I will start off with an example, "20th Century" music. The 12-tone or atonal composition styles popular with composers after the Romantic period are intellectually intriguing; based on harmonic relationships (including family feuds), acoustic interference and complex mathematics. As fascinating as this may sound to some of you, nothing sums up the point of this article quite like the failure of 20th Century music. What I mean by "failure" is nobody likes this stuff - generally speaking.
Now that we are fairly far into the 21st century, looking back on the century past the term "20th Century Music" has a different meaning for us. What's the first thing that comes to mind? The Beatles? Dylan? Possibly Freebird in all of its delicious glory? One thing is for sure, we generally don't think about compositions arising from spilling coffee on the floor and basing the rhythmic structure on the arrangment of droplets...we think of rock and roll for the most part. Some of us think of Jazz or Blues, but the common thread in all of these styles is listenability. A successful composition must sound good. DUH!!
So how do you write music that sounds good?
Find A Theme
Good music is no different than good reading, there is substance to it. This substance could be a simple melody - Ode To Joy from Beethoven's 9th is a perfect example - it could be a philosophical concept as in John Lennon's "Imagine", or it could be a face melting guitar solo such as the extended climax to Skynyrd's "Freebird." Whatever the case, good writing generally has a purpose.
I have always had a talent for writing - words, not music (unfortunately.) This means that I can pump out copy (written text) on virtually any subject and sound convincing and informed, even pass myself off as an expert in some cases and with very little research or preparation. At first this was quite an asset. I'd have that 8-page paper on the Napoleonic Wars due tomorrow morning at 8 o'clock and - WHOOPS! - I had spent the last two weeks trying to beat that sixth level of...whatever. So it's 11pm and I have 9 hours to write something.
Generally I got an "A."
In school I prided myself of being able to BS the teacher with some kind of half-assed thing I forced out at the last minute, and I'd laugh about it as I brought "A" after "A" home to my parents, never realizing the damage I was doing to myself.
You can BS a teacher, but you are also BSing yourself.
Songwriters go through this, too. When one becomes highly adept at songwriting, it's easy to write...something, regardless of whether you actually have something to say or not. When a band releases that long-awaited album that disappoints all the fans to the surprise of all the record producers, this is what has happened. There is a contract, a deadline, a paper due at 8 o'clock and a total lack of interest or real, concrete ideas among the members of the band. So they do what they do best and write a bunch of...stuff, and the record company tries to sell it.
But is that music?
Music has a theme, and there are many ways to develop a theme. The best way I've found is to draw from your own life. My most recent composition, "Wash Away the Waves" is about the day I decided to ask my wife to marry me. Ten years ago I would never have written that song. Why? It's not METAL enough. It's not masculine enough. It's a lo...lov...luh...love song!
But if you're in love, write a love song. Don't try to write about demons rising from the abyss or how angry you want your listener to think you are about the government - write what is real.
As for melodies, the best way I've found to write melodies is to play them. Sometimes just improvising will yield some good ideas, but there is a disadvantage here - you tend to rehash the same ideas again and again, and eventually you will run the well dry using this method alone. One thing I discovered recently is slowing the process down. It's the same process, only I take the time to write down every note. I'll play a phrase, write it down. Play another phrase, write it down, play a third phrase and write it down. Then I play the whole thing and see what I think.
First phrase is good, second phrase is meh, third phrase is smoking. Okay, lose phrase two and write something else...
This is what I call "Melodic Evolution."
Evolution And Music
Doing something different is good as it can take your music in a new direction, breath new life into your tired fingers. But consider what happens to variants in nature - most of them die. These two-headed mutants and albino frogs tend not to have a chance at survival in the harsh world of the swamp. Some ideas are like the shark - a creature which is virtually identical today as it was 150 million years ago. A masterpiece of evolution, the shark does what it does very well, and no change is necessary.
So what is shark-like in the world of music? What has gone unchanged for countless centuries, crossed oceans and become a part of practically every living human population on the planet? The pentatonic scale, of course!
I love the pentatonic scale. Sure you can play the blues, and you can rip through Guns 'n Roses and, yes, Freebird using this simple scale almost exclusively, but it is a crafty devil much like the shark. It will not be limited by our cultural concepts and preconcieved notions!
Pentatonic scales can sound Chinese, Vietnamese, Native American or European. You can write Chant this way, on up to the latest hottest music from today's biggest stars. What is so great about the pentatonic scale? It has survived the melee of Baroque, Classical and Romantic. It has lasted through the revolutions of R&B, Rock and Metal. It has been a part of music forever, and it probably always will be.
So consider this: let your melodies evolve and never be afraid to try new things, but allow yourself to be like a shark. Find a way to make the same old scales, chords and notes work in a thousand styles. Consider simplicity, for as instrument players we are far too adept at playing and writing to see that our writing must have a purpose.
The true art of music writing is redefining music itself. There is nothing wrong with trying new things, and certainly this is a tool we should all have at our disposal. After all, the shark evolved from something else. Something that doesn't exist anymore. It was an improvement, a variant at some point in time. A strange creature appeared in the ocean, and like its millions of counterparts had a viciously miniscule chance of surviving. But it did.
So my advice in writing your next composition? Stick with what works, but don't be afraid to change it. It is much more likely that you'll come up with that legendary riff or vocal line by starting with some simple idea, like a pentatonic lick or a major scale, and changing it up just slightly. Music is like nature, success stems from the development of ideas. Very rarely does a complete reinvention of the entire process yield anything but goo.
We are born groovers. It has been shown time and again that a recording of a beating heart, the repetetive thump and low frequency hum of tires on the highway, or any pleasant, repetetive noise can stop a baby crying. We are literally surrounded by repetetive sound from conception, and indeed the very act that leads to conception, sex, is repetetive, too. There is a rhythm to it, and if the rhythm is right - well, you get the idea.
We are all here because of good rhythm. Solid timing is the key to our existence, so why would we ever think it would not be a crucial element in successful music writing?
As a lead guitar player, I tend to jump around a lot. One idea leads into another idea into another idea and another and another, and this is all well and good for a while, but when I listen to sessions of improv in my car (a good way to review your recordings and critique your writing process, by the way) I find that this kind of playing is incredibly boring. And what's so boring about it? There is no repetition.
Music has two essential elements, like water. (Bang a gong if you like...GONG) There is repetition, that soothing groove that reminds us of our mother's womb, that takes us back to those family vacations through the mountains, sucking our thumbs in the back seat of the station wagon, and there is change. Our inner child likes repetition, and repetition brings comfort. But the adult, the creative, competetive person inside us wants things to CHANGE!!
Thus music is a part of the essential battle inside us all. It's the battle fought every day between work and family, relaxation and exercise, and just as in life we must find a balance.
Music that is too repetitive is boring. It literally puts us to sleep. Remember the effect of a recorded heartbeat on the little babies? *snore*
But music that changes too often is boring, too. It's chaotic, and hard for us to pay attention to.
What we need to do is write music that is both repetetive and ever-changing. It must reflect the conflict between the inner child and the adventurer, between thumb-sucking and climbing Mount Everest, for we all share those same essential desires.
So the groove is meant to lull us into hypnosis, and the melodic, vocal and percussive changes are meant to take us on a journey. The best music is a happy marriage of both. It's a hypnotic, relaxing, exhillerating adventure. The same is true of books, movies, and indeed our human relationships.
Every song must end. Regardless of whatever theories we may have about harmonic structure, rhythmic syncopation or anything, we must always find a way to conclude. Traditionally, songs have ended with a Cadence, and the simplest way of explaining cadence is "a return to the tonal center to resolve any remaining tension before the dramatic silence and, of course, thunderous applause."
You can find theoretical information elsewhere regarding numbered chords, partial cadence, plagal cadence and so on, but regardless of what you read, you will always find that traditional music resolves somehow. It leaves the listener with that "Ahhhh!" feeling.
Today we understand that there are other ways to leave the listener; abrupt silence mid-measure, crashing chaos, a gentle fade, but ultimately we must leave them as I must leave you. Whatever you choose, make sure it fits the theme of the song, and make it a part of the overall "message" of what you're saying. Don't cadence just because you have to. If your song is about the death of a loved one in a fatal car accident, perhaps a crash of cymbals is best.
Or you can take a page from the Who and destroy everything. Punk rockers have made great use of that technique.
But I will leave you in the traditional manner, with simple words of wisdom you can live by: write from your heart.