Practical Insights In Songwriting

Editor’s Note: The song Picking A Flower was the January winner in the International Songwriting Contest “Song of the Year” in the category “jazz/world/instrumental. In this article, guitarist Gilbert Isbin tells us of the steps he took in writing the music for this award winning song. At the end of the article, Gilbert was kind enough to give us more links and information on the song, including reviews from listeners.

When writing a song I normally start from the lyrics. In the case of Picking A Flower I felt, after reading the lyric of Picking A Flower (written by Emile Clemens) several times, that it needed a Brazilian rhythm for the first verse. Also I had this idea of using chord changes that were derived from a particular type of harmony, namely, using all (or mostly) minor 7ths. I decided to start with a four-note Bm11 chord. Normally, Bm11 consists of the notes B, D, F#, A and E. Typically the fifth is usually omitted in a four-note voicing, which left me with B, A, D and E.

For some reason I love adding fourths or elevenths for colouring a chord. When tones are added to a basic chord, the resulting chords are called “extensions.” Extensions for Bm could be Bm6, Bm7, Bm9, Bm11, Bm13 etc. For explanations about chord theory, please search on the Guitar Noise site. There’s a mass of information about this and other topics, like the recent article by Tom Serb on this very topic.

I began to sing the first two lines of the lyrics on this chord. For the next two ones I needed a second chord and, as I wanted to let it be a minor chord again, I played all kind of combinations: Bm11 to C#m7, Bm11 to D#m7, Bm11 to Em7, etc. I tried them out chromatically (per half step) and not diatonically.

I soon discovered G#m7 would be my favourite chord to use. I sang different melodic phrases and wrote them all down in standard notation to run through them later on. (TABs or even simply recording them are also effective solutions, of course). I followed the same procedure for the second verse.

It was now time for the third verse, which expressed another content and feeling. In my mind, I heard the introduction of a new rhythmic accompanying pattern. I also moved down a half step to Bbm7 to emphasis this different content, thus playing in a new key. This concept is called a modulation, or change in key. Here we modulate from a Bm key to a Bbm key. I started humming again and soon I discovered that Abm7 would work fine to follow the Bbm7.

I like to use pedal notes, which involves the repetition of a single note, or series of notes throughout a lick or chord progression, so the Abm7 chord became Abm7/Bb (or B/Bb) This voicing is also called a “slash chord.” A slash chord is a chord with a bass note other than the root . For instance, C/B is a C major chord, but with B as its bass note instead of C. You’d play it with the fingering X22010.

Being stubborn, I decided my next chord would be a minor 7 th -related chord again. I was already descending scale-wise, so why not proceed in this manner. This thought led to Gm7. But humming the melody, I used a C# which is the b5 in the Gm scale. A Gm7 with a flattened fifth is called Gm7b5. A chord that has a b5,#5,b9 or #9 added is called an “altered chord.”

The most difficult part was now to find a solution for the last line of the lyric. I felt I shouldn’t use a chord, but instead employ a melodic line being executed with the melody. I started searching out all sorts of possibilities and finally got to a convenient intervallic phrase mixing fifths and fourths.

Then it was “scrapping time.” This is when I run through all the ideas I had written down thus far and took the lines that touched me the most, deleting and adding notes. And wrote the lead sheet out on my Finale software program.

The next day I did the same process of polishing again and then decided to keep the melodic and harmonic development. With my performing group, we decided to spice the song with some solos of the bass, guitar and voice.


In this song I used the concepts of using:

  1. Chord changes derived from the same type of harmony
  2. Chord extensions
  3. Slash chords
  4. Pedal notes
  5. Modulation
  6. Scale-wise chord movement
  7. Different accompaniment patterns
  8. Improvisational section
  9. Voice and guitar playing identical lines

So here’s the chord progression of

Picking A Flower (lyrics : Emile Clemens/music : Gilbert Isbin ©

The song’s form is AAB. This is one of the most commonly used forms in both jazz and popular music. The B section is also known as the bridge.

Lyrics 1
Lyrics 2
The Chords
Accompaignment 1
Accompaignment 2

Bibliography: Links, notes and reviews

Listen to the song and read reviews at Gilbert Isbin’s website.

The song Picking A Flower was the January winner in the International Songwriting Contest “Song of the Year” in the category “jazz/world/instrumental. The 1 st place winner in each category will go on to compete against the other 1 st place monthly winners in their respective category at the end of the year for the Grand Prize.

Song of the Year review of ‘PICKING A FLOWER’

LYRICS: The lyrics on this jazz number are superb. Excellent word usage, styling, tempo, and complexity. Great job.

MUSIC: The vocals are awesome! The guitar, baseline, and percussion are wonderful on their own and blend wonderfully!

MELODIES: The melodies were absolutely wonderful! Pure jazz riffs with a perfect flow!

STRUCTURE: I cannot say anything about the structure of this song. The chord progressions are great. The musical elements come together and blend well, harmonizing fluidly. Tempo, flow, levels, breaks, changeups…everything is as it should. Excellent!

MARKETABILITY: This is a jazz work of art that in said genre should be a dominating song. I thoroughly hope to see this song on the market and on the airwaves soon.

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE: Coming from a virgin jazz enthusiast, I must say that this song grabs me in every way, making me want to dance, sing along, tap my toes, and just feel the music!