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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The process


There are many different avenues I use to complete a song and I thought it might be fun to discuss them. I'd like to hear from Ray and others about their creative process as well. Since I write different styles of music and I don't have a particular workspace I write in but I have a number of different modes. Adding lyric writing to the mix brings up even more variety to the process. Variety may be one of the best attributes to my process. I may not always write what I intend but I can almost always write something. I think it is a good exercise to just keep music flowing even if it isn't what you wanted or even if you toss out what you just wrote. One note on discarding ideas, don't be to quick to toss something out. I have a pile of short clips of music that I haven't used yet. I have complete or nearly complete songs I haven't found a home for. I rarely discard something outright. If an idea makes it to paper or a recorded form I'll use it somewhere eventually.

I have spent a long time honing my skills that I can use to write music. I do sit down as often as I can for regular writing sessions. I have a BA in music and I've played guitar for 20 years. I'd never claim to be the best but I do have a lot of knowledge and skill to call on. I can just jam to a tape recorder and let the music flow but I can also go back later, transcribe what I played, and think "I bet an Augmented 6th chord would sound cool in this part." There is a saying, "If all you have in your toolbox is a hammer you'll treat everything as a nail." I think that is very true of music. There is nothing wrong with a 3-power chord punk song. I might write one myself if I feel like it. But if all I know are power chords I would be very limited. I enjoy learning and growing and applying new skills to my writing. One of my current self education projects is to teach myself more about orchestration. I want to know how to score out songs for concert bands and symphony orchestras. Never stop learning. Lyrics are a bit trickier. I'm not verbally inclined to start with. But when I have written some lyrics I like I do go back and edit, think about the meter and flow of the words, and turn to my thesaurus to be sure that I am saying what I mean in the way I want to say it. In a more mundane sense I write music on paper, into my notation program on my computer, or I record audio. All seem to draw different things out of me and I like to switch up so I don't get into a rut.

That's more the technical side of it. Where to the ideas come from the begin with? Anywhere and everywhere. I'm like a sponge, I am always soaking up information. I read or watch or listen to something and my brain can eventually filter that to my hands on my guitar. I have over 4,000 songs in my iTunes. I think I own over 600 cds. I read a lot of books from Stephen King to Bertrand Russel to Marvel comics. Most of my lyrics are based on something that happened to me or something I heard about. Music is not directly related to what I soak up but I can call on different experiences and different moods to guide to song.

About half the time I start with a stanza or two of lyrics or a riff or two of music. Once I get some music set to the lyrics I can often finish the lyrics and most of the time the music and lyrics will leapfrog each other as I go. I usually have a similar process for instrumental music. I may start with a guitar part, then switch to bass to come up with an accompanying part. As I finish the bass for that section new idea will pop into my head and I'll flow into the next section of bass and go back to guitar after that. It's rare that I stick with one instrument through the end of writing a song. The same leapfrogging happens in Strange Land, only it occurs between people. One of us will bring in a riff or a section or even a skeleton of a whole song and then the others will take that and run with it. The collaboration goes back and forth until we're happy with it. Luckily we don't have huge egos and we're not hurt if something we wrote gets altered or dropped from a song.

My other main process is to have pieces I want to put together but they don't just flow one from the next. I have to write connective tissue to bring all the sections together or play them enough to see if they can just "go" without any intervening music. It can work both ways. Strange Land works this way often. Quite a bit of my solo acoustic music is done this way as well.

No matter how a song is constructed there is a long period of editing and rehearsing. Even though I approach music with an intellectual bent everything still has to feel right. Sometimes parts just don't fit and you have to be willing to let them go. Sometimes songs aren't ready to be finished and you have to wait. As we say in Strange Land, no matter how proggy and 'out there' you get, you still have to "serve the song." Say that either in the voice of a monk or a kung fu master, it works better that way :-)

I have a feeling I'm not the only one that works this way. I'd like to hear from you out there how you work when you write.

3 comments :

mancai said...

hi,
nice info here... rockin...

T-Bo said...

You know, I actually write the lyrics first most of the time, usually before I even have a melody. I guess it's because I'm a very verbose person, and I've been writing seriously about as long as playing guitar, but a lot of the time lyrical ideas and concepts come to me first, and in abundance. I have dozens of sets of lyrics with no sense of melody whatsoever. There isn't really a set way that I do things, however. Most of the time, to write a riff I'll just pick up my guitar and play something, and tweak it from there. Maybe I'll add a dissonance, or an open string, or a wide interval to it. Or I'll take out a note and make it loop irregularly. One of my favorite things to do is take fairly common chord progressions and alter them ever-so-slightly, to create an odd, unique sound.

Lately, I've actually been writing a lot of guitar instrumental music in the style of Satch, Vai, etc. I cannot stress enough, in this style of music especially, how IMPORTANT the melody is. 99% of my melodies come from improvisation, especially when jamming along with a friend or something. The key to making a great song is having a melody that is easy to remember, pleasant to the ears, and different from other melodies. I mean, each person's taste is their own, but I find that if there is a strong, unique melody with something different about it, I'm drawn to a song. It could be in an odd time, or have a few wide-interval leaps, or be constructed from odd chords, or anything. You've got to write music that jumps out at the listener. That's why Opeth, Everon, Tool, and early DT, especially, are so great: no other band writes similar melodies.

The pinnacle of creativity and innovation is, IMO, creating something that is definably, uniquely yours. No one can take that away from you.

stringray said...

As of today, I'm writing way too slowly. I still find just a minimum of time, but hopefully I will improve my writing speed next year. But anyway, I do write.

There are many ways of writing, and I think I've used all of them. It is just a case of what kind of music I do, and the fact of what comes first.

When writing 'the usual song', it depends if I start with something I want to shout out, so when it comes to a theme I wanna make audible, I start sketching what it is I wanna tell, go over it, give it some structure, carve it, polish it, untill it makes sense to be sung in melody and rhythm. In that process chord progression and rhythm do take shape inside my brain without even thinking of that. When I later take the guitar, there already is some music there to start with. Quite lots of work then, because many of the original ideas or inspirations do not work properly; if musically or lyrically; you have an idea of how one goes through the process of making a song out of lyrics.

When it's the other way round, it's like having a couple of riffs that saw the light of the earth recently, it takes shape during the usual practicing sessions, where I find good combinations of the riffs. Musically this is really fun stuff, as the riffs go through so many varations, I really love doing that. Consider a good and quite complex riff that got develloped initially in A major, combined with another one it has to be transposed to Fis minor 7 sus 4. that's quite interesting stuff to do.
When it all has taken a rough shape and I can envision the other instruments, I think about how it is sounding and what themes I can load into it. Does it express aggression, love, beauty, etc, a cobination of some? I do brainstorm and find a topic I want to transport with that music, again sketch down my ideas and issues, convert them into lyrics, into proper rhythm and melody. Now that the theme is set, the song itself can take shape, suspense curves to be set and adjusted.

Then there are the session bands. You take one little idea to the rehearsal room, and the band, as a collective, starts like an engine. It's pure musicianship. One of the most thrilling and interesting things. Give that one idea into the hands of, say 4 or 5 people (including yourself), and see what will come out if they all spontaneously add the ideas that come up. Unfortunately those bands are foredoomed, as it is so hard to find musicians without egoism and egocentrism. The keyboardist is not willing to give up on the appregio that doesn't fit, the vocalist insists in writing lyrics though the bassist has some perfect ones, even better ones, and so on....

The current project I wanna bring to life is based on another method. Probably because it will be a symphonic work.
After doing nothing specific for oh so many years, there suddenly was a melody. It just was there, somehow given. I found so many different musical 'environmets' it simply does fit, that I started doing something with the brain region that controls musical issues. I remebered that I'm having Garage Band on my computer, so I purchased a usb keyboard and started working. This time I wanna have my guitarists part done for 95%, directions for keybordist and classical instruments obvious, so they will need to do improvemnents only. I want the path being written before accompanying musicians walk them. The way the walk will be their choice, of course, but the road is fixed.
The inspiration is music only, I don't wanna nail it down to a theme right now, as music can have it's own speech, and it's a thrilling to see what the output will be if I don't handle a story or anything that it would have to transport. Though I wonder how to find good track titles...