5 Ideas for Creating Better Song Accompaniments

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Synthesizer KeyboardThere’s a lot for songwriters to learn from Classical music. I’ve made the point before that the biggest difference between the way Classical composers wrote their stuff, and today’s good songwriters write, can be accounted for by performance style. Just look at the way melodies are crafted, and you’ll find that melodic shape hasn’t really changed all that much, and neither has our choice of chords.

So is there anything else we can learn from the Classical music world? Yes, we can learn a lot about writing instrumental accompaniments. For the Classical composer, instrumentation and orchestration was a huge part of the compositional process. For today’s songwriters, it can tend to be a bit of an afterthought, and that’s a bit sad, in my opinion.

Since what you’re really doing when you write songs is creating and crafting song energy, you probably focus on the usual: 1) how the melody moves over the course of the song; 2) chord choices; and 3) lyrical development.

Beyond those three biggies, you’re hopefully also considering 4) the key of your song; 5) tempo; and 6) rhythmic and motivic development as a way of crafting and shaping song energy.

But for a lot of songwriters, there’s a bit of neglect when it comes to instrumentation. After all, if you’re a guitarist, the instrumentation is going to be pretty obvious: guitar.

But to create interesting songs that show appealing development over the 3 or 4 minutes you’ve got your listener, it’s worth it to consider some ideas that will lead to better song accompaniments.

Here are just five ideas you can try to make sure your song accompaniments show as much insight and thought as the other aspects of your good songs. They are the kinds of things that Classical composers did to make their music work:

  1. Consider adding and subtracting instruments to match the current song energy. If you’re using mainly a guitar/bass/drums kind of accompaniment, add an extra guitar or other instrument (keyboard, extra percussion, etc.) as the song energy rises, and remove it as the energy dissipates.
  2. Use higher keyboard and guitar voicings to help build song energy. This also applies to singing melodies: there may be opportunity to move your melody up an octave to help build energy.
  3. Use implied chords in verse 1. An implied chord simply means that you minimize the chord you’re using, usually giving only the bass note and (of course) the melody note. (Check out verse 1 of Rihanna’s “Disturbia” for a good example.)
  4. Accompany important melodies and countermelodies at the octave. An octave accompaniment has a way of thickening texture and raising energy.
  5. Use busier backing rhythms and figures to increase energy. Also, adding a syncopated background rhythm in a chording instrument can also build energy.

Anything you can do to get away from a simple mindless strumming background will help your song. But keep in mind that none of the ideas above will fix structural problems within a song, so these ideas work if the song already works, but you’re looking for a good way to create energy contours that really work.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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