Test Test

September 13, 2008

Test Test

A Songwriting A to Z – H is for Harmony

September 9, 2008

Harmony is important. Why?

well… lots of reasons, but I’m going to try: ‘because it gives a sense of mood, emotion and character.’ Whatever the character of the songs you’re working on, you’ll need to decide what kind o harmony you need.

Even an unnacompanied solo vocal song will have an implied harmony, so it’s a musical idea that’s vital to songwriters. Even a one chord song has a harmony.

What is harmony?

We’re used to thinking of vocal harmony – Beach Boys-esque intertwining voices singing different notes at the same time. But harmony is more than that. It’s the choice of notes – the group of pitches you use to write your sng.

What harmonic options do you have? Lots. Here are just a few:

Major – the major scale, for example G major (G A B C D E F# G) characterised by the dominant to tonic chord relationship. Try playing a D7 chord, then a G chord.

Harmonic Minor – The dominant 7th chord to tonic or ‘home’ chord relationship in the major scale was so important that it worked its way into the minor scale – Try playing an A minor chord, then an E7 chord. Maybe try working in an F chord as well

Natural Minor – The standard minor ‘flavour’ try an A minor chord as your ‘Home’ and a G as your ‘Away’ chord.

Home and Away?

Although some 20th century composers tried to escape it, most Western music  has a ‘Home’ note, and by extension a home chord. For example in C major, the chord of C is home. By changing chord we create a tension, by moving back we release that tension.

Different harmonies have different flavours of Home and Away.


  • E phrygian might have E minor as ‘Home’ and F or Dminor as an ‘away’ chord
  • G Mixolydian might have G major as home, F as away.

Phrygian? Mixolydian?

Modes – different scales, different moods and flavours of harmony.

There are a lot of other harmonies ideas , but in summary I would say that the important thing is to experiment and explore, to try out as many different flavours to find the harmony that best suits your song.

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Basics – Standard Chord Progressions 2

September 6, 2008

As my previous post on standard chord progression has been sitting at the top of my ‘top posts’ list for quite a while, I thought I’d write a follow-up.

These progressions all come with a warning – they have been used extensively before, you might want to add your own variations. However, sometimes we need to compose quickly, and using a standard progression can save you a lot of time (another option is to just use one chord).

The progressions from the previous post were:

  • C Am F G (used in Stand by Me, Every Breath you Take and many more)
  • C G Am F (used in all sorts including ‘Today’ by the Smashing Pumpkins)
  • Twelve Bar Blues: C C C C F F C C G F C C (each chord for a bar. Used in countless blues and rock ‘n’ roll numbers)
  • Circle of fifths: C F Bb Eb Ab Db etc (lots of variations on this, often used in Jazz standards)
  • C Bb F (As used in Sweet Home Alabama)
  • Em C D (a common heavy rock/metal progression. See: most Iron Maiden songs)

To which we can add:

  • Em C G D (as used in the chorus of the mildly obscure, but very good Bruce Dickinson song above, as well as countless others.)
  • C Am D7 G7 (a common jazz turn around, mildly cheesey. Turn the D7 back into a Dminor if you want).
  • Am F E7 (the basis of a great many songs, for example Seven Nation Army by the White Strips)

Just to be nice, I’ve put all of these into a handy PDF worksheet. Print yourself out a copy for reference, or to pass on to others. I’m a teacher, and I know we teachers can always use a worksheet to hand out: Click Here

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The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

September 5, 2008

There’s a new songwriting blog (or at least, a new one to me) called ‘Essential secrets of Songwriting‘. It’s written by a man named Gary Ewer who, like me, is a music educator who writes about songwriting.

I’ve just been reading his post about what he calls Chord Planing.

I’ve not heard the term ‘planing’ used in this context before, but I know exactly what he means when he says:

…you can take dissonant chords (chords that seem to have no basis in normal keys or tonality) and plane those, and it opens up a whole new world of sound possibilities.

The basic idea he’s trying to get across with the post is that you can take any chord, for example D minor 7 chord, and move it to any other minor 7 chord (eg. Bbm7) regardless of key.

He’s right, you really can. As songwriters, we often get obsessed with the ‘rules’ for chords, but staying in key isn’t really too important. One slight niggle I have with Gary’s post is when he says:

Once you start planing a chord, the listener ignores its function, and focuses more on the overall sound of the chord stripped of its function..

I don’t that’s entirely true. Any listener of Western music is going to have a load of harmonic preconceptions, for example the gravity of a dominant 7 or diminished 7 chord. We expect them to go to certain places, and hearing them do something unexpected can be very interesting.

So when you move to an ‘unrelated’ chord that I wasn’t expecting, the chord hasn’t been stripped of it’s function, I was expecting it to perform that function. The fact that it didn’t potentially (hopefully) entertains me.

I’ll leave you with Gary’s example chord progressions, and a last request that you check his blog out: Click Here.

  1. Csus4  Dsus4  Csus4
  2. Caug+7  (CEG#B) Ebaug+7  Daug+7  Faug+7  Baug+7
  3. Am7/G  Gbm7/Gb  Am7/G  C#m7/B

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Songwriting by Numbers part 1 – Title and Lyrics

September 4, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of articles in which I’ll write a song ‘by numbers’.

What do I mean by that? I’m going to write a song as an exercise to illustrate a lot of common songwriting points. I’m going to go through it step by step, one element at a time.

Now, songwriting is supposed to be a challenge to discover something new and different. But not this time. This one’s going to be an exercise and nothing more. It’s going to be cheesy, it’s going to be one huge cliché, it’s going to have bad lyrics and an uninspiring concept (rather than a fantastic concept).

In short, It’s not going to be very good

But by the end of it I’ll have taken you around some basic pop songwriting ideas that will hopefully kick start you and me into writing something a little more fulfilling.

Step 1 – Title and Lyrics

I’ve decided to go for a Bon Jovi esque, rock ballad kinda song. Lyrics are apparently not very important in this kind of music, so lyrically I’ve decided to make use of a point made by the British fantasy author Terry Pratchett that hate and love are both attractive emotions. My title is ‘Hate is love (with it’s back turned)’.

As I write, that is literally all I have: a title with silly brackets around it.

As this is a standard pop rock song, I’m going to need two verses, a chorus and a bridge. What are the roles of these different sections in a cheesy pop rock song?

  • The chorus is there to put over the general point of the song (I love you! I love you!).
  • The verse is there to illustrate specific examples of this point (I love it when you look at me. I love the way you eat ham).
  • The bridge is there for contrast, perhaps imagining the opposite situation or point of view (What if I didn’t love you? Oh that would be terrible!).

Let’s get writing

So I need a chorus to put over my point? Easy:

Hate is love
Hate is love
Hate is love … With it’s back turned!

I also need two verses that illustrate this idea. Right…

Verse 1

The looks you’ve been giving me
Have been running round my head of late
If I’d seen less of the world
I’d say that was a look of hate

But I’m no young boy now
I’m a man who’s seen a thing or too
If I’m right about what you feel then what they say about hate is true

Verse 2

The things that I’ve heard you said
When you thought that I would never hear
D’you need to convince your self?
Cos you don’t say them when I’m near.

But you’re no young girl now
And I’ve got something to say you
If I’m right about what you feel then what they say about hate is true

In conclusion

I’ve established that the verses and the chorus in a stereotypical pop song have definite purposes: the verse to tell a story, the chorus to generalise about that story.

My chorus and verses, laden with cliché and cheese though they are, they will see me through to the next step of Songwriting by Numbers – Chords and Melody. Watch this space.

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Writing a song in 4 (relatively) easy steps.

August 23, 2008

For the last month or so I have been gallantly failing to keep on target with the 50/90 songwriting challenge.

So far I should have 30 songs.

I have 23.

Rather than working hard to get back on target, I thought I’d share how I wrote my favourite of those 23 songs. It’s called ‘Self Made Man’ (lyrics at the end of the post):

This song was written with no inspiration. Not a single idea came to me, except for those I eeked out with my own sweat and tears (all right, mild effort whilst sitting on the sofa drinking a cup of coffee). If you’re stuck for something to write, you might want to follow the steps that i took to compose this.

1. Lyrics – I brainstormed the theme and lyrics. I thought about my normal songwriting – and my tendency to write about unusual characters and/or body horror and to combine the two into a man who was gradually replacing his entire body with mechanical parts. A literally ‘Self Made Man’ (yes, I like bad puns).

My brainstorm consisted of lots of mechanical parts and materials, which I then combined into my first verse. After that, I thought about narrative, and decided that the second verse would mention the reaction of the other people in my self made man’s town, and the bridge would be about the wife that he lost.

With a narrative, and the rhythmic structure of the first verse, I had all I needed to complete my lyrics.

2. Melody – Sitting on my sofa, coffee in hand, I considered what sort of melody I wanted. The song wasn’t the most cheerful tale, so I decided on a minor scale – started humming up a minor scale…. But who wants a normal boring minor scale? I decided to try adding a flat fifth, that heavy metal devil’s interval.
I ended up with a melody that, with variation, follows this pattern : G Bb A C Db.

I decided that my four lines would have an AABA structure, so the third line went something like DDD DbDbDb, then the fourth went back to G Bb A C Db.

3. Accompaniment –arpeggios, I started with a G minor chord, but what would chord with fit with my Db? Well, Db=C#, so why not A augmented : A C# F. Aaah, I had my accompaniment.

4. Refrain – Whilst improvising, I accidentally came across the Aaah-ed melody as intro and outro – the only genuine bit of inspiration in the whole song.

4 steps, almost no inspiration, and a song I’m really quite pleased with. If yu want to steal any ideas, think about sort of narrative your lyrics need, what sort of scale and melody, and what accompaniment will fit with them.

It began when I fixed my eyesight
cut lenses from diamonds and glass
Tore out my eyes and reshaped the sockets
with frames of copper and brass
Then to make my arms stronger
I weaved tendons of cat gut and wire
Steam powered muscles, the might of ten me
I can lift heavy loads and not tire

I’m doing the best I can
for I am a self made man

The town they tried to evict me
when my legs became pistons of steel
black polished pincers are better than fingers
oil is my only meal

Now when i clank down the streets
The townsfolk they all stop and stare
they all shy away from my whistling hellos
But I’m better and no longer care

I’m doing the best i can
for I am a self made man

There used to be a woman who used to be my wife
I’ve cleaned off all the rust she left
from all the tears she cried

There’s one tiny spot, one little place, one last piece of flesh
This time tomorrow it will be replaced with gleaming wire mesh

I’m doing the best i can
for I am a self made man

Songwriting Features that No-one Ever Talks About

June 15, 2008

If I were to criticize the two articles I linked to in my last post, I would point out the neither says much about music.

Don’t you find it frustrating that so many people claiming to write about songwriting actually only talk about lyric writing? I certainly do, but my last article was guilty of the same sin, so let’s try to correct it by describing the musical characteristics of the verse and chorus.

First the Similiarities

Both verse and chorus usually require a melody set to words, so follow the ‘guidelines’ of a good melody:

  • Notes are mostly in steps (C to D, D to E) with a few well chosen leaps (C to G, G to D).
  • The range isn’t more than about a tenth (an octave plus two notes).
  • Note choices are mostly in one key, with well chosen chromatic notes.
  • Rhythms match with the words, placing emphasis on important words and syllables.

Second, the differences

  • Verses are rhythmic, choruses are melodic
  • Verses are low-pitched, Choruses are high-pitched

These are huge generalisations and you will be able to find exceptions that contradict them.

However, as in example by Pulp below, the verse is accompanied by a rhythmic riff that doesn’t change chord much. The vocal melody here follows a similar rhythm and doesn’t use a huge range. It also repeats notes a lot and uses a lot more quaver rhythms than the chorus.

Compare this with the chorus, and we find longer notes, a much higher pitch and faster moving chords giving us more harmonic colour than the verse and a more melodic feeling.

Arguably it was rock music, via the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, that properly developed the verse-chorus pop song form, so maybe it isn’t suprising that this rhythmic vese, melodic chorus contrast is most common.

Yes, it is a generalisation to which you will find lots of exceptions, and I’m sure I’ll end up contradicting myself pretty soon, but at least I’m actually talkking about the musical aspect, and not just the lyrics!

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Other posts on form:
Form – The 32-bar Song Structure
Gradual or Sudden?

An A to Z of Songwriting – F is for Form

May 26, 2008

Form, or structure, is simply what happens when. Do you just have the first verse, then the second, then the third? Do you have an introduction, a chorus, a bridge, a guitar solo? What order do they happen in?

Getting it right is vital if you don’t want to bore your listener. A twenty minute epic with a well thought out form will hold more people’s attention than a three minute pop song that isn’t well structured. Form matters.

I’ve posted about form and structure before (click here for the posts), but I wanted to use this post to define the verse and chorus, the two most common songwriting sections. To do so, I’m going to quote others.

1. The Verse

Your verses are responsible for keeping listeners interested. They develop your idea; they are the basic tool to advance your concept, plot, or story. They get us ready to hear the chorus — they control the angle of entry and the way we see the chorus. Like the paragraphs of an essay, each one should focus on a separate idea… (click here for the article by Pat Pattison)

2. The Chorus

Today, I want to write about the all important chorus. The chorus is generally the focal point of the song.

It’s what the listener usually remembers long after the song has finished. It is where the hook, the title or the main story idea of the song usually resides… …It’s like the chorus is the destination and the rest of the song is the journey towards it… (click here for the rest of the article by Corey Stewart)

I’m going to say more about form in my next post, but there are some important ideas for two of the most basic building blocks in songwriting.

Form shapes your song, holds the listener’s interest, draws them in. Getting it right is essential to good songwriting.

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Quick Songwriting Tip – repeating a phrase a third higher

May 25, 2008


When composing a melody, I often find myself stuck after only the first line. I’d guess that a lot of songwriters have the same problem: one killer line, but nowhere to go afterwards.

Here’s one idea: Try the same thing a third up.

What does that mean? In the example above, a song from Les Miserable, the first line after the intro is ‘I dreamed a dream in time gone by…’.

The notes for this are (I’ve changed key for simplicity’s sake) D D D D C# D E F#.

To go ‘a third up’ in a scale, you start on your first note, and then go along to the third. So if D is the first note, you just find the third note, D E F#. And then you start there instead:

F# F# F# F# E F# G A….

Which is exactly what we find on the line ‘I dreamed that love would never die.’

The rest of each line doesn’t follow exactly, because there’s no requirement to follow the ‘up a third’ idea perfectly. However, using the same rhythm and melodic shape, but at a higher place, gives the song this rising, growing feeling and a sense of added momentum.

In Summary

If you’ve got one line of melody, and don’t know what to do next, try going up a third.

If you need further convincing, listen to the chorus of No Woman No Cry.

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Songwriting still isn’t lyric writing (but lyric writing can be fun!)

May 21, 2008

Lyrics should not be too obvious. If the listener knows what you’re saying in the first ten seconds of the song, why would they continue to listen?

A while ago I declared that songwriting isn’t lyric writing. I think I was even interviewed about the idea.

I still stand by that assertion and I still think songwriting bloggers and writers focus way too much on lyric writing.

However, songwriting is obviously about setting words to music, and I’m not denying that lyrics are central to what we songwriters do.

So this post contains two lyrical ideas that I like and have tried to use myself:

1. Crossword-clue lyrics.

Last post I linked to an article that expressed confusion over the meaning of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’.

Yes, weird huh?

My favourite lyrics from this song are:

A mulatto
An albino
A moquito
My libido

Is it nonsense? Of course not. A mulatto and an albino are opposites in skin colour. A mosquito is a very small thing, and the teenagers libido must therefore be the opposite. It’s a crossword clue, and yes it’s a bit silly, but Nirvana (like Radiohead) always had a sense of humour that some people ignore.

2. Free association.

The world’s my oyster soup kitchen floor wax museum.

A lovely fun song by King Crimson.
Adrian Belew’s lyrics for the latest version of King Crimson have been a wonderful mix of nonsense, silliness and more nonsense. This particular song is all word association and means almost nothing, whilst still being full of a kind of meaning.

I’d also recommend having a look at the work of David Bowie, or this piece of genius in favour of foul language from the recently reformed Carcass:

Silence has a definition
Vocabulary of muted diction
Precise thought to miscomprehend
Ambiguity in high resolution
Articulate expletive fiction
Open to misinterpretation – so precise…

In Summary

It might be a matter of personal taste, but for me lyrics should not be immediately obvious. Perhaps it’s because I started out as a heavy metal fan, where the lyrics are not the primary means of communication, and are very rarely to be taken literally.

Listeners want to be told a story, they want to be suprised, or amused or made to work. Obvious is superficial and no-one wants art like that.

Songwriting isn’t lyric writing, but that (I suppose) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your lyrics.

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