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I applaud the songwriter who spends as much or more time working out small songwriting challenges than they do actually writing songs. In the world of the visual arts, great artists do an enormous amount of sketching, experimenting, researching and redesigning before ultimately giving us the final painting. We need to learn from that. It’s sometimes hard for us to consider that the first musical thought or idea we have may not actually be the best one.
So what is the musician’s equivalent to the artist’s sketchbook? It may be a literal sketchbook, but could also be a recording device, a note pad or anything that allows you to jot ideas down.
I really believe that improvisation is the most useful tool we have as writers. Here are some ideas for incorporating improvisation into your regular daily writing schedule.
- Create a short 2-, 3- or 4-note melodic fragment, then sing or play that fragment repeatedly over an ever-changing chord progression. While much of what you generate in this way will be unusable, you’ll suddenly come across one progression that clicks, and it can form the basis for a new song.
- Create a short phrase of words, and improvise various melodies to accompany it. See what the effect is to place certain words high in pitch, with others lower. Keep changing melodic shapes, and make note of any that seem to click.
- Create harmonic sequences by taking a 2- or 3-chord progression, and then move it higher or lower. For example, let’s say you’re wondering what to do with the following: Am F Am. Follow it up with a progression that transposes that a 3rd higher: C Am C. Now another 3rd higher: Em C Em. For the fourth “transposition”, do something that moves it back to the original Am chord easily: F C G. That’s called sequencing, and it can give your short chord progression some legs.
- Create a rhythmic pattern (or dial one up on your synth), and improvise a bass line that works well with it. The bass line will imply chords, and the rhythm you’ve created will dictate the feel. Start adding chords, and improvising lyrics. You’ll be surprised by how quickly this method actually generates song ideas.
- Partner up with another songwriter, and bounce lyric ideas off each other. It’s fun to try it this way: Create a backing rhythm either on your synth, or simply a “slapping” rhythm on your legs. Then one of you speaks out a line, and the other one has to immediately answer it with their own line. “I got you, and you got me”… “Anywhere I’m with you is where I wanna be…” You can set it up so that one of you always speaks the same line, and the other has to keep generating a new answering line. It’s a lot of fun, and particularly because half the time you’ll get tongue-tied and a lot of garbage will come out. But in amongst the garbage you’ll discover lines that work. It’s potentially hilarious, because some things your brain comes up with can be quite funny. “I got you, and you got me”… “A bird in the hand is not in a tree.”
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