In addition to daily songwriting, try these five important exercises.
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If you’re a guitarist, keyboardist or player of some other instrument, how to practice is obvious: you’ll be working on scales, finger exercises, and perhaps transcribing and practicing well-known solos. But for songwriters, what does practice mean?
Here are five of the best things you can do to improve your songwriting technique, and you should be doing them on an almost daily basis:
- Melodic Improvisation, Part 1: Improvise melodies over a chord progression. Make up melodies, either accompanied or not. As you create your melodies, think about shape, rhythm, and use of repetition. Then work out a 2-chord progression, play those two chords over and over (hold each chord for 2 or 4 beats), and then.. start improvising. If you run out of ideas, either add to your progression, or create a new one.
- Melodic Improvisation, Part 2: Create short melodic fragments. Create a short 4-chord progression. (There are 5 listed at the end of this blog post if you want some that you know will work). Now, improvise a melody as you play through the chord progression. Repeat your improvised melody, then create a new one, repeat it, and on you go. No stopping between new melodic fragments.
- Lyric Imagery. Open any novel to any page. Find the first noun. Write it down. Quickly develop a list of at least ten words that are either synonyms or relate somehow to the word. Example: Your chosen word: ‘Story’. Your list could be: ‘tale’, ‘yarn’, ‘account’, ‘facts’, ‘read’, ‘lie’, ‘fib’, ‘book’, ‘paperback’, ‘pages’… You’ll notice that my list went from thinking of ‘story’ as kind of tale, to words relating to reading, to thinking of ‘story’ as a kind of falsehood, and back to book again. It’s important to work quickly, and force your brain into action.
- Quick Rhyming. As in the previous exercise, open a book, choose any word, and then quickly think of a word that rhymes. If you can’t think of an exact rhyme, try an approximate one. (Example: ‘heroic’ – ‘stoic’). For a next step, create short lines of lyric that use the rhyming words. Work quickly.
- Song Title Creation. Create possible song titles and write them down. Work quickly, and don’t worry that you don’t have a story yet. (Examples: “Love Him or Leave Him”, “Aunt May’s Ghost”, “You Make Me Want to Need You”, etc. Now pick up your guitar, strum any chord, and sing your title to an improvised melody/rhythm. Try different melodies. The key is to work quickly.
Some of these ideas will actually produce usable material for songs, so be prepared with a digital recorder to save your ideas.
In addition to these exercises, songwriters should always be listening to music daily from different genres as an important way to improve. Daily listening is perhaps the most important part of developing better songwriting skills. You won’t like everything you hear, but you should be always able to describe why or why not. That kind of critical listening is a must for the serious songwriter.
Suggested chord progressions for Exercise #2:
- C Bb F C
- C F Dm C
- C G Ab Bb
- C Eb F C
- C Dm Bb C
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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