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

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General Blog

How to Harmonize – A New Free Ebook

here’s a new, free ebook available from www.songwright.co.uk. To download it, you just have to sign up to the free, no-spam mailing list using the form at the bottom of the post.

How to Harmonize

How to Harmonize is a collection of 5 primer lessons aimed at Songwriters who are just starting out and want to know more about how to harmonize their songs – how chords and harmonies work.

Lesson 1: What Does’Harmonize’ Mean?
Aim:    To explain how the two meanings of ‘harmonize’ are really one.

Lesson 2:
Some Questions About Intervals
Aim:    To explain which intervals are found in the major scale

Lesson 3: Some Questions About Chords
Aim:    To explain what a chord is and show you which chords are found in each of the major keys

Lesson 4: How to Harmonize a Melody Using Primary Chords
Aim:     To explain how the 1st, 4th and 5th chords of a key can be used to harmonize a melody

Lesson 5: Harmonizing a Melody – Beyond the Primary Chords
Aim: To explain how chords other than the 1st 4th and 5th can be used

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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?)

Why any good Songwriter needs to be able to Improvise

What skills do I need to compose my own music?

I would argue that any good songwriter has to be able to improvise. Improvising music, coming up with new ideas as you play, is one of the most important skills for any songwriter.

Steve Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, wrote a blog post where he describes improvisation:

  • “Improv resolutely is not ‘playing things you’ve never played before’, any more than a conversation is about ‘making up new words as you go along’.”
  • “Improv is playing ‘good things’ that you choose to play in the moment, based on the compendium of ideas, phrases, sounds, techniques and other musical devices that you have at your disposal. (with that in mind, knowing when to stop playing – or not start in the first place – is a great improvisational skill).”

Now I found this fascinating, because it helped to clarify the differences and similarities between improvising as a soloist and improvising as a songwriter.

Musically, I’ve always been a jack of all trades, composer, singer, guitar played, teacher, whatever. But I’ve done a little improvising as a soloist and Steve’s right, it’s all about playing what is best for the situation, based on your store of musical devices.

It also, obviously, happens in real time with no possibility of refinement, so it’s got to be good from the outset.

That’s not quite the same as improvising in order to compose.

Similarities do exist, for example that pre-existing ‘compendium of ideas, phrases and sounds’. You’re a songwriter, so you’re [hopefully] also a music lover and performer. That means you’ll already have a library of ideas that other people have used, chord progressions, melodic fragments, structural ideas, key changes, grooves and rhythms.

If you’ve been songwriting for any length of time you’ll also have endless snippets of ideas that you haven’t yet worked up into finished songs. All of them will be sitting at the back of your mind, waiting to be called on, or more likely, waiting for the moment to shove to the front and demand you pay attention to them.

Improvising as a songwriter will involve calling all of these up at various times, recombining them, changing and juxtaposing them.

The big difference is that it is not to create a finished solo, but to explore possibilities. It’s more like a practice session perhaps, without a need to entertain an audience there and then.

The big plus with this is that you can repeat things as many times as you want, you can stop and go back. You also don’t need to worry if you’re slightly out of tune, as you’re about to hear…

So, how does improvisation as a songwriter work?

Here are two improv demos I recorded this evening:

—— ALERT ALERT very rough recordings with bad singing follow ALERT ALERT——–

Ingenious Devices draft 1

This improv began as a little vamp on an Aminor chord and the title ‘Ingenious Devices’. As you can hear, it’s very very rough. All I’m doing is playing around with the chords, trying out A minor, C minor, F major, getting a feel for the mood of the song. I’m also using la and ooh sounds, and nonsense half words to try and find melodic ideas.
Ingenious Devices draft 2

This, the end of my little improv jam is a little more refined – I’ve got a verse riff and a descending melody, the F chord, A minor vamp and title have worked themselves into a potential chorus.

It still needs a lot of work, but I’m starting to get the feel of a song.

What happened between the two recordings? Well, as Steve Lawson says about improvising for performance, I’ve used my ‘compendium’ of ideas. Specifically:

My knowledge of time signatures to create some interest in the ‘chorus’ – I’ve added a beat in a few bars, turning 4/4 into 9/8.

My harmonic knowledge – I’ve used what I know about harmony to create a Aminor based riff with a couple of chromatic notes.

A ‘feel’ for melody – I hope you can hear the beginnings of a workable melody there. I’ve a descending melodic line in my verses, over a static a minor riff. I’ve also the ‘Ingenious Devices’ line that uses the major and minor thirds of the F chord to create some interest – and the last line of the chorus which I hope is nicely dissonant and unresolved.

My knowledge of pop song structure – I’m already gravitating towards verse and chorus – although I’m tempted with this to do something a little different as the song develops.

Obviously it isn’t a performance – I stop and start, I sing badly, it maybe doesn’t sound very nice. But the point is, I’m still using the skills that a performer uses to improvise.

And if you’re going to write songs, those are skills you’re going to need to use.

PS. Do you want to recieve the Songwright blog in e-newsletter form? Do you want a free copy of my ebook? Then sign up to the mailing list with box to the top right of the page.

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’.