Finding Your Private Brill Building

A guitar student of mine recently decided he wanted to get into songwriting for the first time.  Having dabbled in it just a little bit, his first questions had to do with where to start.  I have long since forgotten exactly what my process was (I was only 12!), but I do remember what caused me to sit down and write.  I couldn’t really play very many chords, meaning I couldn’t play the songs I wanted to, so instead I decided to make up my own.  It came naturally in that I didn’t spend too much time worrying about how it was coming out.  I hadn’t yet developed an “inner critic” or a sense of having to get “somewhere” in terms of a finished product.

Brill Building
The Brill Building in New York

And that is a really important point to remember.  If you’re reading this article and you’re only just starting out, try not to read or think too much!  You don’t write by reading about writing, you write by writing.  It might take you a minute to get your head around that line, but essentially if you start loading your brain up on HOW to write, you may actually impede the process.

So I’m not going to tell you how to write in this article, I’m going to give you some ideas to get you in the mood to write.  If you’re 14 years old, outside of school and homework and maybe some chores around the house, you’ve got lots of time to fiddle around with writing.  If you’re 42, you probably don’t.  Many songwriters will express the idea of only writing when the inspiration hits them (yes, and I’ve said that too!), however, it’s not always practical to jump out of your chair at work or out of bed in the middle of the night when inspiration hits and start writing.  But you can write it down and work on it later.

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The Magic of Melody

There is a lot of music out there that is not as melody-based, one extreme being rap, where elements such as rhythm, lyrics and production are relied upon to attract the listener. But in my case, I’ve always been attracted to a song with a powerful melody. Classical music was always playing in the house when I was growing up, and I believe that exposure to this kind of music gave me an ear and a preference for melodic songs.

So what makes a great melody? I think it’s a relative thing, but for me a great melody is either one that can exist beautifully without any accompaniment, or dances in a unique way over top of a great chord progression.
Although it’s difficult to actually teach how to write a great melody, there are some things you can keep in mind in order to improve them.

One very common problem I find with melodies is that they stay very close to the “root” note of the chord. Let’s take a little theory lesson…if you’ve already studied theory, you don’t need this next section…but read through it anyway!

Chords are made up of three or more notes…I won’t go into much depth here, but let’s take a look at the “C” chord as an example:

A major “C” chord has three notes…C (called the ‘root’), E (called the ‘3rd’ because it’s three notes up from ‘C’ in the C major scale), and G (called the ‘5th’ because it’s five notes up from ‘C’). So we have three notes…C (root), E (3rd), G (5th). Here’s a simple graphic:

Underneath are the notes of each string (the 6th or E string is not played, hence the “x”). You’ll notice that the only notes contained in the chord of C are as I described above…C, E, G.

Play each of those strings alone and hum each note as you pluck’ll find that you are probably “attracted” to one of those notes more than the others…the root note of “C” may be the one that draws your ear. Chances are that you will almost unconsciously create your melody with that note in it more than any others. If your melodies feel hum-drum, this may be the reason. Now try strumming it and at the same time focus on singing notes that are not within that chord. Play with it a bit, until you get a sense of just how interesting your melody can get…every time you write your melodies, no matter if you write lyrics first or whether you already have the chord progressions, just being conscious of not repeating the same note too often can help your writing.

Another common problem I hear in melodies is that they move all over the place, almost the opposite to the problem above. This is where simplicity is the order of the day. Here is an exercise that might help you overcome the temptation to write complicated melodies…try coming up with a chord progression of three or four chords and then continue playing those three or four chords in repetition. As an example, try playing D, Bm, A, and G. Over top of that progression, sing one note that sounds like it fits pretty much all of those chords. Just one note. You can hum it continuously, or you can break it up by humming it in a rhythmic fashion, but only one note. Notice how the chord changes actually change the feeling of that note…it’s a subtle thing but very effective.

Very often, the rhythm of the melody is as important as the notes in it. As a guitar teacher, I’ve noticed that one of the hardest things for some of my students to do is to maintain a rhythm on the guitar while singing a melody that is syncopated. Syncopation is a rhythm that exists just before or just after the meter count. The dictionary defines syncopate as: “…change a regular rhythm by beginning a note on an unaccented beat and holding it into an accented one or beginning it midway through a beat and continuing it midway into the next one.” Phew! Does this feel like math? Rarely are melodies sung continuously on the beat…songs would sound awfully funny if every note was sung on the beat. As an example of syncopation, take for example, Paul Simon‘s song “Me & Julio”. I’ve placed the words underneath the meter of the music to show you how it would look:

.Me and….Ju-…..lio……

Notice how many of the words fall in between the beats. The word ‘Me’, ‘school’ and ‘yard’ are the only words that actually fall on the beat, on one of the numbers. Melodies are usually a combination of both. How do your melodies measure up? Get a metronome and just sing one of your melodies over top of it…notice where you place the notes. Do they sit too much on the beat, or do they always fall in between?

Melody and rhythm, are the simplest elements when it comes to writing a song, but a song is only as strong as it’s weakest part. Of course, listening to strong melody-based music, anything written by the Beatles, for example, will give you a new respect for the magic of melody.


Are You A Good Listener?

We’re going to listen with a critical ear to the production and instruments in a recorded song.  Even if you are not a musician, or not familiar with various instruments used in music production, being a good listener and recognizing the role each instrument plays in a song will ALWAYS give you an advantage when you are recording your songs or performing them with other people.

Let’s start with the basics of listening to a recorded song by picking a song by a band or artist that you like.  Try to find a song that has a full band;  quite often the instruments and the players are listed on each cut of a CD.  The more instruments, the better!

One of the most obvious, up front elements of a recorded song is the drum part or percussion.  If the song you’re listening to has drums, it’s important to note that they are what drives the song.  That may seem obvious, but did you know that the drum part is often recorded first?  The reason for this is that the rest of the instruments need to follow the drums, and not the other way around.  So the drums are played at the agreed to tempo and every instrument recorded after has to maintain that same tempo as accurately as possible.

A standard drum set: Ride cymbal Floor tom Tom...
Image via Wikipedia

So let’s discuss the parts of a drum kit first.  The kick or bass drum (4) is the deep, heavy beat;  the big drum that the drummer hits with a foot pedal.  It is often hit less frequently than the other parts.  The snare (5) has a higher pitch and is hit with a drum stick, as are the rest of the drum parts when they are played.  The toms (3) are sonically somewhere between the snare sound and the kick or bass drum.  They are usually played as part of a “fill”, when the drummer comes away from the snare to roll on the toms at the end of phrases or song parts.  Then there are the cymbals.  Crash cymbals (1) are also used for emphasis, sometimes at the beginning or end of a phrase, or emphasizing the chorus.  They often referred to as the “ride” when they keep time during a chorus, for instance, and the hi-hats (6) are similarly used.

When you’re listening to the song you’ve chosen, try to focus only on the drums for the entire track.  Listen to what they do and when they do it.  Do they start at the beginning, or come in a little later in the intro?  What’s the difference in the way they are played in the verses and then the chorus?  If there is a bridge in the song, do they do something different?  Pay attention to when they come in and when they pause and all of the flourishes throughout the song.  When do you hear the toms, if at all?  When do you hear the cymbals?  Listen through a couple of times and make sure you are listening to ONLY the drums.

Now let’s focus on the bass.  The bass guitar is closely associated with the drums and often recorded at the same time or just after the drums are.  The drummer and bassist have a very close relationship and you’ll notice if you’ve ever seen a band play live, the bass player is often looking for signals or exchanging glances with the drummer as they move through the chord changes and fills.  The bass is often the hardest instrument to hear because of its low pitch.  Sometimes it plays very simple lines with long notes, and other times it might be almost rhythmic.  Listen to the song you’ve chosen again, but only to the bass this time.   Sometimes when I’m teaching my guitar students how to play by ear, I put on a song and get them to listen for the bass part, because that often determines what chord is being played by the guitar.  So I know how difficult it is to identify.  Occasionally you might confuse the sound of the bass with the low string of a guitar, but when you can zero in on the bass, listen through the whole song and pay attention to what it does.  It will certainly change notes as the chords change, but does it change patterns at different times?  Can you hear how it matches up sometimes with the rhythm of the kick on the drum kit?  Listen through enough times that you are completely focused in on only the bass.

The recording you are listening to might have piano, or “keys’ as they are often referred to.  They tend to stand out from the stringed instruments, even though they also have “strings”, but quite often they are electric pianos or keyboards with different sounds.  The keyboard might be playing chords, or it might also have little melody parts or fills throughout the song.  Listen to what the keyboard is doing and how it interacts with the rest of the instruments.

Guitars can be a challenge to listen to as well.  There may be acoustic guitar and/or electric, and often there are both and maybe even more than one of each!  Being able to distinguish how many guitars you hear is important and probably the greatest challenge.  Often if there are two or more guitars, they are doing different things, but because they sound similar, it is hard for the ear to separate them at first.  The electric guitar often does a solo or lead part somewhere in the song.  This gives it some distinction because it’s playing notes and melodies, and not chords.

So focus in now on what the guitars (if there are any) are doing in the song.  Is there just one guitar playing chords?  Can you hear the difference between the electric guitar and the acoustic, assuming there are both?  How do they interact with each other?  Note that it is very rare, even if there are two acoustic guitars, for them to be playing the same thing.  If you are a guitar player and you are jamming with others, quite often you’ll all be playing the same chords and progressions, but that rarely happens in recorded music because what would be the point of doing the same thing twice?  So what the guitar players might choose to do is to play in one key on one guitar, and use a capo or barre chords to play somewhere else on the neck with the second guitar.  Paul Simon used to have one guitar tuned normally, and another with the strings tuned an octave higher, so he had a very full acoustic guitar sound in his recordings.

There may be other instruments in the song you’re listening to.  What are they?  Extra percussion?  Strings, like violins, or maybe there are electronic drums or beats, or sounds that you can’t identify right away.  Quite often, recordings will have layers and layers of sounds, and others might be considered quite “sparse” in their instrumentation.

Learning to listen to other instruments and how they work together will be an important tool for you when you are thinking about what you might include in a recording of your own song.  Sometimes when you’re thinking about your song, you might “hear” something that you’d like and being able to identify and articulate what that is will be a big help when you finally get in the studio.

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