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Songwriting – Where Are Your Songs?

Sometimes I’m asked at gigs and it catches me off guard. It’s always a difficult question to answer succinctly to a stranger, and causes me to stutter and stammer incoherently. “I’ve always done it”, is as lame a reason as it is true. Songwriting, that is to say.

But to me it’s all rather obvious since it’s an internal life that gets externalized through the act of songwriting. More accurately, its expression is stimulated by the act of simply noodling on my guitar without the intent of writing a song being present at all. But once the gears are engaged, so to speak, then whatever store of resource that resides within seeps up like some osmosis into my consciousness.

What does crop up which is caused by the stimulation affected by simply improvising (say) on chords and / or melodies based on scales will depend on a multitude of unrelated events in my life – contemporary and historically. These “events” can be superficially trivial or deeply personal or even completely impersonal. I’ve even written a song about a cowboy after watching Western TV shows.

The extent to which they are autobiographical spans the whole spectrum from not at all to almost journalistic.

Some songs are borne out of empathy and portraiture as distinct from being vehicles for self-expression. Other songs are more concerned with the sound and expressiveness of the language used than with the meaning it conveys. Yet others are a means of catharsis. Others still are long-winded and overblown ways to tell a joke. Whatever kind of song comes about is caused, not intentioned.

What is an anathema to me is to go into the studio for the purpose of writing a new song. I don’t do that. Sometimes I will go into the studio for the purpose of trying to finish a song that is already underway – in fact, without that discipline no song would ever get completed! Coming up with new “stuff” – they can’t be called “songs” – is unconscious in the first instance.

To a future stranger, who asks, I may well shrug and say that I can’t remember: I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid and that’s a long time ago. It’s a habit – no more; no less.

What does all that mean for a budding songwriter who may be struggling to find the blue touch paper in order cause a spark to fall upon it? Simply consider that songs are all around waiting to be divined – discovered. My proposal is that writing songs are a constant soundtrack to a life rather than an activity done at prescribed times of the day, or days of the week. Keep noodling on your instrument. Keep writing ideas down. Keep a look out for your songs as your read your newspaper and watch your television. They are waiting for you.

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There are three types of musical memory…

…that I can think of: namely; (1) muscle memory which enables the fluent playing of the guitar, (2) that which enables aural recognition of intervals when hearing them and, (3) that which enables recall of which chords are diatonic to which keys, their voicings, and their placement on the fingerboard. All three need attention on my part, for sure, because it strikes me that if these three memory sets are optimised then I could say I could really play my guitar, improvise, and write.

Muscle memory is a double edged sword. Sure, it’s essential. Without it we couldn’t play a damn thing with any fluency. Indeed, we couldn’t remember how to finger even the most simple chord. When it (muscle memory) is performing at its best, it enables you to focus on the performance while your fingers go where they’re supposed to, as it were, blindfolded. But it’s a curse if you’re trying to correct some mistake that’s become ingrained through repetition. I can’t recall who, but some smart player or teacher opined that too many of us spend all our practice time practicing our mistakes. Re-educating your fingers is hard, hard work. It’s like digital boot camp.

Recognising musical intervals when you hear them is a faculty which I’ve never spent any time concentrating on. This has resulted in my only being able to differentiate major and minor triads ““ easy if they juxtaposed next to each other ““ and major sixths, which seem to have a distinct aural flavour. Well, come to think of it, dominant 7ths with augmented 9ths rarely pass me by unnoticed. Augmented 5ths, also. Well that’s quite a few, you might think. But I couldn’t tell you which key they might be in, or what keys might be involved in a modulation.

Clearly, I’m talking about music I hear. If I’m playing it, I only have to look at my memory challenged fingers.

The recall of what chords are diatonic to which keys is a matter of sheer repetition of playing in different keys ““ or learning by rote. This might seem trivial in “guitar keys” like G major or C major. But do you know which chords are nominally diatonic to E flat minor? Can you list them? Or even A flat major (without thinking) even though it’s only a half-step away from G?

Not being fluent in these areas makes me feel a bit like a cheat. Sort of like I had landed an engineering job with a fake qualification. I keep meaning to set some time aside to practice all of this. Even try writing down in notation things I hear in my head. The trouble is that there is no time and I don’t hear new music in my head, anyway. I’m a noodles sorta guy…

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Too Much Introspection?

Lurking around online guitar communities one’s bound to come across a variety of opinions on this, that, and the other to do with the best example of this and the best way to do that. It’s all excellent fodder for contemplation and is occasionally informative. Most of what one reads is, though, borne out of ingrained prejudice or the recycling of received wisdom, or reiteration of some pronouncement of this guitar god, or that. This exchanging of views is commendable, no doubt, but fresh insights or genuine authoritative advice is rarely found – particularly for free.

As ever, the most productive time is spent alone in serious study and objective (insofar as this is possible at all) consideration of one’s output. To honestly and objectively appraise the progress of a song under development is a piece of voodoo that I’m only partially successful at practicing. Criteria to use in judging the success of a song is a prerequisite to the process, but is more difficult to arrive at than it might appear at first glance. Consider:

What are the aims of the song? To sound “good”? If so, to whom? The writer? An audience – real or imagined? A prospective publisher / artiste / producer? To an aunt or uncle? Posterity?

Or is the purpose of the song to make money? If so; what is the target market?

Or is it intended to be a piece of art of purely aesthetic value only without reference to commercial appeal or admiration of an audience small part of a magnus opus defined by your entire songwriting output – whose mere existence is its own justification.

Or might It could be written as part of a strategy to charm the pants off some girl? Or is it going to be another page in a musical diary recounting your thoughts, dreams, experiences, hopes, joys and disappointments as you make your own way through the days.

Or could Its purpose be catharsis, or to have some other therapeutic value? A safety-valve less you do some awful deed? Ha! Ha!

Or could it be a means to emulate or imitate a hero / heroine? A three-minute dreamscape in which you can “be” your idol? A means to escape the horror of the hum-drum day after day after day?

It doesn’t matter if, like me, you took to songwriting as a child without thinking or questioning and just did it as naturally as eating and sleeping. With self-awareness and learning about bad, good, and better – and pu-leeease, don’t tell me music is all about personal taste – you will make value judgments about your output. About form and content; about design and execution. So it would be better if we had a clear idea about the purpose of all this effort into writing songs. Without knowing this, how can we judge how successful we are? Because, for sure, different qualities are needed for songs serving the different purposes I mentioned above. And, yes, although I was drawing caricatures in these descriptions I will still assert that clarity of purpose is needed.

“Ah,” (you might say) “but I have to write songs. It’s what I am. I am a Musician. It’s innate. What else is there to say? Thinking about all of what you suggest would do nothing but unnecessarily complicate the process. It might tie me up in knots and even inhibit my songwriting. I would rather not interrupt my free and natural musical outpouring, thank you very much!”

OK. So be it. Rock on.

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Music-making and chaos

My musings on musical invention earlier have led me on, by way of consideration of the randomness of the creative process, to wondering whether chaos, in it’s scientific sense, might have some part to play.

As difficult as it is for me to imagine a cause for the truly random event, I can think of organisation arising out of a certain class of random events, to whit; evolution from genetic mutation. Is it a quality of random events that they are chaotic? It strikes me as amusing that creative folks are caricatured as living somewhat “chaotic” lives. That all their organisational talent is expended in one discrete area, ie., bringing coherence out of the chaos and randomness of their inspiration. In consideration of the totality of their lives, It is almost as if they were swimming against some sort of turbulent tide – if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

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Songwriting and “Inspiration”

What is the nature of the faculty for inventing music?

When I think about “inspiration” – that white heat of spontaneous creativity – which may last moments only, I realise that there is no analytic thought involved. It comes as a priori knowledge of what is musically right and fitting as it is being played and leads instinctively or intuitively to further musical utterances. This process is in contrast to that involved in the consideration of the musical materials thus arrived at for the purpose of organising them into a coherent piece of music, or song. So I see two dissimilar process at work; one a priori and the other analytic. (I’m used to the latter; I’ve heard about the former.)

The only qualification I would make is that the quality and frequency of the “inspiration” appears to be proportional to the frequency with which it is provided the means to occur and then exploited. This might not explain genius, but then; what does?

Is the nature of the faculty for making music similar to that of creating any other form of art, or even the achievement of original thinking in the sciences? I’ve read (or heard) about the facility for lateral thinking, or more specifically the ability to connect apparently non-related phenomena or ideas to arrive at new knowledge as an essential quality of the inventive mind. Maybe creativity is all of a piece, irrespective of the field in which it is engaged. But there is something apparently random in this lateral thought. Maybe that’s what gives it its a proiri appearance. The alleged something-from-nothing quality of inspiration bothers me. I think it’s a fallacy. But it reminds me of the randomness of mutation that underpins evolution. There is a randomness about creative thought that begets art and science.

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Noodling with form

One of the effects of my listening to so much classical music ““ particularly symphonies ““ is that I appear to have developed an ear for forms such as rondo, sonata, minuets, etc. Out of curiosity, I’ve also read a little about the historical development of these forms. Even more curiously, I’ve been pondering how they might be exploited in my writing.

For example, I’ve been noodling around for a couple of years (yup, a couple of years) with an extended tune that includes a verse and a refrain. The interesting feature for me is that it moves pretty seamlessly from the minor tonality in the verse to the major in the refrain. Now, with a little bit of imagination ““ or flight of fancy – this combination could be construed or reinterpreted as a “sonata exposition”! A school form of the sonata may be written down as follows:
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Noodling with words

As I wander from internet forum to bulletin board and back again, I come across certain topics that come up repeatedly like the sunrise. One of these is a question about the relative priority of music or lyrics when it comes to songwriting. If I pipe up and post a reply it is usually a minor reworking of what I’m always moved to write under such circumstances.

My replies are along the lines that I consider words and music equally important. More than that: I find words to be musical in their own right; their rhythm, the ability to mess with syllable emphasis, alliterations, and so forth… Colour, mood and other quasi-musical qualities are no less applicable to words.
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Noodling with scales

How many useful scales are there ““ or how many would be of interest to me? Modes are one set of scales that seem to get an inordinate amount of attention from fingerstyle guitar players (and others) these days. I guess it’s their folky and archaic sound world. Arabic and other eastern scales have been explored by others, notably Davy Graham. There are dozens of the things derived from traditions world-wide and invented. I reckon that all the possible sequence of intervals have been written down and explored. A scale, after all, is simply a stepwise sequence of notes from a root to its octave; how many notes and what intervals are between them are arbitrary to the definition.

For what purpose would I immerse myself in exotic scales? Well, it’s a toughie to answer coherently; I suppose in a way similar to my exploration of harmony, I’m trying to see what all this additional musical vocabulary would do for my writing.

Now, no way would I take (say) a Jewish scale with a view to writing a Kletzmer tune; I would, on the other hand, like to hear what colours I could bring to my writing with this scale on my palette. Also, notwithstanding that I’ve questioned the notion of “modal chords”, I wonder what juxtaposition of chords I might stumble across while noodling around with some of these scales (in a sort of free-association sort of way). That doesn’t appear much like a structured approach, I know, but I have no desire to over-systematize this because I think it would inhibit that curious faculty of intuition which is the precursor of useful musical ideas. Neither do I want to study traditional, cultural or historical use of any of these scales, lest I end up making up pastiches of pre-existing forms. No, this is all about what these scales might mean to me in my writing.

So there it is. I’ll either let you know here how I get on, or I won’t – depending on how successful it all turns out.

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Noodling with harmony

The guitar seems to have a tonal centre around G major meaning the further you go to the dominant and sub-dominant sides from there, the tougher it becomes to play. (I’m talking acoustic fingerstyle guitar as distinct from, say Jazz, particularly played on electric.) There is a jump in difficulty when you reach B major and B flat, respectively, which leaves a lot of major and minor keys out of bounds, so to speak. I feel cheated.

It all comes down to being brought up in the “folk tradition” and becoming restricted to chords that rely on open strings for sonority.

So, by way of looking for a solution I’ve been working hard with chord voicings and keys ““ particularly “non-guitar” keys ““ and finding interesting ways to wander between tonalities. It really is a rich area for exploration and I’m surprised at the twists and turns that happen as I noodle using the devices that I’ve learned.

I must say, though, that the sounds I come up with are quite far from what I would normally expect of myself when just picking around on the guitar ““ but that’s partly the point of doing this in the first place. On the other hand, I’m not yet sure how I’m going to incorporate all this seamlessly into my writing. In other words, to get these voicings and voice leading ideas under my fingers so I can think about sounds rather than think about fingers. I suspect it might be a matter of repetition until it all comes naturally…

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Diminished 7th Chords

These mongrel chords are the Crewe Junction of the harmonic world. You can come from many places to them and depart from them to many more. But they worry me insofar as I suspect they could be used to cover up a multitude of sins. They strike me as potentially lazy solutions to musical problems. Don’t know where to go next? No bother at all: stick on a diminshed 7th and press on regardless! Augmented 5ths are almost as bad except they can’t be so easily disguised – at least by me. Even on a dominant 7th with a flat-9 tagged on they stick out and very easily sound hackneyed. (On reflection, this may have more to do with my lack of skill in their use than the character of the chords, per se. Be that as it may; I have to use them sparingly and with care.)

On the other hand, I’ll put a flattened fifth on any chord and use it with gay abandon. I don’t care how many cliches I spawn thereby – they’re just so damn’ nice. G major 7 flat 5? Mmmm”¦