The beginner songwriter in me needs help

Discussion in 'Music Theory, Lessons & Techniques' started by Rizzo, Aug 25, 2015.

  1. Rizzo

    Rizzo Regular

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    Nov 2, 2012
    As the dumb title says, I'd really like to better my songwriting off.
    A premise, I've been reading all "songwriting advice" threads so far, so I'll try to get specific.

    Well, I'll try to explain my own approach and situation.
    I don't usually "force" myself to write (like in a "now I'll write something" attitude), or force myself in a certain mindset, or try to write from some predetermined visual imagery.
    I think all of the above just doesn't work for me.

    I usually either just noodle around and then start working around an idea once it gets surfacing; or write down a riff I've been humming\hearing in my head and then try to develop from there; or I usually come to accidentally write stuff while applying some theoretical concepts on the fretboard.
    In any case, the process is pretty accidental.

    Then I usually record a scratch of what I'm doing and try to tab it down as soon as possible.
    I'm used to give some sort of label to recordings as to remember the general vibe and mood behind it, as for example "2015-08-25, thrashy riff WIP".

    Now on to my main problems:
    1. Once I get to compose anything, I can't arrange stuff for sh*t.
    I have really poor theory knowledge as I'm self-taught, I'm still stuck with basic intervals so I rarely know which scales I'm using (apart from the most obvious ones: major, natural minor, and harmonic minor. For instance, I think I totally forgot the modes by now...) and I am even more rarely able to figure out the key I'm playing it, except for really super basic chord progressions. I usually play by ear.

    The result of this is that all my ideas lying around are all single, separated and monophonic (or I'd better say, one-track?) ideas of a bunch of seconds in lenght, usually for the maximum lenght of 1 minute.
    Maybe a couple of riffs or chord progressions. Then I'm stuck, I don't know how to bring them forward or what to layer upon them, and they get buried back in dust as I write a new idea, and the circle goes.
    I've been able to get two "songs" in the works, but sooner or later I got stuck and kept them unfinished.

    So, first note to self: study theory better to know what you're doing. Maybe it will help your arrangements.

    2. I suck at building themes and repetition.
    That's a (positively found, I think) problem I've been figuring out lately.
    Given that my early guitar years were ruled by prog metal, and other tech metal in general, I used to hate repetition. A riff repeating for more than 2 times would drive me crazy and bore me instantly.

    So I underestimated the power of repetition and always felt the fear that writing repetitive stuff will bore everyone else too, ignoring that any pop song for instance (pop especially, but any song in any style, really) has on average some repetition of a progression\riff\melody\whatever that help building a theme, a structure around it, and help the listener be hooked in.

    So disregarding this principle, I educated my brain in ignoring repetition and always adding something different.
    Also, due to the fact I'm not confident at all in writing songs for more than one instrument at a time (again, I feel like I can't arrange, see above), the lack of elements and timbre variety would drive the anti-repetition mindset even harder.

    The result is first that I can't write concise and simple songs with a few chords; and the second is that my most developed and long ideas don't go anywhere since I keep adding and changing stuff, or even key (when I know what I'm doing), so the logic in it disappears fast.
    For instance, the last sort-of-song I wrote started in a mellow Pink Floyd vibe and ended (or better, I left it there for lack of ideas, see above) as a wacky Dillinger Escape Plan song full of diminished chords, in the key of who-knows.

    So another note to self: the repetitions\theme thing is something I need to re-educate myself on.

    Then, basing on my above reflection, what are your suggestions?
    This is what I'm feeling right now, if I feel something's missing I'll expand on it later.
  2. Mr. Big Noodles

    Mr. Big Noodles Theory God

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    May 29, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    This is going to be a two-parter, for the sake of breaking up my verbosity.

    As with most things in life, directed practice makes you better at the thing.

    Some options:

    1. Write only for guitar, get some bandmates, have them figure their part out.
    2. Take a couple of drum lessons, write a drum part first, then write your guitar part over that. (Or write your guitar parts with drums in mind. Basically, be able to think of a driving rhythmic pattern while you are writing.)
    3. Reverse engineer other people's music, learn from their arrangements. As a composer, you should get used to deconstructing others' work.

    You can kill two birds with one stone. Get more acquainted with music theory by picking a couple of concepts and employing them in your songwriting. Do you know what a hemiola is? Do you know the phrygian mode? After writing a section that uses the phrygian mode and hemiola, I'll bet you'd know them a lot better. That kind of directed composition makes it easier to reach your goals and to turn something out, simply because you can make a list and check things off.

    Most things start simple and progress toward complexity. In order to do that, you need to keep at it. Play the ideas that you came up with, try to get them all up to 8 or 16 measures, and work one changing them one note at a time each day so that they don't become stagnant.

    I highly advise getting in the habit of writing phrases of a specific length. What I'm talking about is saying "I'm going to write 8 bars," then sitting down and writing 8 bars. Some of it might be filler, but this way you're getting a sense of the size and shape of the music. The problem with this is that after you write the first phrase, you can still leave it there and never come back to it, then it's stuck, all alone. So, what do you do? Get in the habit of writing two 8 bar phrases in one sitting. Maybe even three. Try to connect them somehow, either by making them out of similar material or completely contrasting material. It isn't that hard to write 24 bars, and most pop songs have three sections max: verse, chorus, bridge. If all you do is write three 8-bar phrases, then you have a complete song in miniature, and you can work on expanding your material until it reaches a length of your liking.

    We all have that, I think. Is there something you're going for? I've always wanted to write music that is epic in scope and has a narrative flow. That sort of thing takes a long time to do, and I can't bring every idea to that level. I've only got a couple of works that I feel accomplish that goal, and they took a long time to realize. In the meantime, I've turned out a bunch of smaller works that don't quite satisfy my creative standards, and many more sketches have been written and abandoned. You want to get to the point that you are churning out your music in fully-formed ideas rather than brief and fleeting thoughts, but surely you will have to go through a lot of those fleeting thoughts before you find the ones that have staying power.

    Well, it will help you to understand the language better. I find it useful to be able to generalize ("I want this section to bet a 32-bar AABA' form in G# minor, and I want to modulate to B phrygian at some point in the second half. Then, I want to keep going in B phrygian in the next section."), and having both a grasp on the concepts as well as words to express them definitely helps with that. For the way that my mind operates, I absolutely need to know what I am doing in order to turn anything out.

    You can pick up some basic music theory from If you don't mind doing a bit of reading, I highly recommend Schroeder & Wyatt's Pocket Music Theory.
  3. Mr. Big Noodles

    Mr. Big Noodles Theory God

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    May 29, 2008
    Los Angeles, CA
    Part two, buckaroo.

    Repetition can be good or it can be bad. When it sounds right, it sounds right. When it sounds wrong, it sounds wrong. Music without any repetition is possible, and when it is done correctly I am inclined to agree with it. Repeating yourself in a non-redundant way though, that takes some skill. If you look at Bach's fugues, he uses the same material over and over and over again, until his thematic subjects weave a fine fabric:

    J.S. Bach - WTC Bk.1, Fugue 1

    A fugue is just a melody chasing itself. ("Fugue" means "chase"; our word "fugitive" derives from the same etymology.) The result is an incredibly small amount of excess material and an almost masturbatory focus on a single theme. See if you can hear how Beethoven creates a melodic mesh in the Große Fuge:

    Listen to this fugue a couple of times. Then listen to it again tomorrow and the next day. It's absolutely cacophonous, but if you get the subject in your ear you'll be able to tease it out of the whole mess at any given moment. You will benefit as a musician if you get to know this work.

    The entire point is the repetition, but you couldn't take any two parts of this fugue and overlap them exactly. The repetition is of ideas, of materials, and not of big chunks of music as you hear on radio pop. That material is constantly changing, constantly being developed, constantly being put through the wringer. This level of development never happens in metal, as far as I am aware, and you'll be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere either. Why am I pushing repetition? Well, it feels really good when an idea comes back at just the right time. One of the things we can do to create dimension in music is to arrange thematic material to recall previous moments in the music. In the fugues above, you're always being assaulted with a single melodic idea, a thematic binge, but when themes are spread out and interact with other themes, the return (or 'recapitulation') of a theme has a direct dramatic significance.

    I'd like to take a moment to discuss this process of bringing back themes and talk a bit about Sonata Form. Sonata Form is a very logically organized form: two conflicting themes are presented in different keys ("Exposition"), those themes are chopped up and manipulated in every which way ("Development"), and then the two themes are brought back together in their original form, but with the conflict between them resolved ("Recapitulation") by putting them both in the same key.

    Béla Bartók - String Quartet No.4

    Movement 1

    Exposition - The thematic material is presented here. There are usually two contrasting themes that will become the basis of the later development section.

    0:02 - Introduction
    0:30 - Theme 1
    0:36 - Theme 2

    Development - This section transforms material from the Exposition. I'll list the various phases of the development and point out where the materials are coming from. The correlation is not always 1:1 during development, because multiple materials might be combined into a single gesture. It's the musical equivalent of stepping into an experimental transporter with an insect and emerging on the other end as a composite being, your genetic material strangely merged as you struggle to mediate your simultaneous urges to do taxes and put your proboscis in dog excrement. And sometimes new material pops up. That's the sort of thing that happens in a Development section.

    1:08 - Phase 1 - Theme 1
    1:49 - Phase 2 - Theme 1
    2:00 - Phase 3 - Introduction
    2:13 - Phase 4 - Theme 1
    2:27 - Phase 5 - Theme 2
    2:36 - Phase 6 - Theme 2
    3:05 - Phase 7 - New gesture. Glissando.
    3:23 - Phase 8 - Theme 1
    3:48 - Phase 9 - Introduction and Theme 1
    4:06 - Phase 10 - Theme 1 and Glissando.

    Recapitulation - We expect a return to the exposition material, but with a few changes. This is hardly a textbook example of Sonata Form, so I'll point out a few important things: the recap is inverted – it should be Theme 1 then 2, but it's 2 then 1; the music does not deal with traditional key centers, so Theme 2 does not get the normal tonal treatment that it would receive in, for example Mozart's music; Bartók keeps developing the material, even though we're past the Development Section.

    4:15 - Theme 2
    4:43 - Theme 1
    5:25 - Around this time, Theme 1 starts melting into a coda.
    6:02 - Back to Theme 1.
    6:20 - Final cadence of Movement 1. Remember this.

    Movement 5

    Alright, let's skip ahead to the fifth movement at 19:50. I'll spare you the heavy formal analysis this time. We'll just cover the recapitulation of the Movement 1 materials. I'll be referring to "Theme 1" and "Theme 2" from the first movement.

    21:46 - This sounds like a hobbled version of the accompaniment from Theme 2 interspersed with the melodic content of Theme 1. This is the hideous mutated result of the transporter experiment gone wrong.

    22:12 - Theme 1, with a bit of Theme 2 tossed in again.

    22:22 - The pizzicato gesture is from the fourth movement. An interesting addition to this thematic soup, but a bit beyond the purview of this discussion.

    22:53 - That's a badass page turn. :lol:

    22:54 - The theme from the beginning of Movement 5. Ignore this for the moment. I'm only mentioning it because it interrupts the Movement 1 materials.

    23:57 - Theme 1 and Movement 5 material

    24:43 - Compare to 6:12.

    25:00 - Compare to 6:20.


    Now that you know that this recapitulation stuff happens, I encourage you to listen to the whole quartet and experience the effect that the recalling of themes has. There is a reason why the composer put the same thing at the very beginning and very end of the piece. It gives conclusion, finality to the quartet. What does this tell you as a metal dude? Repetition doesn't have to be cheesy. It doesn't have to be predictable either. In fact, you can set up and tear down expectation as you please and melt brains while you do it. Repetition is downright awesome when it occurs over the course of multiple songs.

    Now, a reminder: I've been showing you a lot of examples from the world of classical music. I'm doing this because motivic economy is an integral part of classical composition. Everybody does this in that style. Very very few people do this in any other style, be it rock, hip hop, jazz, metal, country, bluegrass, EDM, neo-soul, or adult alternative. Genesis recapitulates a little bit, and even develops a tiny tiny bit.

    Genesis - Los Endos

    1:55 - Compare to 0:46 on Dance on a Volcano
    3:35 - Compare to the beginning of Dance on a Volcano
    4:30 - Compare to 0:39 on Squonk

    Xanthochroid is the only metal band that I know of that has genuinely thematic music. When I say that, I mean that the music is built of a number of recurring musical motifs that bind the individual songs together to create a larger musical organism. The concern goes beyond songwriting and enters the realm of albumwriting. The conception is much larger and requires a fair bit of planning to fit the pieces together.

    Xanthochroid - Blessed He With Boils (Album)

    I don't want to crowd the page too much. Listen to the album, you'll hear the same themes being repeated throughout. Here are a couple of the themes repeated in a few spots:

    • 0:00, 6:53, 7:31
    • 21:35, 22:33, 46:31
    The thematic manipulation is not on the scale of the Bach, Beethoven, and Bartók examples above, but you could compare it to the use of idée fixe in Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, maybe even a low-level Wagnerian leitmotif scheme.
  4. Rizzo

    Rizzo Regular

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    Nov 2, 2012
    Thanks a lot for your time and patience SW really. Er, should I say Mr. Big Noodles.
    Your advice and careful explanations are always on point. I'll try to implement your advice while getting back at studying music.

    Also thanks for all the musical analysis in the 2nd post, I'll try to grasp some time to carefully listen and get your highlighted passages.

    To anyone else, I'm open for any advice :)

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