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

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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.

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