INDIESONGWRITER.NET

Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly songwright.co.uk)

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Basics

A Music Video and an Article

Been wondering where I’ve been in recent weeks? Moving house and unusual weather here in London mean I don’t have a regular internet connection and wont have for a couple of weeks yet.

However, you can still read about songwriting:- I’ve a new article over at www.ravenousraven.com.

I’ve also a new music video:

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:

Gary Ewer on Tension and Release

Gary Ewer has a great post on tension and release in songwriting:

What keeps a listener listening? If you can’t answer that you’ll be relegated to the dust-heap of music history, along with all the other songs that listeners got bored with. The answer to the question? It’s tension, then release, that keep listeners listening.

It’s a great post and well worth reading. If I was going to add to it I would say, as I often do, that the whole V to I tension has been done to death and is best avoided, particularly in the major scale. My preference would be to try something modal fo example the tension between F and E minor in E phyrgian.

How to write a song in only half an hour

I’ve discovered a sure-fire method that will allow you to write great songs in 30 minues or less.

Here’s what you do (NB I haven’t got all of these absolutely sorted for myself yet. I’m still learning):

1. Start learning music from a young age. It helps to have musical parents, to go to a school where singing is mandatory and to live in a country where free instrumental lessons are available (NB you may need to emigrate before your fifth birthday if you country does not provide such facilities and services. You may also have to change your parents). Time taken:-15 years

2. Spend a decade or two playing other people’s songs. This is a must. Immersing yourself in other people’s music is vital if you’re to get a grip on what makes a song work. After only three or four years playing other people’s songs, your own music will have gone from awful to just about acceptable. Time Taken:- 15 years

3. Learn your instrument – If you’re performing then you’ll need lessons from a pro. This includes singers. Anyone who tells you that lessons will destroy your natural ability or uniqueness is a fool and should not be listened to. Time Taken:- 5 years at least.

4. Study composition and music theory – If you’re lucky/determined enough you can do this at college. Find a course with a good songwriting or composition tutor, the sort of tutor who lets you be yourself, but gives you all the tools to be yourself fully. if college isn’t an option, find more experienced composers and learn from them. Time Taken:- a college course could last two or three years.

5. Write. Compose constantly, always seeking to improve. Keep records of your songs, good bad and indifferent. Demo as much as you can. Seek always to be better, and seek always to entertain yourself as well as others. Time taken:- if you want to do it properly, maybe 5 years.

6. Perform. Get in front of an audience and learn the rhythm, groove and feel that makes a song work. Time taken:- a few years of performances under your belt wouldn’t hurt.

7. Learn all the rules about songwriting, then learn how to break them. Time taken:- decades.

Follow those simple rules, and you’ll be able to turn out decent songs in half an hour, no trouble at all.

Basics – Alexander Rybak and how to work out a song.

The most popular post on songwright.co.uk is one about Alexander Rybak’s song ‘Fairytale’ which won the Eurovision song contest this year.

The majority of comments on it are from people asking whether I have the sheet music. I find this troubling because there is nothing complicated in the song that would warrant the need to look at a sheet of music:- your ears should be enough.

At least, I think they should. I spent the majority of my musically formative years learning chord progressions, riffs and songs by ear. We had an internet connection since I was about 10 years old, but if there was much guitar tablature up at that time I never noticed.

These days however, people invariably stick to what they can read on the internet. There seems to be a lack of interest in learning by ear, which is troubling because I’ve yet to come across an internet chord progression or guitar tab that wasn’t at least partially innaccurate.

So, in my small way, I want to help. And also, if anyone reading the original post has clicked through to this page then please please please, develop this skill rather than paying money to read a score for such a simple piece of music.

How do I work out a song?

Here is a simple set of principles that should help you work out any song you hear.

1. Listen – really listen to the song. Don’t sing along, don’t even tap your foot. Just listen to the groove, to when the chords change, to what the bass chords and melody are doing.

2. Work out the bass line. Pick up your instrument and find the opening bass note. This might be easy to find or it might take endless repetitions of the first few seconds of the song. With Fairytale you can clearly hear open strings in the opening violin – so the notes of the open strings on a violin are a good place to start (G D A E). What you’ll find with a lot of songs is that there is a simple bass sequence that repeats.

3. Repeat until you get it right. You might not work things out the first time, or even the tenth. Don’t worry, you will get there if you repeat the trak enough times.

4. It helps to know your chords. – Once I knew the first chord in Fairytale was D minor, I could already here that the rest were Gm Bb and A. How did I know? Do I have some magic special ability? No, I’ve just had plenty of practice playing different chord sequences and hearing how they work.

5. Get the chord sequence first, then learn the rest. Even if you don’t play the chord sequence, even if you are a drummer or singer, I’d say you still need to know the building blocks of the song.

6. Practice. This is a skill, a very important one. Start with relatively simple music (I’d recommend some rock’n’roll or pop punk for nice simple major key chord progressions).

7. Play along with the recording – that’s the only way to know if you’re right.

Hopefully this post will become as popular as the original post about Rybak, as this skill is one of the most important a songwriter can have.

Basics – Alexander Rybak and how to work out a song.

The most popular post on songwright.co.uk is one about Alexander Rybak’s song ‘Fairytale’ which won the Eurovision song contest this year.

The majority of comments on it are from people asking whether I have the sheet music. I find this troubling because there is nothing complicated in the song that would warrant the need to look at a sheet of music:- your ears should be enough.

At least, I think they should. I spent the majority of my musically formative years learning chord progressions, riffs and songs by ear. We had an internet connection since I was about 10 years old, but if there was much guitar tablature up at that time I never noticed.

These days however, people invariably stick to what they can read on the internet. There seems to be a lack of interest in learning by ear, which is troubling because I’ve yet to come across an internet chord progression or guitar tab that wasn’t at least partially innaccurate.

So, in my small way, I want to help. And also, if anyone reading the original post has clicked through to this page then please please please, develop this skill rather than paying money to read a score for such a simple piece of music.

How do I work out a song?

Here is a simple set of principles that should help you work out any song you hear.

1. Listen – really listen to the song. Don’t sing along, don’t even tap your foot. Just listen to the groove, to when the chords change, to what the bass chords and melody are doing.

2. Work out the bass line. Pick up your instrument and find the opening bass note. This might be easy to find or it might take endless repetitions of the first few seconds of the song. With Fairytale you can clearly hear open strings in the opening violin – so the notes of the open strings on a violin are a good place to start (G D A E). What you’ll find with a lot of songs is that there is a simple bass sequence that repeats.

3. Repeat until you get it right. You might not work things out the first time, or even the tenth. Don’t worry, you will get there if you repeat the trak enough times.

4. It helps to know your chords. – Once I knew the first chord in Fairytale was D minor, I could already here that the rest were Gm Bb and A. How did I know? Do I have some magic special ability? No, I’ve just had plenty of practice playing different chord sequences and hearing how they work.

5. Get the chord sequence first, then learn the rest. Even if you don’t play the chord sequence, even if you are a drummer or singer, I’d say you still need to know the building blocks of the song.

6. Practice. This is a skill, a very important one. Start with relatively simple music (I’d recommend some rock’n’roll or pop punk for nice simple major key chord progressions).

7. Play along with the recording – that’s the only way to know if you’re right.

Hopefully this post will become as popular as the original post about Rybak, as this skill is one of the most important a songwriter can have.

Eurovision 2009 – Alexander Rybak – Fairytale

NB.I’ve since written a follow up to this post which can be found here

I watched Eurovision 2009 on Saturday. I even drank Bucks Fizz and managed to get through the interminably long scoring section without getting bored and turning over.

I’ve watched Eurovision for the last three or four years, and the standard is getting better. Now the rules have been changed to mollify the geographical bias of some countries, it’s nearer to being a song competition than it has for a while.

Were there any world beaters this year? No, even the best songs were merely okay. For this post, let’s take a look at the winner ‘Fairytale’ by Alexander Rybak to see if there are any songwriting ideas worth taking.

I know, I know. He’s obviously cut from the same charmingly-ugly mould as Zac Efron – he’s got the sort of face that little girls love and everyone else wants to hit. That was an unfortunate factor in his favour, as this probably wasn’t the best song of the night. However, it is a catchy little number.

  • Chords: The song is in Dm and uses just the one chord progression: Dm Gm Bb A. This is a very strong, familiar chord progression. The basic journey from I to VI to V in a minor key (eg. Dm Bb A) has been used in countless songs and has a vaguely ‘folk’ feel to it.
  • Bass Line: Again, very strong and familiar – constant motion from root to fifth and back again on every chord.
  • Violin refrain: Another folky element, the violin refrain with it’s constant pedal note on the A string. This we hear at the beginning of the song and after every chorus, including a small solo section after the second. It usesjust three notes apart from that open string: E F and G.
  • The Chorus Melody: Placed right at the top of Rybak’s voice, to make it sound passionate. This melody uses only E F and G and is simple and memorable enough to be catchy.
  • The Lyrics: These scan well enough for English written by a non-english speaker. Personally I’m much happier when the lyrics are in native languages, but that’s just me. The verses almost tell a story. Well… in the first verse he’s in love with his fairytale, in the second they argue a bit… and that’s it.
  • The Arrangement: There are some nice little moments, such as the pause before the second chorus. But like almost every song in this competition, Fairytale just fizzle’s out after the second chorus. There’s no attempt at a bridge or any real contrast and after the solo violin refrain it just leaps into another chorus.

If you’re looking for songwriting ideas to steal, the chord progression and bass line are up for grabs, as is the use of a recurring refrain. Placing the chorus melody at the top of your singer’s range can also be very effective if you want the song to sound passionate and heartfelt.

The ultimate effect of the song, given it’s week arrangengement after the second chorus, is to leave you feeling frustrated. Yes it’s a nice little chorus, yes the song mixes pop and generic folky elements well, but where’s the beef? Where’s the emotional journey. It might be pop, but that doesn’t mean you can short change the listener by not going anywhere.

To be fair, only a couple of songs in the competition did have anything to say after the second chorus, one of them Iceland’s contribution, the other the Uk’s, both of which I might write about in the next two posts.

Basics – The Five Guitar Chord Shapes.

I’m going back to basics for the guitar playing songwriters amongst you. The more experienced guitar players won’t find much new in these articles, but for those of you who have been playing for a little while and know a few chord shapes, this should help to bring together the different shapes you’re using, help you draw connections between them, and show you how you can begin to create and understand some new chord shapes.

CAGED

There are essentially five chord shapes on the guitar:- C A G E and D (easy to remember, they spell the word ‘CAGED‘). This week we’re going to look at C.

The basic open C shape is one of the first we learn as guitarists. Like all chord shapes, this can be turned into a movable shape as the diagram below shows:-

This gives you another movable chord shape – with your fourth finger in the fifth fret it becomes a D major chord, at the seventh fret, E major.

There are also lots of changes you can make to this to create different chords. For example, by barring with your first finger and removing your second finger you can get this shape:

This is a major seventh chord.

How do I know? Well, in the major scale the seventh note is always a semitone (one fret) down from the octave. I know that the note the second finger usually plays is the octave (eg. it’s another D in a D chord) so I need the fret below to make the chord a major seventh.

Similarly, I know the sixth note in a major scale is two frets up from the fifth. The fifth note in this case is played by the first finger, so I can create a sxith chord by playing this shape (though I need to rearrange my fingers to do so)

Wether you’re up on the theory or not, creating new chord shapes (or at least, chord shapes that are new to you) can be a great way to add some new flavours to your songwriting. Here are a couple more C-based chord shapes. Let me know if you find any others that sound good!

Basics – How to Harmonise a Melody Using Primary Chords

Edit: The free ebook ‘How to Hamonize’ is now available. Click here!

How can I harmonise my melody?

You can harmonise any melody using just three chords.

Really? Great! Which three?

I, IV and V.

Erm… no, you’ve made a mistake, chords have letter names: A, C, F, G…

They do, but they can also be given numbers. Roman numerals are used to generalise.  Every major scale is different, but they all have the same structure, so they have the same kind of chords. Chord I is always a major, chord IV is a fourth up and major, chord V is a fifth up and major.

For example: in C major the three chords are C, (made up of CEG), F (FAC) and G (GBD).

The notes in this scale are C D E F G A B C. Every single note of the scale can be found in those three chords CEG, FAC, GBD.

But how does that help me add chords to a melody?

Okay, let’s take a look at a well known melody:

Oh when the saints, go marching in

C     E     F     G          C    E       F    G

Oh when the saints go marching in

C     E       F    G        E     C    E      D

Here’s just the melody:

If you have a good enough ear, you’ll be able to hear that most of those two lines fit with one chord. If you know enough about music theory you’ll be able to see that the vast majority of the notes used are from the C major chord: C, E and G.

The only notes that don’t fit with that chord are the Fs and the D at the end. Now the Fs don’t happen on important words, they fit with the word ‘the’ and because they fall on weak beats, we can pretty much discount them when choosing our chords.

The D on the other hand isn’t in in our C chord, and it falls on a strong beat, the first beat of a bar. Therefore we need to change. Which primary chord has a D in it? G major (GBD).

Here’s the melody with those chords added:

In the next post we’ll take a look at how to find chords for the rest of ‘Oh When the Saints’.