A Conversation for How to Compose a Musical Masterpiece

sticking it all together

Post 1

mr minimalist

I am constantly coming up with bits and bobs of music on my guitar, which is all very good, but how the hell do you put them together into a complete and structured song? Anyone got any hints?


sticking it all together

Post 2

Dr. Funk

Now I'm no songwriter, but I know a few people whose songs/compositions I really like, and here's what they say about fleshing out little bits of music into a song.

One of them says that, for him, there are three-hour songs and six-month songs. Either the whole thing comes spilling out of him all at once, and he's mopped and tidied up before bed, or he just has a fragment of a melody, or a certain chord progression he can't quite get rid of, and months drag on as he puts it away and returns to it over and over again, revises and revises lyrics, constantly playing the little pieces for friends whose opinions he trusts, to ask them if it's worth noodling with more. So cheer up if it's not coming easily--for some people, the songwriting process takes a long time.

To switch modes slightly, I know a woman who, as part of her music major in college, was obliged to take two composition courses which she really enjoyed. Each course had a different approach to it, one or both of which may be useful to you. In one, the professor had his students work through classical music history, writing a piece in the style of, say, Bach, then Mozart, then Beethoven, then Mahler, then Bartok, or something like that. The idea behind this was to sorta put tools in the toolbox, if you know what I mean--to give them a grab bag of ideas and tricks that folks had employed throughout history.

The other professor took a more ahistorical, structural approach that might be of more use to you. In that course (now this was classical, mind you), the professor gave them something like: write a piece in sonata form, in which the melody of the A part becomes the accompaniment to the melody of the B part. Or: write a piece that uses every note in the scale--and does not simply climb or descend chromatically. Unlike the other approach, here the content, tone, and style were left up to the students, so that they came to class with classical pieces, jazz pieces, funk grooves, etc.--all of which satisfied the professor's loose criteria.

The other thing I might suggest, if you're a budding songwriter, is to find interviews with artists whose songs you admire, and find out how they go about writing their material. Many songwriters take pretty novel approaches to songwriting. There's Elvis Costello's famous quote that all of his early songs were motivated by "guilt and revenge." There's Tom Waits, who compares songwriting to digging up potatoes, and apparently writes about four different versions of most songs, with wildly different rhythms and instrumentation, and then figures out which one he likes best. There's Peter Gabriel, who builds his songs from the rhythm section up--he finds a drum rhythm and a bass line that he likes, then writes everything else up from there, ending with the melody (which may explain why so many of his melodies end up being so interesting, as I think "Big Time"'s is). Then there's the way P. Funk and folks like Talking Heads used to go into studios with nothing more than a riff or a simple groove, and they built elaborate ten-minute jams out of them. Bored with writing out every lyric, David Byrne took to singing nonsense over the recorded tracks, over and over again, until lyrics emerged. All of these, to me at least, represent interesting and novel ways of writing songs, and may be of use--and I'm sure there are a million more (how does Laurie Anderson write songs? How did Sly and the Family Stone? What about Jimi Hendrix? How about Nick Drake?)

I'm rambled on long enough...

sticking it all together

Post 3


Congratulations, Mr. M. firstly on coming up with the bits & bobs. One general lesson I have learned in creative arts is this: It takes less creativity than you think. This can be misinterpreted pretty easily, so let me flesh it out more. Basically, once you have a good and interesting idea, if you just put it in an ordinary setting it will shine. You don't have to come up with all kinds of different bits to accompany it. So record your bits & bobs, play them on your car stereo on the road, and just think of what kind of rhythm part, what kind of vocal part, would this little bit need?
Hope this helps.

sticking it all together

Post 4

mr minimalist

Thanks for your advice... that helped me out quite a bit. David Byrne's technique of singing rubbish and then waiting for something to emerge is one which i employ anyway... except i've been waiting patiently for years.
You also mention Nick Drake... i guess my playing is in the style of his... i fiddle around with different open tunings and play till something good happens.
Spose i'll just have to keep practising.


sticking it all together

Post 5

Steve K.

First, I'm not a songwriter, although I have heroes who are - John Lennon, Steve Fromholtz, Tom Lehrer, Todd Snider, Paul Simon, etc. - I am a (mostly self-taught) guitar player and keyboard player. I did take a two-semester course on "Tonal Harmony", so I have some understanding of Bach through Stravinsky and beyond.

My preference is "improvisation" over "composition". The jazz players do it routinely, the blues guys almost as routinely. Its just more fun, play the melody once to get everybody on the same page, then cut loose. The "Five Minute Keyboard Bash" approach smiley - smiley

The song "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a great example ... I have heard more improvisations of that one song than all the others combined, from sad funereal to wildly happy. My favorite is the Canadian Brass, performing with a European orchestra, and doing it as a medley/encore with Handel's "Hallelujah" ... its almost a history of Western music, with some very cool Dixieland. Sure we've all heard it a million times, but "never like that!" (They did a swing version of Bach that was great).

I guess they did have an arrangement to work from, but those guys seem to be "off-script" a lot ... smiley - smiley

As an aside, I read recently about the results of a survey by the London Times on the Web, asking about the best song ever written. As I recall, the winner was John Lennon's "In My Life". An interesting choice.

sticking it all together

Post 6


My suggestion is just take some bits that are in the same key and the same style, glom them together one after the other, and see what ordering of them sounds good. Work from there to make a full song. It works for me and works for my brother. Another suggestion is to just take a specific chord pattern, then use the chords in another order with perhaps a few changes, and see what that sounds like.

sticking it all together

Post 7


i´m in a band that writes alot of songs, all of us are constantly coming up with different parts and pieces of music. The actual work is just sticking it all together......creativity is easy...it just happens....but making a song feel right takes a lot of work....usually...

sticking it all together

Post 8

Stealth Munchkin

I *am* a songwriter, and one bit of advice I've found is most songs consist of a finite number of new ideas, with the rest of the song being padding. An example is Little Deuce Coupe by the Beach Boys - a fairly by-numbers song for the most part but with one simple but interesting change (G-Dm in the key of C) that Frank Zappa said was 'the most exciting thing to happen in white-person music'. What I suggest is taking someone else's song, emptying the 'content' (the new stuff) out of it, inserting your own 'content', then messing around with the rest of it til it fits together smoothly. This song won't be usable (plagiarism...) but after you've done a dozen or so, you find yourself internalising the 'rules' other people have used for their songs, and being able to apply those rules yourself...

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