Songwriting can often be a lengthy process, something which is frequently due not to a lack of talent, but simply limited musical knowledge. Here we look at six ways in which musicians can expedite the songwriting process in a way that avoids cutting corners and compromising the product.
Guest post by Ged Richardson of ZingInstruments
Writing a song can take a long time - but quite often that is due more to lack of musical knowledge (not talent - that’s a different subject entirely).
I’m not saying you should rush. Take your time. If you’re going to write a song, make it something that you’re proud of at the end. Would you want to listen to half-baked rubbish?
Instead of speeding up the songwriting process by simply cutting corners and not putting passion into it, you can dramatically reduce the time it takes to write a song by learning a few tricks that every great songwriter knows.
Easy way to learn scales
Using scales is one of the easiest ways to write a song, because you’ve automatically got a collection of notes that are going to sound pretty good together. But rather than learning all of the scales one at a time, just remember the pattern.
Major Scale: R W W S W W W S
The W stands for a jump of a whole tone (two semitones) and the S stands for, as you may have guessed, a semitone. The R is the root note.
For example, playing C major on a keyboard uses only the white keys. You’ll notice that the semitones are on the places where no black keys exist. (E sharp is technically the same as F natural)
Using this same pattern of wholetone and semitone jumps, you can learn every single major scale in about two minutes.
Pretty neat, huh?
2. Minor Scales as modulation
Major scales are all well and good, but by themselves they don’t make for very interesting music.
This is where modulation comes into play. You can start out writing a song, but if you want to switch things up in the second half of the song, you can often play the exact same patterns but from a minor scale instead to give it a nice contrast, which fits well with a new exploration or deconstruction of your themes and ideas in the lyrics.
But which minor scale to use? Depending on the major scale you’ve used, they have a relative minor. Take the sixth note of the major scale, and you’ve got it.
For example, the relative minor of the C major scale is F.
It’s one of the easiest ways to change key within a song without making it sound out of place.
3. Make chords more interesting
Every musician and their mother knows the sound of just about every conventional chord. You can get a lot of mileage out of them. However, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut - you can instantly add a bit of spice by inverting the chord.
Usually, when we play a chord the root note is also the deepest.
With the C major chord (C-E-G) this would make C the lowest note of the chord.
By making the fifth (G) the deepest note, we suddenly gain a very different sound whilst still playing the same chord. You can mix it up further by adding in sevenths, or even making the third (E) the deepest note. We’re so used to playing chords in the way we first learn them that it’s quite common to forget entirely to use creative little changes like this.
Seriously, look at any song that you’ve listened to in the past week alone and you might not see a single inversion. Unless you’re a jazz or classical aficionado.
4. Time for new time signatures
If you’re trying to come up with a more interesting song, try using more than one time signature in the song. Far too many songs are written in 4/4. There’s literally nothing to stop you from writing in a different time signature altogether - or even just breaking up the different sections of your song with tasteful use of something completely different for a bar or two.
You could go for polyrhythmic music too - each instrument has it’s own very different time signature that occasionally meet up after so many bars to sync together for a brief moment. This isn’t just a jazz thing either, Meshuggah (djent, or extremely heavy metal) are a contemporary example who have bounded to success with this strategy.
If you’ve got a great song, but need a few interesting fillers to add some variety - don’t feel pressured to write them. Instead, just be aware of the time signature and what key you’re in. When you come to play the song, just go wild and use these two ideas as a reference point.
You may very well come up with something you would never have done if you had sat down and thought about in advance - and this is a truly great way to make memorable guitar solos and the like, whilst also treating your audience to something special and possibly even completely unique each time they come to hear you play.
6. Equipment Change
If you’re producing music largely in a DAW, and you’re using a touchpad or mouse to manually input notes, you’re making a huge mistake.
While this method can work, and can absolutely result in some great pieces of music that would otherwise be impossible to play, it’s very slow.
Invest in a MIDI keyboard and use that for inputting notes. Get one with a drum pad, and a couple of other features and you can really get to work on a whole track with minimal impact from your equipment. The less barriers between you and the music, the better.
If you’ve spent most of your life learning to play on one instrument, don’t feel that you have to use the keyboard to compose either. Play your songs on the guitar (or whatever your go-to instrument is) and then translate it for the DAW.
This makes your musical writing both more natural to your own particular voice and the process of writing it easier due to your better skill with the instrument.
However, it can also be worthwhile trying out something completely different if you have a few hours and a bit of spare cash.
Earlier this year I picked up a violin and my friend bought a sitar. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing with these instruments, and we came up with some truly weird and out-there ideas because of this.
It’s generally better to learn the rules of music and an instrument so you can break them on purpose, but the wide open sandbox of not knowing what you’re doing can be a very freeing experience.
So there you have it. 6 ways to speed up the songwriting process. Not so hard, were they! What methods have you used to master the songwriting technique?
About the author: Ged Richardson spends most of his time playing and writing about music for music blog ZingInstruments.com. Head on over there for more advice on becoming a better musician.