, everything means something, and they the listener uses your music also means something and if your song is to be successful you need to consider what those meanings are because they say more to the listener than your words do.

The Lydian mode for me has connotations of dreaminess, happiness but with an edge of strangeness. I made use of it in ‘Something’s Bound to Happen’

9. Steal Ideas

There’s a quote : ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal’. I’ve heard that attributed to aristotle, D H Lawrence, John Lennon and Igor Stravinsky. And it’s true. I don’t mean plagiarise, I don’t mean steal music, I mean steal ideas. This way of phrasing a melody, that way of changing key, these chords, that rhythm.

I do this all the time, as I mentioned with the Radiohead song I’ve stolen from.

My last example, to illustrate my stealing an idea is from a song Called ‘Where Once They Had Hearts’. The idea I stole is from two sources – one snippet I’d read about Coltrane’s Giant Steps and two the middle eight chord progression from a song by heavy metal band symphony x – the idea of using chords a major third apart in a cycle.

The other idea I stole was from David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ – the idea of composing a tongue in cheek musical style ballad.

Where Once They Had Hearts

10. (From Gary Jugert again) There are only nine tips for songwriting.

10 More Tips for Songwriters

On Sunday 18th July, I was guest speaker at the London Songwriters Meetup. I spoke about 10 Tips for songwriters, and shared some of my favourite tips with the lovely songwriters in attendance. I also heard some fantastic songs and had a really good time.

Here are the notes I wrote before speaking:

1. ( A tip from Edwin Songsville) Write bad songs

Edwin says:

It’s more important to write lots of songs that it is to spend ages trying to make one perfect one.

You look at all the good songwriters and you realise they’ve written hundreds of songs. That’s how you get good at it. As Diane Warren,possibly the world’s most successful songwriter says: “My secret? I show up. That’s it.” Six days a week, she writes songs, and has been doing so for 30 years. Her very earliest songs? “They all sucked”. So write often, a song a week is a good start.

Mark McGuiness at www.copyblogger.com says:

“Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Robert Weisberg discusses statistical research into the proportion of masterpieces to minor works among great and not-so-great composers.

The researchers concluded that the rate of hits to misses was pretty constant between major and minor composers. The truly great composers produce more masterpieces than the others, mainly because they produced more work overall.”

This is a tip made by a lot of songwriters in 10 Tips for Songwriters, in different guises and the basic point is an obvious one.

If you’re going to be a songwriter, you need to write songs. We’re very good at distracting ourselves from that but actually one of the most important things to do is write songs. Lots of them.

2. ( From Gary Jugert) Know the difference between bourbon and whiskey – A songwriter needs the proper tools.

3. (From Helen Robertson) Freedom is Slavery

Helen Says

Constraints are your friend. If the tempo, or the key, or the genre, or the subject matter, or anything else are already decided before you start to write, you have much less messing about to do once you get started. It’s like the difference between trying to find a needle in a haystack and trying to find a needle in a field.

I think there’s a lot to be said for this – creativity thrives with limitations, it’s easier to be imaginitive when some choices have already been made. I’m in favour of limiting yourself in some way.

Now usually I write lyrics at the same time, or after I’ve written the music. So as a challenge to myself last week I wrote a set of lyrics before I had any inkling what the music was going to be and then had the challenge of composing the music to them.

The Beast of the Air

Things to take away from this song – the structure of the song isn’t verse chorus verse chorus, I saw no point in coming back to the verse material later.
The chorus is a blatant steal from the Radiohead song ‘There there’

4. (From Gary Jugert again) Practice your offended face

Sooner or later somebody is going to call you a songwriter, and you’ll need to say, “I’m a composer,” with your offended face.

5. Constantly expand you pallette

Music theory is your friend. If you only use the same three chords then you are limiting yourself. As a guitar player, if you only use standard chord voicings, well to be frank stop it put some effort in. You should know at the very lest all the chords available to you in the major key – which if you include sevenths, sixths and their inversions is roughly 70 different chords.

I remember very distinctly however, a guitar lessons from my old guitar teacher where he showed us how to harmonise the major scale to see which seventh chords you get in that. And that was interesting, but nothing very new. But then he did the same with the harmonic minor scale – and this was the first time I’d ever considered that you could have a minor chord with a major seventh, and the first time I’d ever heard of an augmented chord.

This opened my eyes to all sorts of new harmonic ideas that I’d never used before. I’d heard them in music before but never realised what they were. Since then I’ve always tried to expand my pallette and learn new things, and I sincerely think you’re doing yourself an injustice as a songwriter if you don’t continously learn new things musically.

Here’s a song that uses some of those ideas:

Things to take away :- there’s a couple of different time signatures used rather than just one, and I use some of those harmonic minor scale chords as well.

6. (From Gary Jugert again) One word: Guitar – The other instruments are for losers.

7. Songwriting is not lyric writing

Lyrics are important but they are only one element of a song. Sometimes when I say this, people reply ‘of course, there’s music too’ but there’s more to it than that. A song is not a 50/50 spilt between words and music. Your melody, your use of rhythm, groove and tempo, your choice of chord and scale, the instruments and timbre you use, each of these elements has equal importance to you lyrics.

There are writers out there who claim to write about songwriting, but only talk about lyric. There are songwriters who could talk at length about poetic meter but couldn’t tell you what the dominant chord in D major is.

One of the main reasons I started www.songwright.co.uk was my frustration at the lack of songwriting blogs that addressed songwriting, rather than just lyric writing. Melodies matter, interesting music matters. In fact interesting music is far more important. Lyrics are very often hard to make out at first listen, and even when they can be made out they don’t do much to express the meaning of a song.

What?

Yes, your lyrics are not even the primary conveyors of meaning in your song. Just as tone of voice can dictate whether speech is sarcastic or genuine, you choice of musical ideas will colour what your lyrics mean.

Which brings us to tip 8

8. Consider the meaning of your chord progressions

And while you’re at it, the meaning of the scale you’re using, the meaning of the structure you’ve chosen.

For me every chord you play is layered with meaning depending on context and relationship to what’s around it.

I could go on at length about the meaning of the various modes, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead I’ll make the simple point that this chord progression – V to I – which has been the basis of Western music for a couple of centuries now is hard to justify. Using it makes you sound corny as far as I’m concerned.

You might disagree with that example but the basis of that point is simply this:- everything you use, melody chords, everything means something, and they the listener uses your music also means something and if your song is to be successful you need to consider what those meanings are because they say more to the listener than your words do.

The Lydian mode for me has connotations of dreaminess, happiness but with an edge of strangeness. I made use of it in ‘Something’s Bound to Happen’

9. Steal Ideas

There’s a quote : ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal’. I’ve heard that attributed to aristotle, D H Lawrence, John Lennon and Igor Stravinsky. And it’s true. I don’t mean plagiarise, I don’t mean steal music, I mean steal ideas. This way of phrasing a melody, that way of changing key, these chords, that rhythm.

I do this all the time, as I mentioned with the Radiohead song I’ve stolen from.

My last example, to illustrate my stealing an idea is from a song Called ‘Where Once They Had Hearts’. The idea I stole is from two sources – one snippet I’d read about Coltrane’s Giant Steps and two the middle eight chord progression from a song by heavy metal band symphony x – the idea of using chords a major third apart in a cycle.

The other idea I stole was from David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ – the idea of composing a tongue in cheek musical style ballad.

Where Once They Had Hearts

10. (From Gary Jugert again) There are only nine tips for songwriting.

A Question – What Motivates Your Songwriting?

I’m working on an article about songwriting motivation, and I could use your help:

What motivates your songwriting? Why do you compose?

Do you write songs to sell them?

Do you write to express yourself?

Do you write to get an audience singing or dancing?

Do you write to praise a god?

To attract the opposite sex?

To make a point, political, moral or philosophical?

Answers in the comments!

(PS. Have you got your free copy of the ebook 10 Tips for Songwriters?)

Creativity for Songwriters

Creativity‘The process of having original ideas that have value’Ken Robinson – TED 2006.

I’ve been thinking lately about creativity. As songwriters we are trying to create new music, to compose something that has never before been heard. What is the best way to do this? Is creativity innate, easy to some, impossible to others?

In the TED lecture linked to above, Ken Robinson argues that education systems around the world are designed to suppress creativity because they were invented to meet the needs of the industrial revolution and so work along manufacturing lines. Identical children are created along linear lines, each the same as the last. Exactly the kind of approach that creativity is not.

What is creativity?

I like Robinson’s definition of creativity – ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’ – but what form does that process take for a succesful songwriter, and how do we judge whether our songs have value?

Probably the second of those is easier to answer. A song is valuable if you find it valuable. Perhaps it makes you feel happy, or relieved. Perhaps it fits a brief you’ve been given, or gets the audience clapping, dancing and singing along. It might express something you couldn’t otherwise say, or perhaps it expresses nothing but in five musical minutes allows you to transcend normal life and loose yourself in music.

Value is subjective. How could it not be? Music that is vital to some is meaningless to others.

There is a danger in the word ‘value’ – that it could be confused with monetary ideas. As Errol over at Elumir.com says, if ‘value’ is defined as a commodity that the masses are willing to pay money for, I don’t think that creative thought needs to have this value.’

Value is whatever you define it as, after all we’re talking about your songs, not someone elses. Whether a new song is creative is therefore in part a subjective thing.

Whether your song is original is less subjective. That chord progression or lyrical idea, that melody or structure might have been used a hundred times, and that is something we can judge, but has it been used in that context? Have these ideas been juxtaposed in exactly this way before?

Often creativity is about showing us a new angle on the familiar, in fact I’d argue creativity often has to build on what has gone before if it is to have value. Twentieth century classical music, for example, saw composers take huge leaps in originality, but some of it’s achievements were so far divorced from what had gone before that they lost all value.

Of course, if I chose a particular example to illustrate that point there would be hundreds of people who would disagree and say ‘no, that piece is creative, it has value to me’.

Consider this, from Jan Phillips at the Huffington Post:

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, says that creativity doesn’t happen in our heads but in the interaction between our imagination and our social context. It’s a matter of experience and response, a matter of relationship to others and a commentary on the significance of our encounters.

Context has a lot to do with whether a piece of music is original. A country musician using a country groove is hardly creative. A reggae band suddenly breaking into a country groove could be the height of creativity, depending on context (Or not. Merely juxtaposing different genres in unexpectedly isn’t necessarily creative. It all depends on how you do it)

The point stands I think, that for original ideas to have value, and therefore be creative, they are going to build on what we know.

Elizabeth King used this great picture to illustrate how we often think of creativity:

And then points out how inaccurate this is and instead quotes opera singer Dan Klein: “Creativity is the ability or process in which someone identifies the rules or traditions of a set paradigm and then goes about interpreting, breaking, or bending them to bring about a new or previously unexplored connection.”

I couldn’t agree more. Creativity depends on rules, context, expectations and how we play with them. Which is good news for us, as it means we needn’t to reinvent the wheel with every single song.

What are the characteristics of a Creative Songwriter?

Some ideas from others:

  • If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t achieve… Most adults are afraid to be wrong. – Ken Robinson

  • Gary Ewer, writing on his Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog recently, says ‘Unpredictability, weirdness, creativity – these are still the qualities I look for in good music. So I find myself ever turning to songwriters and composers that challenge my imagination and take me on journeys that stimulate my mind.
  • Matt Stevens, looping guitarist extraordinaire, says he consciously worries about being original when composing, and uses specific techniques, for example ‘I focus on using inversions to make it sound more clever than it actually is’.
  • All children are born artists – Pablo Picasso

There are some specifics to take from those quotes –

You’re not afraid to fail – Creating is risky, and to do it well (or at all) you need a safe place where mistakes don’t matter. This part of the process where you fail might happen well before your song is ever heard by others, or might happen there on stage, heard by you and the audience at the same time. Where you take the risk is up to you, but you have to take it? How do you know if an idea is any good until you’ve heard it?

You make unexpected connections – We don’t just need something new – the new idea has to connect to what we know, but in unexpected, suprising, delightful ways. We’ve all heard the soaring chorus, but not in that part of the song, not in this genre. We’ve used to four line melodies, but why not three or five lines? We know the chords in the key of C, but how can you work an Fsharp major chord into there?

You challenge the listener – You have enough respect for your audience that you don’t just give them what they’ve heard a thousand times before – because that’s not songwriting, it’s fast food. The reason so many of us grow out of the teenage pop songs we used to listen to isn’t because there’s anything inherently wrong with them, but because we’ve heard it all before, and top-forty pop rarely gives us something new. It’s the McDonalds burger of music.

You have a wide musical pallete – Matt Stevens knows his chord voicings. He also knows his time signatures and how to make the most out of limited resources (You should hear what he can do with one guitar and a couple of pedals). If as a songwriter you’re not constantly learning new chords, rhythms, lyrical ideas, melodic possibilities, then you’ll never have a wide enough pallette to write something truly creative.

(This is also why younger songwriters, who haven’t heard or learned enough to have a wide enough pallette, can still be creative in a way – Just because someone else has done it before doesn’t mean they didn’t just come up with it)

Your style changes
– the songs you wrote five years ago aren’t the same as the songs you write now, or the songs you’ll write tomorrow. You are never happy to repeat yourself, but instead try to take your songs to new places.

You’re childish
– or rather you retain the qualities that children have – a love of the new, an insatiable curiosity, the courage to try things out.

All of these things can be practiced and learned – creativity is a skill, not an innate ability. We can all learn how to create original ideas that have value.

A question for the comments – What can we do to improve our creativity as songwriters?

Related posts:

  1. 10 Tips for Songwriters

Stealing Ideas From Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark

Iron Maiden are one of my favourite bands, and one of the most influential heavy metal bands ever. A great post over at ‘Troll in the Corner’ got me thinking about them, and listening to some of my favourite Maiden songs.

Fear of the Dark, the title track from their 1992 album, the last before Bruce Dickinson left (temporarily) to pursue a solo career.

It’s far from Maiden’s longest song, but at seven and a half minutes it’s a masterclass in how to manage pace and momentum over longer periods of time.

I want to point out two great ideas that could be applied to songwriting in any genre.

  • Changing tempo – changing tempo is one of Maiden’s trademarks. This happens several times in Fear of the Dark, most notably at 2 minutes into the video, and in the second chorus at 3.18. They almost always change suddenly, which isn’t the only way to do it, but changing tempo in your songs can be a very effective way of adding contrast.
  • Harmonic rhythm – or the pace at which the chords change. The first verse (2.20) and the second verse (2.58) have the same melody, but listen to the chord changes. The chords change twice as often in the second verse compared to the first. This is another great technique Iron Maiden use to build the pace and interest within the second.
  • A static riff over a moving bassline. That first riff at 2 minutes involves the bass changing chords while the guitars play a static three note riff.
  • The ABA middle section. A common feature of middle sections in heavy metal is the ABA structure. In this song we have a guitar melody as section A, guitar solos as section B, then a modified repeat of section A with the added ‘Fear of the Daaaark!’ vocal.
  • A riff and chorus you can sing along with – Maiden have reached the point where they can literally draw hundreds of thousands of people to concerts, but even in their early days they wrote songs that seemed designed for stadium audiences to sing along with. What does that involve? – lots of repetition, and often melodies based on either the first notes of the aeolian mode, or chord notes.

None of these ideas are unique to Maiden or to metal, and can definitely applied to songwriting in any genre.

Have you got yourself a copy of my ebook ‘Worksheets for the Songwriting Guitarist’? Sign up to the mailing list to get your copy:

Papercut – How I Composed Two songs (part 2)

As promised, here’s the second ‘How I composed my song’ post from Cafe Noodle.

It isn’t for a song, so much as a half improvised 12-note improvisation, and it inspired Papercut from the previous post.

Papercut – A Sunday Soundscape by Tom Slatter

What I did to make my composition

By Tom Slatter aged 27 and a Half

First I decided on my note row:
D F# G# C D# B E A# F G C# A

I deliberately started off with a few major third pairings to give hints of niceness, then quickly ended up shoving notes in at random to complete the 12.

Then I recorded two bars of each note using an electric piano sound from the soft synth that came with my Emu Audio Interface.

Then I copied and pasted those notes in various different orders and tempo – mostly I stuck things togther at random then pruned them down and layered them up. Then I tossed in some delays and reverbs and a stepfilter – all either freeware or stuff that comes with Cubase LE.

To finish off I copied and pasted some of the sounds from the end into the beginning to give the illusion of having thought about structure. :-)

What do you do when you’re bored of all those chord progressions?

Have you ever found yourself frustrated with the chords you’re using? As if you’ve used all the chord progressions that could possibly exist, not just once but hundreds of times. I have, and I know lots of others have as well.

According to this rather good article on chord progressions even Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead has felt the same.

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood once said “There are only 12 power chords, and I think we’ve had about 20 years of them, so maybe it’s time to move on.” He even went as far as to issue a message (half-jokingly) to the bands fans to send him in any unusual chord progressions they could write.

So what’s the solution? I can think of a few possibilities.

1. Are you sure you’ve exhausted all the possibilities?

Have you really tried every possible chord progression? What about jazz chords? Gospel Chords? Sometimes learning something new about chord progressions is what we need. A new nugget of information can help you find something fresh to say.

2. Don’t think vertically, think horizontally

In pop music we often think vertically – a C chord in this bar, an Aminor chord in that bar – notes stacked on top of each other, changing all at the same time. That isn’t how our system started though. Western music developed from single lines – by accident we happened to develop a written system that allowed us combine more complicated lines of melody (that’s a huge oversimplification, but you get the idea) – chords happened through the combination of single lines blending together.

So why not write like that? Don’t have any instruments playing chords, give them melodies and riffs and see what you come up with that way.

3. Stick to percussion

Do you really need chords?

4. Use a drone

A drone can be a wonderful thing – one note, or perhaps a perfect fifth to define your tonal centre, but everything else is fluid – the key could be major, minor or modal, the pulse can shift and vanish, the bar line stops being a barrier. Why not forget chords, and just use a drone?

We all feel Johnny Greenwood’s frustration from time to time. Hopefully those 4 ideas will get the grey matter firing.

For the comments:

Anyone else have any ideas?

A new discovery – Songwritingscene.com

I’ve just stumbled across a new (to me) songwriting blog called Songwritingscene.com and a fun little post with a great songwriting idea:

‘The Random Song Generator’

Our assignment was based on a “Random Song Generator” — basically three columns of words…the first is the person, the second is the place and the third is the action. Choose one word/phrase randomly from each column and go forth to write! Hint: My assignment was “siblings, ages 9 and 11,” “in a coffee shop”, “stealing something.”