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Know Your Modes – The Mixolydian

Character

The Mixolydian is a mode I associate with country, blues, heavy rock and the Beatles. It isn’t the only scale used in those styles, and it isn’t limited to those styles, but with it’s dominant seventh tonic chord and the emphasis on the seventh note of the scale, it always conjures up images of old fashioned, American rock. It’s a beer drinking, gibson chugging, guitar twangin’ mode (or at least, that’s how it feel to me).

Construction

The mixolydian mode is almost the same as the ‘normal’ major scale, except that the seventh note is flattened by one semitone. So in C Mixolydian the notes would be C D E F G A Bb C.

You can do the same to any major scale. For example, G mixolydian is G A B C D E F G (all the white notes on the keyboard starting at G). D mixolydian is D E F# G A B C D.

To generalise, the intervals in the mixolydian mode are:

Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Semitone, Tone

It might look like a tiny change but having that flattened seventh creates a very distinct harmony that is miles away from the major scale.

Chords:

The seven chords in those mode are:

I7 iimin7 iii Half-dim IV Maj7 v Min7 vi Min7 VII Maj7

In C Mixolydian: C7 Dmin7 E Half-dim F Maj7 G Min7 A Min7 Bb Maj7
In G Mixolydian: G7 Amin7 B Half-dim C Maj7 D Min7 E Min7 F Maj7

In the major scale, we’re used to chords VI and V being important. Chord V in particular often comes before I to form a cadence. In the Mixolydian mode, the VII chord performs a similar function, as in one of the most famous songs that uses the mixolydian mode, Sweet home Alabama:

What to do if you want that mixolydian sound? Try writing chord progressions that use chords I and VII, eg. C Bb F,    G C  F and work from there.

Songwriting Sketches – The Exorcism of Marjorie Grace

For 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.

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.

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:

Quick Tip – Don’t be a Slave To Songwriting Convention

Marking students coursework at my school, I came to a song that I gave almost full marks to.

One reason for the high marks was the song’s fantastic, subtle playing with songwriting conventions.

The Bridge – The bridge happens after the second chorus, right? Not according to my student. Instead she put it between the 2nd verse and 2nd chorus. Right at the point I was expecting to hear the chorus again, I instead heard a contrasting minor key and a new bridge I hadn’t heard before. This the effect of creating a pleasing, balanced feel despite it being a short song. It was also suprising in musical way, which is always a good thing.

4s – Everything in popular song comes in fours, right? Four bar phrases, creating four line melodies, four lin verses, four line choruses. Not according to my student. Instead, she had a really effective verse that had a three line melody.

Neither of these ideas is new, and neither is a radical departure from ’standard’ structure. However, they do show a young songwriter who is confident enough to play with conventions without abandoning them.

PS One thing we don’t mark on the GCSE is the quality of lyrics. This student could possibly use some help on her lyrics, and with my own songwriting I’m feeling the same, so here are some links on lyric writing:

Ultimate Songwriting Lessons – Songwriting Hooks and Songwriting Meat

I just stumbled across this video, via this post.

It’s from this website.

First off, let me make clear that I have a very low opinion of sales pages like this one. I know they’ve been shown to work, that they’re ‘good marketing,’ but I really don’t like them.

However, don’t take that us an opinion of the book, as I haven’t read it, I’ve just seen the video.

A few thoughts occured as I watched, and I made some rough notes:

  • The narrator equates artistic worth with ‘lyrical depth’. Personally I would argue that lyrics are not the main conveyor of meaning in popular song – meaning comes from other parts of the song as well.
  • Suggesting that ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones has lyrical depth is probably pushing things.
  • The Cardigans hook is great, but I want more meat in this analysis. For example, the hook is not just the guitar part, it’s the combination of a relatively static two pitch guitar riff over a moving chord progression. The rhythm of the guitar riff – emphasising beats 2 and 4 like the snare drum, probably has something to do with it, as does the A A A B structure of the riff.

Hooks are generally good because they emphasise or play with our expectations.

Take that fantastic Satisfaction guitar riff – yes it has only three pitches and a really unique timbre, but we can say more than that.

For a start, the chords underneath are E and A. The riff follows the chords starting on a B note in the E chord before moving through a Csharp to a D. When we come to the A chord the guitar is playing a D, creating an A sus4 chord that then resolves to the Csharp and a straight A chord.

So it’s taken a suspended chord we’re very used to from choral music (and lots of other styles) and transposed it to a rhythm and blues setting.

The Kylie Minogue hook is worth mentioning because the meat of it is so wonderfully simple – all those off beat notes, plus a melody that traces a simple line between two chords that are a fifth apart – just like in Satisfaction.

I’ve only watched the one video from this website, and they definitely look worthwhile. Whether the ugly sales page is a good move is up to you.

Harmonising a melody – Beyond the Primary Chords

This morning I had a comment on my previous post on how to harmonise with primary chords..

Emelia asked why I couldn’t harmonise ‘Oh When the Saints’ with a D minor chord.

Now fitting chords and melodies together is a big subject, and there’s lots to say on the matter. The point I want to make here is: there is always more than one possibility, when choosing chords.

Here’s the first half of the 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

Using primary chords (ie the chords on the first, fourth and fifth step of the scale, in this case C F and G) I harmonised it something like this:

C                                 C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

C                                  G
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in
C                      F
I want to be In that number
C              G             C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

Here’s what that sounds like:

Oh When The Saints

But Emelia has spotted that whenever I’ve use a G chord, the melody use a D. So couldn’t I use any chord with a d note in it?

Yes, Emelia, I could you’re right. The reason we start off with primary chords is to make sure people understand the principles, because with those three chords any melody that doesn’t change key can be harmonised. That doesn’t mean using the primary chords is always the best way.

In this situation for example, I could do replace the G chords with D minor. That would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with a Dm chord.

I could replace the C chords with A minor as well, that would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with Am and Dm chords.

The chords we use are very often a creative choice. Change the chords and you change the character, so it all depends on what mood you want things to have. The best way to find the correct mood is to improvise, experiment with other chords until you find what you think sounds best.

Personally, my favourite harmonisation of Oh When the Saints is during the later, darker verses, where I’ve heard it transposed into a minor key:
Oh When The Saints Minor.

Well known folk songs and hymns constantly change and evolve as people find new ways to harmonise them. There are always different choices, and once you’re sure of the basics, the best way to find the right chords for your melody is to explore all the possibilities.

I’m currently writing a new ebook about harmonisation. Why not join my no-spam mailing list so you can get a free copy when I’m finished. There’s another free ebook available as well, and you can leave the mailing list any time you choose.

How to Harmonise – Part 1

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

This is the opening section of a new Ebook I’m writing ‘How to Harmonise’.

What Does Harmonise Mean?

The most common subject people search for on www.songwright.co.uk is ‘how to harmonise’. When I talk to people, they seem to mean two slightly different things by this: how to add chords to a melody, or how to add vocal harmonies to a melody. These are similar concepts that both contain the idea of harmony, or more than one note sounding at the same time. Both also pre-suppose the existence of a melody. The idea of vocal harmony, however, concentrates on linear movement – parallel lines of melody weaving together – wheras chords are a vertical idea – blocks of notes changing from bar to bar.

When I was studying music I was taught a hugely simplified history of how harmony developed: monks singing plainchant in medieval Europe moved from unison song, with everyone singing the same note, to two notes at a time. As music developed through the Rennaissance systems of contrapuntal music developed, with different lines of melody weaving together. As time went on this was replaced with a system that put more emphasis on vertical chords, and the whole tonal system of scales and chords came into being. Composers noticed that their interweaving lines came together to form specific groups of notes, chords, that sounded good, so rather than thinking only in terms of the horizontal melody, they could start by thinking of the chords then ‘fill in’ the appropriate notes.

I don’t doubt that this history is so simple as to be incorrect, but this book isn’t about history. The only point I want to make is that the two ideas, of vocal harmony and putting chords to a melody, are not in fact different. If you want to know how to harmonise vocals, you will need to know which chords are being used. Liewise, if you want to put chords to a melody, you will need to consider not only which chord, but how to arrange vocal melodies and other important elements (such as the bass line) to fit the chord.

Simply put, ‘harmony’ is more than one note at the same time. Usually it means combinations of notes that sound good together, but what we mean by ‘good’ can change – you might want your music to sound ‘unharmonious’ and discordant. Achieving that also requires a knowledge of harmony.

Some basics :- Intervals and Drones.

Harmonising At An Interval

Here are the first few notes of the major scale:

Ex1.

Example 1

There are lots of ways I could harmonise this. I could use octaves, the same note but at double the frequency. This is what you might hear if a male and female singer were singing the same melody:

Ex2.

Example 2

Another common harmony is in ‘thirds’. If C is the first note, E is the third along. If D is the first, F is the third. So ‘thirds’ simply means adding the note that is two ‘up’ the scale. You can find this easily by singing the correct ‘third up’ harmony note E and singing up the same melodic contour.

Ex3.

Example 3

You could also do the same by going up a fifth (ie treating C as the first and starting on G), or down a third:

Ex4.

Example 4

Ex5.

Example 5

This is a basic idea that singers might have started with when music was first developing and it forms one of the most important ideas for harmonising your songs. The important point to take away is the idea of parellel lines a slight gap apart. Harmonising with a third above is by far the most common form of vocal harmony in pop song. The concept of going up a third is also a vital one in forming chords, which we’ll come to later.

Drones

Lots of musical genres, for example Indian music, use a drone to provide a harmonic basis to a melody. The most simple version of a drone is a single note, plus its fifth, for example G and D. These could be repeatedly plucked on a string instrument or played as sustained notes. A melody can be played over the top.

Ex6. A Drone in G

Drones can be very effective for certain moods and they also illustrate a very important concept. Unlike harmonising at an interval, where we followed the contour of the melody completely, changing harmony note when the melody changed, here were have a harmonic layer underneath the melody that does not change at all.

Things To Try

1. Take a melody you know well and try harmonising at an octave, a third, a fifth and so on.
2. Get a drone going using a keyboard or sequencer, or just use the one I’ve provided in example 6. try improvising melodies over the top.

Mailing List

This post is just the first draft of the first page of the new ebook I’m writing called ‘How to Harmonise’. For regular updates (and absolutely no spam) why not sign up to the Songwright mailing list:

 

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.