When looking from the outside, songwriting can be an intimidating task. Our favorite bands might make it looks easy, and while some of the best songs are written in minutes, many take weeks or months to complete.
I’ve been with my band for about a year and a half now, and we just finished recording our 5-song EP. In my time with this band, I’ve learned a lot about writing songs from scratch.
Here are 3 killer songwriting methods my band and I use to write our songs.
Jamming with other musicians is always fun, but you need to make sure you’re doing this effectively. Too often, jam sessions involve simply playing riffs, beats, or songs you know, and don’t end with the desired outcome of a new song – or at least, an idea for one.
To write new songs in a jam session, avoid playing what you know at all costs – unless it’s a new chord progression, riff, or melody you’ve come up with on your own that you haven’t shown your band yet. Instead, mess around with notes, chords, and beats until you find something catchy that you can build off of. For example, have your drummer play a beat, mess around with the guitar over it, and hum out some vocal melody ideas.
Once you have a part to work off of, writing the rest of the song becomes much easier, so do this a few times until you find something you like, then add to it.
During jam sessions, you’ll find that it’s very productive to write in layers. My band typically starts with a guitar riff, adds drums underneath, and then layers vocals on top. For you, however, starting with a beat may work better. Experiment a bit with your band members to find what produces the best overall outcome.
Play to a Metronome
This doesn’t necessarily involve playing with your band members, but if you’re an instrumentalist in your band, playing with a metronome can be a great way to stimulate new ideas. In my band, some of our best songs have stemmed from myself or our other guitarist bringing riff ideas to practice to then build a song off of.
To come up with these ideas, I usually set my metronome to a random tempo, and just play on my guitar what comes to mind. This involves lots of practice, and a lot of times, you’ll likely have to play for quite a while before something great comes along. I often play for at least 20 minutes before any good riffs come out of this.
Sometimes, you’re just not feeling anything and have no idea where to start. When I’m stuck in a creative rut, I often seek out other bands, genres, or beats I find online to play guitar over.
If I find another band that I’m enjoying, I turn the songs volume to a level where I can only hear the drums so that I feel what the beat of the song is. Then, I play my own guitar part over it. This goes for genres outside of my own too – playing guitar over a rap song, for example, can bring about some new and unique riff ideas.
Similar to the metronome method, another idea I make use of frequently is searching for drum beats on YouTube to play over. There’s just something about having drums to play to that stimulates creativity differently than a metronome does. You can easily try this yourself by, for example, searching “120 bpm metal drum beat” on YouTube, choosing a drum beat, and playing over it. There are tons of options available for you to find inspiration from.
BONUS – Some quick tips on music theory
When I started playing in this band, I knew nothing about music theory. Writing songs with musicians that are way better than myself required me to learn things quickly, which helped me find some tricks that make songwriting easier.
A lot of musicians view music theory as a hindrance, but in my experience, music theory simply helps me achieve the same results I otherwise would without it – only much faster.
With that in mind, here are some quick music theory lessons that help answer some questions I had early on in my learning.
If you don’t know your scales, find online resources
If you don’t know your scales, check out all-guitar-chords.com for some guidance. They have any scale you could think of, but the most common in western music are the major scale and the natural minor scale. They also have chords, arpeggios, and other tools that are helpful to guitarists.
The difference between key and scales
In music theory, the key of a song is the group of notes that form the basis of a musical composition.
A scale is basically a set of notes that starts and ends on the same note, and can be represented in multiple keys.
So when we say “C major scale,” that means we’re looking at the major scale in the key of C, which starts and ends on the note C. If you shift the entire pattern up by one note, (one fret on the guitar or one key on the piano, for example) it becomes the C# major scale because that same pattern then starts and ends on the note C#.
There’s a lot more that goes into this, but this is a very basic explanation of how keys and scales work together and should give you something to start with.
A harmony is a simultaneous set of notes that produce a chord. When discussing harmonies, the notes are described in intervals that pretty much count the number of steps in the scale they are away from the note you’re playing.
When someone is talking about the 5th of a note, for example, they’re talking about the note that is 5 steps away from the note they’re referencing. To find the 5th, simply count 5 notes away from the note you’re playing (including the note you’re playing in the counting) within the major scale.
So if you’re playing in C major (with the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), and you’re playing the note D, the 5th of that note is A.
Simple, right? You can use this info to help guide your vocal melodies or instrumental writing. Every layer of a song should have notes that together make up a chord. A good rule of thumb is to land on the root (main note of a chord), 3rd, or 5th of the main chord with your lead guitar parts or vocal melodies.
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