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How to make sure your next song doesn’t sound exactly like your last song

At a certain point, this becomes a real concern. It’s particularly difficult for a singer whose only instrument is an acoustic guitar, and whose only tool-set is open string chords.

If you’re in a band, you have more options in terms of sound. But if all you know is verse-chorus-verse form, you’ll start to feel like everything you write is the same.

 

The fix

Of course, there are ways to counter these problems. One is to simply learn more chords, or pick up a book on song form.

Another is to look for inspiration. This means listening.

 

Listen widely

If all you listen to is the type of music you write, then it makes sense that all you’ll write is music that sounds like that.

But if you listen to house music (say), you’ll hear a different way of approaching form – extreme repetition of a limited amount of material, some of which stays the same from beginning to end, some of which repeats and varies. (I’m over-simplifying in order to make a point).

No verse-chorus-verse.

If you’re a folk musician (or rock, or jazz, or whatever) how do you incorporate this? Maybe the verse takes the house approach, and the chorus breaks into your regular way of doing things. Or vice versa.

 

Lists

Sit down and make a list of everything you use when you write songs. This includes materials and techniques.

Materials include things like:

 

  • Chords
  • Melody

 

Technique includes things like:

 

  • Strumming
  • Fingerpicking
  • Flat-picking

 

Add anything else that you know. Then list things that you know about, but don’t actually know. This might be 7th chords, hammer-ons, etc.

These are things that you can add to your abilities when things feel stale. This often breaks you out of a box, gives you fresh ideas.

 

What do you hear?

Then make a list of what you hear when you listen to unfamiliar music. Or any music. This doesn’t have to be accurate; just list impressions.

For instance, if you listen to jazz, you might hear that the piano player doesn’t play all the time, or that the overall feel is looser than other types of music.

Just try to describe whatever you hear. The point isn’t necessarily to add to things that you can do (although that’s good, too). The point is to generate a fresher way of thinking about what you do by stepping off the path you’re on once in a while.

 

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Communicating with melody

I’ve never heard songwriters explain how melody relates to the meaning of their words.

Is their approach completely intuitive? Or are interviews (where I always hear songwriters talking) the wrong place for that kind of discussion?

I don’t know. But I don’t have a problem talking about it here.

This is a continuation of my previous post on time signatures and rhythm. You may want to check that one out first.

 

4/4

melody_4:4

Walking through the doorway, all on the same pitch. A pretty determined move, full of intention. Then it meanders kind of drunkenly as soon as the singer sees whoever it is that’s standing there.

A nice contrast between confidence and a lack thereof. What story does it tell?

 

5/4

melody 5:4

The ascending line implies optimism, a feeling of lightness. The descending line implies the opposite. Why is this person on the other side of the doorway so awful? How does the symbol of the doorway fit in here?

 

3/4

melody 3:4

The descending line isn’t hopeful. But the rise in melody on each downbeat is. A descent to the depths, all the while thinking that maybe things will be alright.

Maybe they will. This is an example of melody as foreshadowing. Things are bad, but they could get better.

You’ll have to write the rest of the song to see if they do…

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Different time signatures for the same lyric

You’ll need to understand rhythmic notation for this post. if you’re not sure about this, check out this post on sixteenth notes…

http://davewallmusic.com/http:/davewallmusic.com/topics/songwriting/songwriting/page/7/

 

…and another on quarter notes and eighth notes.

 

How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 14: Rhythm

 

Take this line:

 

“I walked through the doorway and saw you standing there.”

 

I’ll set this line in 4/4, in 5/5, and in 3/4.

For all of these examples, I use triplets at the beginning of the bar for two reasons:

 

  • they fits naturally with the words
  • they have a sense of forward movement, supporting the idea of walking

 

The end of the bar changes in each example to illustrate how extending or compressing the length of the bar affects the lyric.

 

4/4

4:4 lyric

In 4/4, we get 4 eighth notes at the end of the bar. This feels plodding and unnatural, like you feel nothing. If you came through a door and saw someone standing there, you would have more of a reaction, whether you were surprised or not.

 

5/4

5:4 lyric

With 5/4, the eighth notes on “saw you” are extended to quarter notes. This is better. There’s a sense of hesitation, communicating surprise. But it still feels kind of stiff.

 

3/4

3:4 lyric

The sixteenth notes carrying the words “saw you standing” convey a sense of tension. It’s as if you’re so surprised that you stumble.

 

It could always be better

I’m not sold on any of these. I would need to tweak the rhythm in each one to get it to flow better. Triplets may not be the best idea. Introducing syncopation would probably help.

Endless choices…

The point is that by changing the length of the bar, you’re able to communicate in ways that you weren’t able to before. You get a chance to consider the lyrics and what the mean to you, and to your audience.

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Communicating with different time signatures

4 + 3

It’s safe to say that most songs in the singer-songwriter category are either in 4/4 or 3/4. Tasteful use of these two time signatures gives you an expressive way of extending a line, creating tension, and communicating feeling.

For instance, what happens when you’ve been playing in 4/4 for the entire verse, and then switch to 3/4 for the chorus? What does that communicate? Is there a sense of tension, surprise? Or try the verse in 3/4 and the chorus in 4/4.

How about using a single bar of 3/4 in the chorus, just before going back to the verse? How about extending the chorus by adding one more bar of 3/4?

Sometimes this type of thing works really well. Other times, not so much. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting used to something new.

 

Expectations

These kinds of moves are always unexpected, and add interest even if that’s the only reason you use them. But they’re always more interesting if you use them in support of the lyrics.

For instance, if the line at the end of a verse expresses a feeling of uncertainty or tension, then a time signature different than the one you’re already using might support that feeling. If the end of the verse expressed confidence, then continuing with the existing time signature makes sense.

 

Living, breathing music

Using time signatures in this way means that you wouldn’t be repeating the same thing every verse. There would be a sense of organic change in the music as the feelings in the lyrics change.

These are really broad ideas. In the next post, I’ll get more specific, and use different time signatures on the same lyric to show how they affect the meaning of the words.

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Time signatures: what they are and why they’re cool

The time signature lives right at the beginning of every song.

You know. That thing that looks like a fraction.

As it turns out, there’s a lot to say about this thing. Check out the Wikipedia article.

Or not.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meter_(music)

 

What’s it for?

In the simplest terms, the time signature tells you two things:

 

  • how many beats are in a bar, and
  • what those beats are worth

 

By “worth”, I mean quarter-notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc.

So a time signature of 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in the bar (the first number) and each beat is worth a quarter note (the second number). 3/8 means that there are three beats in the bar, and each beat is worth an eighth note.

 

The second number

The first number can be anything (though it doesn’t usually go above 11). The second number points to a note value. The possibilities for this number and what it corresponds to are:

 

  • 1 – whole-note (rare)
  • 2 – half-note
  • 4 – quarter-note
  • 8 – eighth-note
  • 16 – sixteenth-note
  • 32 – thirty-second-note (rare)

 

Getting interesting

But all that is just background.

Time signatures get interesting when you realize that there’s more to life than 4/4 and ¾ These get the most use by far, but there’s a lot more to consider.

I’ve defined the possibilities for the second number. You’ll notice they’re all multiples of two. Except for the whole note.

The first number can combine twos and threes. This can produce crazy looking time signatures, but that’s not what makes a song interesting.

What makes a song interesting, what creates its unique feel, is how you put the twos and threes together.

 

4/4 can get boring

Let me explain.

If you play in 4/4 all the time, it probably means you’re emphasizing the same beats every song.: the first beat and the third beat, or the second beat and the fourth beat.

Now take a simple time signature like 5/4. 5/4 is a combination of two and three. It’s either 2 + 3, or 3 + 2.

So what, you say?

 

Strumming

Well, strum a chord in 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 3.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.30.47 AM

 

Now strum a chord and 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 4.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.32.26 AM

 

Two completely different feels in one time signature.

 

Possibilities. Lots.

Imagine emphasizing beat 1 and beat 3 in the verse, and beat 1 and beat 4 in the chorus. Or 4/4 in the verse, and 5/4 in the chorus. Or maybe just use 5/4 in the bridge…

The point is, with one simple time signature, a whole bunch of possibilities open up. Why not take advantage of that?

 

 

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Becoming a better rhythm player: triplets and strumming

Two years ago, I started this blog with a series on songwriting. I finished fifteen posts, and then went careening off into other areas of personal interest. Some of it, I hope, was of interest to readers. Some of it was me clarifying my own process of music-making.

 

Triplets

I ended the series with posts about rhythm, but I didn’t get past quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Here’s the last post in that series.

How to make chord progressions a pro would love, Part 15: Rhythm III – Strumming

 

So I didn’t get to triplets. Too bad, because they’re kind of awesome.

 

Here’s what they look like, and how to count them.

triplets

 

As with eighth-notes, you need to keep a steady beat and distribute the notes evenly over that beat.

Use a metronome to get this right. Most metronomes can play eighth-notes and triplets while accenting the downbeat. This is really useful for hearing what I mean by “distribute the notes evenly over that beat.”

 

Eighth-note strumming

Strumming triplets turns out to be more challenging than strumming quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Here’s why.

With eighth-notes, you naturally use an up-and-down strumming motion, hitting the downbeat on the down-stroke (square bracket symbol) and the upbeat on the upstroke (wedge symbol).

eighth notes strum

 

It feels pretty natural. After all, you have to bring your arm up after the down-stroke in preparation for the next down-stroke. Might as well hit the strings as you do.

 

Triplet strumming

But with triplets, everything changes. If you use an up-and-down strumming motion, you wind up using an upstroke on every second down-beat. In the following example, that means on beats 2 and 4. Like this:

triplets strum

 

This means that you don’t get to use gravity to emphasize those downbeats where you use an upstroke. This feels weird, and it’s why some people use down-strokes exclusively when strumming triplets.

But practice it anyway. If you do, you’ll make your upstrokes as strong as your down-strokes. This will make you a more flexible and interesting rhythm player. It will also make people want to play with you more.

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