“I pick a key and start playing…”
Let’s think about this for a minute. Okay, that’s long enough.
I should have said, “Let’s consider this statement from a songwriter’s point of view.” Whether or not you realize it, you yourself may be one of your biggest obstacles when it comes to songwriting. Think about how you go about writing – especially if you’re like me and happen to be one of those “let’s strum around and see what comes up” sort of folks. Well, chances are you pick up your guitar and the first chord you play will be an E, A, C, D or G. Unless, of course, you happen to be in a mad, sad or bad frame of mind and then you pound out an Em or an Am.
And then you start singing, humming, whistling along and before you know it you’ve got something that sounds pretty much like many of the things that you’ve already written. Or something that someone else has written.
Part of this is due to habit. We invariably fall into patterns. Playing the guitar, after all, is in a sense simply a series of patterns: chord progressions, rhythms for strumming or even how and when we use our fingers to pick the strings. With time, these habits become deeply ingrained. Now add to that the fact that (most of) our voices fall into a limited range to begin with and you may get an insight as to why it can be hard to consistently write interesting new material. Or even come up with a lead that doesn’t sound like it came out of the “Riffs ‘R’ Us” catalogue…
But take heart! You may not realize it, but you also have factory installed safeguards that can aid you in keeping those creative juices flowing. All it takes is using that marvelous brain of yours. That, and a little theory.
Today we’ll look at how you can restore some creativity to your melodies and we’ll also look at a sadly forgotten source which should amaze you no end. Life should always be this simple!
Finding Your Borders
In Singing In A New Year, we talked about how important it was to realistically evaluate your vocal capabilities. This is especially true when it comes to songwriting, or specifically, to writing melodies.
But before we get any further, let me also point out that this is also true when you are writing something for someone else to sing. Even if you are lucky enough to be writing for some vocalist who has a three and a half octave range, please remember this: the best melodies (“best” meaning “most memorable”) are ones that anyone can sing. This is how you can tell that what you’ve written is “catchy,” when you hear someone else humming or singing or whistling your melody.
Okay, then. Finding one’s range is truly not that difficult thing to do. Sing a note. Any note. What note is it? Well, one way of finding out is to try to match it to a note on your guitar. But instead of this turning into a snipe hunt, let’s reverse our logic. Play an open D or G string and see if you can sing that note. If you’re male, chances are likely that you can. Ladies, you might want to try your open E (1st) string or better yet, the G on the third fret of that string. Got it? Good (And by the way, this is much easier to do with a keyboard if you happen to have one laying around).
Now once you have your starting note, simply go in one direction, note by note, until you cannot accurately hit the next note. Then go in the other direction. Most people’s ranges are within two octaves. Remember, this is not a contest, it is an attempt to get some accurate data, so don’t “pad” your stats. It won’t help you in the long run and for our purposes, you’ll see that it will become an incredibly moot point. For the sake of an example, here’s my vocal range; You will first notice that I have compared it with the notes covered by the first four frets on the strings of my guitar. You will also see that I have taken the liberty of giving myself some important footnotes:
A bit high for a guy, but I’ve lived with that all my life (and as much as I keep waiting for my voice to change, I doubt very much that it’s going to happen at the age of forty-three). You can see that if I trim out all the “in my dreams” stuff, as well as the fringes of both sets of “can hit but not confident,” I’m left with a pretty typical range. For the sake of clarity, I am just going to write out those notes in the key of C major:
This is kind of funny, because, having done this, it’s easy to figure out why I’m very comforatble with songs in the key of C (or A minor). Just about everything is going to fall somewhere within my range. I’ve got a full octave (from C to shining C…)(just couldn’t resist that one, sorry) plus a little cushion on either side.
When I start a writing the melody of a song in the key of C, the chances are very likely that I will start on a note of the C major chord, that is, either C, E, or G. Now obviously, starting and ending on C would give my melody the greatest sense of tonality in that key, but with my range, starting on the high C leaves me little choice but to have a downward melody. Beginning a song on the low C pretty much dictates that I’m going to have a rising one. E and especially G, as you can see (again, sorry – I’m really in a punchy mood for some reason!), give me plenty of play on both sides. Anyway you look at it, I’ve got a fairly good amount of space to create a melody.
But I can’t write (or play) every song in the key of C, can I?
Framing And Filtering
I’m a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and no, you haven’t been mystically transported into another article on a non-guitar related website. Part of my enchantment with their films (and many many other silent movies) is directly related to my fascination with music, specifically the pop song as an art form.
You see, it is impossible not to be creative when you have no rules or boundaries with which to contend. But when you are working within a specific framework, whether it be a pop song or a watercolor painting or a haiku, this is when your creativity often has to work overtime. To be able to make something new, something unique and yours, and to make it still fit within a specific framework, well, needless to say, this takes some doing.
Do me a favor and take a look at the two ranges that I already printed up. First my full range and then my “C major range.” Look at what I’ve done. I’ve actually taken one limited range and limited it even further! Is this crazy?
Not entirely. You’ve already seen in the examples we used last time, that we are fully capable of using notes from “outside” of the given scale should they happen to suit our progression. I could, for instance, create a chord progression and an accompanying melody like this:
and it would work fine. And for those of you wondering where this “came from,” I simply made it up. Just now. In this case, the chord progression came first (because I knew I wanted to bring in as many “non C major” factors as possible) and the progression pretty much dictated the melody (again, the purpose of the melody was to bring in a number of notes from outside my C major scale).
(And for those of you wondering just how to write this out, theory-wise, well, it’s simpler than you might think: I, V of VI, VI, V of II, II, V of V, V)
But the point that I’m trying to make here is that you can constantly be giving yourself new frameworks in which to work by simply taking your capo and changing the key in which you’re working. Say I put my capo on the fifth fret and then try this same piece. Even though I am playing the same “chords,” by using the capo this progression is now in the key of F and you can see that I dramatically altered where it fits into my range:
You can see that I’ve put this in the “red zone” of my range and the chances are pretty good that it’s going to sound dreadful when I sing it. But I’ve really grown to like this chord progression so I’m going to first look at my range again, only this time I’m going to filter it for the key of F:
Can you see how radically different this is from my C range? Probably not, since the notes are virtually the same (Bb now in stead of B being the only change). But where in the key of C I had a full octave from root to root, I do not have that luxury here in F. My strongest range is actually between the fifths of this key (from C to C again). And this will effect my melody making process in no small way.
Let’s try to come up with another melody for this particular progression. One that I can sing. And since I still find myself in a “waltzing” mood, I’m going to try to keep the general feel of the piece the same. You, of course can feel free to play around with it as you see fit. Again, I want to tell you that I am doing this on the fly, simply strumming and singing nonsense syllables and this one is a first take as well:
Notice some of the small differences between these melodies. In the key of C, I started out on the low C and had nowhere to go but up. Here in F (starting on the higher C this time), I have play in both directions and my melody has many more curves to its shape.
Now, we could go on and do yet another example, say in the key of A or Ab where my range would be strongest between the thirds, but I’m hoping that you have gotten the gist of this. Just because your range is limited, that in no way limits what you might be able to do when it comes to composing a melody. Try not to think in terms of limitations but rather in terms of focus and framing and you will surprise yourself with what you can come up with. This is why I sincerely try to write each successive song I do in a different key from the last. Even if I don’t write in each of the twelve keys, I have many more chances of variety in eight than I do with just three. There’s a lot of territory to explore out there.
“Those Who Cannot Remember The Past…
…are doomed to repeat it,” or something like that, no? Well, as good or as poor a philosophy that this may be regarding world history, remembering the past is possibly the most important thing a songwriter can do. You have at your disposal such a vast catalogue of melodies and chord progressions and ideas that it can be positively overwhelming at times. But strangely enough, most people close their minds to much of this, simply because a lot of older songs are “not their style of music.”
My father played saxophone for small groups (three to five musicians) that played for weddings and various formal functions. Because of the age of the people involved, I heard a lot of music that was written in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. And I will still find myself humming a melody or two at the oddest times. And what melodies they are! If you’ve never taken the time to listen to “Deep Purple” (the song, not the group – although I like them, too) or “Old Cape Cod” or even something that should be familiar to everyone like “As Time Goes By,” do yourself a favor. Don’t just write off something because it doesn’t fit the image you’re molding yourself into.
Melodies are infectious. There is a good reason that musicians use the term “standard” to describe what is considered a classic song, regardless of what era in which it was written. Not only is it a “standard” song to be included in one repertoire, it also is a “standard” by which we measure quality and timelessness.
So the next time you’re in an elevator or a mall or a supermarket, don’t just roll your eyes at the music. Listen to the melody and try to understand what it has (or doesn’t have) that makes it work.
There are a lot of songs that I don’t like. But I will be the first to tell you that just because a song does nothing to me that does not mean it is not well-written and perhaps likely to become a new standard.
Don’t ever let yourself get caught in a “label” game. Let me challenge you to find something worthwhile in each and every song you hear – I don’t care if it’s rock, metal, rap, country, pop, Native American Indian, Indian, Northern African, salsa, blues, synthopop, and please stop me before I belabor the point.
Do yourself a favor – just as being a good guitarist involves listening as much as playing, being a good songwriter also requires that you listen to as much as you possibly can. It’s only when you open yourself up to inspiration that you find no end to your own creative possibilities.
If you think about it, there is little that hasn’t been done songwriting-wise. You’ve only got so many notes, so many chords. What hasn’t been said?
But the missing element will always be you. You have not been heard from. And you have a take on things that no one else does. Hey, if you write a stale love song (and get in line, there’s lots of them out there, mine included!), at least it’s your stale love song and you never know who is going to take it to heart. But unless you write it, no one ever will.
The most exciting stuff that is being done (regardless of where and when it is/was done) is the music that combines the best of the past in a new form, a form that you have molded and stamped with your vision.
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in a future column. You can either drop off a note at any of the newly revamped Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next week…