Songs in the popular genres (Pop, rock, country, etc.) make great use of improvisation as a compositional tool. It’s partly why so many pop songs have multiple writers. With a group of bandmates, you can write very quickly, as long as someone provides that initial musical idea.
If that initial idea — a bit of chord, coupled with a melodic idea, maybe also a bit of lyric to go along with it — is good, other songwriters in the group can build on it with relative ease.
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Experienced songwriters can go far with that kind of process. As long as the initial idea has promise, improvisation is a great way to write. Improvising allows you to try out something on the spur of the moment, toss it if it doesn’t work, and keep it if it does.
My feeling is that the more you can improvise and brainstorm at a time, the better the end product. And if you can brainstorm a complete song in one go, so much the better. That fully-brainstormed song may have weaknesses, but it gives you something to fix.
I’m a fan of thinking before doing. I like having a rough idea of what I’m trying to do before I do it. But while thinking first has its merits, there’s also something to be said for the spontaneous stream-of-consciousness way of writing music that’s hard to deny.
If you’re the kind of songwriter who’s constantly getting stuck at “what do I do next?”, brainstorming and improvising helps to keep you from getting bogged down in the endless cycle of analyzing ideas without really trying them.
Brainstorming Without a Band
Brainstorming with bandmates can be a fun and productive activity, but hopefully you know that you don’t need a band to do it.
The best way forward if all you have is a couple of bars of music is to imagine that the rest of the song actually exists, and now you’re going to perform it: Play your idea, then sing the next bit. If you can’t think of what chords might accompany your improvised addition, do some muted rhythmic strumming while you improvise the next bit of melody.
Sometimes when you do this, you wind up with something less than ideal. Don’t worry about that… keep going! See if you can improvise the entire chorus in one go.
There is a reason why this “more-is-better” method of improvising works is that it helps keep your critical mind in check. You don’t have time to overly criticize what you’re writing. You just keep going.
Once you’re done, if you’ve been able to write an entire song in one long improvising session, it gives you something to fix. To simply sit and wonder what the next part of your song should sound like gives you nothing more than a blank page, and that blank page can be very debilitating.
This kind of activity gets better with time. You may feel that you don’t have great brainstorming chops, but the more you try it, the easier it gets.
So the next time you feel stuck in your creative process, look at the task from a new perspective — as if it’s a song that’s already been written — and now you’re simply going to perform it as part of your compositional process. You will be surprised by how much you can create on the spur of the moment.
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