Songwriting - Piano and guitar

Make Improvisation a Smarter Part of Your Songwriting Process

Improvisation is an important part artistic creation. Who knows where those very first ideas come from — the ones that pop into your mind as you’re walking down the street or sitting on a bus. But almost everything that follows, at least for most songwriters, happens through improvisation.

In that context, improvisation means using your musical imagination to come up with something that sounds like a good partner for what you’ve already created. That new bit might work, and if it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you throw it out and improvise a new idea.

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If there’s a downside to this way of improvising to write songs, it’s the fact that it can take a long time to get the job done. A good analogy would be having a blue sock, and then blindly reaching into your sock drawer and pulling out socks until you find one that matches. The faster way to do it is to actually look for another blue sock, and the job is done in seconds.

So what you want to do with your songwriting is to improvise ideas that already have a good shot at being keepers. What that means specifically is hard to say, because every initial idea is different, and so determining what will work with it changes with each idea. That’s what makes songs unique.

There is a way, however, to make improvisation a smarter part of your songwriting process. Since the main bits of song creation are going to focus on either melodies or chords, here’s how you can make better use of improvisation as you write your songs:

  1. Improvising melodies. Let’s say you’ve got a good, hook-like melody that’s serving nicely as a chorus. How do you make better use of the time you spend improvising new melodies? The faster way: verse melodies will usually be lower than chorus melodies. So as you improvise your verse, keep below the general range of your chorus. If you’ve got a verse and chorus, and now want a bridge that pumps up the energy, improvise ideas that go higher than the chorus.
  2. Improvising new chords. Let’s say you’ve come up with a verse progression that uses something like this: C Dm Bb C. Extending that to something longer, or coming up with a progression that works well in the chorus, often involves a lot of random choosing of chords. The faster way: Identify the key of your progression. By doing that, you zoom in on the chords that are likely going to form your other progressions. If you’re not sure how to identify the key of the progression (the one above is from C major, with Bb as a non-diatonic chord), read this article.

The idea here is that you want to start the improvisation process by being “in the ballpark” to begin with. When it comes to the creation of new bits, there’s more to it than what I’ve described above. When trying to generate new melodic ideas, for example, it often helps to mimic ideas in one part of the song when you write melodies for the other parts.

A good example of this might be Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” (1987). Listen to the verse, and note how the melody is comprised of many short downward-moving shapes. Now listen to the bridge that follows, and you get similar sounds, some of which reverse direction and move upward, and some which continue downward. The fact that the verse and bridge share similar “motifs” in this way act as a kind of musical glue.

Written by Gary Ewer.  Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Pingback: 7 Tips for Organizing Your Songwriting Sessions | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

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