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Improvising

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. :-)

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.

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.

Songwriting Sketches – The Exorcism of Marjorie Grace

or the 50/90 challenge I’d thought I’d try something different and write a set of lyrics before I composed any music. Usually, I write lyrics and music at the same time, starting of with melody ideas and a mixture of possible lyrics, nonsense verse and random ‘la’ and ‘doo’ sounds. This time I forced myself to write lyrics to ‘The Exorcism of Marjorie Grace’ before I sang a note.

I haven’t finished yet, I’m about halfway. However, I’ve recorded some sketches, so I thought I’d share the process with you.

Sketch one – The chorus melody

Something interesting happened as I was writing the lyrics. The music started to come to me anyway, even though it was just me, the pen and the paper. It became clear that the rhythm of the words fit with a 6/8 time signature, and would sound something like the first section off the video.

Sketch two – Verses, choruses and some instrumental ideas

I haven’t quite defined them yet, but there are going to be some twiddley guitar parts centred on arpeggios of the root minor chord and the second diminished chord.

The verses also use those chords, but with an extra major sixth in the minor chord to contrast with the minor sixth of the scale in chord 2. This allows me to emphasise those notes in the melody, moving from the B to a Bb and then A, G, D. A couple of chromatic notes give’s the music a dark feel, which matches the mood nicely.

Sketch 3 – Middle eight and final chorus

The middle 8 is longer than 8 bars, and takes a simple idea through three different keys. This matches the rising tension as they try to Exorcise Marjorie.

The final chorus is in the major key instead of the minor. That’s a simple idea but not one I often use. Marjorie is now free of her demons so the music reflects her new hope.

Hopefully the song will be finished some time soon. When it is, I’ll share it with you.

No related posts.

How Songs Develop – Mechanism

Improvisation is one of the most important skills for the songwriter. It is also one of the least well taught.

As a guitar teacher I’ve tried to teach improvisation in numerous ways, though I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, I’ve had a little success.

What I’ve never really done (save for the occasional post) is address improvisation from the songwriter’s point of view.

In this post I’m going to begin looking at songwriting improv by sharing with you some of the improvisations I recorded during the writing of ‘Mechanism’, one of the songs I wrote and hastily recorded for the February Album Writing Month challenge.

Improv 1

This is the first improvisation I recorded. At this point I had one line of lyrics, some chords, a vague idea of the groove/bass line and little else.

You can hear me trying out ideas, and playing little bits of melody on the guitar to make clear to myself what I was singing.

This is how I usually improvise – guitar and voice at the same time and little idea of what the eventual lyrics will be – though I usually do have at least one line to give me an idea of mood.

Improv 2

Hear you can hear me improvising to try and figure out a chorus – some of the original chords from this survived, as did the ‘way you get to me’ arpeggio.

One difference you can hear is that I’ve a much clearer idea of how the verses will sound. In between these improvs I wrote a few lines down.

Both of these sound files, as rough and ready as they are, illustrate the basic difference between improvising as a jazz soloist might, and improvising as a composer.

The soloist is creating an improvisation that will be part of a performance – the improvisation itself should be a finished piece of music. The composer on the other hand is free to stop, repeat, try things out because he’s trying to find ideas that can later be refined and expanded.

The Finished Demo

How did I refine and expand? I kept the Cminor, Fminor, Gminor chord progression from the second improvisation, but with a new vocal line – that gave me my chorus.

I then used a few little ‘trick’ that had more to do with craft than inspiration:

  1. I changed key for the solo, to Aminor then back to G.
  2. I used a similar idea, but repeating the 6 bar chords from the beginning of the verse.

Obviously the demo isn’t the finished performance – there’s a lot I’d want to improve to realise the song completely, but the composition is complete.

I’m going to return to the theme of improvisation when I can. If you’ve recorded any of your own improvisations, or earlier versions of songs, I’d love to hear them.

A February in Songwriting

So how was your February? Mine was not nearly as productive as I thought it was goiong to be. I signed up to Febraury Album Writing Month, got all geared up to write, and then what did I achieve?

Five songs, one of which wasn’t really new at all. In fact it wasn’t even a song.

Seven Curses

Seven Curses

Started life as an audio sketch this one. Beyond the initial chorus I had absolutely no inspiration, so I had to rely on songwriting ‘tricks’ instead. These included the key change in the verse, the rather banal horro-film lyrics, and throwing in a widdley-widdely guitar solo rather than thinking of a decent bridge.

Fill my head up

Fill My Head Up

This was an improvised recording – I threw together a couple of chord progressions, improvised a vocal part and recorded that. Half way through that recording I decided to change key – up a tone again, like I did with Seven Curses when I couldn’t think what else to do.

After that I recorded three takes of backing vocals, and a couple of guitar solos. Given that it only took twenty minutes, I’m quite pleased with this. In particular I like the B Major chord on thechorus line ‘Fill my head up’.

Light a Path

Light a Path

I came up with the refrain for this while noodling about between guitar lessons a few weeks ago. Lyrically it’s supposed to be from the point of view of a person of faith. Not of any faith in particular, just general faith in all sorts of crackpot ideas.

I think the melody works for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve used a mixture of voices, including a synth sound. I’ve recently become very partial to a good synth sound.

The other reason is the change in mode – halfway through the melody it changes from major to minor. Gary Ewer has recently written an article about this, and in this case I think it works well.

Two

Two

This is the second of three pieces I wrote for flute and guitar during my degree. Not having a flautist to hand, I decided to realise it with guitar and synth. I’m particularly pleased with some of the chords in this: I was trying to come with chords with semitone/compound semitones in them eg. an E and F at the same time or a G and G# at the same time:

– 1 –
– 0 –
– 2 –
– 2 –
– 0 –
– x –

or

– 4 –
– 0 –
– 0 –
– 2 –
– 2 –
– 0 –

Mechanism

Mechanism

This was an attempt to write a set of steampunk lyrics – I’m quite happy with them, and also with the dirty synth sound and the chord changes in the verse.

In Summary

I’m hoping to do better next year, and also over this summer’s 50/90 challenge, which I’ll probably have a go at. All told, in the last year I’ve written 15 songs over two FAWMs and 25 songs for 50/90, as well as recording 8 singles for We’ll Write (a total of about 24 tracks so far). That’s a pretty good output, seeing as there aren’t very many throw-away joke songs amongst that (I haven’t got the guts to post the comedy songs that other people do!)

But next time, I’ll actually hit that magic number 14!

Five Ways To Come Up With Good Songwriting Ideas

I’ve been thinking a lot about improvisation lately. I even put together a little ebook with some improvisation prompts in it recently.

To compose a song you need to come up with musical ideas and usually you do so through improvising. Of course, you want good ideas, so logically you should look for ways to create good improvised ideas.

That logic doesn’t work. Even if we ignore how subjective the idea of a ‘good’ idea is, the fact is there is no sure fire way of always creating good ideas.

However, you can learn ways to increase the volume of ideas. The more ideas you create, the more good ideas you’ll discover amongst them.

Here are five ways to increase the volume of your improvised ideas:

Record everything – I doesn’t matter how you do it, whether you write things down on manuscript paper, press record on your music software or turn ona dictaphone, recording improvisation sessions is vital. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve come up ith a good idea, been convinced it was so good I’d never forget it, only for it to vanish as soon as i pay attention to something else.

Don’t worry about originality – ’Good artists borrow, great artists steal’ is a quote that, ironically, has been attributed to more than one person. Originality, though desirable, should not be strived for. it actually isn’t very difficult to come up with a new way of doing things. Coming up with a a new idea that other people enjoy, that’s nigh on impossible.

Why? Because people get upset by new ideas They prefer familiar ideas, and music that can only be original if it does so slightly in the context of familiarity. Slight, gradual changes, not radical ones.

Use your musical knowledge – If pure inspiration isn’t helping, then think. Does you melody follow an upward curve for the first two lines? Have the third do the opposite. Is the accompaniment to your verse a laid back, half-time, groove? Then make the chorus full-time and uptempo.

Put yourself in unfamiliar territory – You always start with lyrics? Write the bassline first. You always play the guitar when songwriting? Play the piano. Or better yet, don’t play anything, just sing.

Develop you ideas – find out where they lead. I mean really follow them. Did you just change chords, moving down a third? Can you move a third down again? have you got a sequence, perhap a rising and falling pattern that you sing, then sing again, one note up. What if you move it up another step? And again? If you have any pattern, follow it, find out where it leads you.

Just a few ideas. Can you think of any others? Let me know!