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Art and thoughtfulness

I like to think about art as something that creates transformation through an act of courage. The stuff we call art demonstrates an act of caring, of going through a process of thoughtful engagement with the materials instead of trying to make something that sounds like something else.

This means using lyrics and instruments, chords and melody, etc. in a way that communicates your feelings most clearly. That’s always better than just habitually plugging in chords over words.

This approach can take some courage. It often means making something that people aren’t used to. It means risking rejection.



And it means struggle. How do you decide on the best instrument to express a feeling of loss? Or the right combination of chord and melody to express yearning? Should you arpeggiate the chord instead of strumming? Maybe you only have to play part of the chord. How does loudness and softness figure into this.

There’s a lot to be thoughtful about. And it isn’t overthinking. It’s listening internally and considering your musical options. There are a lot of those.


Sweet Billy Pilgrim

We can hear thoughtfulness in the work of Sweet Billy Pilgrim. Their attention to craft and detail is apparent in each song.

Check out “Truth Only Smiles” from Twice Born Men. What kind of band is this? Should we establish a genre? Should we care?



First verse

The tune shambles into view dragging a bassoon and organ behind a broken-legged guitar (sorry if that’s overly poetic; it really sounds that way to me). The organ leaves right away, but the guitar and bassoon carry on. Along the way, a lazy snare drum roll, a triangle (or is it a glockenspiel?), and a twangy mid-range keyboard sound insert themselves into the texture.

The music effectively and painfully supports lyrics that describe dying love. It’s really bleak.


Second verse

Was that a fart or the bassoon? A bit of twinkling, a cabassa on every beat, other things on the edge of consciousness (chattering snare?), and a banjo at the end of the verse with tentative cowbell.



Extend that and add organ just before the chorus erupts with what I’m only able to describe as transcendent joy and hope. Where have I heard that melody before?

The move from a musically depressing verse to the certainty of love in the chorus is an interesting variation on the old quiet verse/loud chorus idea (think Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit).


Third verse

The third verse returns to the limping guitar. A single bass note in the piano fools us into thinking that the bassoon is back. But it’s gone, replaced by other colour that supports lyrics that give different images. Why keep the music the same in each verse if the lyrics are saying something different?



Which leads to…


The bridge

Listen to how they enter the bridge. It sounds at first like they’re just extending the chorus, but it keeps on going. The music recedes to nothing and slowly and naturally builds to the last chorus. The feeling of yearning is palpable.

Listen for instruments I haven’t mentioned (or that I’ve missed) hiding in the texture. There’s a lot going on, but it doesn’t seem busy. Everything they use has a reason for being there.

All this detail tastefully, thoughtfully, and caringly rendered in the service of a beautiful expression of yearning for something lost. This is art.

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What does an acoustic guitar sound like when you strum it at the bridge? How about at the 5th fret? What happens when you mute the strings by laying your palm on the bridge? Play a chord progression that you know, and switch between these techniques.

Each is a unique timbre. Timbre means the sound-character of the instrument. And you can change the timbre simply by strumming in different places on the guitar.


Adding life to your writing

Emphasizing timbre changes the way you think about your playing and your writing. Make timbre a focus, and you may find yourself introducing subtle changes in your songs that give them more life.

A simple idea is to strum over the sound-hole on the verse, and strum close to the bridge for the chorus. This kind of idea adds a quality that isn’t obvious, and introduces an organizational element without getting needlessly complex.

Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean that people won’t notice. It means that the noticing is unconscious. They’ll keep coming back to the song to figure out what they’re hearing without knowing that that’s why they’re coming back.


Electric guitar

If you’re using the electric guitar, there’s way more choice of timbre given the amount of effects available.

Try relating timbre to emotional content. For example, distortion can be related to anger, anxiety, or confidence. A clean sound might make you feel more relaxed. Figure out what different effects mean for you, and then figure out how they might relate to the lyrics you’re writing. Thinking this way allows you to make decisions based on supporting the song with timbre instead of just using an effect for the sake of it.


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The ostinato is related to the riff. It’s a short, repeated melodic phrase. The difference lies mainly in how many times you repeat it.


The riff is often used as a hook played a limited number of times at the beginning of the song. It can also be played elsewhere in the song. Its purpose is to draw the listener in, and give them something to remember.



The ostinato is something that can go on for a long time. Its function is to act as an accompaniment to melody or improvisation. It’s used in both instrumental music and sung music.


Here’s an example. The first piano you hear plays the ostinato. Listen for a couple of minutes. It can get kind of hypnotic. Then move to different places in the video; you’ll hear a variation of the ostinato. To hear how it changes, listen to first 10 minutes or so.




Using ostinato in song

A simple ostinato technique is to play the riff during a solo. A more interesting technique is to extend the riff and use that as the ostinato. This creates variety and more interest in general.


You can extend a one bar riff by simply extending it by a bar. Or you can just add a couple of beats of new material. This creates a feeling of surprise. The listener is expecting a continuation of 4/4 and you give them a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 2/4.


Time signatures

Here’s a link to an explanation of time signatures if you need it. If not, you can skip this.


The explanation of the bottom number may not be totally clear. In case it’s not…


If the bottom number is a 4, it indicates a quarter note; an 8 is an 1/8 note; a 2 is a half note.


…and back to ostinato

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

This is a riff. Repeat it endlessly and it’s an ostinato.

ostinato riff1


Here’s the same riff (bar 1) with an extension of another bar of 4/4 (bar 1 with a variation).

ostinato riff


And finally, the same riff with an extension of a bar of 2/4. The return to the beginning of the riff comes as a surprise.

riff extension



Experiment with extensions of different lengths: a bar of 3/4, a bar of 5/4, etc. Or shorten the first bar to 3/4 by erasing one of the beats.

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Idea density

How many things are going on in the music you’re listening to? How much is going on in the music you’re writing? In other words, how many ideas are you using at the same time?


A common mistake is to use too many ideas in the same song. For instance, the guitar plays three different riffs, plays the bass line for one of the verses, and the whole song changes from a rock to a funk feel in the chorus while changing keys a couple of times.


None of these are a bad idea on their own (although three different riffs is a bit much). Put them all into one song and you get a mess.


Isolating ideas

Try isolating each idea, and using it as the basis for an entire song.


  • Having the guitar play the bass line is a nice idea. It varies the texture by eliminating chords for one verse. That simple move is memorable if it’s not surrounded by a bunch of other things competing for attention.


  • A key change shifts the listener into a different world. This can be really effective, but not easy to do convincingly.


  • A change in feel is a good idea if done well. Changing the genre is difficult to do convincingly, and can sound contrived.


Instead of a straight up genre change, try changing the amount of activity in some way.

For instance, the verse might have a driving guitar rhythm while the chorus uses longer, held chords. The art is in finding the right balance between rhythmically busy and relaxed. Finding it requires work and experimentation.



A good tool for generating ideas is to come up with musical opposites. Then come up with ideas based on those.


For example:

  • Loud/quiet
  • Solo performer/entire band
  • Busy/sparse
  • Legato/staccato
  • Clean/distorted
  • Arpeggiated chords/strummed chords
  • Muted/resonant


Come up with some of your own. They don’t have to be specifically music-related.


For instance:

  • Gritty/smooth
  • Hard/soft
  • Airy/dense


These kind of practice can inspire good musical ideas.


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I did a Mile Zero Dance show called Sho-tel a while ago. Mile Zero does a lot of really interesting things in this city, bringing together dancers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, archivists, folklorists.

The show I did happened at a motel in the west end, seedy and gradually falling apart.

I made noise.

By noise I mean that I played with timbre. I didn’t worry about melody, chords, or playing in any conventional way. In other words, I concentrated on the sound character of the instrument. Check my soundcloud page under experimental guitar if you want to hear examples.

Timbre and the electric guitar is an insane topic. There’s just so much you can do.



 Here’s a basic list of effects:






Ring modulation






Each effect has a range of intensity, so you can get a variety of timbre out of just one of them. When you start combining them…


You can also get interesting sounds out of your guitar without effects.


Prepared guitar

All of this applies nicely to abstract or avante-garde music. But how do you use it to write songs?

Try re-conceptualizing the guitar as a different instrument. Make it a percussion instrument by weaving some felt through the strings and tapping the strings with a chopstick. Can you hear this in an intro, or as a coloristic device in the chorus?

When you use timbre this way, it’s a good idea to start simple. Don’t overplay. Play the sound once and let it ring (if it’s a sustained sound). If it’s different than the sounds around it, it will draw focus. Think of it as highlighting important events – beginnings of verses, choruses, etc.

If it’s a percussive sound, you could use it in place of the drums, or as part of the drum sound.

These are suggestions for where to start. As you work with this, ideas will occur to you. Follow them.

Experiment by making sounds that don’t normally fit in the stuff you normally write.



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16th notes in Lebanon

This is the Masmoudi rhythm from Lebanon. It’s particularly interesting because of the simple rhythmic activity in the first bar followed by more complex activity in the second bar.


lebanon rhythm



Make sure that you start this one slow. Base the tempo on the second bar. If you play the first bar fast, the second bar will sound rushed.

Using any of the scales that you know, invent a riff with this rhythm. Try using only one note in the first bar, and 5 notes in the second bar. This reflects the simple/complex thing that’s happening rhythmically. Use only one note whenever there’s a string of 16th notes. This will keep it focussed.

Then do whatever you want. This is a good way to work: restrict yourself first, and then stretch out.


 Common 16th-note rhythms

At this point, you’ve seen four different 16th note rhythms. Here they are

4 16ths

8th, 2 16ths

2 16ths, 8th

16th rest, 16th, 8th

These are all really common, especially the first three.


Here’s one more. It’s also really common, so you should know it, too.



Using these rhythms, create a one bar rhythmic idea. Follow it with the first bar of the Masmoudi rhythm.

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