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June 2017 Giveaway

What Do I Do Now? – Music and Technology to Help the Aspiring Songwriter

Sometimes beginning songwriters become frustrated by the apparent difficulty of composing “new” creative music, often ending up wondering “What do I do now?” when they get stuck. The point of this TTOTD is to say, relax! A couple of simple musical tools, plus a good working knowledge of your sequencing or audio recording software, can help propel you through your song.

First of all, if you are writing anything that resembles popular music, you need to be aware of song form. This is a simple set of guidelines that will help give structure to your song. “Pop Song Form,” a proven format that worked for The Beatles and still works for contemporary performers, has a basic repeating scheme:

Verse (verse) Chorus; Verse (verse) Chorus; Bridge; (verse) Chorus repeating to fade (verses in parentheses are optional)

How does this help you? First, it lets you know what you need to develop a “complete” song. Your software can help you make creative decisions. If you have a melodic fragment is too short to work effectively as a verse, record it into a MIDI track, copy it and paste it into the next measure. For variety, transpose the copy up or down a step (oddly enough, the musical term for this is “sequencing”). Most MIDI sequencers can also reverse the note order (called “retrograde”) or even turn the melody upside down (“inversion”). Try them all! You’re bound to hear something you like, or at least something that sparks a new idea. Within a short time you’ll have plenty of melodic options from which you can construct a verse.

Once you’ve settled on the verse, recognize that the best thing to do might be to repeat it! You can even repeat the lyrics. Listeners like to hear repetitive patterns in pop songs. It’s how they remember them. Again, copying and pasting will give you verse 2 in your sequence with the click of a mouse. Don’t take this too far, though; if you run through your verse a dozen times to get all the lyrics in, people will lose interest.

Which leads to the next guideline: after you’ve exploited your nice melodic line, it’s time to provide some contrast. If you already have a chorus in your head, here’s where it goes. Or maybe it’s time for an extension of the verse; your lyrics will decide this. Contrast is the point: if your melody is in a major key, try moving it to a minor key (again using your transposition tools). Or write a new melody that includes some bits of your first phrase.

With a verse and a chorus written, you’ve defined the primary elements of a typical pop song. Arrange these regions in their order in your sequence. Again, your lyrics will tell you how many verses and choruses you need.

After listening to this verse/chorus combination several times you’ll probably understand the value of a bridge – a musical interlude that provides a change from the primary materials. Some bridges simply consist of a guitar (or other instrument) solo played over the chords of the chorus. If you play an instrument, try this out. Other times, a more highly orchestrated version of the verse or chorus will do. Here’s where you can expand your sequence by choosing new instruments and pasting the melody line(s) into their tracks.

Pro songwriters know that the chorus following the bridge is where listeners are most engaged. Many songs change key, up a half step or a whole step at this point for emphasis. Try it, again relying on your software to do the work. If you have more lyrics that call for another verse, consider editing them! Decide whether they are sufficiently important to merit pulling listeners back to a melody that’s already been repeated several times.

If you’ve made it this far you’re likely to have roughed out a complete song. Maybe it isn’t the mega-hit you still have in your head, but the more you work at turning your ideas into real music, the better able you will be to capture that moment of inspiration and see it through to a finished production. And the more you let the technology do the housework, the more quickly you’ll bring each song to completion.

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