Songwriting As A Learning Tool – (or is it Learning As A Songwriting Tool?)

As you can tell from reading my various lessons here at Guitar Noise, I believe in using songs in order to teach guitar and other musical instruments. Not to mention using songs as illustrations in various aspects of music theory.

The “why” behind this approach isn’t too hard to fathom. When I learned to play guitar, my motivation was to play as often as possible and with as many people as possible, so I learned what I needed to learn to play songs. First thing to learn was chords and keeping rhythm so that I could strum along while other people sang or while other instruments played lead. Then I branched out to more complicated chords and strumming patterns and set out to learn more about my instrument so that I could add bass lines, riffs, arpeggios, different chord voicings, or whatever it took to make the song sound its best regardless of whether I was playing it with a single guitar or with a dozen other musicians.

To paraphrase Guitar Noise Forum Moderator Wes Inman, people come to hear you play songs. They don’t come to hear you play scales (unless it’s on a tutorial DVD or YouTube!). This is an important thing to keep in mind when taking up the guitar or re-evaluating your progress. Of course, if all you’re interested in is creating music that will never be heard by someone other than yourself, then you can do what you’d like. But when someone asks you to “play something,” chances are likely that they are expecting to hear a song.

And as I’ve mentioned in a number of the songwriting articles here at Guitar Noise, I started writing songs in earnest very shortly after taking up the guitar. Part of it was simply the whole overwhelming euphoria of discovering a new instrument. And part of it was also a bit of learning on my part. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was part of learning to learn.

Seemingly another lifetime ago, if you can remember that far back (although I have to say I truly don’t remember that far back, so you may not want to take my word for it!), we were born not knowing how to read. So somewhere along the way, you were taught the alphabet and from that alphabet you learned words. And then from those words you learned how to read sentences, which became paragraphs and pages and books.

Creative writing was often a part of this learning process. After learning words and seeing how they were used in sentences, you probably were encouraged to write your own sentences. Some of your early prose may have been succinct and possibly exemplary (“See Jane play guitar.”), some of it may have left your readers scratching their heads (“Blue dogs fly south.”). These are steps we all took and still take today.

There’s no reason that this path of learning can’t help you with music as well. We sing songs and play songs all the time, so why not take a moment to figure out exactly what we’re doing. You can make any analysis of song structure as simple or as complicated as you wish, but it’s still a good thing to be able to identify a song in terms of its anatomy. One of our oldest columns here at Guitar Noise, Unearthing The Structure, can help get you started. Even the simplest of blues songs tend to follow specific patterns in terms of measures and chord progressions. And that’s precisely the thing you want to know.

Chord progressions are often the focus when it comes to learning songs. When we start out playing, we’re usually worried about making the chord changes in the first place and it is a while before we start seeing that certain chords seem to be linked together.

Before long, you might even get to the point where you can anticipate what chord is going to follow which one as you’re playing. While chord progressions can (and do) vary wildly, most times they follow very logical patterns. Our article, A Before E (except after C) might help take some of the mystique out of the seeming wizardry of chord progressions.

More important and helpful than any article, though, is simply listening to songs with a critical ear towards piecing together a song’s structure. Then going a step further and listening for chord progressions. Start with songs you already know and that you already have the chords for. This is the sort of practicing that you can do almost any time at all and it can pay off very quickly when it comes to trying to figure out songs from recordings.

Now that you’ve a handle on song structure, try your hand at writing some chord progressions on your own. You don’t have to put together a whole song with both music and lyrics (although many people find it helpful to do so). Simply creating chord patterns over specific rhythmic changes is an excellent way to work your way through your own personal trouble spots. You’re having the devil of a time going from G to F? Well, you can find a song (actually thousands of them) that has a lot of these changes, or you can make up one yourself! Need more practice switching from open position chords to barre chords? Write yourself a song that meets your personal needs. How about Dm (open position – XX0231) to F (barre – 133211) to Bb (barre – 668766) to C (open – X32010) with four beats for each chord?

You might think it’s weird to put all this effort to create a song simply to work out something as basic as changing chords. And you’re right – most people might just practice making the chord changes until they’ve got it down. But when you’re making the changes because it’s your song, there’s a little more at stake. Silly as it sounds, it becomes personal. You want to know that you can play your song for someone and you will hopefully put in an even more focused effort than usual.

Songwriting gets even more personal as you progress with your learning. Songs that may have started out as exercises, such as we discussed at the end of the last section, will then have to evolve as you improve your guitar skills. You’ll find yourself taking all the little techniques you’re picking up and putting them front and center into your songwriting.

In addition to chord changes, you can create song based on rhythms or riffs (which, when you think of it, serve as the foundation for tons of songs of all genres), or even work out songs to help you practice specific techniques such as walking bass lines or hammer-ons and pull-offs.

You can also delve into songwritng as a means to expand your chord vocabulary, both in terms of the chords themselves and of the voicing you may choose to use for said chord. Suppose you have written a simple song, one that goes from A to D to E and then back to A, all in open position. One thing you might try to do then is to work out how to play your song with all barre chords further up the neck. An obvious choice would be trying chords centered on the fifth and seventh frets, using A (557655), D (557775) and E (997779). But now go a step or two further in your thinking, embellishing the chords a bit by using those barre chord positions and combining them with your open strings to create new sounds. So now your A, D and E might become Aadd9 (X07600), Dadd9 (XX0770) and E7 (076700). For more information on this sort of idea, check out Multiple Personality Disorders.

The possibilities of what learning material you can turn into a workable song are, needless to say, limited only by your desire to learn. If you find yourself on a finger picking binge, then why not work up a song that employs a number of patterns so that you’ll have to work at being able to switch from one to another on a dime (much like Paul Simon’s version of Scarborough Fair)? If you’re experimenting with the tone settings of your amplifier, try writing a song that plays well in a particular setting you like. Many a song has certainly started that way!

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little look at how songwriting can benefit you as you learn more and more about your instrument. In case you didn’t know, we have four terrific Forum pages where you can either take part in writing assignments or simply post your songs (or songs in progress) and get feedback from your peers. They are, in no particular order:

  • The Guitar Noise Songwriting Club is where you’ll find people posting original songs, mostly in lyric content, but lately more and more are submitting complete words and music, along with links where you can hear the songs online.
  • The Sunday Songwriters Group (or “SSG”) is an assignment-oriented writing workshop focusing on the lyric aspect of songs. Each Sunday a new assignment is posted and anyone is welcome to submit a song lyric based on that week’s particular assignment. Currently in its sixth year, all the past assignments are also listed, so you can either join in on the current week or take an old assignment and jump in there.
  • Hear Here offers a potpourri of music, from beginners demonstrating their progress to more seasoned players offering their latest recordings. Both original material and cover songs are bound to turn up
  • The Sunday Composers Workshop is the latest addition to the Guitar Noise Forums. Here the focus is on the music aspect of songs. Assignments can range from creating a short melody to creating a guitar part for a song based on a rhythm track to reformatting the time-honored twelve bar blues formula.

Until next time, and as always,