In this article, I'd like to talk about taking a different approach to your
songwriting, focusing on emotions, melody, and originality.
Most rockers will come up with a chord progression for which they like the
sound, and then write from there. Many jazzers or composers begin
with a melody, which to me, can better express the emotion you want in the
song. So how do you come up with a melody? Well, you could always just mess
around with random notes until you find something that sounds cool, but
remember our goal is being original, and the only way to do that is to be
ourselves. If you can't sing and recognize intervals, work extensively on
ear training until you can. Once you have this down, you will be able to
play what you hear (and hear what you play) in your head much easier. OK, so
onward with the songwriting.
Think of something substantial that happened to you today or recently (or
just make up a situation - like writing a movie scene), and keep replaying it
over and over in your head. The goal is to put yourself into the same mood
you were when it happened (not just happy or sad or bored, but into
emotions that there aren't necessarily adjectives to describe). Now, try to come up with
a melody that describes the mood you were in, or the situation (think of it
as scoring a film you can only see in your head). Remember that rhythm and
timing can be as important as the actual tones. Now, play this melody over
and over while playing the scene in your head (Steve Vai spent 15 hours a day
for 4 days soloing over the changes to "Windows to the Soul" on his new album in
order to say exactly what he wanted to say), until you have everything
perfect. OK, so now we have the perfect melody with the perfect timing...well,
that isn't really a complete song. Now it's time to put the rhythm section
in. You may want to write chords, or a bassline, or a 100 piece orchestral
score to accompany your delicious new melody, depending on the style of music
and your resources. Right now, let's just talk about writing chords to
accompany a melody.
First, decide which notes lend themselves to "growing" chords below them (let's call them "chord notes"), and which notes just string the other notes together. The "chord notes" will be the ones that
land on a whole beat and ring out the longest. To get a feel for what a
"chord note" would sound like, write out 4 random notes in notation, each a
whole note, then write 8th or 16th notes to connect them together so they
don't sound so random. A "chord tone" will be the root of the chord you are
playing. The next most important tones to decide will be the tones 3rd and
its 7th. This can be dictated by the key the melody is in, or if it suits
the emotion better, you may want to use chords that would not be in the same
key. Next, come up with some "color tones" (9th's, 11th's, 13th's) if it
helps. Remember to keep playing the scene over and over in your head to stay
in the right mood.
Brandon Phillips is a guitarist, a pianist, and a self-described music theory nerd.