In the first of a new series, we’re going to step back from the often-overwhelming ocean of tech and look at the vital ingredients you need to consider when creating music in any genre. Andy Price explores the art of songwriting…
Although we call ourselves MusicTech, the overall majority of the tutorials, features and articles you’ll find in these pages lean more towards the ‘tech’ aspect of music production, with an expectation that the readers of this website will be well versed (no pun intended!) in the art of songwriting. Often, however, we receive correspondence from readers who’ve hit creative dead ends or are struggling with using the vast quantities of tech and gear they’ve amassed to actually do the job that it was designed for – making music.
Underlining that point one more time: it’s easy (though not cheap) to create a semi-pro studio in your home these days, providing you’ve got space, an understanding partner and the luxury of time to use it. However, that’s not all you need to do to instantly become a music-making guru. You need to have a passion and a drive for music making, not just gear-hauling.
So how do you develop said passion? Well, that’s not something that we’re going to even entertain the possibility of teaching – you’ve either got the desire to want to be musical or you haven’t. Since you’re reading this, we’re guessing that you have… or at least that you want to be in the business of music making. If you’re one of those songwriters who has hit the brick wall and seems to have written everything they can, then this is the perfect re-starting point. We’ll cover every aspect of music making: from the technical theory behind music to honing your compositions and arrangements.
Consider these tutorials an overview to the world of music making rather than a rigorous instruction manual – part of the joy of songwriting is the ability for individuals to do it ‘their way’ and not be slavishly constricted to a prescribed formula. Having said that, there are some things you’ll need to know if you want to fully express yourself with a diverse and wide-ranging palette of music.
Throughout this series, I’m going to be using the DAW that I’ve always used – Cubase – to record, mix and breathe life into my ideas. The principles that are discussed, however, can be applied to any DAW, with the majority of points being applicable to even DAW-less music creators.
So where do we start? What do we need? Well, nothing much, really. At the bare minimum, one instrument, a recording device (or your DAW and interface) and some blank paper to scribble down your ideas. Think hard about the type of music you want to make and who your inspirations are. Inspirations are an important thing to have when creating any artform, and music is no different.
Regardless of how unique you may wish to ultimately sound, having an idea about the type of sound you want to have is useful at the start of the process, as you can then narrow down your creative choices.
From a technical point of view, we’d recommend that you have something to record with – as you may be juggling various parts of your song, and may suddenly find a flash of brilliant inspiration which, for the life of you, is impossible to recall if you don’t record it instantly (we speak from experience here!). It can help to listen back to your track as it develops in a separate context to where you primarily worked on it.
Often, we’ve found it’s useful to bounce down a rough mix of your demo to mp3 and then go for a walk, listening back to the song on your headphones. You’ll be able to tell after a few days of doing this whether the song has that special something.
The most important aspect of your song is its ability to ‘hook’ a listener with its primary melody. Ultimately, your song will be built of a variety of melodic hooks, but the primary (or top line) melody is the most vital to get right. This is usually the melody that the vocalist sings (though it doesn’t have to be). Coming up with a winning top-line melody from scratch can be a troublesome, painful process – though often, inspiration may strike you from nowhere.
A lot of songwriters, especially when young, don’t fully grasp the musicological aspects of melody writing and do it based on instinct – what sounds good to their ears based on the canon of what has gone before.
This is fine and the approach of writing based on what sounds pleasing to the ear has resulted in some of the finest songs ever written. However, we would argue that understanding what you’re doing before you begin arms you with knowledge that can make the songwriting process easier, expands your creative scope and leaves you feeling more satisfied.
Basic melody in a musical sense is simply a movement throughout the intervals that a key consists of – with repetition, harmony and attention to the root notes of the chords you’re moving through being pivotal.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
The repetition of your song’s central melody is the most vital ingredient. To make a song stick in the heads of your listeners, it needs to have a mantra-like repetition of the top line, which must present itself at important moments throughout (more often than not, the chorus). It’s likely the singer (or whichever instrument is providing the top line) will begin at the root note of the opening chord and progress upward from there.
A conventional melody should resemble a mountain range, with discernible movement and occasional leaps up the octaves that move naturally, with no jarring changes. The human brain has a tendency to pre-judge where it thinks a melody will go based on conventional criteria; it’s advisable to remain within those limits if you want to maximise your song’s appeal. But rules are there to be broken. If you have a creative idea that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, then give it a shot.
Don’t Think – Feel…
The overall feel of the song you’re writing should be considered. If you already have lyrics, study them carefully and think about the type of chords you want to use to get across the emotions you’re attempting to convey.
Lyrics are often misunderstood as being one of the most important things a songwriter thinks about, yet for the majority, this isn’t the case. Many approach the song from a more holistic standpoint and consider the sound, tempo, and, crucially, the melody as being just as – if not more – important.
Of course, you don’t have to simply vocalise your top-line melody, often it make sense to try out your top-line on a different instrument which you may find is a better fit, transforming your top-line into a killer riff or piano/synth melody; it’ll take on a different life entirely.
As this series continues over the coming months, we’ll look at the key aspects of songwriting in more detail
Focus On – Melody Assistance
While many songwriters begin their compositions away from the computer (or whatever piece of equipment they’re recording with), there is definitely something to be said for starting the compositional process in your DAW.
In Cubase 8.5, there are many tools to help you get started with songwriting. For example, if you lay down a simple melody using just a basic microphone recording of a basic vocal melody idea, Cubase’s VariAudio feature (accessed by double-clicking the waveform and then selecting VariAudio > Pitch and Warp) can instantaneously give you a visual representation of the melody that you have just created.
Ostensibly a tool for pitch editing, using VariAudio to analyse your melodies can enable you to make adjustments and perhaps try different things that you wouldn’t consider normally if your vocal range is limited: stretching the sound manually and re-shaping the melody to something better.
Step by Step – Songwriting in the Box
1: In this first step-by-step, I’ll explain some methods of starting from scratch using my DAW of choice: Cubase. Firstly, check out some of your basic melody ideas using VariAudio (see Focus On) and tweak accordingly.
2: Beyond Cubase’s standard-issue tools, if you really want to expand your songwriting chops then it’s worth investing in more detailed VSTs. Something like Native’s Absynth or Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere give you a massive sonic playground to work in.
3: Once you have a core sound and melody, you could try using Cubase’s Chord Track to analyse the melody you recorded. It will suggest possible chord structures that fit the existing melody, including possible variations that you wouldn’t normally consider!
4: Once your chordal foundation is in place, you should be able to hear this part of your song coming together. Perhaps the addition of the new chord sequence is pulling the main melody somewhere else, or even inspiring the creation of a brand-new, superior, melody?
5: A faster-paced BPM than the one you conceived of when creating your melody can irrevocably alter it. Using Cubase’s Beat Calculator, you can tap a tempo, or set the BPM in the transport panel. Make sure your melody and chords are snapped to this time signature
6: Once you’re happy with the fusion of chords and melody, then you should also be starting to get extra melody ideas. Using the root notes of the chord structure, piece together a bass melody that accentuates the chords and in itself may act as an additional hook.