Thursday, September 16, 2010

How I (Usually) Do It

Hey Everyone,

Seems like things are getting off to a good start. The Viking Village forum and Facebook have been sending me quite a bit of traffic, so I'm happy about that. I wanted to write today about how I usually write songs.

First, it's probably important to consider my style. I tend to play a lot of acoustic music featuring acoustic guitar and solo lead vocals. I've written a few recent songs that feature a full band, but for the most part, I play alone. Keeping in mind my style, I have two instruments to work with: a guitar and my voice. These are going to limit me and set the bounds for what I will be writing and how I will be writing it. Lets get into how I think about songs as they're being written and the process of a typical song from start to finish.

Most songs are born on a couch or an office chair. I'm usually playing around with my guitar playing songs I like, or improvising. In the midst of my playing, a certain tune or chord progression will catch my ear. If I have the time, I'll usually spend about an hour to an hour and a half sitting where I am and fine tuning that particular riff. Once I have that riff down, I'll spend even more time playing it. Repetition gets me into the groove of the song, getting a feel for it and becoming more comfortable with the mechanics of it.

After I'm thoroughly comfortable with what I've been doing, I'll begin to find other parts that are in the same key and connect to the particular riff I had played previously. At this point, I begin thinking about song structure. A few questions I ask myself are, "What is the general feel or tone of this song so far? Is it in a minor or major key and how does that influence the mood? What is the current energy level of the parts I've written so far? Are they all kind of low key? Do I need to pick up the energy at some point to make the song more interesting?" The list of question goes on and I'll probably end up writing a post about song structure and dynamics at a later point.

Once I've gotten most or all of the guitar riffs written, I start putting them in order. I try to follow a theme or at least the flow of how a story would go. Introductions are usually not very complex or heavy and the song tries to crescendo at some point (a climax). The music eventually resolves itself into a conclusion. When I have finished with the song structure, the song is usually a complete piece instrumentation wise. The entirety of the song could be played on the guitar and be a complete song, although it might be a little dull without any lyrics.

Writing lyrics is probably one of the more aggravating parts for me. Over the years, I've been using a different approach than I used to. First, I will play the piece all the way through and focus intently on the feelings and imagery that are conjured up within me. Based on these feelings and images, I try to come up with a theme for the song, an idea I want to express.

Once I have my theme, I start playing and singing. I sing whatever comes to mind whether or not it's a bad lyric or melody. If I hear something I particularly like, I'll write it down. If I hear something I don't like at all, I'm really careful not to do it again. The trick here is to allow yourself to make a mistake. There was a lecture given by Sir Ken Robinson and in it he said something along the lines of "We do know that if you're not willing to make a mistake, you'll never be creative." I love this line because you really have to allow yourself to make mistakes in order to be original and create something that is of value to yourself.

I plod on along through this system of singing until I have at least one part that I like. This part usually determines the rest of the melodies and tone of the song and lyrics (especially if it's a chorus). From this point I write lyrics and melodies that fit with the general mood of the song.

Once I have everything written down, I play the song through a few times. Once I've done that, I walk away. This part is very important for my process because I can be very hypercritical of my own work. Leaving the song alone and going and doing something else gives me a chance to get it out of my mind, and when I come back to it, I will be able to take a fresh perspective.

After I've walked away from the song, I come back and play it through again. While I'm playing, I take note of things I don't like, or that could be stronger, and parts that I really do like and would like to capitalize on. Then I begin the actual revision process. Changing things I don't like and hearing how they sound by themselves and in the context of the entire song.

My revision process usually takes a while. I find myself changing parts of songs while performing or messing around and they end up being permanent changes. These little changes aggregate into a substantial change through the entirety of the song. Most of my changes are lyrical or melody changes, the guitar doesn't change very much. If I do end up changing something with the guitar, it's usually an addition of a second part to add more depth to the song.

If you want some examples of songs I've written, you can check out If you have any more questions about my writing process feel free to post a comment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Songwriting Is, What It Isn't, and What It Should Be (According to Me)

Hi again,

Twelve hours later and I'm back to write some more. I started a brainstorming list of ideas for post topics and it's growing fairly well, so I should have at least 10 posts coming in the next couple of weeks. Lets get started on what I wanted to talk about today.

Before we can really talk about how to write a song, or the techniques involved, we have to define the process of "songwriting." Defining this can be tricky because songwriting is an intensely personal and subjective experience. With this in mind, be aware that the "definition" I will be exploring is just my own idea of what songwriting is. Furthermore, when we get into the discussion of what songwriting isn't, also keep in mind that these are my opinions, not hard and steady facts. If you disagree with me, then comment. I love different viewpoints and a good argument. Enough with the disclaimers, lets get into some actual content.

Songwriting encompasses a vast array of skills and modes of expression. First of all, songwriting is musical. It requires some form of skill in any mode of musical expression. Singing, clapping, playing an instrument, "drawing" music in composition software are all vehicles that can be used to create songs. Without the musical aspect of songwriting, you're no longer writing songs. You may be creating something, but I can almost guarantee you it isn't a song.

This leads to the second part of what songwriting is. It is creation. Songwriting is creating something intangible, but very real, and being able to reproduce that. To be able to produce something where there was nothing before is the essence of creation, and without this component of creation, you're just reproducing (aka, playing covers).

There is a third component to songwriting which I feel is the most important part of it all, but is not a necessity to the songwriting process. This component is expression. It is possible to write a song using only musical skill and creating something original. However, if it is not expressive, then it is lacking in something that is unique to all artistic endeavors. Without expression, songs cease to become art, and become a collection of sounds that exist within a certain key, tempo, time signature, etc. There are many ways to define expression, and we can all argue about which songs are expressive and which others are not until we're blue in the face. I think the simplest way to determine whether or not a song is expressive is to ask oneself if the song you've created means anything to you. This doesn't necessarily have to mean it has sentimental value, but some kind of value at all. For instance, a friend of mine is in a rock and roll band called the Sunshine Bumpers. I would argue that this band is very expressive, but not necessarily always sentimental. The value they place on their music is more about fun and having a good time in general. The meaning we assign to our music is entirely personal  and for this reason there are a wide variety of genres that are all expressive without all having the same exact tone and mood. If you're going to be a song writer, please express yourself. Even if you play one chord the entire song, just be sure that it's expressive and actually means something to you.

Lets talk about what songwriting isn't. I think that most people have a general concept of what a song is and what writing is, but I feel that there are some important points to make here. First of all, songwriting is not reproduction. Playing another band's song is not songwriting. Yes it's musical, and yes it can be expressive, but it's not original creation. This isn't to say that you can't make another band's song your own through rewriting, but their original work and personality will still show through in your performance. The song will never be entirely yours, it will always end up being a joint effort. This creates an interesting question about originality and borrowing ideas, but I will save all of that for an extended discussion later on.

The other thing that songwriting actually is, but shouldn't be, is writing music for the sake of others. I've been guilty of this when I was younger. I wanted to write music so that others would think I was cool. I wanted to write music that fit this schema I had set up for my life. The result ended up being music that wasn't expressive and felt contrived. I would urge you to avoid this if you can. If you can't, then you might want to reevaluate why you're writing music and if perhaps you should pursue another avenue.

Finally we come to the last section of this post, what writing music should be. I've already talked about expression, but I think it's important to reiterate this point. Songwriting should always be expressive. You should always have some kind of meaning attached to your music. This ensures that even if your music isn't accepted by the outside world, you haven't wasted any time in its creation. Akin to this notion of expression, songwriting should be intensely personal. You should be writing music entirely for yourself. Lastly, songwriting shouldn't be aggravating (although sometimes it really is). While this is a "what it shouldn't be," you can take the converse and assume what it should be. Songwriting should be something you do because you like to do it. I would hope you're writing songs because it gives you an outlet, is fun, etc.

I think this post has run on long enough. I have a feeling there will be a lot of content vomit over the next week or so as I try to get this thing up and going.

Thanks for reading

The First Post: Introductions

Hi all,

Welcome to my new blog. If you're here, you're probably a songwriter looking for tips, ideas or how-to's on songwriting. Well I'm glad to have you. First, let me tell you little about myself so you're not taking advice and ideas from a stranger.

I am a student majoring in psychology at Western Washington University. I've been playing guitar for a little over eight years now and writing music for about six of those years. I've been in a few different bands ranging in genres from screamo to post hardcore rock to progressive to alternative rock to acoustic/folk. Lately, I've settled on a singer/songwriter orientated style, and have released an album I produced and recorded myself.

My goal for this blog is to accomplish a few things. First, I'd like to share some of my ideas and experiences with you. I try a lot of different things in regards to writing music, and sharing those ideas and techniques with you will help both of us. It will give you some new things to try, and the process of writing them down will help me refine them. Second, I'd like to incorporate some music theory into my ideas. I never had a strong background in music theory, but I've made it a personal goal to learn more about it and explore how it interacts with my writing style. Third, I'd like to create a community of collaborators. If people want to submit audio clips, or critique mine, I think that would be a fantastic experience for all involved.

For the format of this blog, I think that each post will focus on a different idea or technique I've tried or am currently trying. Some of these will be the "tried and true" methods, and others will be more experimental. Also, I'll probably write up some more general songwriting articles at some point for those who need to learn some of the fundamentals.

That's all for now. I hope you stick around and keep reading.