Writing For Human Consumption

Musicians often get personally excited by exotic musical ideas, but do these ideas sound good?

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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?

Lyrical Themes

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.

Melodic Themes

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.

Repetition

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*

Exactly.

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.

Conclusion

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.

74 comments sorted by best / new / date

    ukdudeinuk
    That was a fair amount of pwnage. I would disagree in the classical stuff not being well liked...its just not POPULAR, but whatever otherwise it pwns.
    the_man101
    when you said that you were good at writing and you can make a reasonalbe argument or sound like and expert with little reasearch, i can see why, because it sounded like it here, lol, very good, worth reading
    Mikeoman
    You know whats good? Writing about just about anything you can think of. A dream where you get lost on the highway in mid-prairie with some guy you hate or something. Thats good. Something about the work day or that your girlfriend doesn't give a **** about hockey or something... anything you can think of. Good article. I agree with... well, the whole thing. don't need a deitailed response here.
    thefinalcut
    I like the idea of a balance between the repetition and improv, and how too much of either is boring to most listeners. He's right about writing about yourself, it usually is better but fantasy songs are good too. People usually disagree with songwriting articles, they always think the writer's telling them what o do....it just a suggesttion. That saidm the failure of "20th Century" music stuff, is complete bollocks.
    AestheticGuitar
    eh, kinda lame, if you're writing what's real, then why should you worry about "human consumption" in the first place. Writing "what's real" would be writing for YOU and only YOU. Am I right?
    stringmagician
    Noterunner wrote: Music is a personal experience. It actually happens in your head not in the real world. If humans did not exist on planet earth,would there be music? No, it would just be sound. Music is all around, birds, water, wind,cars, or droping a fork on the ground. It's all music.
    what? haha Anyway, great work bubonic, this really helped me look into writing my music. I'll remember the things you said in this, and apply them to my own work. This was excelent man.
    voodoochild175
    Is it just me or werent the Beatles the first muscians to use the pentatonic scale in Western Music in about 100 years???? any ways...not a bad article even if modesty isnt your strong point.
    ~AdNy
    wow great article. it makes sense, has different ideas, and leaves room for thought. very well written. i lived the repitition part, i now notice why a lot of jazz and latin music is very soothign to me. the steady bogo beats on top of sizzling Santana riffs are a really great combo.
    scousertommy
    Good article, Bubonic. You know you almost make it sound like Tolkien GOT his ideas from Lewis in some way, when in fact it was Tolkien's "christian" influence which eventually convinced Lewis of the existance of God. But yeah, point well made, Tolkien's ideas were re-hashes, but moreso of Norse mythology than christian stuff. Good article, I have to agree with you about the lyrics being somewhat 'grounded' or realistic. Take Megadeth for example; out of all the thrash/heavy metal bands of the era, Megadeth's lyrics are consistently far, far better than any other. This is because Mustaine wrote heavily about personal shit (aside from the political/nuclear war stuff). Good work, Bubonic. Yay for college education
    scramjam
    I have to agree with Bubonic when it comes to writing about what you feel. I was trying to write a song, but I was intent on writing something silly and fun. However, I was having a really crappy week and was hating everything. The result was well... a piece of crap. I ended up tossing that song and started completely new. I ended up with an EXTREMELY bitter song about life which (in words anyway) sounded a lot better than my previous attempt. So I dunno, he's right. You write what you feel and it's just more... real.
    The Alchemist
    Great article bro, it makes all kinds of sense, especially the part repetition-change fusion. That explains why the sound of skating is so soothing and exciting to me cuz the sound of the weels turning is naturaly repetitive, but it also changes w/ each new bump & dip u hit in the road. Ur article really made me think (can ya tell, lol). "Zamboni" was right, u are a god bubonic (love the name by the way)! cant wait to see ur next article descend from the clouds!=)
    master travis
    i just write about whatever i think will create the most outrage and piss off the most people.Incest and abortion are favorite subjects of mine.
    Kal10
    oy, one thing mate, rockin article... perhaps viewed a bit from a stoner's point of view, but then again, they usually have good ideas... now, on to the good stuff: my personal opinion of the demons rising from hell and the dead babies, or the love song, no music is complete trash (rap aint complete trash... but not far from it) the point is, all music in itself is art... however, it is disputable which artforms are better... picasso versus the lad who stacks coke cans... however, one must not forget that certain art, though great, is overused (the creation of adam for example) now, there is relevance... each individual player/band/song writter must find his/her own style and allow it to explode in all its potential... no matter what you right (to quote the author) write from the heart... no one cares how majestic it is, just as long as it has meaning to you... this article, like most, is perhaps biased, and as such, demonstrates the author's personal taste... once again, there is nothing wrong with demons as long as it has significance to you... the best bands are the ones that define their sound, but arent afraid to walk the line, push their creative limits to the end , and show everyone what they are made of... repetition is good, any one will tell you, but dont put us to sleep... just let it rip when u have to... once again, cheers on a job well done mate (by the way, laughed my ass off)
    Hobodeter
    For those of you that may be confused the 20th Century Music he was talking about in the beginning of the article was 12 Tone music. Basically it uses every note in the Chromatic scale in a set order, but with any rythem or octave desired. Bach is not 20th Century music, and neither is classical music. IT IS MODERN MUSIC, and by modern I mean beginning of 20th century to the present.
    trivium_rule_11
    Thomas44 u think he is up himself? by the way u are talking about it u r so far up ur on ass that u have turned inside out.
    thomas44 wrote: ive just read note runners comment as well and he thinks a lot himself aswell, theres a lot of people on this site that have vanished up their own arses these days
    NevermorePsalm
    It is a great article, but your theory is applying to a mainstreem audience. (good or bad?) Some people love everchanging music. I do personally, it's thrilling, it keep me excited. The Mars Volta often go off into this everchanging mass of sound that turn most people off, but then again, I love it. But you are right on one thing, they return to the tonal center. Look at the latest album, it ends in the same way as it starts Good article, I loved it, but it is a possibly biased peice of literature.
    doctah-dre
    boobonic chronic: "I'm college educated. That counts for something (I can spell, for instance.)" boobonic chronic once again: "No these are no my ideas" the comedic gensui of that alone is priceless. now how about the rest of that article...
    SumGreenNOFX182
    goth_kid7666 wrote: great article.....only one problem....."Don't try to write about demons rising from the abyss".....silly boy horror-punk is amazing....lol.....keep up ze good work
    He meant that if you don't feel like writing something the Misfits would write, don't do it.
    IlIk2plygUItAr
    ukdudeinuk wrote: That was a fair amount of pwnage. I would disagree in the classical stuff not being well liked...its just not POPULAR, but whatever otherwise it pwns.
    Not popular would mean not liked... But I like it. Especially Bach. Anyways, nice article.
    voodoochild175 wrote: Is it just me or werent the Beatles the first muscians to use the pentatonic scale in Western Music in about 100 years???? any ways...not a bad article even if modesty isnt your strong point.
    Have you ever heard blues? Are you ****ing retarded?
    goth_kid7666
    great article.....only one problem....."Don't try to write about demons rising from the abyss".....silly boy horror-punk is amazing....lol.....keep up ze good work
    Noterunner
    nottooworiedaboutitBOOBSi 'mcollegeeducatedmyselfin thescien cesbigwoopyourart icleisgoodihavenothingels ebadtosay. I just think that you should understand that you should not say if music is good or bad. That is insulting an artist expression. You should say that it is popular or not. You can give your own personal opinion on music but be carefull or making judgements on art and blanket statments. blahblahcacapoopopeepeeee .
    Burpbelly
    Great article...you seem very philosophical about music as a whole (not that this is a bad thing), but i must say i liked the humour in there aswell. Good stuff
    Bubonic Chronic
    Well you own ideas are almost good. The rest which you are regugitating, that makes sense, is just good vocabulary and ideas that anyone who has read a good music theory book already knows.
    First, all great ideas are borrowed, taken a bit further by each borrower, then lent to someone else. No these are no my ideas, they are my contribution (small though it may be) to the evolution of music, and perhaps society itself. Sounds like a big, egotistical statement, but actually we all contribute. When you walk down the street you contribute. I just know I'm contributing and I'm okay with it. And if this was geared towards those who already know theory I wouldn't have written it. UG is geared (mostly) towards the intermediate player, which includes those who have not taken theory/philosophy courses. It is not by any means advanced. Simply an observation, an editorial, and yes I think quite highly of myself - highly enough to value my ideas as worthy of human consumption. Not so highly as I think I'm better than anyone else, though. I'm just confident. Does that bother you?
    Gman400
    Umm, not popular would mean not liked by a lot of people. It doesn't mean nobody likes it. I love classical though even though I know exactly what some other dude meant when he said he had to push out his aquired taste for it to really listen. That said, it was a good read. Not all that original but some nice analogies and good rhetoric.
    namesR4squares
    Aren't you supposed to comment on the article? Not write one of your own! Great advice by the way.
    Bubonic Chronic
    "...What IS music? I think it is art! The next question... For who is the art? Well it is either for the individual making it or the listener. The listiner may like predictability as it has the function of helping the listener own the music. Now the composer/player/improviser creates. Some people create by themselves start to finish. But, if you are going to play instruments with people you need a common ground, or else the lack of predictability becomes chaos, noise. Noise is anything which the brain does not recognize as a pattern. So yeah make music repetitive but only if you are concerned with those entities outside yourslef." Being "concerned with those entities outside yourself" is not only good marketing, but you will discover that in opening yourself up to other human beings, and ultimately to the species, and to life itself, you truly find yourself - as opposed to holing oneself off in hopes that the mean, nasty world will not poison or distort the precious Self. And no I did not bite off more than I can chew, I'm college educated. That counts for something (I can spell, for instance.)
    altronataku
    What you said about the balance between repitition and progression is absolutely dead-on and crucial to song-writing. The lack of repitition may very well be one of the (if not the only) downfall in classical music. The void of familiarity in the songs fail to hook people's natural instincts. Sometimes when I listen to a classical piece that lacks repitition, I almost have to force out my aquired taste for it to pay attention. However, a good composer like Tschaikovsky knows the importance of repitition and therefore I also enjoy his compositions because they have that punchline, or whatever you want to call it. Great article.
    fudge65315
    dimebag7 wrote: personally, i love lyrics like that, demons and shit, its just my thing, death and decay.
    Exactly his point, its what YOU love, even if noone else even likes it, what matters is that YOU wrote it, its YOUR music/lyrics/whatever
    dimebag7
    personally, i love lyrics like that, demons and shit, its just my thing, death and decay.
    voodoochilli499
    DarthSolo wrote: 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. Personally, I would much rather listen to a song about demons rising from the abyss to kill babies than a song about this guy proposing to his wife. Good lyrics can be, and most often are, completely fictional.
    he was talking about write what is real to you and dont try and write something you dont feel and belive.
    Bubonic Chronic
    "Personally, I would much rather listen to a song about demons rising from the abyss to kill babies than a song about this guy proposing to his wife. Good lyrics can be, and most often are, completely fictional." Most definitely. But I've done the demons and killing babies thing for too long. What is good fiction, though? It is an assemblage of characters and events from your own life, or stories people have told you, using different names, rearranging the main points and adding bits in here or there to make it flow. Take Tolkien, maybe one of the best fiction writers ever...do you think all that Mordor stuff is completely original? No, it's a characterisation of human nature, Christian theology (he was good friends with CS Lewis who many consider a great theologian) and political events, I'm sure. Excellent point, though.
    Wasp
    Some really good stuff, some stuff that I thought strange, but definitely worth reading!