Songwriting - creativity

Increasing Your Creative Abilities

When you have difficulties writing good music, there can be any number of causes. Often we blame our level of creativity when there are other more likely suspects: fatigue, disorganization, fear of failure, and so on.

It’s tricky to blame our level of creativity because we’re inclined to believe that creativity is similar to a pool of water: the pool contains a fixed amount, and so there’s not much that can be done to fix that.

But in fact, there are many things you can do to improve your creative abilities. In effect, you can deepen the pool from which you pull your songwriting ideas. But how do you do that?

Here are some ideas for increasing your musical imagination:

  1. Develop creative, non-musical, activities. Writing songs means that you’re always processing your creative abilities in much the same way, day in and day out. You’ll find it refreshing to approach creativity in a new, less-tested way. So try painting, sculpture, acting, writing short stories, or any other activity that allows you to tap into your creative mind in a new and innovative way.
  2. Change where you write. If your songwriting process is structured to the point that you write in the same chair every day, it’s time to change things up. Try sitting in a park or at the beach, or in a local coffee shop, or even at the local mall. You’ll find that the ambient noises associated with those locations will create a new backdrop for you creative process. In fact, ambient noise can increase your level of creativity.
  3. Try writing in new genres. If you write in the same genre all the time, you’ll find that your creative process tends to move along very predictable lines. No wonder you feel a lack of creativity! So try writing in genres you don’t normally tackle. You’ll find new processes, new melodic structures, even new chord progressions and a new way of processing lyrics.
  4. Teach songwriting. Do you have a niece or nephew or family friend that needs help with their songwriting? It will amaze you how helpful it can be to your own songwriting technique to teach others. Teaching requires you to systemize, at least to a certain extent, your songwriting process. By helping others, you help to clarify your own technique, and that can enhance your own creative abilities.
  5. Try a songwriting partnership. You might find that songwriting becomes a much different kind of activity when you partner up with someone else to write a song. Collaborations allow you to see someone else’s process up close, and it can energize you in very powerful ways. Be sure that the partnership you form is clearly defined — preferably in writing, if you’re doing it professionally.

Your own personal level of creativity comes in large part from your life experiences. So some of the best ways to improve creativity don’t specifically involve music — improvement will come from living an interesting and full life. Meeting and interacting with others who are likewise trying to become more creative can be the best way to stimulate and develop your creative mind.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packagesIt’s time to declutter your songwriting process. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages can help you become a more efficient, prolific songwriter. Get today’s 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle deal. READ MORE..

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Concert audience

How Tension and Release Makes Audiences Want to Listen

What does the word energy mean in music, and what role does it play? There are several possible ways to use that word when discussing music, and songwriting in particular. Energy might involve any, or a combination of, the following:

  1. Loudness; we think of louder music as being more energetic.
  2. Tempo; energetic music is often faster.
  3. Instrumentation; in general, the more instruments that are playing, the more we perceive a sense of heightened musical energy.
  4. Melodic range; higher melodies tend to be felt as being more energetic, though this is a phenomenon more associated with the human voice, somewhat with guitar, less so with piano or computerized sounds.
  5. Harmonic rhythm; the more frequently and quicker chords change, the more energy is perceived.

Those are all true most of the time, and the notion of energy in music is even more complex than that. But those are merely symptoms or side effects of energy. What’s really going on when we perceive energy in music?

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The most relevant way to think of musical energy is in its effect on the listener, and in that regard, this might be a better (even if slightly inaccurate!) description: energy is any change in music that compels a listener to want to keep listening.

When you write a song, you are actually creating what might be thought of as a kind of sound event in which you take a listener on a musical journey. Regardless of genre or topic, it is a journey that explores all the possibilities of tension and release.

By tension and release, we mean that your song is constantly creating a hopefully pleasant form of musical stress, and then allowing that stress to find its resolution. And that happens in every aspect and element that you put together to form your song.

For example, if you begin your song by strumming a C chord on your guitar, tension is low, close to nonexistent. Once you play your next chord (F, let’s say), you move away from C, and most of the time the listener hears (in retrospect) that C was the tonic chord, and you’re moving away from it; tension is increased. Following that F with a G7 creates even more tension, as the listener wants to hear G7 resolve to C. When it does, tension is released in a very desirable way.

This kind of up-and-down pattern of tension and resolution is happening all along the length of any good song, and chord progressions are but one of many elements that songwriters manipulate. Songs without tension are uninteresting to people. A song that builds tension keeps listeners engaged and interested, because on a subconscious level they want to hear how that small bit of tension eventually resolves.

As one song element creates tension, it’s not unusual for other elements to create tension in partnership with it, and so even though there’s a sense of independence, there’s also a collaboration, giving us a map that might potentially look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 9.04.42 AM

The concept of tension and release is a representation of musical energy, and it’s very important for songwriters to think about this. Tension and release act as a kind of musical pump that generates energy.

Besides chords, what are the other ways that songwriters generate musical energy? They create tension and release in the following ways:

  1. Lyrics: A verse lyric describes people or events in a way that creates the need for an emotional outpouring that typically happens in the chorus. Listeners want to hear the chorus lyric especially if the verse has done a good job of touching on a universally sensitive topic (love, friendship, etc.)
  2. Volume: As music gets louder (usually in the latter half of a verse), a listener feels compelled to experience how loud it will eventually become.
  3. Instrumentation: As instruments are added, they contribute to the energy of volume. As instruments are taken away (for Verse 2, for example), listeners feel an urge to keep listening as the missing instruments are eventually added back into the mix.
  4. Vocal range (melody): It’s not unusual for an audience to be more interested in high notes than low notes. If a singer starts low, there is a subconscious belief that the high notes are coming, and there is a desire to wait for those notes. It means that vocal range, at least in most songs, becomes an important factor in keeping audiences listening.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Deluxe Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle packages discuss every aspect of what makes good music, including how to write great chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, and more. Get the 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle Deal: READ MORE..

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How to Make a Good Connection Between Verse and Chorus

Many songwriters will find the chorus to be easier to write than the verse. That’s because a chorus design is typically simpler than that of a verse. In particular:

  1. A chorus melody features repetitive hook-like cells that are easy to sing and easy to remember.
  2. A chorus chord progression targets the tonic chord (i.e., they’re tonally strong) and are often shorter than the progression you might find in a verse.
  3. A chorus lyric is simple, emotional and catchy — even fun to sing.

Those features, by the way, might also be characteristics of verses, but not necessarily. No matter what happens in your verse, though, choruses usually need to exhibit those three main characteristics.

Verses often tend to be slightly more complex, because the job of a verse is to communicate a story or circumstance to the listener. In so doing, a verse progression might wander around a bit as the story twists and turns. The melodies often wander as well, as it tries to portray and otherwise represent the various aspects of the story.

So how do you make sure that the verse you’ve written is making a proper connection to the chorus? Here are some tips. They are simply possibilities, not requirements. You need to examine your own song to be sure of which ones apply and which ones don’t:

  1. Keep the verse melody low, but allow it to move upward to connect smoothly to the chorus. Since chorus melodies are often higher in pitch than verse melodies, you’ll want that upward motion to make the right connection, but also to allow musical energy to increase to match that of the chorus. Be aware that “smoothly” doesn’t necessarily mean to move to an adjacent pitch. You can have the melody leap to the start of the chorus, but usually only if it’s leaping to a chord tone, as you hear in R.E.M.’ “Stand.”
  2. Connect the chords. Play the last 2 chords of the verse, and then the first chord of the chorus, and make sure that they connect in a musically satisfying way. If they don’t, you may have to go back to the last 3 or 4 chords of the verse and make adjustments if necessary.
  3. Try moving from a minor verse to relative major key chorus. That relationship has many benefits, including the brightening of the mood, and access to a new set of chords. The fact that minor and relative major are connected by virtue of the fact that they use the same key signature makes it an easy/obvious choice for making a solid connection.
  4. Add a pre-chorus. Sometimes, if your verse is particularly short or unadventurous, a pre-chorus section — an extra 4 bars or so — might help to make a better connection. Consider adding a pre-chorus also if the range of your verse is considerably lower than the chorus.
  5. Allow the end of a verse lyric to be the kind of line that demands some sort of emotional response. There are lots of ways to do this. You can end with a question (“What do I do?” “Where did we go wrong?”, “Who can say…?”), or simply increase the emotional content of that final verse line, as Michael Jackson does at the end of the pre-chorus section of “Billie Jean”: “And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth.

As with all suggestions for improving songs, don’t fix a song that’s already working. Some songs seem to move from verse to chorus just fine, even though the transition might be bumpy. Your ears, as always, need to be the final judge on this.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas“Chord Progression Formulas” will show you how to create dozens of chord progressions literally within seconds. This high-quality PDF manual is part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Right now, get today’s special deal on the 10-eBook Deluxe BundleRead more..

Gary is also the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, from Backbeat Books (Hal Leonard)

Posted in Song Form and tagged , , , , , , , .
Songwriter - paper, pen

The Positive Side of Songwriting Failures

A few weeks back I wrote about the need to save your failed songs. That’s because you might be surprised how something that sounds completely lame in one setting will sound much better in a different one, and it’s important to leave that option open.

That’s got me thinking about something similar today: our negative perception of ourselves when we write music that doesn’t seem to work. It feels like you just wasted a lot of time. But there’s something to be said for accepting “failure” as part of the learning process, especially in the arts.

One of the difficulties that you must face as a composer of music is that you’re trying to write something that’s never been written before. By definition, there can’t be a template to follow that will result in a great song, and of course you wouldn’t want that template even if it existed.

And without a template, the possibility of failure is quite high. You can spend a lot of time working on a song, only to find that it misses the mark. And often, there seems to be no good way to fix the song, and you toss it.

Once you’ve tossed something, you feel negative about the experience. The entire experience. From the excitement you felt from those first few musical ideas, right through to the point where you ditch the effort and put your guitar down, you feel that you’ve just wasted a lot of time.

It’s not going to make you feel much better, but this is true: the music you write tomorrow will be better because of the “failure” you’ve experienced today. Every time you write something that doesn’t work, you learn something new about your process. In ways that you can’t know today, a song that fails has a way of creating a slightly different creative path for tomorrow.

Every songwriter who has dozens of good songs to show can also display an overabundance of songs that never went anywhere, never got finished, or simply failed to impress.

And for each of those failures, that songwriter’s path forward got nudged in a slightly different direction.

If today is a day that you just realized your latest song just sounds lousy, don’t despair. Your path forward just got an important nudge in a new direction.

Here’s to better tomorrows, and to better music!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

display_sep_ESS_rdcThe how-and-why of song form… It’s part of Chapters 2 and 3 in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, 3rd. edition. READ MORE..

Posted in Writer's Block and tagged , , , , , , .
Songwriter and pen

Creating Good Music is Not a Random Process

The following is an excerpt from “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, Chapter 6: Verses, Choruses, Bridge: The Moving Parts. It’s a book I wrote two years ago, published by Backbeat Books, a subsidiary of Hal Leonard Corporation:

Music, in all the diverse ways in which songwriters create it, comes from what could be thought of as a set of instructions in the creative part of our brains. Those instructions are formed over time, starting with our earliest encounters with art and music. Those encounters help to define our own personal musical “taste.” With everyone having different musical tastes, and a different take on what good music is, it might make you wonder how anyone can learn to like anyone’s music. It all seems so random, put that way.

In fact, it’s not completely random. The fact that most of the time we like to assemble those bits of music that appear in our minds into verses and choruses, for example, is a kind of musical form that provides an important aspect of predictability. Form helps listeners remember songs. An audience may not have heard your song before, but they usually know when they’re hearing the verse and when they’re hearing the chorus. They may not know how they know, but that doesn’t seem to stop it happening. Even when songs have a similar verse and chorus melody, like Lieber & Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog,’ audiences will still know that parts of the song are verses while other parts are choruses. They also know when they are hearing a bridge, or middle eight, even if they don’t call it that. They may not have the vocabulary, but they know that when they hear a bridge they can expect to hear “something come back” – probably the chorus. When they hear an intro, they expect a verse to follow it. They expect choruses to repeat almost exactly, while verses will use the same melody with different words.

And they must know other things that they lack the knowledge to explain: why a verse melody sounds like a verse, and what makes it different from a chorus melody. Play Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ and practically everyone will be able to tell you where the verse ends and where the chorus starts. It has to do with an audience’s innate ability to compare song sections. If you play only the verse of ‘Paparazzi’ to a person who has never heard the song before, they’ll find it harder to say if it’s a verse or chorus. Now give them the verse and the chorus – or even play the chorus first and then the verse – and they have a better chance of correctly labeling the sections. They also seem to know that a song might have verses but no chorus.

And even if they don’t know that, they still understand the ups and downs of song energy. Without knowing exactly why, listeners can tell that a song’s energy should ebb and flow over time, but generally in an upward direction. Since verses, choruses, and bridges all come with basic energy levels as part of what they are, even musically untrained audiences can usually tell where the verses and choruses are, and spot that something is amiss if the energy and momentum of a song are off. So the form of music – the way we put the various sections of a song together – is vital to its success. Listeners need those formal elements to help them remember the song. If those formal elements stray too far from what is normally done for verses and choruses, it affects the song’s momentum, and its memorability. And if you as the songwriter stray too far from what song sections usually do, you are likely to find the resulting song unsatisfying, and that frustration can lead to fear: the beginning of songwriter’s block.

“Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music” is available from Amazon, Hal Leonard, and most other booksellers. It has been translated into French and Italian.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting BundleIf you’re looking for tons of progressions to play around with, experiment with, and use however you see fit in your songs, Gary’s written two collections: “Essential Chord Progressions”, and “More Essential Chord Progressions”. They’re part of the songwriting eBook bundle packages available at the online store. Get today’s deal!

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Hi, I'm Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You'll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.

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