A great tune never gives you good enough warning as to when its going to hit you, and if you’re not prepared it could walk out of your head forever, as quickly as it strolled on in. I’m putting down a few techniques I’ve developed over the years on capturing these precious notes.
So we’ve probably all done the same thing, we’ve made a bit of time for ourselves, and we say “Now, I will write a song”. After about 15 minutes of trying to find the most obscure chords and progressions, you realise that you are going nowhere. Then maybe about a week or so later, this moment hits you like a scene from a movie. Its like your in slow motion as you walk down the street and you turn your head and see that person, a total stranger, who for that moment in time is your soulmate. As you take a closer look at that person, and your heart starts to pound… enter the score, you hear the sounds of a song that you’ve never heard before, a melody starts to play with key reference words already falling into place.
BLAM, your caught in the middle of the street, a killer song has hit you and you have no way to get that melody down in time. You find yourself running around in panic mode as if you’re busting for the loo and you don’t know where it is.
OK, so I’m getting a bit melodramatic here, but if you’re still reading this article, you most likely can at least relate to what I’m talking about here.
When inspiration hits, capturing the moment capturing the melody
Be prepared. Today technology has blessed us with little gifts that we do not even realise are in our pockets. Most mobile phones have an audio recording, if not a video/audio recording facility. Most of our waking times, we are helplessly strapped to these micro devices that are supposed to make our lives easier. So in short, when that moment hits and the melody arrives, get that phone out and sing to it. I know I’ve recorded drum patterns, bass lines as well as melody and words. If your phone does not have an audio recording device, you may have an answering machine at home. Give it a call and sing to the machine (just hope that no one is home or gets to the machine before you!).
The other piece of equipment that does come in handy is a dicta phone. I believe you can still get the tape based ones, though there is a large range of digital recorders now available.
Another piece of equipment, is that trusty laptop. Loaded with audio recording software, your laptop is a good friend with you and your guitar (or chosen instrument) in that songwriting exercise.
There are a few techniques I use when creating or encouraging that special moment to write songs.
I’ve often found that when I’m working out the chords and lyrics for cover songs, I’m hit by a shot of inspiration. The song naturally develops in the same style of the song that you are covering. As long as your melody is not similar to the song you are working out, chords are available for you to adopt as you compose your new song.
Another way to coerce that bit of inspiration out is a good cup of coffee. I really don’t condone the use of any illegal stimulant, but coffee is one that is legal and not too harmful.
That writing spot
Find a place (usually in your home), where you feel comfortable with your chosen musical instrument handy. For piano players, this spot may already be chosen for you. Make sure that it’s in an orderly state, and I know that this is a challenge for many with the creative mind.
Ambiance is important, so make sure that lighting and noise is at a the right levels. Try and keep it a phone free zone, as in turn that mobile off and make sure the landline is also a healthy distance away.
Tools at hand
I’ve mentioned earlier the recording devices such as the mobile phone, dictaphone and laptop. There is another trusty device that is reliable more so than the previous mentioned, and that is a notepad and pen. There’s something about the hand to pen to paper feel that technology will never replace.
Keep it simple
The best songs (in my opinion), often are the simplest. At our core, we are simple creatures and the “less is more” cliché is more “gospel” when it comes to creating great songs. The simpler the song, the more it can be related to, the more genres it can be transposed to.
I break down a great catchy song to some basic components, the chords, the hook, the chorus, the bridge/change.
- The chords can be as simple as the 3 chord structure. Often the chords of the verse, are exactly the same as the chords in the chorus, as the chorus preceded by a bridge and is redefined by a new melody line. I’ve often feel like I’ve been fooled when I’ve made this discovery when working out cover songs.
- The hook is what I think is one of the magic ingredients to a magic song. Take for example, “More than words” by Extreme. The song’s opening line of “Sayin’ I love you…”, has a melodic hook that grabs the listener the moment they hear it. (I still remember where I was when I first heard this song, and it grabbed me by the….). The hook, usually a key part of the chorus, is that melody or repetitive riff that becomes the trademark of the song.
- The chorus is the main trademark of the song. It does need to stand out and tell you what the thrust of the song is.
Finding the words
A sticky point for me is the words. I’m a victim of wanting the words to have deeper levels of meaning, which often means that sometimes songs get abandoned. The songs that have survived to completion, are songs that were written when I really had one major point to make.
One key tip here is to record yourself doing an ad-lib scat over the recorded music track. Sometimes I find words appear through my subconscious rather naturally.
There are a few more techniques, that I’ll follow up in part II of Basic Songwriting Techniques. These are things like collaboration and using a “test audience”. I’ll also use a case study of the creation of a song.