In addition to daily songwriting, try these five important exercises.
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If a normal day for you as a songwriter is to fit in an hour or so of always trying to create your next song, you are missing something that can really improve your technique: practice.
If you’re a guitarist, keyboardist or player of some other instrument, how to practice is obvious: you’ll be working on scales, finger exercises, and perhaps transcribing and practicing well-known solos. But for songwriters, what does practice mean?
Here are five of the best things you can do to improve your songwriting technique, and you should be doing them on an almost daily basis:
- Melodic Improvisation, Part 1: Improvise melodies over a chord progression. Make up melodies, either accompanied or not. As you create your melodies, think about shape, rhythm, and use of repetition. Then work out a 2-chord progression, play those two chords over and over (hold each chord for 2 or 4 beats), and then.. start improvising. If you run out of ideas, either add to your progression, or create a new one.
- Melodic Improvisation, Part 2: Create short melodic fragments. Create a short 4-chord progression. (There are 5 listed at the end of this blog post if you want some that you know will work). Now, improvise a melody as you play through the chord progression. Repeat your improvised melody, then create a new one, repeat it, and on you go. No stopping between new melodic fragments.
- Lyric Imagery. Open any novel to any page. Find the first noun. Write it down. Quickly develop a list of at least ten words that are either synonyms or relate somehow to the word. Example: Your chosen word: ‘Story’. Your list could be: ‘tale’, ‘yarn’, ‘account’, ‘facts’, ‘read’, ‘lie’, ‘fib’, ‘book’, ‘paperback’, ‘pages’… You’ll notice that my list went from thinking of ‘story’ as kind of tale, to words relating to reading, to thinking of ‘story’ as a kind of falsehood, and back to book again. It’s important to work quickly, and force your brain into action.
- Quick Rhyming. As in the previous exercise, open a book, choose any word, and then quickly think of a word that rhymes. If you can’t think of an exact rhyme, try an approximate one. (Example: ‘heroic’ – ‘stoic’). For a next step, create short lines of lyric that use the rhyming words. Work quickly.
- Song Title Creation. Create possible song titles and write them down. Work quickly, and don’t worry that you don’t have a story yet. (Examples: “Love Him or Leave Him”, “Aunt May’s Ghost”, “You Make Me Want to Need You”, etc. Now pick up your guitar, strum any chord, and sing your title to an improvised melody/rhythm. Try different melodies. The key is to work quickly.
Some of these ideas will actually produce usable material for songs, so be prepared with a digital recorder to save your ideas.
In addition to these exercises, songwriters should always be listening to music daily from different genres as an important way to improve. Daily listening is perhaps the most important part of developing better songwriting skills. You won’t like everything you hear, but you should be always able to describe why or why not. That kind of critical listening is a must for the serious songwriter.
Suggested chord progressions for Exercise #2:
- C Bb F C
- C F Dm C
- C G Ab Bb
- C Eb F C
- C Dm Bb C
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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I cannot tell you how much I love this blog. I’m up in Maine, a fairly sparsely populated state, and there’s no one else in my daily orbit who writes songs, or who studies and wonders about the craft of songwriting. Reading this blog is almost like having a conversation with someone who has the same passion that I do, and I totally get fed from the experience.
That’s not actually why I started typing in this comment box, but it’s what came out first 🙂 My actual comment is to offer an alternative to making up rhymes: let the internet do it for you. “No, no”, you say, “coming up with rhymes on your own sharpens your ear and alerts you to new lyrical possibilities!” Well, I get that. But wow, http://www.rhymezone.com/ is an indispensable part of my songwriting. It’s a total idea generator for me. Even if I practiced rhyming for fifty years I would not get as good as what’s on that website. So I use it instead 🙂
Thanks for writing, Michael, I’m very pleased that you like the blog.
All the best,
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I don’t get the chord progressions that were offered for exercise two? I’m pretty hip to music theory. Bb isn’t in the key of C major. Neither is Ab. So I am guessing they’re borrowed from the parallel minor? Could you please explain? I’ve been studying theory and I don’t get why these chords are put together.
In C major, chords like Bb and Ab are called modal mixtures, or borrowed chords. As you say, they’re borrowed from the parallel minor. The most common modal mixture chord in popular music genres is probably the minor IV-chord. You can read all about them by taking a look at this post.
Thank you for replying. I appreciate your help.
Does it sound good? That’s the only question you really need to ask.
You can always go back and analyze later. Theory is wonderful and I appreciate musicians who know their craft. But, I’m sure you will run into progressions that are technically correct and make sense in theory…but sound terrible and are not what the song calls for. Trust your ear!
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