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

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Stealing 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.”

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:

8 and a half tips for writing good riffs.

A riff is a short, repeating musical phrase that forms a structural basis or hook for your song. Sometimes they’re used as a main hook, sometimes as the basis to a verse, sometimes both.

Rock songs often use riff ideas for the verse and chordal patterns for the chorus.

I’ve put together a short and not at all definitive list of a few ideas you could use to help your riff writing.

1. Use Chord Notes – The famous, often repeated rock and roll bass line follows this. For example, Elvis Presley’s version of Hound Dog. The main riff in C follows the notes of the chord – C E G, C E G etc.

2. Use a limited range of notes – A riff is supposed to be simple and catchy, so don’t use too many notes. A limit of five is more than enough.

3. Emphasise the scale – Which five? Well that depends on the scale. Every scale has notes that characterise it.

So with the Dorian scale you’d want to emphasise the minor third and the major sixth. For example in E dorian try messing around with E, G and C#.

With the Lydian it would be the major third and the sharp fourth eg. E, G# A#.

4. Put Rhythm First – Particularly something catchy and off beat. How many times have you heard the Bo-Diddley “Shave-and-a-hair-cut. Two Bits!” Rhythm? George Michael used it for ‘Faith‘, and he wasn’t the first or the last.

5. Follow a Chord Progression – Just as an chord can move from place to place, so can a riff. If you’ve a chord progression that changes from G to C, the riff can move up a fourth (up a string for you guitarists) at the same time.

Be careful here. You might need to change the riff slightly to fit with the kind of chord. If your progression is G to C minor then where you were playing a B note in your G chord riff, you’ll now need to play an Eb to fit with C minor.

6. Try to Avoid Generic Riffs – There are loads of these. The rock ‘n’ roll C E G A Bb A G E… riff is probably a bad idea unless you’re writing pastiche. Similarly there are loads of other generic riffs, such as the G Bb G Bb C (think the Diet Coke ad) that are so over used you’d do well to avoid them

7. Avoid the tyranny of four – try to write a riff that doesn’t last for four bars. Try three, or five to give your riff a more interesting shape.

8. Follow a Structure – Be it ABA, AABA  ABAC, following some sort of structure can give your riff an interesting structure that captures the ear

8 and a half. Add a Tail – this is just a common structure: play the same short motif 3 times than add a tail to finish the riff. Metallica’s main riff from Enter Sandman is a classic example.

Hope you get some inspiration from all this. If you have any tips to add, leave a comment.

8 and a half tips for writing good riffs.

A riff is a short, repeating musical phrase that forms a structural basis or hook for your song. Sometimes they’re used as a main hook, sometimes as the basis to a verse, sometimes both.

Rock songs often use riff ideas for the verse and chordal patterns for the chorus.

I’ve put together a short and not at all definitive list of a few ideas you could use to help your riff writing.

1. Use Chord Notes – The famous, often repeated rock and roll bass line follows this. For example, Elvis Presley’s version of Hound Dog. The main riff in C follows the notes of the chord – C E G, C E G etc.

2. Use a limited range of notes – A riff is supposed to be simple and catchy, so don’t use too many notes. A limit of five is more than enough.

3. Emphasise the scale – Which five? Well that depends on the scale. Every scale has notes that characterise it.

So with the Dorian scale you’d want to emphasise the minor third and the major sixth. For example in E dorian try messing around with E, G and C#.

With the Lydian it would be the major third and the sharp fourth eg. E, G# A#.

4. Put Rhythm First – Particularly something catchy and off beat. How many times have you heard the Bo-Diddley “Shave-and-a-hair-cut. Two Bits!” Rhythm? George Michael used it for ‘Faith‘, and he wasn’t the first or the last.

5. Follow a Chord Progression – Just as an chord can move from place to place, so can a riff. If you’ve a chord progression that changes from G to C, the riff can move up a fourth (up a string for you guitarists) at the same time.

Be careful here. You might need to change the riff slightly to fit with the kind of chord. If your progression is G to C minor then where you were playing a B note in your G chord riff, you’ll now need to play an Eb to fit with C minor.

6. Try to Avoid Generic Riffs – There are loads of these. The rock ‘n’ roll C E G A Bb A G E… riff is probably a bad idea unless you’re writing pastiche. Similarly there are loads of other generic riffs, such as the G Bb G Bb C (think the Diet Coke ad) that are so over used you’d do well to avoid them

7. Avoid the tyranny of four – try to write a riff that doesn’t last for four bars. Try three, or five to give your riff a more interesting shape.

8. Follow a Structure – Be it ABA, AABA  ABAC, following some sort of structure can give your riff an interesting structure that captures the ear

8 and a half. Add a Tail – this is just a common structure: play the same short motif 3 times than add a tail to finish the riff. Metallica’s main riff from Enter Sandman is a classic example.

Hope you get some inspiration from all this. If you have any tips to add, leave a comment.

Should we try to be original?

Is originality possible in songwriting?

over the last few months I’ve been having regular songwriting sessions with my sixth form students. They’re a heavy metal band – a genre that has an interesting mix of originality and copycat songwriting.

Like any other genre, over time you can see clear innovations – metal has pushed modal and chromatic harmony into new areas for pop music and explored new guitar and vocal timbres.

However, generally speaking, any one band, album or song tends to fit into a wider style. You can listen to a song and say ‘there’s a Metllica style verse riff, with Iron maiden chords for the chorus, and a half time coda like Machine Head’s Davidian….’

My sixth formers are at the stage in their songwriting where they’re using other songs as templates. For example they’ve noticed the loud-soft-loud dynamics of Remember Tomorrow by Maiden and Fade to Black by Metallica and applied them to a song of their own.

Any long time reader of this blog will know that this is exactly the sort of ideas stealing that I approve of, but recently, and worryingly, my thoughts have turned to the idea of originality.

So, I have two questions for you:

  1. If you’ve composed your own words and melody – but used chords, structure and other stereotypical ideas from a well defined genre, is the song original?
  2. And does it matter if it is?

What do you think? Use the comments to let me know

Should we try to be original?

Is originality possible in songwriting?

over the last few months I’ve been having regular songwriting sessions with my sixth form students. They’re a heavy metal band – a genre that has an interesting mix of originality and copycat songwriting.

Like any other genre, over time you can see clear innovations – metal has pushed modal and chromatic harmony into new areas for pop music and explored new guitar and vocal timbres.

However, generally speaking, any one band, album or song tends to fit into a wider style. You can listen to a song and say ‘there’s a Metllica style verse riff, with Iron maiden chords for the chorus, and a half time coda like Machine Head’s Davidian….’

My sixth formers are at the stage in their songwriting where they’re using other songs as templates. For example they’ve noticed the loud-soft-loud dynamics of Remember Tomorrow by Maiden and Fade to Black by Metallica and applied them to a song of their own.

Any long time reader of this blog will know that this is exactly the sort of ideas stealing that I approve of, but recently, and worryingly, my thoughts have turned to the idea of originality.

So, I have two questions for you:

  1. If you’ve composed your own words and melody – but used chords, structure and other stereotypical ideas from a well defined genre, is the song original?
  2. And does it matter if it is?

What do you think? Use the comments to let me know

Songwriting Improvisation Part One

A little freebie for you: part one of ‘Songwriting Improvisation’, a little PDF I’ve put together.

Get your copy here: songwriting_improvisation_part_one.pdf

What’s it for? Well, the fact is a lot of our best songwriting ideas come to us during improvisation. But I find it’s easy to run out of things to try. You can end up feeling like you’ve played every combination of chords and sung every combination of notes.

Songwriting Improvisation Part One contains some graphic prompts to help you look at improvising in a fresh way. There are some structural prompts and some contour lines. How you interpret them is up to you, they could dictate the structure of an entire song or just one verse.

All they are supposed to do is give a sense of structure to your improvising.

Feel free to share Songwriting Improvisation with any songwriters you know, and if you do use them, or any of the sheets from ‘Worksheets…’  please let me know. Even better, send me a link to your songs!

Quick Songwriting Tip – Inversions

What is the root note of a C major chord?

C, of course!

What bass note should you use for a C chord?

C!… or E…. Or G?

Come again?

You get a choice. Often you’ll hear C in the bass of a C chord, but that isn’t the only option. An inversion or ‘slash’ chord is where you change the bass note. So a C chord could be in…

  • The root inversion – C in the bass
  • The first inversion – the 3rd, E in the bass
  • The second inversion – the 5th, G in the bass
  • The third inversion – The 7th, B (or possibly Bb) in the bass.

Here are some other good posts about chord inversions:

  • www.guitarator.com
  • www.guitar.about.com
  • www.musiced.about.com

Related posts:

  1. 4 ways to write a bassline
  2. Quick songwriting tip – A Gospel Ending
  3. Quick Songwriting Tip – repeating a phrase a third higher
  4. Quick Songwriting tip – another standard chord progression
  5. Chromatic chords – A few options

Songwriting Clichés – the list so far…

I’m collecting songwriting clichés, for my own amusement.

Here’s the list so far:

  • – The ‘tone-up’ key change for the final chorus
  • – A saxophone solo in a power ballad
  • – Rhyming self/shelf, love/above, together/forever (thanks Jannie)
  • – Using an established folk tune (looking at you Bob Dylan).
  • – Overuse of the word ‘Baby’ (thanks Corey)

Have you got any others I can add to the list?