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I should think that every songwriter wants to write great songs, but how is it done and what background do you really need in order to do it? I’m afraid there is no straightforward answer to this, but I will definitely try to say something about it, even if I’m still searching myself.
What background you need depends on many things. Do you write songs for guitar and vocals, or piano and vocals? Or is your music production an integral part of your songwriting, using music software like Logic, Ableton, cubase and or other software.
What is needed ?
Some people attend songwriting courses, or even study music to learn to master the craft of songwriting and some are self taught. Many people only had lessons on their instruments, which I think is probably the most important, but some write great songs even without playing an instrument at all, it is all possible.
In order to illustrate more about the background that is needed to write songs, I will need to break down the musical elements into different categories.
I will also discuss where the musical education comes in all of this, how much is it needed. There are so many options, so it’s definitely worth taking a further look at this.
Some musical categories
Melody and lyrics, chords and riffs, counter melodies and music production, music theory, and not at least the value of playing an chordal instrument.
Play a chordal instrument or music theory
It´s always useful to learn some music theory, but what part of musical theory is important when you write songs? To connect music to lyrics you need some inspiration; strum some chords on your guitar or play some chords on the piano and you are almost there. This is what I’m getting at. It´s not a coincidence that most songwriters play piano or guitar, and they write better songs because of it.
But unfortunately it’s not the only credential you need to write good songs, but maybe the only thing you need to learn, except from lyrics?
I think the key to writing good songs lies in learning to play piano or guitar at a fairly decent level, especially learning to play chords and trying to understand more about harmony is a good start.
What about melody? What background is needed to write decent melodies?
It probably sounds too easy, but I think most songwriters play some chords and get the vibe, and use their voice creatively to come up with melody.
I don’t think using a theoretic, academic or an analytical approach to making melodies is the way to go. It will probably sound too calculated and possibly lack the natural creative flow that we humans somehow possess.
I also think that creating good melodies should be a highly intuitive, inspirational and spontaneous prosess. You can’t learn it, but you can practice to get better at it.
Harmony, chords and music theory
Here there is usually some work to do, learn how to play chords on piano or guitar, take some lessons if needed. Spend some time reading about music theory, especially learn more about harmony, voice leading, intervals, ear training and the most important scales.
All this has great practical use, also when producing music, how to lay down chords in a skilful way comes in handy both in a band situation as well as in studio.
I will write more about this in my future blogs, I’ve only just started and will come back to this.
Riffs should come up automatic when you jam on your guitar, bass or keyboard, and even when you produce music in your music software. If you play in a band this is a common way for musicians to make songs together, and often the riffs are part of it.
Work on your instrument, the riff certainly doesn’t happen because of something ¨boring¨ you once read in a dry music theory book. I must confess I enjoy music theory, but not everybody does, or needs to know too much about it either.
Sometimes a melody with lyrics can sound boring by itself, but when you add chords it can become more interesting, have you experienced this? In that case this can possibly tell us what harmonies can do to a song.
It’s the same story when it comes to counter melodies, this is additional melodic material, often instrumental melodic stuff that goes in between the vocals with lyrics. This can be a game changer and make a huge difference in the outcome of your song.
The counter melodies could be part of the arrangement of a song after the song is finished, but often broken chords, voice leading and complimentary melodic material makes its way into the song, long before the arrangement.
I won’t talk much about rhythm this time, but the importance of it is pretty obvious. Melody, lyrics, riffs, chords, drums, bass lines and counter melodic material need to be part of an overall rhythmic structure of a song, just like everything else.
Rhythm has something to do with the flow of the song, and the development. Rhythm is important for every musical part or instrument, it doesn’t have to be complicated stuff, less is sometimes more, but keep it together.
Most people have gone to school for many years and have learned to read and write, so why not apply this great knowledge when you write lyrics to a song.
My first tip would be to find something that you feel strongly about when you tell a story, use your imagination. Put yourself in that creative flow, make it personal, but without people knowing it if you need to.
There is a lot of nourishment in relating or even identifying with stories. Get your scissors out and cut it until it’s in place. Take a course, read more about it on the web, many ways to learn.
But remember the lyrics have to fit the melody, that’s crucial and a later chapter by itself. Try to connect melody and lyrics intuitively, not necessary to be too analytical here either.
Music and art should hopefully transcend to some form of greater expression, but it’s important to know the tools to get there. Talent definitely comes into this equation, but without steady and sometimes hard work the songs won’t get any better.
Write a song
It doesn’t matter how you write your song, what matters is that you actually write a song, and remember it can be done in many ways.
Some people do lyrics first, melody first, chords first, do a music production without melody first, even a bass line first, if it’s groovy enough it can easily spark off in any direction. You can do it!
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By Johan Modahl Leiva
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