Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Songwriters can be forgiven for having a normal way that they like to write. It might be that they use a chords-first approach, or perhaps they set up a rhythmic/tonal pattern that gets vamped over a static harmony, upon which they build melodies. Regardless, the curse of having that one favourite songwriting method is that there is a danger of all your songs starting to sound the same. If you want to be sure that your new songs actually sound new, the process you use to start the song will usually determine how it unfolds from there.
How you start your song will usually affect the form of the final product. And while listeners are not usually consciously aware of the formal constructs of the music they’re listening to, it’s form, more than anything, that has the potential of making music sound new and fresh, or stale and boring.
So apart from melody-first or chords-first, what other ways can you actually start songs? Here are some ideas for you to try; see which one works for you. Some of them may be completely new to you, and others could be variations on methods you’re already using:
- Set up a melodic/rhythmic groove, and try improvising melodies and ideas above it. English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap has been doing improvs like this at her recent concerts in the U.S. Listen to one to get the idea of how this works. (Link opens in a new window.)
- Try chords-first, but avoid the I-chord. This is a good way, for those of you who feel that you can only work from an established chord progression, to avoid having your songs all sound the same. Since we all have those favourite progressions we like, you can add freshness to this approach by imposing “rules” for yourself. Try a chord progression that avoids the I-chord (For example, Dm G Am Dm F G Am), or uses altered chords (Am Em F Am Bb Gm A – the final chord being major)
- If you like melody-first, try a 3- or 4-part harmony opening, no intro, no rhythmic pulse. Listen to the Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road” for a great example of this.
- Create two different songs that use the same or a similar chord progression, then paste them together. I’ve mentioned “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” by the Guess Who in past posts as a great example of this.
- Try an intro that establishes one key, then launch into your song in a new one. You may think it’s crazy to do this, but it really can work. For a great example, listen to “One More Colour,” by Jane Siberry. The intro sits solidly in Eb major for four bars, then the song properly begins – not in Eb major, but in G major! Why does it work? It’s hard to say, but it’s enough of a surprise element that it grabs listeners’ attention in a big way.
There are lots of ways to start songs, and the main idea here is this: if you feel comfortable with one way, it’s definitely time to try something new.
Do you have a unique way that you started a song that really worked well for you? Why not share it with us? Add your comments below.
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