In the last article that I wrote (21 Songwriting Tips), we explored many different ways to expand our musicianship as a whole. Songwriting Techniques takes us a step inward, focusing on the art of welding a song that used to exist only in our minds. No need for music theory here. This article merely examines the foundation of songwriting and offers alternate perspectives on how to construct a song. As with the last article, only take the tips that are relevant with you and your style of music. These techniques do not apply to every form of music, because many different styles seem to clash with others. Discard the parts that you don’t agree with.
Foundation of Music
How tricky. I’m going to explain music while staying away from music theory as much as possible! By all means, if you know music theory, it can only help you as long as you don’t abuse it. Still, many great musicians have existed without ever laying one eyeball on a piece of sheet music. The foundation of most songs have these things in common…
1) Rhythm. Rhythm, in this instance, refers to the skeleton that holds the guts of your tune. It is the chord structure that lays the groundwork throughout the song. Without a good or interesting rhythm section, you song will lack some serious umph. A poor choice of rhythm usually equates to a poor foundation to a song.
2) Lead. The lead is the instrument that carries the listener through the song. Quite often the rhythm repeats and with some genres of music, quite monotonously. Without a lead to push the song forward, there will not be movement in the song and people could get bored rather quickly. The lead is usually distinguished as being the highest pitched part of your song. If it is not the highest, then it is most likely the loudest. In many songs, a vocal or a guitar solo usually take the lead.
Imagine removing vocals and solos from most of the music that you hear on the radio. Most of the songs would be much less interesting! The lead is one of the most tricky and important parts of the song. A good rhythm lays the foundation. From the foundation, the lead is usually the instrument to make it soar, or fall apart terribly. The lead only has one restriction. In most cases, it is only limited by the foundation of the rhythm. If the lead can be free while adhering to the bonds of the rhythm, then your song will be all the better.
3) Bass. If the bass is doing it’s job correctly (excluding a bass solo), it should be supporting the rhythm while building interesting (or at least avoiding poor) harmonies from the lead. I would say that the two most prominent tones of a song are the highest and lowest pitch and their relationship to each other.
It’s like a cheeseburger. The rhythm is the bun that holds it together. The lead is the meat that tastes so great! The bass is the cheese that gives it that extra zing. The last two parts, the percussion and the ghost are all the extra condiments like ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions or whatever your individual particular taste is.
4) Percussion. Notice I said that percussion was a condiment. That’s because you can get away without percussion. It’s like ketchup. Most people like ketchup but some don’t much care for it. I, personally, must have ketchup in my burgers, oops! That’s off topic (mmm, making me hungry!) For some musical styles, great percussion is essential. A choir could benefit from percussion but does not necessarily need it. A rap song thrives on a great percussion. No need to explain what percussion is. Drums, bongos or basically anything that has some sort of impact that is timed to give it some sort of groove. It may even be a sample repeated in rhythm.
5) Ghost. Ghost? What the heck?! This is one element that does not have to be in your song, but is highly recommended. Ghost instruments usually shine after a person has listened to your song many times. These are those little tunes and riffs that you never even noticed the first few times you heard it. A good ghost note should add in a new subtle depth to your song that could not be attained through the other four categories. It should personalize your music with your individual flair. A good ghost sequence should make the listener feel like if it weren’t there, your song would feel just a little more empty. When people hear a song they love for the tenth time and notice a sequence that they never noticed before, then you’ve successfully added a ghost sequence.
So now what? You have the five foundations of music. What do you do with them? How do you start? That is a tricky question that I can’t answer. Sometimes a great song starts with an awesome chord progression from the rhythm, sometimes its the vocalist who comes up with a great melody line(the lead), sometimes its a funky groove, sometimes even a funky bass. Doubtfully will it spawn from a ghost sequence. They are usually added in the end. Though songs have spawned from many different places, I will cover them in order starting with the…
For me, I usually write the introduction last. That’s okay, no matter how you do it, I’m just going to give you some different ideas on how to start your song.
*Synchronicity. In many cases, the first four foundations come out at the same time. This gives your song a feel of a strength from the beginning. It goes from 0 – 60 in 0 seconds. There is no loss of momentum (although there is no build of momentum either).
*Lead first. Vocals, or a lead instrument begins the song. It will feel empty because it’s not supported by any of the other four foundations. That’s okay in this case. The feel of this idea is to make your the lead ‘naked’, to expose it like it could never be exposed before. Once you have bared the soul of the lead, usually the other foundations are quick to follow. Many slow songs will have a lead begin the music.
*Rhythm first / Percussion first / Bass first. No need to sub categorize these. They are all about the same idea. Buildup. Start with any of these three foundations and build off of them, usually a lot quicker than if the lead came in first.
*Veered of the road. Some songs veer off the road to lead the song in. These are usually deceptive ideas to make the listener feel that it is one style or type of song when it is entirely something else. Sometimes it is also a series of sound effects (wind, rain, door slamming, cars, commotion, talking, etc.). Veering off the road is tricky, as it can turn a person off if it is too long or annoying. Have a distinct reason for every part, don’t just mumble.
*Light Weight. Lightweight involves using instruments that are usually ‘lighter’ than the core instrumentation of the song. For a light song, the ‘lightness’ might come from the slowed tempo, or less articulation with the playing of the chords. In a hard rock song, it might start with a piano or an acoustic guitar. When the song fully comes to terms, it would then switch over to a distorted guitar playing the same rhythm, or a modified form of the same rhythm. This allows the lead to continue on without having to change the overall feel of the song.
* Heavy Weight. Blast them with a stroke of sheer power. Then when you think they are on the brink of explosion, drop it off into a much lighter form of instrumentation. Heavy weighting the song usually comes in strong, and builds up even stronger. Just when you think it’s about to hit the climax, it will completely drop off, only to be resolved (or visited again) way later in the song.
The Rest of the Song
I’m sure most of you know what a chorus and verse is. There are common song structures, but I’m not going to go over that. You all should know the standard and if your music would like to follow that standard or veer away. What I’m going to introduce are some new ways to enhance your music. I’m not including mixing techniques, just a handful of musical ideas to make your songs more creative.
* Morphing. Morphing a melody is a great way to introduce a new instrument. Basically, two instruments are playing the same thing, but one has no volume and the other has full volume. Slowly turn the volume down on one instrument (decrescendo) while the other gains volume (crescendo). It will make the instrument appear to morph in.
* Switcharoo. Another nice idea is when two instruments are playing two different parts. Switch the parts around to let the other instrument take the lead.
* Dropoff. Stop the music at once. This will create a tension. It should resolve rather quickly or you’ll lose the effect. This can be very powerful if used right.
* Invention. As one instrument finishes the first measure, a new instrument plays the exact same thing on the second measure while the first instrument continues it’s path. Here’s an example… (imagine these are being sung at the same time)
Instrument 1: Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world…
Instrument 2: Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what…
* Texture layering. Two to five synths all play the same part. Every synth has it’s own distinctive sound. This will make it sound like one huge sweeping synth. You can even layer other instruments (guitar, voice, etc) at the exact same pitch to give it a humanistic uniqueness. If the lead is layering with the texture, then it can later branch off to establish itself.
*Swirling Pans. Can be used with texture layering. Basically as one instrument pans completely to the left, another one is going right. They will appear to swirl around in circles around the listener.
*Veer off the road. Let your music veer off the road briefly to introduce a strange tension. As soon as they begin to feel a little lost, snap back into place.
*Creative ghost uses. Extremely light vocals which say interesting things. Complex instrumentals that are barely heard. Be creative with the way you sequence your ghost tracks.
*Drone- Does not always have to be droney. This could simply be keeping the bass in a stationary position as the music revolves around different chords which include the bass note.
*Escalate- Escalating is when the pitches gradually get higher and higher. This is usually a way to add a climatic part to your song. Don’t overdo it and this idea could either be used rather quickly or very slowly. Make the escalate interesting by having the part do interesting things while the climax builds. Escalating is used a lot with choruses as well, since that usually designates the central theme of the song.
*Going downstairs- Opposite of escalating. The pitches slowly creep downwards. This usually happens to take down a highly charged section of a song.
*X movement. While one instrument escalates, another creeps downward. This will allow the new instrument to take the center stage.
* Be efficient. Say exactly what you’re trying to say without rambling off topic. A great motivational speaker leads the conversation the entire time. He (or she) speaks with authority and charisma. From that strength, comes the wisdom to use powerful word combinations and compelling dialogue. The motivational speaker is leading the audience through a world of ideas which exist only in their heads. If he begins to ramble, he begins to lose control of where he is leading them. The vivid imagery begins to get confusing, and the message may get lost.
Music is very much the same. By all means, being efficient does not mean making an overly simple song. It just means you should only put in the music that reflects what you’re trying to say. Don’t shove too many ideas out at once, or they will be too thin and scrappy to enjoy. Cut the fat off the steak. Let them enjoy the parts that are relevant.
*Have movement. Movement usually comes from the lead, or a solo. Movement is the reason why the listener will play your song over and over. Let’s face it, if your song is four measures long and your repeat it throughout endlessly without any changes whatsoever it will have little to no movement (which may be okay if you’re writing a jingle or a video game soundtrack). Even trance music will have tones and textures that evolve slowly to give it movement. It would be as if I repeated the same sentence over and over again. It would be as if I repeated the same sentence over and over again. It would be as if I repeated the same sentence over and over again. It would be as if…AAAA! I can’t take it anymore! Movement is what usually makes your songs come alive.
*Endless movement. A few people enjoy listening to endless movement, but for the most part- people enjoy being able to relate to a central structure. What I mean by endless movement is a song that never quite establishes a central mood or theme. It keeps running, and the listener is usually spending the entire time trying to play catch up, never being able to fully immerse themselves into a feeling because it moves too much.
Imagine a song that is written like this (don’t think lyrically. Just picture the mood of this rhyme, and compare it to the mood of a song).
The cell is dark and black,
my teeth are gritting with rage,
a little girl eats her ice cream,
dancing along the street,
because I love you,
oh baby, you’re as sweet as can be,
as pretty as the sea,
so get on the dance floor,
I want to see you shake your booty,
and let the slaying begin.
I hate this place.
This will definitely send mixed signals to the listener. Some will find it to be awe inspiring (there are always people who love things that are way different), but most people will not be able to relate. The mood jumps too much. The message that you are trying to say will be twisted, because it never situates itself. The mood has not been established.
*Going to the Movies. Music and movies have a lot in common. Both have a catalog of different genres that different types of styles fall into. Both try to emotionally connect with the people who are experiencing it. Both use many of the same concepts to wrap the audience. For instance, some songs start with a “heavy weight”, which means that they start off extremely hard. Slowly, the music begins to ascend to something even harder but just before it reaches that point, it will drop off into the core of the song (which is usually much lighter at first), only to revisit that same tension later on in the song. Many movies start off strong to capture the audience. After the strength of the movie has been shown, it will usually drop off into something completely tame. The tension will be later visited but it will also resolve. So the next time you write a song, think about how it would be as a movie. You will notice many similarities, and you can even use concepts from movies in your music. Be creative, and you’ll see what I mean.
*Say the same thing in different ways. If your song tends to repeat, perhaps you should consider a very slight variation. It could be the singers tone, or one little note that switches it up. Although this doesn’t apply in every situation, it’s always nice to keep repeating melodies interesting.
*The art of fish hooking. For most songs, the art of introducing the hook is the best way to catch the fish. Sometimes the hook is blatantly there, sometimes it is hidden only to be revealed later. The great thing about using a hook in your song is that you have established the central theme in which to build upon. As you build upon that theme, make sure you do it in such a way that it establishes itself as an individual and not a grain of sand in a desert full of overused hooks.
*Read my other article. Lots of information from that article that would fit perfectly for this section.
Well, that’s it for now. I’m sure I could write a 100 page book of the little intricacies of songwriting. These are the simple basics, and I hope that some of them will help you in your future endeavors. Until next time, happy songwriting!
Ken Hill is a guitarist and keyboardist for the New Age band, Torchlight Creek. If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas about this article, please be sure to e-mail him at [email protected]