Turning a Musical Fragment Into a Completed Song

You’ve written a great musical line, but can’t seem to expand on it? Try these ideas.


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There’s probably nothing that drives a songwriter crazier than coming up with a great musical line – a hook, a piece of melody, a great bit of lyric – but no ideas on how to expand on it. Don’t let it eat away at you too much. Most composers of music have virtual trunk-loads of ideas that, at least to this point, haven’t seen the light of day. They’re just snippets, but with a few simple tweaks there’s no reason why you can’t turn them into fully-fledged songs.

If you’ve written a line of music, but have nothing else, you may be closer to having a finished song than you think. Most good songs don’t use lots of ideas. They tend to use two or three distinct structures, and repeat them in various ways.

So dig out one of those musical ideas you created some while back, and check out the following list of things you can do to build on it. None of the items in the list will instantly create a finished song for you, but they’ll expand on what you’ve done so far, and get you thinking creatively.

  1. Repeat the fragment. Repetition is a crucial part of solid structure in music. Sometimes all you need to do to get the musical ideas flowing is to repeat what you’ve already written. There are lots of ways to repeat something, but try this: play the fragment 3 times, and create something new for a 4th. If what you’ve written for the 4th phrase doesn’t work, go back to repeating the fragment 3 times, then invent something new. Do this until you get a 4th phrase that finally complements the repeated idea.
  2. Repeat with a key change. Try doing a straight repeat of your fragment, then move the idea up a minor 3rd and play it twice. You might be surprised how well that works. Minor 3rd leaps seem to work really well as an abrupt modulation, so give it a try.
  3. Repeat on a different chord tone. If you’ve got a melodic bit that’s accompanied by a particular chord progression, you can keep the progression the same, but start the melody on a different chord tone and keep the general shape of the melody the same. Here’s an example of a melody that repeats at its middle point, but starting on a different pitch.
  4. Play the fragment in retrograde. If you’ve got a bit of melody that you really like, but can’t seem to take it further, see what it sounds like if you play it backwards, either literally or approximately. In other words, say your melodic idea is comprised mainly of a scale that moves upward: try starting on the same note, and move downward. Here’s an example of a melodic idea that’s repeated approximately backwards.
  5. Invert the fragment. You can generate some interesting ideas by inverting the fragment. As with retrograde, you can do this either literally, or even just approximately. Here’s an idea that’s repeated at its midpoint, but in the opposite direction.
  6. Play the fragment in the opposite mode. You can get an entirely new feel by taking a musical idea that you created in major, and trying it in minor.
  7. Change the backing rhythm of the fragment. It could be that the basic time signature/feel you created along with the fragment is a bit of a dead end. See if you can create a new feel for the bit you’ve written, and you may find the floodgates suddenly open. Most songwriters write in 4/4 time, the basic strong beat-weak beat feel of most music you hear on the radio. Try a different beat subdivision, like triple time. (Some examples: The Beatles: Norwegian Wood; Paul McCartney: Mull of Kintyre.)


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