[Due Update] Writing Music No.1 (2012)

Over the past couple of days I’ve been poking my head around websites with articles related to writing music. I have to say. There aren’t a lot that really give you any help. A lot of them are extremely basic, and I can understand how this might aid people who are literally just starting to write, but what about the people who have been writing for years?

Now, I’m not exactly a pro. My tracks are proof of that, but I have been trying my hand at writing for a long time. I began with my guitar and voice, writing singer/songwriter stuff influenced by people such as John Mayer, Dave Matthews, City and Colour, and more. I did this for quite a few years, from that age of about 15 until I was around 19/20. I still do, and I know that compared to some people those 4/5 years are nothing, but I learnt a lot from doing that. I didn’t have any official training, the only instrument I had to been taught was Drums (and a little bit of piano when I was even younger), but my guitar and voice was simply through self-learning. I didn’t use tabs, I used my ear (a technique that everyone should try). The great thing about using my ears was that I soon realised that most of the guitar tabs you found online were wrong, and that they were simply using the root notes of the chords being played, rather than actually using what the original writer had intended. These are the types of chords you hear being played by buskers on the highstreet as they scream their lungs out thinking that they’re amazing. I tell you what, the ones I actually pay attention to or even give money to, are the ones that either make the song their own, or play the actual chords.

Sidetracking again, but basically, I had those few years of playing guitar, going to open mic nights, playing at my own nights, and even being invited to play at Glastonbury Festival with my band at the time. One thing I discovered though whilst writing my own stuff, the song for my acoustic band, and the songs for my ’emo/screamo’ band at the time, was that you found yourself writing completely different styles, (obviously) but your writing style would be completely different also. Styles, build-ups, structure. They were all different. This brings me back to my opening comments.

I recently posted up a blog about templating creativity, for myself, it’s exactly what I needed to do. I struggle to find the time to actually sit down and write music. Making that template has increased the possibility that I’ll actually get to do so, and the arrangement/structure template I’m using will also aid in that, but I find myself listening to tracks I had written when I first started using Music Software (whilst I was studying at A-Level), and I listen to the MUSIC side of things thinking, ‘How on earth did I come up with that?’.

To be honest, I think that the reason I was writing music back then, that I struggle to write now, was purely down to not having been taught how to write music. You might find that comment funny, but if you look at most of the musicians in the charts, or with their own albums etc being made commercial now, ask them if they went at studied music after college, whether they went and did a degree. I might be talking out of my own ass here, but a lot of the people I’ve read about and met who are making great tracks now, haven’t gone through education, they haven’t been taught how to make music, they’ve simply followed their instincts and done it.

Instinct can be a very important thing when it comes to music, and I think that a lot of us forget about it. We’re often taught ‘when you use this chord, you then have to use this chord’, I remember specifically being asked to analyze a couple of albums whilst studying Music Technology. Those albums were The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, and Marvin Gayes ‘What’s going on?’. Both albums are beautiful. They show a true passion for music, for story telling, a talent for sharing emotion, but also having fun. My tutor at the time started saying things like ‘Now here you can hear how Marvin Gaye has chosen to use these chords, and how he’ used them to represent the lyrics’. That’s a simplified version of what he might say, but we’d then also get questions similar in our exams ‘How have the Black Eyed Peas used chord structures to represent the lyrics’ blah blah blah.

Now I don’t know about anyone else, but when I write songs, I don’t sit down and go ‘yeh, I’m going to use these chords cus I think they’ll represent my struggle through my life, and I’m gunna add a minor 13th because when I was 13 years old I got my first chest hair’. It’s ridiculous, the way I would see writing music was simply ‘do I like it or not’. I have to admit, most of the chords I play I don’t even know the names of. I just sit down, fling notes together and see whether it sounds ok, I’ll then maybe change or add other notes to see how it might change the chord, or whether it sounds nicer. I’ll get the feel for a track and then carry on writing it.

I’ve found that throughout my education, although I’ve learnt a lot, which I’m entirely grateful for, I’ve found myself taking a step back musically, you’re sat down and told ‘you need to add this, or you should change this chord, maybe you should use a jazz mode’, instead of just being told, use your instinct. I would actually prefer it if a tutor told me to use my instinct, and then told me that my track was crap than to tell me how to change it, as even though the track might sound better with added input, it probably still sounds crap at the end of the day!

I feel like I’m ranting again. Basically. Use your instincts when writing music. I’ve actually found that the best people to ask about your music, if you want advice, are people who aren’t musicians. This might sound strange, but if you start asking other musicians, all you’ll get is their ideas, their way of thinking, you won’t get the general advice of whether the track is good or not. Musicians might say that a track is good, because they see potential in it, but that’s still the potential through their eyes, not your own, they could have a completely different idea to how that track should sound compared to what you might think, and if you follow what they want, you probably will end up not liking the track, because you haven’t created it.

When you ask non-musicians about your music, they’re going to basically tell you whether or not it will work on the dancefloor, whether or no they would buy it, and they’re advice is going to sound simple, things like ‘it doesn’t sound loud enough here’ or ‘it’s not fast enough’ or ‘it needs vocals’. The latter is the most common one for me, but there’s a reason for that. Most people want vocals in a track to connect with, and it’s a very important part of music. What they will often mean by saying this is that you need a hook. If you go to a gig with people such as Pendulum or Chase & Status, a couple of the bands that really broke into the commercial realm over the past few years, you’ll hear that on the tracks without vocals, the crowd are all singing the melody line as if it was being sung in the original track. This is because this is how they remember the track. A musician will probably remember the drum beat, or the sound of the synth or guitar tone, where as a none musician will cling onto the easiest thing they can, the hook, or the vocals.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on for quite a while, I think this might be the first in a group of ramblings about writing music… Watch this space.