Friday, May 11, 2007

On Songwriting (Part 1) - Unconventional Approaches

We are often asked the question "what is your creative process?" Because of the quantity of songs that we are in the process of writing, recording, and producing, there are many ways we might come up with music and lyrics for our songs. I'll try to share as many of these creative processes here in the Backstage Blog as I can. Hopefully those of you musicians out there who are either stuck in a creative rut or have not yet tried your hand at songwriting can get some ideas and inspiration from our experiences. Leave a comment and hopefully we can get some inspiration from yours!

Today, I'm going to share a unique technique for writing music I learned in a recent songwriting class at The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago - deal yourself a song from a deck of cards. Yes, that's right - randomize it. It's really a great way to get out of a rut and explore new musical ideas. Many songwriters tend to gravitate to a "default" strum pattern and even the same basic chord progressions (G-C-D anyone?). Here is a great way to break out of your comfort zone and explore new ground with chords and rhythmic patterns:


This is a technique for "randomly" generating a rhythm and chord progression and requires a deck of cards:

Divide a 4/4 measure into eighth note beats, giving you 8 "slots" where you can put a chord.

Remove 7 cards from the deck - Ace through 7 (suit doesn't matter) and shuffle these 7 cards: Deal one card. That's the number of "strums" in your pattern. For example, let's say you drew a 4. You will have 4 strums in your measure.

Now, add an 8 to your seven-card hand and reshuffle. Deal a number of cards equal to the number of strums in your pattern. The face value of these cards become the "slots" in your measure where you will put a strum. In our example, you would deal 4 cards because you dealt a 4 in the previous step. Let's say you've just dealt 2, 5, 7, and 8.

Divide a 4/4 measure into 8 parts: "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and". You can also write this "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8". Your strum pattern in this example is "r 2 r r 5 r 7 8" where the r's represent eighth note rests and you strum on the 2, 5, 7, and 8.


Now that you have a rhythm, you need to generate a chord progression. You have your 4 slots where you will put your strums, so you could have just one chord for each strum, you could have a different chord on each strum, or any combination in between, changing the chord somewhere in the measure. So, to randomize this, do the following:

Take 4 cards, Ace through 4, and deal one card. This is the number of different chords in your measure. Let's say you deal a 2. You will have 2 chords in your measure. Now, what chords will those be? Do this:

Take cards Ace through 7 and deal two. These map directly to the diatonic I through VII chords in a scale. If you are not familiar with finding the 7 chords that fit in a single key (the diatonic progression), the following web page has a pretty good explanation. This is something that is good to learn as a songwriter:

Unless you're working in jazz, the VII chord is least likely to fit in this type of scenario, so you might want to leave out the 7 card, unless you're adventurous.

Let's say you dealt a 5 and a 1. You will be playing the V and the I chords in the scale. If you are working in the key of C, this will be G and C (starting with G).

Now, which of your four strums will be which of the two chords? Deal out two cards from a shuffled Ace through 8 set. These become the eighth beats in the measure where you will change chords.

Suppose you dealt a 4 and a 7. You will change chords on those slots in your measure. In our example, you will be playing the following pattern in the key of C (changing chords on or after the 4th slot and again on the 7th slot):

"r G r r C r G G" - "r" denotes a rest.


Now, you have your one-measure pattern. Play through the pattern and see how it feels. From here you may decide to break free from the randomization process and take the song idea wherever you'd like to take it. Or, you can always re-deal a new pattern if it doesn't work for you. You can take this concept further, by using the cards to:

- randomize your key
- randomize a capo position if you're a guitarist
- split a measure into 16th notes and make more complex rhythms
- split two measures into 16 eighth notes and make a two measure pattern (or even more)
- randomize your time signature and do the same for 3/4, 6/8, 5/4, etc.
- randomize a key change

You can also use less of this process - just "deal" yourself a rhythm and choose the chords and changes yourself. Once you have generated a basic pattern, you can take control and shape it however you like, even changing it if you want. After all, it's your song and there are no rules!

I have used this technique once - it generated a pattern that I never would have thought of myself, but sounded good, so I used the one measure pattern for the verse in a song called "It's Raining In December." I wrote the song last December when the weather was horribly rainy - I walk to work every day so when the weather is bad I tend to write a song about it (because lord knows, we need the songs :). I'll tackle the subject of creativity in songs, lyrics, and themes in an upcoming post. Oh yeah, the song "It's Raining In December" hasn't appeared at yet - it will be released later in the year (in December, of course).

Are there any unusual techniques you've used to generate music ideas? Drop a comment and let us know!