Monday, October 31, 2005

Creative Music Writing Techniques

Most people who are in a position of creating new artistic efforts occasionally have periods when they can't seem to come up with any new creative ideas. To help that, I thought it might be nice if we all throw in some ways that we each use to get new creative ideas. It will help everybody.

More ideas help everyone and a rising tide lifts all boats. So please feel free to jump in and share. To that end, here are some techniques I use. I'll start with techniques for writing lyrics and concepts for songs, then get to the musical techniques.

1) For song concepts, I usually write the music first, then listen for the mood of the piece, and then come up with words that support those emotions. But you can also work it the other way round. You can try reading a book and take some concept from the story of that book and make that the theme of a song. Or take an article from a magazine. For example, I read an article in a science magazine a couple of years ago about the process they go through to build the largest mirror in the world for the largest telescope in the world that they are building in California (Not in Hawaii this time). So I had the idea from that to write a song called 'Building the perfect mirror', where the polishing workers on the mirror keep leaving the project because the mirror is so perfect that it captures their inner souls and reflects it back to them, and they cannot take that level of self-scrutiny, and so have to leave. They are embarassed by what they see in themselves when they catch their own eyes in the reflection of that perfect mirror. I haven't yet finished that song, but the concept is in the back of my mind still evolving. Sometimes these concepts take a few years before they surface as a complete song. Sometimes, it's instant.

2 ) Random Word Association. When trying to come up with a brand new idea, you have to literally burn a new pathway in your brain. A thought process that didn't exist before. To do that, you try to relate two things that currently have no relation in your mind. To do THAT, think of your target subject area, then open any book to any page, put your finger anywhere on the page and read the nearest noun to your finger. Now try to connect that noun to your main idea/theme. This will invite all sorts of crazy connections. Throw the chaff away, and keep the gems. The unique, new connections that are genuinely different and new and good. This is a way to create brand new concepts in words and themes for lyrics.

3 ) The Lyrics Puzzle. I learned another trick by reading an interview of David Bowie once many years ago. He said when writing songs, he writes clever little catchy phrases about his subject area, and then cuts them into little scraps of paper, then puts them on the floor and sits on the floor and pushes them around, rearranging them in different sequences like a puzzle to come up with the lyrics for a song. Now, of course, we have word processors to allow us to do that on the screen - but the idea is the same. Create little nuggets of thoughts. Clever little poetic images or clever little plays on words, and then push them around on the screen to try to get a logical flow, then perhaps make them rhyme.

4 ) Song lyrics, like poetry, don't have to rhyme. But it is a time-honored convention, and it does make it easier to remember the words when singing. To get words to rhyme, I take the base word I want to rhyme with, then I go through the alphabet for starting letters to find any other words that rhyme. (Hmmm the word is 'that', so I'll try 'bat, cat, dat, fat, mat, nat, pat, sat,' etc...) The alternative is to use a good online rhyming dictionary. There are several on the web. It feels like cheating, but hey, it doesn't write it for you. It only gives a selection of words to use as the last word on the next line. Your creativity fills in the connection.

5 ) To have creative musical ideas, I use several techniques. One is to try a different tuning on the guitar. This forces you to come up with new chords and different fingerings, because none of the old ones work anymore. You are forced out of your old box into new areas. Whole new sounds. The last concert I gave was in April, This particular show was an acoustic show, and I had 4 guitars on stage because I used 4 entirely different tunings.

6 ) Another technique I use is drum machines. I get some crazy rhythm going and then just jam with it. Try to hear notes in the drum patterns, and then play those notes. Then try to take two entirely different rhythm or melody sequences that you come up with for the same drum rhythm, and overlay them using multi tracking. Listen for the interplay between the two melodic structures. You get three unique things there. The two base melodies, and the combination. Now add a bass line that is different again. Keep layering and look for gems in the overlay effects.

7 ) Steal something from other music, and then twist it. Steal a melody line from some song that catches your fancy, then play the melody backwards. Or play it by inserting different notes at regular intervals, for example take the top note of a downward run and re-insert it back in as every third or fourth note. See how that works. Try playing a harmony line to the original line. Then switch from 3rds to 4ths, to 5ths in the same sequence. Play with it. Over lay one complete melodic sequence with another that is just the first sentence of it repeated over and over on top of the moving one. Just twist and turn the whole melody until it becomes yours. Something different and unique, and YOU.

8 ) Try starting to write a song on a different instrument than your usual instrument. For instance, I am mostly a guitar player, but sometimes I will start writing a tune with drums and bass, then layer in a guitar part to fit that musically. That keeps me from using the same old techniques and ruts that I have used before. I have to force myself to do something new to match the music that is happening.

9 ) Listen to progressive rock bands like Yes, Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Porcupine Tree, etc. and listen to all the little melodies they play for small phrases and passing sequences and connectors, and see if you can develop something bigger based on those tiny transitional passages. Take some concepts of feel, or snippets of melodic constructs and then expand them, play with them, twist them and make them yours. These types of bands are wealthy with melodic ideas. They have them pouring - even blasting out in quick succession. An embarassment of riches of melodic ideas. Use these as seeds to grow your own trees.

10 ) Listen to other instruments such as saxophones, or flutes, or oboes, or marimbas, or whatever, and listen to the melodic constructs there. Learn from that. Take pieces and play with them. Incorporate into your songs and ideas along with what you know already.

11 ) Listen to musical styles you don't normally listen to to get ideas to expand on. For instance, most rock music is based on old blues. Try classic jazz. Or big band music. Or classical. Or ethnic music using accordions. Or Tuvan Throat-singing. Or Thai music. Or American Indian. or African. Just try different styles you haven't played with before. There is a wealth of stuff out there, you just haven't heard yet. All of it is seeds to grow in the fertile soil of your mind.

12 ) Watch a movie on DVD. At a particularly poignant emotional point in the film, stop the movie, and pick up a guitar. Try to play something that explains how you feel right then. Pretend someone has asked you how you feel at that moment, and your voice doesn't work. The only way to answer is with your guitar. Make it explain. Make it convey your message so anyone can understand how you feel right at that precise moment.

So there you have a dozen ideas for building creative lyrics, song concepts, and musical ideas. Now you have no excuses. Get out there and make me want to brag to my friends that I knew you before you became so famous!


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