Assembling Songs from Bits of Tunes

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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The Guess Who / The BeatlesWhat does “A Day in the Life…” (The Beatles) and “No Sugar Tonight/ New Mother Nature” (The Guess Who) have in common? Both are songs that were created by putting two otherwise unrelated bits of songs together. So don’t throw anything out; you may have written something that you can’t get working yet, but sticking it onto something else might just be the ticket.

If you’re like most songwriters, you’ve started composing something that just sits there. The original idea may have been good, but you can’t seem to get it to move beyond that. And you may feel that you’ve simply composed a dud. It happens.

But imagine if McCartney had thrown out that bit of music that starts “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…”? It’s actually a fairly weak bit of music, to be truthful, and little wonder McCartney had trouble expanding it into something more substantial.

But inserted into the middle of Lennon’s contribution, it becomes something much more. What Lennon’s verses in “A Day in the Life” needed was a diversion, something to pull the listener away from the melody so that the verse could return with renewed freshness.

There are no rules that govern how two or more fragments of music can or should be assembled. The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight/ New Mother Nature” is actually two separate songs that exist pretty well as separate entities. Both songs could live quite well without each other (and in fact, “New Mother Nature” was edited out when the song was originally released as a single.)

So if you’ve got fragments of songs sitting in a box somewhere, try sticking them together and see what happens. The results might breathe life back into some old scrap that you’ve never known what to do with. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Don’t feel the need to necessarily match key or tempo. In fact, you might discover that the new key, tempo, even instrumentation that results will add a sense of creativity that really works.
  2. To make a closer connection between two radically different fragments, try putting the second fragment in a key that is a perfect 4th or 5th higher than the original key.
  3. Try to find ways to relate the lyric or topics of the fragments. In “A Day in the LIfe…”, Lennon’s section talks about a person observing life around him, while McCartney’s section follows the ordinary life-events of a young person going about their day.
  4. Putting two fragments together creates a great opportunity to use ABA form: first fragment – second fragment – return to first fragment.

The obvious lesson here is that nothing is for nothing in the world of music composition. Don’t throw anything away. Even half-written music that seems to go nowhere can become part of your next great song.

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  1. A Day In The Life is an amazing track

    But I can’t help feeling they got lucky with it. They did this many more times (most of Abbey Road, Jet, Band On The Run, Live And Let Die) and most of the time it just sounded like ill-fitting ideas stuck together.

    Do you have any further wisdom on how to do it well (other than trial and error?)

    • For me, I feel that the second side of Abbey Road actually works better than A Day In the Life, but that’s just a personal preference. I think part of what makes snippets of songs work well together is the trust that the listener has in the artist. It’s sort of a situation where the listener says, “Well, they put them together, so they *must* work..”

      In a way, it’s not that far off from what composers in the Classical world had been doing. For example, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is really an assembling of many themes and sections, all connected in a through-composed manner, and it works very well. And I’ve always believed that much of what pop songwriters are doing have their roots not just in jazz/blues forms, but also in classical forms.


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