Melodic shape in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 224, February 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

If you ask songwriters how they create melodies, you’ll get a pretty vague answer. Something like ‘well, I just get inspired by the lyric’ or ‘it’s whatever sounds good when I sing it’. Of all the creative decisions we make when we write songs, melodic choices are perhaps the most mysterious. We don’t really know where they come from, so we sing whatever feels right and take it from there.

Many of us, as chord-literate guitarists, come to melody writing in this self-taught way, and on a good day it helps us to write melodies very freely and quickly. But on a bad day this instinctive approach can turn out meandering or predictable melodies, leaving us struggling to write something that the listener will remember. Sometimes the chords distract us from thinking about the all-important shape of our tune.

Songwriters who create melody are in control of two things – the pitch of the notes and the rhythm of the syllables. Every time we sing a note, the note that follows it can be higher, lower, or the same note. Movement between notes can be adjacent (scalic), as in ‘We don’t need no education’, or a larger leap (intervallic), as in ‘Rooooox…anne’. Think about the pitch shape of your songs: what are your habits? Do you tend to linger on one note, do you write scalically, or do you sing lots of ‘leaps’? What direction do your phrases usually take – starting high and descending, staying on one note, or rising from a low note to a higher one as you sing the line? These tendencies help to define your personal melodic writing style, so it’s worth listening back to your old demos to see if any patterns emerge.

And pitch is only one half of the melodic story. The way syllables fall against the beat (scansion) is an essential part of what makes the audience listen to a melody. Let’s say we were working on the lyric “I’m falling through the sky”. One obvious setting of this line would be for ‘I’m’ and ‘sky’ to be long syllables, and all the other syllables to be short, much as if we were speaking the phrase in conversation. But that’s just one approach. We could ‘run up’ to the final word with a lot of very short syllables, before screaming the word ‘sky’ to the heavens on a single long high note. Or we could play around with the word ‘falling’ so that its big ‘fall’ syllable descended over several notes, stretched over the vowel. (There’s songwriting fun to be had here writing a descending melody over the word ‘falling’). There are dozens of other rhythmic interpretations, for this and every other lyric, and the first idea we try may not necessarily be the best.

A strong melody needs to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity, and it needs to sound good when sung with the words. If your lyric is very wordy, with lots of storytelling and imagery, you might want the pitches of the melody to be fairly static. Take the verse of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Its machine-gun syllables deliver complex lyrics at high speed using a one-note melody. Contrast this with the chorus of Pearl Jam’s Alive. The lyric ‘Oh I, oh, I’m still alive’ is sung over a complete octave from E to E, and these six vowel-heavy words are stretched out over two whole bars.

So what happens if you don’t like the melody you’ve written – when you feel you’re stuck in a rut? One way out is to try a new method and see what happens. If you usually write melodies by singing over strummed chord changes, and you’re finding that your melodies seem a bit static or unadventurous, try using a keyboard to suggest bigger intervals. If vocal improvising over chords isn’t working for you, try speaking the lyric out loud without music – the natural rise and fall of the vowels might suggest a melody and its rhythm (my favourite example of this is Paul Simon’s ‘Old Friends / sat on their park bench like bookends’ – say it out loud and you can hear the melody within it). And if you can’t get the lyric to scan properly, try singing it over a drum loop to make the scansion more naturally rhythmic. As with all songwriting, process can affect product – so it can be fun to experiment and discover how different starting points might stimulate your creative brain.

Getting started with intros

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 223, January 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Ah, the song’s finished. That last tricky rhyme in the bridge is complete, and that bit of the chorus that was just slightly too dull has now been fixed with a magnificent melodic flourish. Ready to record the demo, and take it to the band to rehearse it up for the next gig. So how does it start? The verse goes Am, F, Am, F – just keep strumming until you’re ready to sing, right?

Well, you could do it this way. But have you ever known anyone listen to a song and say ‘I love that bit at the start when he strums those open chords before the vocal comes in’? Think about the intro from any well-loved guitar classic – Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child ‘o’ Mine, Hendrix’s Purple Haze or Metallica’s Enter Sandman for example. Every one of these is instantly recognisable from the opening bar, usually because of a great riff, unusual effect or extra melody. The Doors’ Light My Fire certainly starts with some quirky chords (G, D, F, Bb, C#, Ab, A) but the melodic arpeggios of Ray Manzarek’s organ part turn an inspiring sequence into a masterpiece.

So, assuming we all agree that interesting intros are better than dull intros, how do we write a good one? It could be said that there are five categories of intro, which I refer to as ‘riff till ready’, ‘steal the chorus’, ‘no relation’, ‘take a break’ and ‘straight to the point’.

Riff till ready is perhaps the most common type in rock, and it’s popular because it gives your audience something exciting right from the start. Riffs can be based on the chords of other sections of the song (e.g. Blur’s Song 2 or Alice in Chains’ Them Bones) or they can be original material (e.g. The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women). There are various approaches you can take to writing riffs (see TG217) but the most important rules are to keep it simple and don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Stealing the chorus is all about playing a trick on the audience. If your intro is based on the chorus melody or chords, the ‘real’ chorus will seem more familiar to the listener, helping them to remember it more easily. You can get away with just playing the chords (Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example) but it’s usually more engaging if you use the chorus chords as a template to give you ideas for a riff or melodic line.

Some intros bear no relation to the parent song, so can be a completely different piece of music. We’ve already looked at Light My Fire, and there are many other classics with intros that are more famous than the song; the intro riff of Paranoid disappears once the verse begins; Johnny B Goode provides 12 bars of double-stopped excitement and is never heard from again. And what about the guitar itself? If you can make your guitar sound more interesting it’s more likely that the intro will stand out. Eddie Van Halen has used a flanger (Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love); Paul Simon, a capo (Scarborough Fair); Keith Richards, an open tuning (Brown Sugar); and the Edge, a delay (Where The Streets Have No Name).

And just because we’re all guitarists, that doesn’t mean we have to take the intro every time. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Radiohead’s High and Dry and ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’ give the drummers a moment in the sun – plus an opportunity for you to tune up, get your bottleneck ready, apply a capo or take a sneaky drink on stage. And you don’t have to rely on the drummer if you want to take a break. Take a listen to The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place – not only does bassist Chas Chandler provide a memorable 4-bar intro riff before the vocal comes in, he keeps it going for a further 8 bars before the guitar part enters.

And if you’re out of ideas, who says you need an intro? Certainly not Queen (Fat Bottomed Girls, We Are the Champions), Don McLean (American Pie, Vincent) or Iron Maiden (Can I Play With Madness?). Other artists that have been known to get straight to the point include Elvis Presley (Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel), The Pretenders (Stop Your Sobbing) and The Beatles (All My Lovin’, Hey Jude, Help!, Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You). Sometimes having a brilliant song and a world-class singer is all you need. You had me at hello.

What’s in a name? Ideas from titles

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 222, December 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Writing a complete lyric is a big job. You’ve got to think about your characters, the imagery you’re using, and the timeframe and location of the song’s ‘action’, before you even start on the technical stuff like syllable count and rhyming. But writing a title on its own is easy – it’s only a few words after all. And for some people it’s the perfect way in to the songwriting process.

Think for a moment about any song you like, and focus on its title. Is it interesting on its own? If it’s quirky and unusual, does it ‘draw you in’ to the world of meaning provided by the lyric? If it’s a cliché does it still sound authentic when sung? Does it help to summarise the overall meaning of the lyric? Titles can be a very powerful way of getting listeners to engage with a song, but they can also help us to write songs by providing that essential early spark of an idea, on which we can build a complete lyric. [Read more…]

Rhythm guitar – a bad habit?

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 220, November 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.

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This is a songwriting column, and we’re all guitarists. So it stands to reason that we’re writing songs on guitar, doesn’t it? But much as we love our instrument, it may be quietly restricting our creativity.

We all want to write songs that are original, interesting and unusual, and that’s not easy with such a popular instrument. Looking for a new and inspiring chord? Every combination of four fingers and six strings across four frets (or five if you’re feeling athletic) has already been tried. Need a new chord sequence? Every variation of the basic open major and minor chords already appears in a song somewhere. [Read more…]

Song vs Track – the Picture and the Frame

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 219, October 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.

Do you have a favourite song? Do you know why you like it? We all have favourite tracks, of course, but if someone asks us why we like a particular song – that is, the words, melody and chords – we find it difficult to give an answer. Often we’ll talk about where we were when we heard the track: going to school, falling in love, going on holiday, passing an exam or getting a new job. And tracks are great for evoking these memories. But tracks and songs are not the same thing. [Read more…]

Lyric themes in songwriting – Total Guitar magazine

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 218, September 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image on the right to download a pdf of the article.

Guitarists who write songs can be reluctant lyricists. We all find it pretty easy to string some chords together; many of us have no problem humming a melody atop. But sooner or later every songwriter has to ask the question – what is my song about? (unhelpful answer – it’s about three-and-a–half minutes).

There are perhaps two reasons that we sometimes find lyric-writing a chore. Firstly, it’s not necessarily our first love, compared to the guitar itself – if we’d wanted to be poets we’d be hanging out in French cafés smoking cheroots and reading Sartre, right? Secondly, when we start out as songwriters we often try writing songs ‘in the right order’, strumming the intro chords and then hoping lyric inspiration will strike us in the 5th or 9th bar of music. [Read more…]

Riffs in songwriting – Total Guitar magazine

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 217, August 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image on the right to download a pdf of the article.

Guitar solos. We love them, of course, but don’t you always have a sneaking suspicion that the audience is just waiting for the singer to get on with the rest of the song? Our secret weapon in this attention war is the riff. These ‘mini-solos’ are easy to play, sound great, and perhaps most importantly, remind everyone that you’re the Most Important Person In The Band.

Riffs are almost always one, two or four bars in length and repeat at various points throughout the song. There are three broad types, defined by their function: solo riffs, call-and-response riffs and underscore riffs.

Solo riffs often form the intro of the song and typically reappear between vocal sections. Notable examples include Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back In Town and Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight. When you’re writing a solo riff, you can be as busy or melodic as you like, because anything you play won’t get in the way of the voice. Take Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years: its four-bar riff is filled with fast triplets. It would be near impossible to hear the vocal over such a detailed guitar part, so the band sensibly provides 16 bars of space to let the riff shine through.

Call-and-response riffs are used to fill the gaps between vocal phrases within a section.  Examples include John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom and The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, which start exactly one beat after the voice. Again, these riffs give you a lot of freedom to do whatever you want musically, as long as it’s the same each time, but you have to get in quick before the next vocal phrase. AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie uses call-and-response for the verses, then adapts the riff so that it becomes the accompaniment in the chorus. [Read more…]