Songwriting - Part 1
by Tom Hess
Most people approach songwriting in the same general way. For those that write music, versus lyric writing only, that process is to go to their instrument and improvise until they stumble upon something that sounds good. They choose to focus only on the "goal of having a completed song" instead of focusing on the wide range of available "processes" to compose music. In other words, these people focus on the "what" (the song they want to write) instead of the "how" (which processes and methods can be used). Once the decision is made to write a new song, they begin with the one process that is easiest and comes most naturally to them - improvising at their instrument.
For the purpose of illustrating the examples below, let us assume your main instrument is electric guitar. Natural pros and cons inherently exist with every songwriting process and method. Here is the obvious set of pros and cons for the process of improvising with your instrument:
This Method's Advantages
This Method's Disadvantages
Any single songwriting process will be limiting. You must really work hard to squeeze as much out of a single process as possible. Of course having multiple processes is better than having only one (I will discuss other methods of writing songs in future articles).
Go to your instrument and begin improvising, notice what types of things you do naturally. What is the process that you usually start with? Do you begin by trying to write a melody? Or do you begin with chords? Here is a list of ideas you can use to begin.
Begin With Melody First
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Begin With Chords First
Begin With Chords And Melody at The Same Time
I like this one a lot. Begin with a single chord and a melody note or phrase, as you add on the next chord and more melodic notes, write them together. Experiment by changing the chord but not the melodic phrase. Experiment by changing the melodic phrase but not the chord.
Begin With Rhythm First
Dynamics, Texture and Form are the most often overlooked musical elements among songwriters. Record companies hire producers to improve the quality of the songwriting done by the writers. Most producers have to spend a lot of their time (and the artist's advance money!) shaping the songs in these three areas because songwriters often neglect to spend enough time and effort on them. Most people can write a melody and put chords together, but struggle with dynamics, texture and form.
Begin With Dynamics First
Begin With Timbre First
The variety of instruments you use, and the sounds you get out of those instruments brings color to your music. Once you have written a melody, experiment with how many different types of tone qualities you can use to play it. Even if you are only writing a song for a solo instrument, how can you "color" the sound with that instrument? For example, on a guitar, playing down by the bridge produces a totally different sound quality than picking over the center of the string (12th fret).
Begin With Texture First
The density of sound and timbre may influence the types of melodies you compose. Consider how the density of texture may change from section to section. What type of musical effect will result? A single guitar line might lead you to write guitaristic lines, but if you use a guitar to compose a keyboard part, your approach will often be (and probably should be) quite different.
Begin With Form First
Starting here can do wonders to keep you out of trouble (musically speaking). When you don't think about the form (arrangement of the parts of a song) early on in the writing process, it is easy to paint yourself in a corner later. When you have written various parts for a song but can't seem to piece the individual parts together in a cohesive manner this usually happens because there was little or no thought about form early on in the writing process.
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