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

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Latest Posts

Basics – The Five Guitar Chord Shapes.

I’m going back to basics for the guitar playing songwriters amongst you. The more experienced guitar players won’t find much new in these articles, but for those of you who have been playing for a little while and know a few chord shapes, this should help to bring together the different shapes you’re using, help you draw connections between them, and show you how you can begin to create and understand some new chord shapes.

CAGED

There are essentially five chord shapes on the guitar:- C A G E and D (easy to remember, they spell the word ‘CAGED‘). This week we’re going to look at C.

The basic open C shape is one of the first we learn as guitarists. Like all chord shapes, this can be turned into a movable shape as the diagram below shows:-

This gives you another movable chord shape – with your fourth finger in the fifth fret it becomes a D major chord, at the seventh fret, E major.

There are also lots of changes you can make to this to create different chords. For example, by barring with your first finger and removing your second finger you can get this shape:

This is a major seventh chord.

How do I know? Well, in the major scale the seventh note is always a semitone (one fret) down from the octave. I know that the note the second finger usually plays is the octave (eg. it’s another D in a D chord) so I need the fret below to make the chord a major seventh.

Similarly, I know the sixth note in a major scale is two frets up from the fifth. The fifth note in this case is played by the first finger, so I can create a sxith chord by playing this shape (though I need to rearrange my fingers to do so)

Wether you’re up on the theory or not, creating new chord shapes (or at least, chord shapes that are new to you) can be a great way to add some new flavours to your songwriting. Here are a couple more C-based chord shapes. Let me know if you find any others that sound good!

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!

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

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!

3 Great Songwriting Posts

There are plenty of good songwriting bloggers out there, so I thought I’d share some of the good writing out there.

I’ve been known to complain about songwriting er… writing. My biggest gripe is those posts that confuse songwriting with lyric writing and imply that all you need think about are the words you use.

But of course lyrics, while not the whole thing, are very important. So here’s a great post about rewriting your lyrics by Andrea Stolpe

Post 1 –Quick Rewriting Tips

I particularly like her advice on using specific, interesting verbs, rather than generic ones.

On the subject of lyric writing, Gary Ewer has some thoughts on whether lyrics should rhyme:

Post 2 –Should my lyrics rhyme?

He makes an interesting point about the dangers of rhyming for the sake of rhyming.

The danger of rhyming lyrics is when the rhyming seems forced. If you find yourself giving up on a more natural way of saying something in favour of a rhyming but forced lyric, you can make your song seem a bit corny.

I couldn’t agree more. After all if you’ve a word that absolutely conveys your meaning, that doesn’t quite fit your rhyme scheme, it will still often be preferable to a less expressive, but easily rhyming word. Rhyming itself can make a lyric seem easy and safe, which isn’t always a good thing.

Gary also makes the point that lyrics are not the only way of conveying meaning to reader. I’d go further and suggest that ini pop music the words are very rarely the primary conveyer of meaning. we get more musical meaning from melody groove and harmony than we do from most pop music lyrics, even when the words are well written.

But that’s a big subject for a bigger blog post.

Post 3 – A very good place to start

This post from Songwritten has some interesting things to say about melody, including a list of ‘Manic Melodic Methods’.

Melody is the most important part of your song, at least most of the time, and it’s always worth thinking hard about.

That’s all i have for this morning, but if you’ve seen any good songwriting articles recenty, let me know!

Oh, and you’ve got a copy of my free ebook, right?

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’.