Most songwriters start the songwriting process by improvising on ideas. You may have nothing to start with, and so the purpose of that initial improvisation session is to come up with something catchy.
Let’s say that you manage to come up with something short but great, something that might serve as an important fragment of what will eventually become a complete song. The problem you’re having is: How do you take your little fragment of music and turn it into a full song?
Every song is different, so it shouldn’t surprise you that there are many ways forward. Thankfully, good songwriting is guided by principles which suggest a way to build on your initial idea.
If you find yourself in that situation, where you have a bit of a musical fragment, with little or no idea how to turn it into something that resembles a complete song, please have a look at the following tips. I hope you’ll find them helpful:
- Every section of a song has its own set of unique characteristics. We know that verses tend to be lower in pitch than choruses, for example. So you need to look at that fragment you’ve created and make a decision: Does it sound more like a verse, or more like a chorus? Perhaps it’s something else. If you want it to be a chorus, but doesn’t sound right, it may need to be raised in pitch. But identifying where in the song that fragment might belong is a crucial first step.
- Repetition is a powerful songwriting tool! Let’s say you’ve got something that’s 4 or 8 beats in length — a nice little musical phrase. You’d be surprised what simply repeating that fragment will do. Now you’ve got something that resembles at least half of the chorus you need, and things start to look more helpful.
- Moving the fragment up or down. Songs may appear to be complex and intricate, but when you take a closer look you’ll find that the same musical fragment is simply being moved up and down, with little else added to the composition. The Rolling Stones’ single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) is a great example. Listen to the verse and see how many times one idea is used, repeated, moved higher and lower. Then listen to the chorus, and notice the same thing. There’s only a small amount of musical information in this song, but repetition is cleverly used to make a complete tune.
- Changing chords under the fragment. You can get a lot of musical mileage by playing the same short idea over and over, changing chords underneath it as you go. “Born In the U.S.A.” demonstrates this: the main idea is played over a B chord, then repeated virtually note-for-note over an E.
- Put the idea away and try to compose a partner idea. Most songs will use separate melodic ideas for the verse and the chorus. Let’s say you’ve decided that the fragment you’ve improvised would make a nice chorus. What do you do? Put it away, then try to improvise a new idea lower in pitch than your original one. Once you’ve got something, play it and move directly into your chorus idea. You’ll know right away if they’ll partner well together. And if they don’t… don’t toss it! You may have something that can help with some future song you’ll be working on.
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