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Thread: Songwriting pointers?

  1. #1
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    Songwriting pointers?

    Hey folks of the Capa Forum!

    Figured between all of the users here, there's bound to be some badass song-writing experience. Unfortunately it's my weakest point as a player, coming from a background of learning classical tunes and working on technique and co-ordination, not so much the actual writing side of things, and it's been a dent-in-the-armour I've really been wanting to sort out. How do you guys do it? Is there a particular process you go through first? Or just sit down and go for whatever comes to mind? And how do you go about writing for instruments that aren't guitars? And perhaps the biggest, how do you get those ideas from headspace to fretboard?


    Any tips and pointers are HUGELY valued. Thanks in advance!
    Last edited by MusicalJudo; 16-04-2013 at 03:45 PM.
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  2. #2
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    It depends on the idea. Sometimes you have a nice chord progression, or riff or whatever that you need to accompany with a melody and sometimes you have a melody to harmonize.

    A] For the first I tend to think with arpeggios above the chords, taking into consideration all the available tensions rather than trying the relative scales stepwise. 'Stepwise' works great but I think of the steps as 'chord tones' and 'tensions' or 'passing tones' to help understanding the harmony better.

    i.e: Let's say the progression is i - bVI - bIII - bVII in A minor (Am - F - C - G)

    i : A C E G [B D f]
    bVI : F A C E [G B D]
    bIII : C E G B [D f A]
    bVII : G B D F [A c E]

    chord tones up to the 7th, tensions in brackets 9,11,13 and small letter for the avoid tones that clash with the chord tones.

    Another way to look at it is with scales:

    i : aeolian
    bVI : lydian
    bIII : ionian
    bVII : mixolydian

    or you can superimpose any mode of course if you know the way.

    B] For the latter (harmonizing a melody), the best you can do is exhaust all your options to choose which sounds better to you. Just like Bach used to do with chorales. Sometimes he would make 20 different variations for a chorale melody just to choose "the best". There is no best of course, it's subjective.
    I'm too lazy to do the same but I think the same way as before. Strong beats of the melody provide the chord tones i.e: let's say we're still in Am and we have 4 eighths A G F D...
    - One idea is to play an F major underneath due to A and F being 3rd and tonic of the chord, thus making G=9th and D=6th. Knowing this, you can play an F6/9 or even an Fmaj13.
    - Another idea is to consider the strong beats as appoggiaturas for the weak...so the importand notes become G and D making the chord a G major or better yet a G9 since we have A=9th and F=7th.
    - Given the notes we could also play a Dm or Dadd11 or Dsus4


    These of course are only ideas, different styles of music demand different approaches. To get the best you can, you always have to master your material beforehand. As for your question about orchestration, is all about space/registers/timbers. Of course you have to take into consideration the limitations of the instrument and if it'd be feasible. Will the performer be able to play it? For instance, you won't have your keyboardist play a one hand chord spanning over an octave. Many composers tend to do the work and then ask the players their opinion of their instruments' part, before revising.

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  3. #3
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    Great topic to talk about. I'm in the same boat as Judo. For myself..i'm primarily self taught (had basic lessons when i was in year 10). Have little/no knowledge of music theory...and scales....what are they? haha. You get the idea. I play by ear.. but it is a big hinderance when it comes to making and/or producing professional music. Playing is no problem.. it's the structure/imagination/fundamentals of music i struggle with. Where do i start?

    Wow Trypios that's some great advice. Albeit.. much of what was said i have no clue about. I really need to learn theory etc.
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  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Staygrey92 View Post
    Great topic to talk about. I'm in the same boat as Judo. For myself..i'm primarily self taught (had basic lessons when i was in year 10). Have little/no knowledge of music theory...and scales....what are they? haha. You get the idea. I play by ear.. but it is a big hinderance when it comes to making and/or producing professional music. Playing is no problem.. it's the structure/imagination/fundamentals of music i struggle with. Where do i start?

    Wow Trypios that's some great advice. Albeit.. much of what was said i have no clue about. I really need to learn theory etc.
    Ditto Stargrey92. I used to take keyboard and classical guitar classes since I was a kid, but I wasn't really learning what I wanted to learn, plus I didn't have much exposure to varieties of music. I had to build up my own music style from ground up. I have since forgotten my music theory and scales and even sight reading.

    I also play by ear and do not rely on guitar tabs. To me, if it sounds right, I'm satisfied. LOL.

    Which is why I come to the point whereby for songs and music with technical complexities like Dream Theater etc. a strong theory and music base is probably a must. These guys can formulate the weirdest and complex forms of chords and notes sequence that we regular self taught players find most difficult to achieve unless we're musical geniuses. Classically trained guitar players like Syu of Galneryus is able to weave powerful, orchestrated metal music.

    I have written and recorded progressive metal and power metal songs way back when I was in college and I was kind proud of my compositions. But there wasn't too much technical complexity and those odd-time signatures or key transpositions.

    Bottom line, Damn! I should have studied harder when I was in music class.

  5. #5
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    Thanks for the advice, guys; keep it coming!

    Heh, I'm doing a music performance degree currently, but a lot of the focus has gone from technique to creativity, actually forming a an end-product. It's an area I've never worked on, as all of my practice was based in technique. "How can I play this phrase so as to lead into the next easier?" "Which fingers are best to use?" things like that, not "What chord is best suited?" as the music would be simple sheet music. Sure, a little improv around some Symphony X licks or Stratovarius, but nothing truly original. So when I got "yea, we need a song portfolio by this time so you pass this class", my jaw hit floor.

    So yah! All the advice is -hugely- appreciated. I'll be giving Trypois' words a solid shot today, thanks again!
    Guitars:

    Caparison MJR Signature.
    Caparison Horus (Iris Violet Gold 2008 reissue w/ toggle switch, Dimarzio Tone Zone S/ X2N)
    Caparison Dellinger-II MC Aluminium (Chrome EMG 81/81 pickup pairing)
    Caparison Dellinger-7 FR Matte Black (DiMarzio D-Activators Set)
    Caparison TAT-I Frozen Sky made for Matt Wicklund.
    Caparison TAT-II Red Sunset '96
    Caparison Orbit 27-FR Pro White

    -More coming soon-

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Staygrey92 View Post
    Have little/no knowledge of music theory...and scales....what are they? haha. You get the idea. I play by ear.. but it is a big hinderance when it comes to making and/or producing professional music. Playing is no problem.. it's the structure/imagination/fundamentals of music i struggle with. Where do i start?
    So the problem is the vocabulary. The more words and phrases you know, the better writer you'll be (given the imagination is present of course). Unfortunately, if you start learning theory, you'll find that many things might be useless for you. Like what is a breve and a demisemihemiquaver, several notation signs and italian/german/french words. I'd suggest that you learn as best you can all the following:

    intervals
    chord structure
    (chord tones, tensions, avoid tones)
    arpeggios (pretty much the same structure as chords)
    basic diatonic harmony
    scales, modes
    scale-chord correspondence

    After that, there are ways to associate all of these to your playing. The CAGED system is a nice way for example. Or, the more understanding you have on theory, the more you can analyze the work of others. I hear a great lick I like and I tend to break it down to see WHY it sounds so good. What is the chord below and why does this choice of notes work above that chord? IMO theory is fundamental to tasteful playing and is what differentiates a good player like MA Batio, Zakk Wylde, Herman Li etc from a great player like Kiko Loureiro, Guthrie Govan, Mattias Eklundh etc. They are not stuck within certain boxes and shapes to just shred up and down as fast as possible. Although they can shred to rip space-time continuum, they give more credit to music than speed.

    Maybe some of these books can help you, though a teacher's guidance is best.
    http://thepiratebay.se/torrent/7233317

    Excuse my English btw, I find it very difficult to express myself writing such long posts.

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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Trypios View Post
    So the problem is the vocabulary. The more words and phrases you know, the better writer you'll be (given the imagination is present of course). Unfortunately, if you start learning theory, you'll find that many things might be useless for you. Like what is a breve and a demisemihemiquaver, several notation signs and italian/german/french words. I'd suggest that you learn as best you can all the following:

    intervals
    chord structure
    (chord tones, tensions, avoid tones)
    arpeggios (pretty much the same structure as chords)
    basic diatonic harmony
    scales, modes
    scale-chord correspondence

    After that, there are ways to associate all of these to your playing. The CAGED system is a nice way for example. Or, the more understanding you have on theory, the more you can analyze the work of others. I hear a great lick I like and I tend to break it down to see WHY it sounds so good. What is the chord below and why does this choice of notes work above that chord? IMO theory is fundamental to tasteful playing and is what differentiates a good player like MA Batio, Zakk Wylde, Herman Li etc from a great player like Kiko Loureiro, Guthrie Govan, Mattias Eklundh etc. They are not stuck within certain boxes and shapes to just shred up and down as fast as possible. Although they can shred to rip space-time continuum, they give more credit to music than speed.

    Maybe some of these books can help you, though a teacher's guidance is best.
    http://thepiratebay.se/torrent/7233317

    Excuse my English btw, I find it very difficult to express myself writing such long posts.
    Trypios can i have your brain?? Just to make it easy :P Thanks so much for the help I'm sure Judo will appreciate it too.
    And your English is better than mine!
    Caparison Horus HGS Pro BlackModded Natural Finish

  8. #8
    I was actually just going to write up a thread on understanding modes the other day, but alas I've been working too much in the studio haha.. Sat down on Sunday night to write some new material for MPE, but what came out is the complete opposite of our band, so now i've already written/tracked 4 out of 6 for a side project EP. Sometimes the creative process just comes out of nowhere, and completely not what you were planning to begin with, but hey it's a fun ride

  9. #9
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    I'd like to explain the idea of arpeggios/broken chords a little more using Govan's Waves as an example.

    First the theory:

    KEY:
    ----

    The piece is written in F# minor (key signature = F#, C#, G#)

    F# - G# - A - B - C# - D - E - F#

    I can speculate that Govan's primary idea was to use a wave-like movement going up and down (hence the title). Using stepwise motion is not as effective as leaping so instead of using an F# minor (aeolian) like most of us would do, he built the melody based on arpeggios over the chords.

    CHORDS:
    --------

    A chord is built in series of 3rds. 1-3-5-7-9-11-13 [no further because the pattern would be repeated as 15th is the root two octaves higher].
    The first 3 notes (called 'chord tones') are the most important, thus the root (1st), the 3rd and the 5th. This is called a 'triad'.
    In the key of F#m we get these 7 chords:

    I: F# - A - C# (minor 3rd + perfect 5th) = F#m
    II: G# - B - D (minor 3rd + diminished 5th) = G#dim
    III: A - C# - E (major 3rd + perfect 5th) = A
    IV: B - D - F# (minor 3rd + perfect 5th) = Bm
    V: C# - E - G# (minor 3rd + perfect 5th) = C#m
    VI: D - F# - A (major 3rd + perfect 5th) = D
    VII: E - G# - B (major 3rd + perfect 5th) = E

    The rest of the notes in a chord are called extensions or tensions (7th, 9th, 11th, 13th). For certain genres a 7th will be considered a chord tone instead of tension.
    A tension will usually be resolved to a chord tone and that is what GG mainly does in the melody.
    Check it out and try to analyze the rest:

    waves.jpg

    SCALES:
    -------

    If we were to use the scales as guidance, it's nice to know the modal order than just the main one (F#minor)

    F# aeolian
    G# locrian
    A ionian
    B dorian
    C# phrygian
    D lydian
    E mixolydian

    And these are just the basics, as there are ways to manipulate the scales or borrow from other keys and harmonies. Given the simple chord progression, F# dorian would fit nicely in the first two bars for example.

    What I understand from this piece is that even if you're a master in theory AND performance, you shouldn't always rely on conventions and norms like shapes and boxes you'd be comfortable playing. I bet he had to practice a lot to play that melody, AFTER he composed it, figuring out how to move and articulate.

    And always keep a balance between ear and theory, ear comes first..theory is just an aid. Countless musicians composed great pieces being theory illiterates.
    Last edited by Trypios; 17-04-2013 at 09:29 PM.

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  10. #10
    Great post Another thing worth mentioning that will help your songwriting ten-fold that doesn't include any theory etc.. Get yourself a way of recording your playing. Even if it is just a hand recorder or something, the ability to listen back to what you are doing, and then think on that / expand is invaluable.

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