Putting Things Together – Theory/Songwriting Workshop 1

Putting Things Together

So, how often has this happened to you? You’ve come up with a good chord progression and you’re all set to write a terrific song (or a lead for a song) but, for whatever reason, you’re just stuck. You can’t even begin to find a place to start.

Or, conversely, you’ve got a melody but you’re unhappy with the chords you’ve got. Not that they are necessarily bad, you’d just like to jazz it up a bit. Do something a little different.

Seriously, I cannot tell you how many emails or forum discussion threads I have seen that pretty much boil down to one of these two scenarios. And, of course, it’s not a subject that can be answered with a simple “just do this.” Well, it can, but you should always be highly suspicious of anyone who gives you such an answer. Even if it’s me…

So, over the next few months (every two to three weeks), we’re going to be examining how melodies and chords work together. And when I say “melodies,” I mean “leads” as well. After all, very often a lead is simply the guitar playing a melody of sorts. I’ve called these columns “workbooks” because not only will we look at specific examples from all kinds of songs, we’ll have exercises to try out original ideas as well. In fact, your input will pretty much determine whether or not we should make this a more or less permanent feature, much as the Easy Songs For Beginners page has become.

Two things before we start: First, you might want to read (or reread) my earlier column Christmas in June, which gives a very basic introduction to melody. Second (like you have to guess):

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Okay, three things. Please let me once again explain that when we discuss things in terms of music theory, we primarily deal with the “rule” rather than the “exception.” You will find that what we discover will cover a lot of ground and help to make a lot of sense out of why certain chord progressions or shapes of melodies “work,” why they make sense to our ears. But do remember that there will always be exceptions. Think of this as a guide rather than as an authority.

Chickens And Eggs

As you might expect, especially as A-J or I have probably said so a few hundred times, different people approach music from different angles. And perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in songwriting.

I think it’s safe to say that, when writing a song, many people (myself included) first come up with a chord progression and then proceed to work from there. Or as Paul Simon once said, “I pick a key and start to play.” And actually, we’re going to start out even more simply than that; we’re going to just strum a single chord. Pick a chord, any one chord. I don’t care what it is. Have you got it? Good. Now choose a tempo and strum your chord.

And now, while strumming your chord, close your eyes and sing.

“Sing what?” you ask (and you’re probably also thinking, “Oh God! There was some devious reason for him to discuss singing and playing last week! (Singing In A New Year) We should have known…”). Doesn’t matter at this point. “La, la ,la” is perfectly fine. Come up with a melodic phrase, nothing more than two to four measures long, depending on your tempo of choice. The other important thing is to give your melody a bit of movement. Don’t just hang onto the same note for eternity. The first chord I picked was A minor. Here’s what I’ve just come up with (and I’ve included the single note TAB in case you need it):

A minor

As you can see (and hear), this melody simply dances around the notes of an A minor chord (A, C, and E) with a few other notes (B, G and D) thrown in for good measure. One of the reasons I included a TAB for this is so that some of you will make the connection that there’s not much difference between my melody and a slightly jazzed up Am picking pattern. Sometimes this is all it takes.

You can construct a melody with a relatively small range of notes, like this:

Do It Again

All this melodic phrase consists of is the upper voice of a blues/rock shuffle – 5, 6 and (flatted) 7 of the C major chord (and if you’re not sure what a shuffle is, then please check out the either Dan Lasley’s latest article (Playing Along) or the latest Easy Songs For Beginners piece, Before You Accuse Me) . That’s hardly a stretch for anyone’s voice.

If you’re more daring, try giving yourself a melody with a bit more of a range. Take a look at this phrase from McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby:

Eleanor Rigby

An important thing to glean from these last two examples is that, when it comes to melodies, you are never restricted to using only the notes in your given key. The Bb in the Beach Boys’ Do It Again as well as the C# in Eleanor Rigby are not part of the scales in their key signatures, but fit in just fine with the melody line. In fact, try it yourself using a regular B or C in the respective songs and see just how weird it sounds. It’s not that you can’t use the B or C, (both are in fact used in each song in question), it’s just that in this particular phrase, it sounds out of place.

Time And Place

Once you’ve tried single chord melody phrases for a while, the next logical step is to attempt to construct a melody (or better yet just a single phrase) over a chord progression. As always, start out fairly simply and gradually work your way up to more complex patterns. In regards to the chord progression, that is. Feel free to make your melodic phrase as simple or complex as your heart desires.

Consider that we already know that many, many, many, many songs are comprised of I, IV and V, in some order. Here are some examples of some phrases using similar, and occasionally identical, progressions:

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
Dead Flowers
Celluloid Heores
(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
House of the Rising Sun

You see that even though each pair of songs use the same chord progressions (although I have taken liberty in two places with the original key – Peter Pumpkinhead, for instance, I believe is in the key of A, but the progression is still I, IV) the melodies are markedly different. Some use long drawn-out notes; others jump all over the place and some very neatly rise and fall from one point to the next. This is why, even though there are a limited number of chord progressions, there can be so many different songs. Different people sing in different styles and have different ranges and vocal nuances and quite often songs will refect just that.

But don’t just take my word for it – let’s put it to the test. I’ve complied some chord progressions that are (and have been) fairly commonly used in songwriting. I’ve also taken the liberty to put them in certain guitar-friendly keys. Your task, should you decide to be so bold, is to come up with a melodic phrase (or two or three) for each one. Your own phrase. If you come up with a copy of a song you know, then you have to throw it back into the waters of your mind and start fishing all over again. If you’re happy with your results, then please by all means, send me a copy. If you don’t have a notation software, then simply write it out:

Progresion 1:

1st measure: G (quarter note), quarter rest, B (half note)
2nd measure: C (three eighth notes),

I will write you to make certain I’ve got it right. Promise. Okay, here they are:

Progression 1 line 1
Progression 1 line 2
Progression 2
Progression 3
Progression 4
Progression 5

Again, please feel free to try out some of these. You will find it to be a good step towards developing your songwriting skills. And, believe it or not, your playing as well. You can choose whether or not to send them to me. In two or three weeks, we’ll do another “workshop,” this time starting with the melody and working out a progression and I’ll also not only show you where these particuar examples came from, but also share some of the melodies that you came up with. It should be an interesting and enlightening time. Next week we’ll talk about what Paul Simon said about “picking a key.” And we’ll also touch upon some great sources to find and study complexly stunning yet memorable melodies.

Once again I do need to drop a thank you to everyone who has written in the past month or so. Owing to all the year end projects at my “real job,” I’ve been a bit behind in both answering email and churning out these columns (not to mention the Songs For Beginners page). Your patience has been much appreciated and I hope that things have finally settled down for a while at least. As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or a topic you’d like to see covered in a future column here at Guitar Noise. You can either drop off a note at the appropriate Guitar Forums page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…


Check out Theory/Songwriting Workshop 2: Home On Your Range