To Be a Good Songwriter, You've Got to Listen!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Music ListenerI learned in my composition days at university that no music is created, in the strictest sense of the word. At least, not created from scratch. In a very real way, the music we write is a mixture of old and new ideas, pulled from our musical experiences. If you find that you aren’t listening to other songwriters, you’re depriving yourself of a crucial opportunity to improve your skills.

The biggest fear songwriters have about listening “too much” to others is that they’ll start to copy them. I remember my composition prof telling me that the music I was writing sounded like a mixture of Maurice Ravel and Charles Ives. It worried me, because I wanted to sound like me, and I told my prof this. He simply replied, “You do sound like you.”

Musical influence is not the same as plagiarism. You don’t want to plagiarize, but you must allow yourself to be influenced.

You must listen to others. If you aren’t, you are missing out on a brilliant opportunity to allow yourself to be guided by music that works.

If you’re a busy songwriter, trying to create something on a daily basis, it can be hard to remember that you’ve got to set some time aside to listen to other music. You’ll find that your own songwriting abilities will be shaped in positive ways, and you develop a maturity that can only improve your musical output.

And don’t limit yourself to the genre you prefer. If you love the blues, you’re going to find that your version of the blues develops in wonderful ways if you also listen to Country, Jazz, Classical, and other supposedly unrelated genres.

Those other genres will nudge their way into your musical world, and the result is that you’ll compose music that is uniquely you. It’s wonderful, because listeners will be hearing music that is truly singular and distinctive, a melange of many styles and genres.

Daily writing is important for anyone who wants to improve their craft. But just as important is daily listening. Make lists of the music you discover, and write down what you like and dislike about everything you hear. That kind of a journal can only improve your writing skills!

Do you have suggestions for others? What music do you find gets the creative juices flowing? Please add your comments below – I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. I was refering to the Major Seventh of the first degree,
    I feel I need to broaden my post, i hope this is not too long.

    New Writers should be more aware of
    The four note chords , known as sevenths, these are used quite frequently by contemporary writers. The most common of these are dominant sevenths The notes in a D Seventh ( written D 7 ) would be D, F#, and A (The D Major triad) 1-3-5, plus a C natural ( C being the lowered seventh in the key of the D major scale) .

    This chord because of it’s need to resolve is frequently used as the last chord in a verse or pre chorus to propel us into the chorus . examples are Bonnie Raits “Sneaking Up On You” 1994 ( Written by Tom Snow and Jimmy Scott) and the Randy Travis 1987 Song Of The Year- “Forever And Ever, Amen”.

    The dominant seventh sustained over several measures, give many
    Country songs a “bluesy” feel. Examples are “The Heart Of Rock and Roll” sung by Huey Lewis ( Colla ) and “You Will” sung by Patty Loveless ( Sharp, Rose and Kennedy)

    The major seventh chord is an extension of the major triad for example in the home key of C major. The chord is written as (C maj 7 ) and is made up from the major triad C,E,G, plus a B ( a natural seventh degree) this chord can be used to start a chord sequence to great effect it has a very distinctive sound the intro of “Color My World “by Chicago consists of an arpeggiated ( played note by note) major seventh.
    Here is a chord progression in D major starting off with this chord, play each chord in common time for two beats

    Dmaj 7, Bmin, Gmin, E dim, Dmaj 7, Bmin, Emin, A7,

    The major seventh crops up in many of today’s hit songs, try and use it at the start of your verse , be innovative and start a trend, it works.

    The four note minor seventh, ( formed from the minor triad plus the lowered seven)the is much richer than the minor triad used in verse one of “I Cross My Heart” (Dorf an Kaz) compare it’s sound to the minor seventh used in the fifth measure (from here on after……) for the different quality between these chords.

    All Three chords –the dominant seventh, major seventh, and the minor seventh – are the most important seventh chords used in contemporary music.

    Peter Jenkins P.J. Xanadu Music Publishing

  2. Hi Peter – By “major 7”, are you talking about a major chord built on the 7th degree of a scale, or are you talking about adding a major 7th to a I-chord? Perhaps you could offer an example.

    Many thanks,

  3. Hi Gary,

    The flated 7 th was used to great effect by The Beatles in a “Hard Days Night” and has been a favorite chord for Country Music Composers for quite a few years.

    The Major Seventh is also a great way to start of a song, as it contains the leading tone of the chosen key, as you would know, with this major 7 chord it is easy to follow it with a major or minor sequence, more should try starting their songs as again it leads to a wider range to create an original melody.

    Peter Jenkins P.J. Xanadu Music Publishing .

    (My other post was incorrect I had missread your piece thinking you were talking about the use of the Major Seventh instead of the flated seventh.)

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