Learn To Love It
In my film scoring career I have had to write in over 100 vastly different styles and each presented its own challenges. From bebop to salsa, from indian to irish, I‘ve pretty much done ‘em all – and many I didn‘t like initially (check out my Youtube video showcasing 41 styles in under 7 minutes).
Your first objective is always to learn to love your chosen style. In my professional opinion, this is one of the greatest skills a songwriter can have.
Being able to get into a lot of different styles makes you more creative, you start combining styles and ultimately, it makes you sound more unique.
If you’re struggling with a style because you just don’t like listening to it, consider this: There is no „disliking“, only lack of understanding.
Like countries, each style comes with a certain set of values. One technique that‘s considered essential in one style (double-bass patterns in metal) may well be a no-go in another (try the same in pop and you’re most likely fired).
Let me be clear on this: By understanding I don‘t mean „know what each musician is playing, i.e. understanding it cognitively“ (although this does play a part and we‘ll talk about this later). You will need to get the style emotionally.
If you don‘t understand why people love this music and why it makes them happy, don‘t bother writing a song like it. Your audience will hear it. In other words, your objection is to first find a fascination for your style.
I’ll tell you an example from my life…
For me it was Bebop. It was a tough one to get into, and it took me over a year before I really „got“ it. When I had my breakthrough, suddenly all those notes started to make sense and I could finally enjoy a good bebop tune.
What I didn’t know when I began was that I had to approach the music from an entirely new point of view.
We all listen to music in our own way. We’re really all wearing differently colored glasses and see completely different things when we look at the same piece of music.
The trick to “getting” a new style is to learn to put on new glasses and to be able to change them.
8 years ago, when I would hear a song I would often decide immediately whether I like it or not. Today, what has changed is that I can hear the same song from different perspectives and try out whether it makes more sense from a different point of view.
So for example, I used to not be into Tool when I heard them for the first time. Only when I changed my focus to the lyrics, the energy arch and the meters I could start to really enjoy what I was hearing. I remember reading along the lyrics for the first time and how everything just suddenly fell into place.
Again, your first objective is to learn to love it. It will make your life a whole lot easier.
Check All 6 Elements That Make A Style What It Is
This is an obvious one, but most people just like to check one or two elements before they start writing. I like to check six. They are:
Get yourself a couple of example tracks and start listening to their structure and where instruments come in and drop out.
- Are you listening to a chorus song (ABABCB) or a refrain song (AAAA)?
- Are there clear energy peaks and troths? Or is it all the same energy level?
- Which instruments do you hear over and over again?
- Which 2 instruments are the most important?
- How is the arrangement structured around them?
- Is it all tonal?
- Which emotions are implied by the chords? (learn the different chord types HERE)
- What types of chord progressions are used? (learn the different types of progressions HERE)
- Are options or alterations used?
- Do the chord changes stay the same or do they change each section?
- What types of voicing do you hear?
- What is the singer/melodic instrument doing? Do you hear one-note melodies, arpeggios or a mix?
- What are the drums doing?
- What effects / playing styles is each instrument using?
- Do you hear straight or shuffled grooves or something in-between?
- What’s the highest subdivision of the song?
- Which instruments play rhythmically, which fulfil a pad function?
- P.S. For more, check out “Drum-Writing For Non-Drummers (feat. Nippy Noya)”
- What are the lyrics about?
- Do they rhyme?
- Are they structured symmetrically or are they free?
- How are they written? Is there a lot of slang, descriptions, metaphors?
- How do lows, mids and highs behave?
- Which instruments are given the most presence?
- Is reverb used sparingly or excessively, something in the middle or mixes?
- Is it mastered loudly?
Listen, Pause, Write
Whenever you’re using existing songs as inspiration, make sure you follow this simple formula:
- Establish a listening habit. Put music on your mp3 player and listen to it as much as you can. There are countless possibilities to broaden your musical horizon: On your way to the supermarket, at the gym, on your way to work, etc. Balance your active listening (where you listen to the 6 elements above) with passive listening (where you focus on something other than music, like reading or browsing the net), but embrace the style completely. Make sure you listen first thing in the morning and right before you go to bed to keep your brain busy with it over night as well.
- Pause. Don’t start writing immediately. Give yourself a break. Take one day off where you don’t listen to ANY music at all. This is important because you want your brain to process everything you’ve learned. I’ve also found that if I start writing right after my listening phase, my music is often almost an exact copy of one of my inspiration tracks. So make sure you take some time off.
- Write. Get the right instruments together and start playing with different grooves, add a melody and then flesh out the rest of the rhythm section.
Make this writing an instinctive one and only check if you’re on the right track every 15 minutes or so. Don’t overthink this too much, it should come to you effortlessly. But also don’t forget to control yourself every once in a while.