Ideas for writing songs
Question by James
(clearwater fl. usa)
I've been playing a long time, and in spite of that I still have problems comming up with something worth-while beyond just 2, or 3 chord progressions. (1st-4th-5th). I want to expand beyond the common every day pattern. I study mozart, vivaldi, beethoven, and paganini, but still I don't see any real advancement. I've even began to develope a two-handed technique, like playing my 7-string like a piano fretboard; bass-left hand, and lead right hand, together, but nothing yet. So any ideas of what's needed is greatly welcomed.
My first piece of advice is simply to keep at it. Follow your fingers for a while and you'll find passages jump out at you which could be used in a song. Note any interesting ideas down, or even better - record them.
I know it's easier said than done, but try to hear ideas in your head first, then reproduce them on the fretboard as authentically as possible.
Personally, I found jazz far more inspiring than classical music for moving beyond common, every day progressions. If you don't already, listen to as much jazz as you can stomach because there are some wonderful uses of harmony, key change and unusual chord movements to discover in jazz that you simply won't find in the more "natural" dynamics of classical music.
Firstly, I would study variations of cadence. This is how a progression resolves. Whilst in diatonic theory, the standard major key cadences tend to be:
IV V I
ii V I
V IV I
There are some interesting alternatives that will give your progressions a fresh sound, such as the backdoor cadence:
iv bVII I (the iv and bVII tend to be 7th chords)
Or the ♭VII-V cadence...
bVII V I (again, the bVII and V tend to be 7ths)
Make sure you also spend time experimenting with modifying chords within the basic diatonic chord scale.
For example, instead of a major IV, try a minor iv or a IVm6 (a minor iv chord with added 6th).
Instead of a minor iii chord, try a major III and learn how this naturally works with phrygian dominant as a mode of harmonic minor (it's all in the scales section!).
Instead of a standard major IV chord, try using an IVmaj7 or IVmaj9.
Instead of V7, try Vsus.
Try different tonic positions within the scale, modifying the chords and moving them up or down a fret to see if you can create some interesting movements.
Change chords from major to minor to suspended to augmented to diminished. They won't all work, but try it and hear for yourself.
Don't forget to make use of open string chords for more vibrant voicings. For example, try fretting just two or three strings, leaving two open, and see what chords you can create.
Try different types of key change - parallel, relative and modulation.
A lot of this is covered in the chord progressions section.
Also, try chord extensions and inversions and altered bass notes in chords (see my guitar chord theory section).
So there is a lot to get through before you will fully realise your songwriting potential. It all comes together as you delve deeper into music theory, and you'll likely go through countless "Eureka!" moments studying theory before you can rely solely on musical intuition and truly "play what you feel" with confidence.