Recording and Creating Your Own Songs

Looking for some songwriting tips? Here's a few well-placed words from Kate Rowe. If you don't know Kate, you will soon.She's a great writer and performer.

“One of the many things I loved about Sound Heaven was that John was always focusing in on my best songs and encouraging me to write more of  the good stuff. Being away from the studio means I've had to find other cures for writer's block! With songwriting I've learned that it's best to write about the things that truly, truly interest you—the "good stuff" comes out of the things that really haunt your daydreams and occupy your thoughts.

There are a stack of brainstorming techniques you can use to get you started. I find Julia Cameron's book "The Artist's Way" really helpful— many of my songs began as thoughts written during her 'morning pages' exercise, which basically means getting up twenty minutes early and quickly writing three uncensored pages of whatever comes to mind. The Internet is full of tips if you google "writer's block": my current favourite is a computer program called WriteRoom which blacks out your whole computer screen, leaving only green type in the middle and no further distractions (yes, just like the olden days)."

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I'm new to songwriting. What do I do?

Just dive right in and do it. Hum melodies to yourself, think up some words to fit the melodies to, pick up your favourite instrument to add some harmony, and there you are.

I'd like to write songs, but I don't play an instrument and I don't sing. What can I do?

Again, you can just dive right in and try it for a while. Many people who thought they couldn't sing or play improved greatly with practice. Like most things, it takes time, so don't expect results overnight.

What methods do people use to write songs?

It varies between individuals. Some people set aside a particular time of day to write, while others wait for the muse to strike them. Some people pick particular topics to write about, while others play around with words and sounds to form ideas. Some people work on one song at a time until it's finished, while others work on several at a time. Many songs are written while practicing, jamming, etc., where even a mistake can be the seed for a great idea.

What's a good instrument to use for songwriting?

There are several schools of thought on this issue. Some people feel the best instruments are a pencil and paper. Others use an instrument such as a guitar or piano to write with. Still others use sequencers and recording gear. Most people like to write with instruments that can produce chords, such as guitars or keyboards. However, you shouldn't feel as if you are limited only to those.

Should I start with lyrics or melody first?

This also varies between individuals. Some lyrics suggest a melody, and vice versa. Try experimenting with both methods. Also consider collaborating with fellow musicians. Often, if you've hit writers block, then playing your song to a friend, or with a friend, can provide the creative flash to get your song to the next stage.

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What are the different types of lyric forms?

There are several types of lyric forms, and variations on those types. Three of the most common forms are AAA, AABA, and verse-chorus. An AAA lyric form (e.g. a typical blues) generally consists of repeating sections. Each section may have a refrain, which is a line or two that is repeated in each section.
  • An AABA lyric form differs from AAA as it features a bridge (B) section that contrasts from the A sections. Some AABA songs feature separate verses, with the AABA form appearing in the chorus.
  • A verse-chorus song (e.g. Waltzing Matilda) generally consists of alternating verse and chorus sections. The chorus often contains the title phrase (often referred to as the "hook").
  • There are several variations on the verse-chorus lyric form. Some verse-chorus songs feature a "pre-chorus" (a section of the verse that leads, or "climbs", to the chorus. Some also feature a bridge between sections

How do I set a melody to chords, and vice versa?

This question deserves a detailed explanation. Melody notes usually come from the chords themselves, or from notes that belong to the scale that the chords belong to. We can take a simple melody and add chords to it by identifying which triads fit the notes, but the best songs are usually the ones that start with a good melody and build from there.

When I'm songwriting, is there a particular musical structure I should aim for?

Musically speaking, a song consists of three distinct elements:

  1. melody. The lead vocal line of the song
  2. harmony. The chords that support the melody in the song
  3. rhythm. The rhythmic pattern of the melody in the song

What is a melody? Melodies are like sentences. In the simplest terms, the opening phrase asks the question and the second phrase answers the question. For example, “Do you still love me?” might be the opening phrase, and the next phrase might be, “Till the oceans run dry”.
Contrast the melody between sections. The most common approach is to make the melody higher in the chorus than in the verse of the song; although you can also create a contrast by making the melody lower.

  • Contrast the rhythm between sections. If the predominant rhythm of the melody in the verse of the song is eighth notes, make the predominant rhythm in the chorus sixteenth notes, or quarter notes.
  • Don’t have a chorus that sounds too much like the verse. Different musical sections such as verses, lifts, choruses and bridges should contrast each other.
Music has three fundamental components (melody, harmony, and rhythm), so we have three ways of creating a contrast between different musical sections.
  • Melodic Contrast - To create an effective melodic contrast, make sure that the chorus is higher than the verse. Write the verse in a comfortable, but low melodic range, leaving plenty of room to move upward in the chorus.
  • Harmonic Contrast If both the verse and chorus use the same chord progression, there’s a good chance those sections will sound too similar. Try to consciously choose a different chord progression for each different musical section. The easiest way to achieve this is to start each section on a different chord. However, if you do start both your verse and chorus on the same chord, be sure to include some other method of contrast.
  • Rhythmic Contrast A third way to create an effective contrast between sections is by changing the rhythm of the melody between the verse and chorus. If you’re solely a lyricist, rhythmic contrast is a great thing that you can build into your lyrics by simply paying particular attention to the rhythm of the words in each section.

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What's the trick to making a song that everyone remembers?

When you listen to a song, you probably notice that the music is made up of certain phrases or ideas which repeat themselves throughout the song. These musical phrases are called motifs or themes. A motif may be melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or a combination of these.

A common mistake made by songwriters is thinking that the music becomes "boring" or "too simplistic" when phrases are repeated in this manner. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, you can easily get caught up in trying to be too clever. This usually results in a song that has too many musical ideas -- and that makes the song harder to remember (and that's not good). If one of your main goals as a songwriter is to write something that's memorable, then by far the best technique available to you, is the power of repetition. The trick is in knowing how to use repetition without getting "boring".

The next time you hear one of your favorite songs, listen to how the use of repetition goes a long way toward making the song easier to remember. If you are writing a song that has more than four or five different musical ideas in it, chances are you have enough ideas for another song. Remember, when you have a lot of great musical ideas, don't use them all in one song. Instead, write a lot of great songs.

What about recording my songs?

One of the very best ways of developing your songwriting skills is to record your work regularly. This way you can develop your own work and share your songs with others. At Sound Heaven, many songwriters come in for a few hours once every couple of months just to lay down demos of their songs so that they can take the recordings away, share them with others, and work on the songs to develop them further.

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