Because most songwriters are also instrumentalists, muscle memory plays a big role in key choice. If you’re a guitarist and you’re noodling around trying to create some ideas for songs, you’ll find your fingers wanting to move to the notes and patterns that you find the easiest to play.
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If you don’t do anything to address it, this kind of muscle memory can cause the following problems for instrumentalist/songwriters:
- You tend to favour the same keys.
- All your musical ideas wind up in a similar tempo.
- You notice that most of your songs use the same backing rhythm patterns.
Once you’ve set up a rhythmic treatment in a particular tempo, using your favourite key, your new song is going to sound very similar to the last one you wrote. But there are things you can do to ensure that muscle memory on your instrument doesn’t mean all your songs will sound the same.
Here are some ways to make sure that each song you write sounds fresh and original.
- Work out a chord progression in your favourite key if you must, but immediately transpose to a higher or lower key. You can use the overall energy level of your song idea as a guide in this regard. For more energetic songs, move the key up. For more laid back, gentle songs, move it down.
- Switch modes. If your songs all tend to be in E major, transposing to the so-called parallel minor key of E minor will give your song a dramatically different feel. Example: Play this progression: E A F#m B E. Now try this: Em Am F#dim B Em. That small change from major to minor makes all the difference.
- Try setting up a tempo and feel as a starting point. Start by tapping your foot, and make sure that you’re setting a different tempo than your last song. With this new tempo in mind, apply your favourite process: set up a 2- or 3-chord vamp, or improvise a melodic shape.
- Create songwriting ideas on an unfamiliar instrument. You may not be a good mandolin player, but you don’t need to be if all you’re doing is coming up with songwriting ideas. The different tuning, and even the different sound of the instrument, will guide your musical mind in a new direction. You’ll find that melodies you improvise on a new instrument will sound quite different from what you’re normally used to.
- Become a better instrumentalist. One reason your fingers always move to the same notes and shapes is that you’re not familiar with other key possibilities on your instrument. Develop your playing abilities, either by taking lessons, or by intentionally transposing familiar music to new keys. Take a favourite song that you like playing, and see how many different keys you can move it to. It will take time and a lot of practice, but it’s one of the best ways to combat muscle memory.
- Try alternate tunings. If you’re a keyboardist, you’re likely stuck with what the keyboard gives you. But as a guitarist, you can try new unique tunings, ones that will give your song an entirely new sound. The possibilities are endless. Here’s an article to give you some specific ideas to try.
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