When Improvising Doesn’t Result in a Song

Do you ever find that you spend a lot of time improvising on ideas, but often not able to come up with a song? Improvising plays a crucial role in musical composition of any style, so what’s happening when you’re improvising but there’s no song to show for your efforts?

An analogy might help here. Let’s say you’ve got a pile of boards, some two-by-fours, and some screws and nails. You start improvising, screwing or nailing boards together, but by the time you’re “done”, you’ve got nothing more than a mess.

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The reason is obvious. You didn’t have any idea what you wanted to build when you started. And even if you did have some idea (“I want to build a doghouse”), all you know is that it needs walls, a floor and a roof. Slapping things together just won’t work, and the results will be terrible.

Improvising is fun, especially if you don’t have any particular project in mind — you just want to wing it and see what comes together. But if the plan is to come up with a finished song, improvising will help you create ideas, but doesn’t necessarily deal with putting those ideas together.

How to Intelligently Improvise

It’s not enough to know that songs need verses, a chorus, and other optional bits like pre-chorus and bridge, just like it’s not enough to say a doghouse needs a roof and walls.

There are lots of ways to improvise intelligently, but try this:

  1. Either alone or with bandmates, start improvising and building musical ideas.
  2. Try to get a sense where in the song the idea you’re forming might belong. If it’s short and repetitive, it might be a good chorus hook. If it’s longer, with a more involved chord progression underneath, it might work as a verse. Identifying what it is you’re working on is a vital step in intelligent improvising.
  3. If you’ve got a good chorus hook worked out: try improvising a verse section by deliberately improvising lower in pitch.
  4. If you’ve got some verse ideas: concentrate on a chorus hook by deliberately improvising higher in pitch.

When you think of the doghouse analogy, the missing parts were 1) a specific plan; and 2) a measuring tool. In songwriting, the plan means getting a sense, as soon as possible in the process, of all the various bits you plan to use: is it going to be a verse-chorus-bridge design? Verse-refrain? Something else?

Instead of a measuring tool, we simply need to be mindful of how the various parts relate to each other with regard to length. If your verse is, let’s say, 16 bars long, your chorus is going to be the same, or often half the length and then repeated.

Simply improvising will give you good ideas, but unless you think about what you’re improvising in any specific sort of way, you’ll be missing the key ingredient to putting a completed song together.

As you improvise, keep track of what you’ve got, and that should give you a sense of what you need. And that’s usually the missing ingredient in songwriting improvising.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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