Writing A Song From Scratch: Part One

 

There are countless video blogs on Youtube discussing guitar playing and songwriting. I’m no authority on who leads the pack, but Sean Daniel’s blog is pretty sweet – informative, fun and with plenty of great music to enjoy. Five months ago, Sean embarked on a project to write a song from scratch, using as its starting point randomly selected chords and a randomly selected time signature. A little bit of chance adds some spice to songwriting – the old case that limiting one’s options stimulates rather than oppresses the creative process, so consequently I decided to rip off Sean’s idea.

I sat down with Chris, my (musically ignorant) partner-in-crime, who had the crucial role of drawing chord numbers from the bag. The chords were replaced each time, so it was theoretically possible to draw the same chord four times. What we actually got was the following chord progression:

III-III-II-VI

Which in the key of C is: Em-Em-Dm-Am

As we can see, that’s wall to wall minor, the ‘sad-sounding’ chords. Although in the video I suggested this might make for a miserable song, I note that when minor chords are hanging out together, they don’t actually sound so melancholy. The sadness seems more evident when they are paired with a major chord.

I subsequently developed the basic chord progression in a couple of different directions – transposing the key to F and the time signature to 6/8 (whose relationship to 3/4 is not as strong as the two times table might imply, but for a bit of variation what the heck), and also transposing the key to Bb but also changing the tuning to DADGAD, resulting in chords which are less firmly affiliated to major or minor. These key changes no doubt have other implications (for example, perhaps the chord progressions should be considered in the minor key, rather than the major . . .), but I’m ashamed to say my music theory knowledge is quite ragged around the edges, and also fairly tattered in the centre. If you wish to educate me, please take the floor . . .

The next step is to expand on this chord progression, adding some more building blocks until we have the foundation of a song. While Sean Daniel’s project followed the process from inception right up until a fully produced song, with drums, guitar solos, backing vocals, all the bells and whistles, I don’t have the wherewithal in terms of resources or finances to pull something like that off. So this journey will be more humble – three or four parts developing this starting point into a proper song, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a few bits in between.

Watch this space over the next couple of weeks and witness the plan come together . . .

 

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Musical Reset

It’s been twenty months in the gargantuan* bosom of the Mother of the World. I’m far better at dreaming of making music than actually creating it; when I first arrived here I made a naïve post about all I’d achieve in Cairo. Few of those musical ambitions have been realised, but buried beneath the frenetic pace of the city, or work, or simply the insistent dust that weighs down anything or anyone who holds still for a moment. It hasn’t been time wasted, but as the wheel turns towards professional and academic achievements, other matters of import, be they music or love, find themselves on the wrong side of those revolutions.

Luckily, the wheel keeps turning and renewing, and I find myself now at a point of new beginnings; new job, new flat, new routine, a chance to find a better sense of balance. It probably won’t be easy, but I’m hoping to give some things neglected a chance to sing.

Dawn in Zamalek

One of those important things is a renewed sense of purpose in music-making. I want to try and find two hours a day to play, compose and practise. I’ve been thinking a lot about routines lately, and trying to get a better rein of an often treacherous mind. I couldn’t quite say I’m a morning person, but if I can force my eyes awake I love the promise and peace of the dawn, and do good work at this time. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up early, and get two hours of playing music under one’s belt before all the other noise of day has started?

So, turning over a new leaf – but to what end? It’s likely I’ll be in Cairo for at least another year, and I’d like to direct my free time during this period towards writing and recording two new EPs. One of these I hope to make a semi-professional effort (as far as my budget will extend); using a recording studio and with luck a couple of local musicians to provide a taste of Egypt. The other will be a low-fi experiment; to see what I can come up with recording at home with simple equipment.

But first, allow me to subvert and undermine these plans! Before I throw myself into this new project, I want to do a bit of songwriting just for fun. I’ve got a few seeds and semi-complete ideas I’d like to play around with, one or two of which I hope to transform into songs fairly quickly. Let’s see what transpires . . .

 

*Hey, Cairo’s a big city!

Musical Reset

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

Over a week ago, I called time on my 1 month, 4 songs project. My month was up, but the business of writing the four songs was not. Although I hadn’t quite met the challenge I set myself, it had nonetheless been fruitful – I have a quartet of two-thirds finished songs.

I wonder if anyone in the business of writing songs has ever settled upon a strict methodology and found it to work consistently. If this project has taught me anything, it’s only to reinforce for the umpteenth time that songwriting utterly resists one’s efforts to shoulder it with a formula. Over the month I experimented with a number of different approaches, and in this post I want to reflect of their relative values and lessons learnt from the project as a whole.

dscf2318

I began 1m4s by filling my notebook with pages of unfettered imagery, words and phrases all based around a different song title. Despite my intention to write with utter freedom and try and disconnect my brain from the eventual end goal of turning these scribbles into songs, some premeditation and rhyme-chasing did creep in. But the real benefit of this starting point was beginning with this massive bank of material to draw from and guide the lyrical direction of the songs. Filling those pages felt like hard graft, but rewarding work, and so provided a really positive launch point. And later on, when tunes started forming, I had a wealth of lyrical matter to dress the melodies in.

There was also neat cross-fertilization happening from song to song; I found choice phrases from songs I didn’t use finding a home in others. Even so, there’s quite a lot of stuff left over which I really like that might its way into future songs. It’s definitely an approach I will use again when I want to compose a bunch of songs.

My early ventures into the musical side of things were not as productive. I came at things with an inflexible, structural approach: rhythm > chords > vocal melody > fingerstyle arrangement > embellishments and ‘solos’ (although this last part isn’t done yet). Such a progression is quite logical, and it’s not to say it didn’t work, but there were times when I found I was forcing myself to shuffle along when I should have been running on ahead. My commitment to my method saw me shying away from potential fruitful explorations of the musically ‘frilly’ bits at the end of sequence because ‘it wasn’t time to do those parts yet’.

Is there a better way? As I guy without any real grasp of theory, the musical composition aspect boils down to flailing around in hope of coming across something productive. The occasional stroke of luck aside, that’s inevitably going to take time. But I think I’d benefit from abandoning any preconceptions of how that should happen. I feel that simply doing a lot more guitar playing, without rhyme, reason or application of brain might reap some rewards.

I’d also be interested in experimenting with reversing the process. From an early stage, I tend to come at the song from a macro level. In my mind’s eye, I’ve already plotted the whole course from intro to outro, and I construct each segment little by little before slotting them all together. I wonder what might come if instead I focused on getting one tiny part perfect before moving onto the next, and built from bar to bar. This could lead to something more exciting, and also steer a song away from feeling too formulaic. Introducing the chord change, or the chorus, or whatever it needs, only when it feels necessary, not just because that’s where a change would be expected.

A third way I want to explore is writing melodies completely free of the guitar. I’d tried on 1m4s with Let’s Make Our Bed Together, but wasn’t tremendously satisfied with the results, but I think it’s a methodology which might be worth pursuing further.

Ultimately though, I must accept the musical road will always be messy, and recognise that large degrees of blundering and stumbling are natural parts of the process. Songs will take their own sweet time, some fast, most slow, and all you can do is keep working at them.

Overall, I think the greatest benefit of publically setting myself this challenge has simply been the motivation. Although I don’t kid myself that many people are paying attention, having announced to the world I would try and write these songs, I wasn’t able to slack off. I became accountable, and that helped me force myself to push on when my enthusiasm and energy were flagging, and also to recognise and document the progress I was making towards my goal. In the past, I’ve tended to use this blog to present mainly finished pieces of work, but I can see the benefit of replicating the approach of 1m4s for future projects, be they recording projects, live performances or even 2 months, 8 songs!

Reflecting On 1 Month, 4 Songs

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

As can be told by the title, my project to write four songs in one month has not been an unqualified success. A month ago, I hoped that come this day I’d be able to perform demos of four new songs to the camera and declare my task complete. The truth is that simply isn’t possible, but conversely I have written four new songs. However, at this point I haven’t inhabited any of them sufficiently to be able to perform them even as rough demos. They are still too fresh, and admittedly I may have relied too heavily on the computer rather than the actual guitar in the composition process.

But nonetheless, the four songs are there. I can hear them in my head, and they will not need to travel too far to enter the real world. Here’s there current state of play.

Bold Little Weasel: the most complete song of the four. Some slight refinement required, ‘uncovering the earth’ as mentioned in the previous post to simplify the complex parts without losing their core. There is also the odd clunky lyric which might be improved upon.

Let’s Make Our Bed Together: it’s been my intention for this song to be quite a simple one, but at the moment it feels substantially less developed than the other four. A lot of holes remain in the lyrics, and even those that have been written haven’t been thoroughly road-tested. I know what the chords are, and there is that rhumba bass line, but those silvery guitar lines which make me love that old Congolese sound are still lacking.

Pass Without Trace: its quick inception led to a very straightforward arrangement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it need more? Maybe not, but I think I need to keep playing through it for a little while before I’m sure.

When The City Is Home: all the parts have arrived, but they’re freshly delivered and I’m not quite sure how they all fit together. I still feel this song could head in different directions, but the correct one isn’t clear. Some songs reach a dangerous moment where you teeter between realising your vision and cocking the whole thing up – and this is the place I fear I’ve got to. Best to give it a firm shove and see which way it tumbles.

So what’s next? My aim now is to continue to spend an hour a day working on these songs until they’re complete. Then some time to master performing them. When I get to the juncture when I can perform one of these songs through in its entirety without making a mistake, I will exercise a little wisdom and not immediately rush to record it. Instead I’ll diligently endeavour to play it through every day for another month until it’s really had a chance to settle in to my muscle memory and vocal chords. Only then will I permit myself to make a video performance to share on this blog, so that finally the fruit of 1m4s can be tasted and judged.

I also want to reflect on the process the songwriting has taken over this last month. I’ll let my thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t solidify over the next few days and write-up my conclusions. In the meantime, thanks for following the project to this point.

nasser-moonset-1m4s

1m4s Day 31: And it took Leonard Cohen two years to write ‘Hallelujah’

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

Of the songs I’ve been working on, the one that has proved most challenging so far has been When The City Is Home. I believe there are two reasons for this. First of all, it’s the only song which carries a weight of expectation: my wife wants it as piece of music to support a piece of video art she’s making under the same name. This project though is still in its earliest stages, so I’m writing to her idea rather than anything concrete. What exactly the song is supposed to be is largely unknown to both of us. Although I’ve tried to listen to her nebulous suggestions, what she wants and the song that’s emerging are already beginning to diverge, and as the song takes shape in front of me I’m less willing to compromise my own emerging direction for it.

Secondly, the song has proved to be one of the more complicated compositions. Working in DADGAD, although not altogether new territory, makes it far easier to come across new sounds. The downside of this is the need to be more judicious. When The City Is Home has swiftly passed through several iterations – I had lots of different ideas but finding exactly which chords and melody worked best took some experimentation. I’m left with lots of discarded bits and bobs that didn’t really fit with the vocal but still sound nice; I may yet include these in some kind of instrumental coda.

Underneath the whole song is a bass line rhythm based upon baladi Egyptian drums. On Guitar Pro I’ve expanded this with some arpeggios on the treble strings, hopefully without drowning the Eastern sound of the rhythm by filling in too much space. I’m not yet able to play these patterns while singing simultaneously, so in the demo below I just play the bass line with block chords. Here I’ve recorded the second verse and chorus, and couldn’t quite get it together enough to include the bridge, which I see as following on from the second chorus, moving up another third and continuing to raise the intensity level  of the song.

I’m still on the Nile, but now on the huge artificial Lake Nasser created by the High Dam, in the southernmost region of Egypt.

lake-nasser-songwriting

1m4s Day 27: Onto Wider Waters

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

Nine thousand years of history. These are the terms we speak of when we consider the span of humanity’s habitation of the Nile Valley here in Nuba – the lands of Ancient Kush and Meroe. Here we’ve gone back in time – though only a little ways I grant you – and spent five days sailing the Nile aboard a felucca under the care of Captain Sero.

Our felucca – the Nile Queen – is more or less full with a crew of two plus my wife and I. She’s handcrafted, older than I am, and based upon a design that is centuries old*. Of course, that means that wind and water are our only means of propulsion. No engine, so no electricity.

This also means that I’ve had no choice but to divest myself of my technological aids and do things the simple way, as I promised myself.

Unfortunately, of my four nascent songs, only Bold Little Weasel is sufficiently far along for me to feel confident continuing to write it without resorting to my computerised notes. This song has travelled far enough that I was quickly able to complete it as we drifted amongst the islands of the First Cataract of the Nile. Though by complete, I mean only felucca-songwriting-nilethat I have a complete set of lyrics – some good, some okay and all open to further revision – and the basic arrangement of chords and picking. Still to do is to add the ‘twiddly bits’; stitching in some riffs, runs and motifs to the overall song.

Besides working on Bold Little Weasel, I had plenty of time on my hands. Trepidatious of returning to the other songs, I decided to start from scratch. Now, Nuba is one of those many cultures to have embraced the mighty Bob Marley as their own, so reggae seemed the natural choice of music to play. Pretty soon I had a simple two chord skank ripe for embellishment and a slightly more complex progression which could work as a chorus.

Having taken with me the sheaf of papers I’d written at the start of 1m4s, I looked back over the song titles I’d spurned, and rescued Pass Without Trace from obscurity. Its lyrical themes – of disappearing from the capitalist strictures of modern living – seemed to fitfelucca-songwriting-aswan the reggae vibe nicely. Rearranging the free writing I’d set down almost a month ago, I was able to quite easily extrapolate a narrative complete with verses and a chorus. With only minimal rewriting I had a complete song.

Here’s rough demo of a verse and a chorus of Pass Without Trace from early on in its composition. It got a bit stronger later on, but by then the camera battery was exhausted and we weren’t able to record any more.

I am wearing a tea towel on my head. I have neither excuse nor explanation.

*I am referring here to the boat, not my wife.

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

philae-temple-morning

With just over a week left of 1 month, 4 songs, the likelihood of success is beginning to dwindle. At my half-way point, I noted my holidays were coming, and that I’d have more time to put into my songs. It’s a myth I’ve fallen for before, because of course time on holiday is spent being on holiday. Though I’ve had some productive songwriting sessions since I left Cairo, more time’s been spent travelling, exploring and enjoying what Upper Egypt has to offer.

Today did see a good songwriting session though, as we spent the day chilling at Fekra, a (rather dilapidated) cultural centre celebrating Nubian heritage. While the rooms don’t offer much to celebrate, the view is a cause for celebration; a stretch of the Nile dotted by rocky islands, framing Philae Temple, one of the wonders of Ancient Egypt rescued and rebuilt after dams harnessed the might of the river. Fekra was the site of one the Nile Project’s residencies – a musical project/evolving band that brings together the different musical traditions of the people who live along the longest river in the world. It’s a band I’ve followed since before I came to Egypt, and with their music in mind and the fantastic vista it was easy to feel inspired.

I turned my attention to two songs. When The City Is Home now has verses, choruses and a bridge, although only the latter has music I’m set on. I experimented with some different ideas with the verse and the chorus, nothing quite fit. I gave up before I started feeling too frustrated, though in retrospect wonder whether this was premature. With songwriting you’re always on the verge of a major breakthrough or a minor breakdown, and it’s never clear how close you are to which.

The other song I worked on was Bold Little Weasel, which has pulled ahead of the other songs in terms of progress. At this stage I more or less know how the song goes and what the various parts consist of, though there are some holes in the lyrics here and there. With my friend Watter Al Bahry playing the duff, I made the short demo above of the bridge and a section of the verse. The living room at Fekra has a hexagonal design, which creates a really warm acoustic sound.

The Nile’s influence will continue to be felt over the next few days, as I will spend them on rather than next to the water. We’ll be sailing aboard a felucca – a traditional Egyptian boat for the next five days, and the pace of life will really, really slow down, though I hope I’ll still be able to fit in a little songwriting alongside doing nothing. Am I, after all, on holiday.

philae-temple-evening

 

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects