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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.

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