#1
Hi!

I highly enjoy playing the guitar on my free time, but I lack a singing voice and I'm not in a band. Therefore, it is instrumentals I am most interested in learning. I've learned a few over the years in the genres blues, rock, folk and classical and occasionally played them live.

Lately, I've started to become very interested in composing something myself completely from scratch: an instrumental piece for a single guitar. What I mean is, I don't necessarily want to start out from any of the traditional chord sequences from blues, rock or folk but rather try to find something fairly unique. I imagine my first humble composition will set out from a chord sequence of my own construction and then embellished from there. Perhaps a chord-floating-into-melody-and-back kind of deal, along the lines of "Little Wing" or "Under The Bridge"?

I am very confused over how to get started. I guess what I'm most insecure about is how to find a good chord sequence for the song, which I guess is typically square one in the composition process? After that, I can imagine embellishing away by modifying chords, adding coloring, changing voicings, breaking chords apart, making a melody crystallize and so on, but it is my insecurities about how to come up with the underlying chord sequence which really holds me back.

Here is some kind of attempt to express what I'm wondering:
1. Is it a good/common starting point to just try around with simple majors and minors as a first attempt to establish some kind of first draft, and then move on to changing some of the chords into variants such as sus:es, 6ths and so on? Or might that be a dead end?
2. Is it wise to just start completely from scratch? As I understand it, chord sequences that "work" as a basis for songs could be of just about any nature, but perhaps there are some typical standard approaches and general pointers as to how to structure them, some universal truths about what "works"?
3. Sometimes when studying chords for existing songs (something I know I don't do enough) I find myself wondering "why that chord there, on what basis did the artist decide on that one in particular?", "why does it sound good?". This usually happens in situations when I see a really strange chord somewhere. I'm just confused, where does a decision to use an obscure chord come from? A calculated choice from an extensive mental library of chords or just a random experiment that just seems to work out?

Sorry for the messiness of the above, but I'd greatly appreciate input and tips from anyone with some experience in composing their own songs. Answers referring to any of the specific questions above or just general suggestions, tips for books or websites or accounts of your own strategies in composing songs and creating chord sequences are very welcome. Thanks!

/Andreas
#2
I will give you a detailed answer tomorrow (getting late). But at least this little ditty:

A song is a piece of music where a vocal melody is the primary focus; the music is sang, hence the term "song."

Instrumental music, music that does not contain a voice or vocal-esque treatments, come in many different forms, but can be referred to generically as "pieces" or "works"...or instrumentals. A piece of music that has a vocal like melody without actual vocals is a "tune".

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#3
I don't really understand the necessity of distinguishing between "tunes" and "works" but it's not relevant to my point anyway

An instrumental is simply a song where an instrument provides the melody line instead of a voice. Therefore the writing procedure is exactly the same regardless of which piece to write, with the exception that melodies on instruments can tend to be more complex in terms of speed, as they are able to do certain things that the average voice cannot.

If you are looking for chords that work together, I'd recommend looking into major and minor scales, and how they harmonise and relate to keys, and if you have this down you'll have a template of chords and extensions that often go with eachother within a key.

Another way is to simply learn more songs. If all you've played so far are what are referred to as I IV V progressions (eg. G C D in the key of G), then you should broaden your musical horizons. There are far, far more chord progressions than that. Under the Bridge for example also uses an extremely common chord progression in the verses, which is shared with countless other songs.
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#4
Quote by AlanHB
I don't really understand the necessity of distinguishing between "tunes" and "works" but it's not relevant to my point anyway
Well, you can hum the melody to a tune but not necessarily to just any work, many of which are not singable because the melody is too rhythmically active or there isn't a definable melody.

An instrumental is simply a song where an instrument provides the melody line instead of a voice. Therefore the writing procedure is exactly the same regardless of which piece to write, with the exception that melodies on instruments can tend to be more complex in terms of speed, as they are able to do certain things that the average voice cannot.
In the grand scheme of things, instrumental music is not limited to mimicking the voice. It has more textural possibilities that should be taken advantage of.

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#5
Quote by Xiaoxi
Well, you can hum the melody to a tune but not necessarily to just any work, many of which are not singable because the melody is too rhythmically active or there isn't a definable melody.

In the grand scheme of things, instrumental music is not limited to mimicking the voice. It has more textural possibilities that should be taken advantage of.


Oh I'd be hard pressed to point out a song that completely lacks a melody, but maybe you can? I'm talking about more than just chord progressions alone
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#6
Quote by AlanHB
Oh I'd be hard pressed to point out a song that completely lacks a melody, but maybe you can? I'm talking about more than just chord progressions alone

Well a song inherently has a singable melody. But just any piece does not:

no melody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfBVYhyXU8o

too rhythmically active: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YvnW_lMNTM

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#7
Quote by Xiaoxi
Well a song inherently has a singable melody. But just any piece does not:

no melody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfBVYhyXU8o


Are you sure about that mate? I'm pretty sure I can hear a definable motif to the song, one that could be hummed if you wish to.

Quote by Xiaoxi


Still has a melody.

Is there a practice of attaching a certain term to a melody that can't be sung? Seems a bit strange to me.
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#8
There are plenty of people who have written great songs without possessing a "great singing voice". Bob Dylan comes immediately to mind.

Don't put restrictions on yourself, since, you're going to need to hear and sing the melody anyway in order to write an instrumental, you might as well go for it all. You might also find that doing so will develop your voice and bring out the music you have inside. Your voice isn't a microphone, it's an instrument that can be learned and developed just as much as any external instrument.

I've never bought it when people tell me they can't carry a tune or don't possess a good singing voice. One just has to get over the emotional barriers that you've constructed. Your voice will emerge, and you will be writing all the music you want - both instrumental and vocal.

Happy hunting!
#9
(I made an error in my previous post in the discussion about scales below, so I deleted the last post. It should now be correct)

After reading your discussion, I think I can better explain what kind of composition I'm aiming for. Actually, Stevie Ray Vaughans instrumental version of Little Wing is exactly the kind: a piece suitable for one single guitar, based on an underlying chord sequence with a lot of "improvisation-like" embellishments. I think it's fair to say that SRV:s version of Little Wing isn't very "hummable". It is more like an extended guitar solo, but not a sequence of single notes: it is quite chord-heavy and therefore, I think, self-sustaining (even though he is backed by his rhythm section in the recording).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAG-kX_IlUw

My insecurities however, as I've mentioned, are mostly about finding the basic chord sequence for the song, after that, I imagine I'll be more or less ok. Therefore I'd like to put it this way: When Hendrix first came up with the chord sequence, which goes something like this:
Em | G | Am | Em | Bm | Am | G F | C D |
how do you think the process was?
As I understand it, the song is in E minor (although it is later transposed down to Eb by both Hendrix and SRV: it is played on a guitar tuned down 1/2 step). That scale contains the notes E, F#, G, A, B, C, D (EDIT: is this right? I've always been confused about the different types of minor scales. This is the "descending melodic minor" scale, which contains the pentatonic minor scale as a subset, and is the one I've always used)
The first chord coincides with the root note of the scale, which I guess is unavoidable, and all other chords in the chord progression are represented by notes in the scale, except for the F chord! What is the explanation for why that chord is thrown in, why it works?
The note is neither in the E major scale, the B minor scale (the scale corresponding to the fifth of the original scale), both of which scales I've read that it is "ok" to pick chords.

Thankful for any clarifications!
Last edited by andreasdr at May 18, 2011,
#10
I think you are over thinking it.

Start simple, with basic chords. Learn by doing for a while, before getting into the deeper meanings and variants that you discussed. If you can't write a basic instrumental, the advanced chordal ideas are not going to be any easier. What I'm saying is this is a process, you can't skip to graduation day on day one, and in your examples cited, those were way above basic.

You have to grow through the process of idea, application, evaluation (what you learned from it) and continue developing that way. You cannot shorthand it.

Your Em is the right scale, but just call it E minor or E natural minor, since that is what it is. Don't look so hard into what others did and why, look at what you want to do and why and then, do the work. I don't know what you know or don't, theory-wise, but work what what you have.

Keep it simple and make it your goal to create something meaningful no matter what progression it's over, and make that your benchmark.

Best,

Sean
Last edited by Sean0913 at May 18, 2011,
#11
Sean0913: I think you're right that I shouldn't overthink it right away and that I shouldn't avoid trying around with some simple stuff at first, appropriate for my basic level of understanding of music theory. I'm greatly interested in continuing to learn about music theory on an increasingly advanced level, however, and want to eventually get to the bottom of everything that currently confuses me .

"Natural minor", that's it, thanks! When I looked up the scale it was at www.all-guitar-chords.com and I didn't realize that the "Natural (Pure) Minor" was way down in the list. That's why I thought I had to settle for "Melodic Minor (descending)", which contains the same notes. I guess there is some kind of explanation for that name but I'm glad I don't have to worry about it.

Iphummingbird: Actually, I have considered singing live. I don't know if I'll ever get there but I don't consider the door to be forever closed. I would be interested in writing one-guitar instrumentals even if my voice was great, however!

I'd still be thankful for an explanation as to why the F chord works with the E minor scale .
Last edited by andreasdr at May 18, 2011,
#12
Quote by andreasdr
Sean0913: I think you're right that I shouldn't overthink it right away and that I shouldn't avoid trying around with some simple stuff at first, appropriate for my basic level of understanding of music theory. I'm greatly interested in continuing to learn about music theory on an increasingly advanced level, however, and want to eventually get to the bottom of everything that currently confuses me .

"Natural minor", that's it, thanks! When I looked up the scale it was at www.all-guitar-chords.com and I didn't realize that the "Natural (Pure) Minor" was way down in the list. That's why I thought I had to settle for "Melodic Minor (descending)", which contains the same notes. I guess there is some kind of explanation for that name but I'm glad I don't have to worry about it.

Iphummingbird: Actually, I have considered singing live. I don't know if I'll ever get there but I don't consider the door to be forever closed.

I'd still be thankful for an explanation as to why the F chord works with the E minor scale .


How much of the theory that you've "learned" are you currently applying/can you currently apply?

The most obvious place I'd use Em to Fmaj7 is in an E Phrygian vamp - F is not diatonic to Em. F#o would be.

It really depends upon your tonal center. If I saw this, I'd expect G to be the tonal center, and that I'd be playing in G Major , Em would be my vi and F would be functioning as a basic bVII chord. But If Em is your actual tonal center...

Sean
Last edited by Sean0913 at May 18, 2011,
#13
Hmm, I'm sure Little Wing is in E minor and that the chords of G Major therefore can't be used.

Well, all I know right now is the basic method of choosing chords to a scale (something I wasn't entirely clear on when I posted my first post), namely based on triads constructed from only notes in the scale, so that in the case of a major scale the sequence of "usable" chords in order of the notes of the scale is maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, dim. Of course, one can get far armed with only this knowledge!

I'm very interested in learning about other ways, other "rules" of choosing chords to scales, however. Anything anyone can tell me about that, or any theory reference explaining something about that that someone can point me to would be greatly appreciated!
#14
The most simplified explaining way is : a piece without vocals but with some instruments "soloing".
The instruments actually are the vocals of the song.
#15
Quote by andreasdr
Hmm, I'm sure Little Wing is in E minor and that the chords of G Major therefore can't be used.

Wat? E minor and G major are relative to each other. They have the same notes and the same chords, just a different tonal center.

I suggest reviewing the major scale and how to harmonize it, as well as how the minor scale relates to it.
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#16
Quote by rockingamer2
Wat? E minor and G major are relative to each other. They have the same notes and the same chords, just a different tonal center.

I suggest reviewing the major scale and how to harmonize it, as well as how the minor scale relates to it.


You're right, they have the same notes and the same chords, I just mean that since the root note is effectively E in the composition, that sets the mood and makes the song minor-sounding. As I see it, there's no need to mention the scale G Major when describing the nature of the song.
#17
Quote by andreasdr
You're right, they have the same notes and the same chords, I just mean that since the root note is effectively E in the composition, that sets the mood and makes the song minor-sounding. As I see it, there's no need to mention the scale G Major when describing the nature of the song.


Well sure, but the chords derived from both scales are the same. Additionally you can use the chords derived from any other scale you choose in a song in one key. It doesn't change where the song would resolve to. Consider that Little Wing itself has an Fadd9 chord, which isn't derived from E minor
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#18
He didn't catch the ii I Modulation to G Major, that's all. It's a Key change that took effect off the Am to the G, however since the D doesn't occur till the end, it's not immediately clear that it was a key change, as it may have had it been a ii V and thrown in the D right after. It did a ii I. The F then functions as a bVII like I said.

Sean
#19
Quote by Sean0913
He didn't catch the ii I Modulation to G Major, that's all.


I had my suspicions - in that case the F is derived from the parallel minor.
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#21
Obviously, this discussion is a bit out of my league, but this is the way I understand it: at the point where the Fmaj chord appears (perhaps with some coloring: add9 was mentioned), there is some kind of temporary key change (modulation) to the relative key of E minor: G major. The Fmaj is then constructed from the VII note of that scale, F#, but lowered by a semitone, and this is denoted by bVII. This triad is then "F#b"AC = FAC, which is a major chord.
Is this anywhere close to what you mean Sean?
Also, this procedure of using the bVII chord of the major scale, is that a common approach?
#22
No, not really. The Am effected the key change to G. For the answer to your other question, yes it's common, but you would want to look into Modal Interchange or Parallel Minor chords. I don't want to go too much into them, as I'm not sure what you have a handle on at this point. Its better to be solid on the diatonic side of things first. Which, you may be, I don't know...if you feel you are then start looking into the topics I referred to above, and also Modulation.

Good luck, you're on the right track.

Best,

Sean
#23
I like to work out voice leading exercises for guitar.

This comes from my jazz musings but it's particularly fun when applied to a popular tune -- like what Coltrane did with "My Favorite Things" .. in fact a lot of the jazz cats got into playing over show tunes, tin pan alley tunes ... because people knew the melody. Eventually a lot of the songs became standards in the jazz repertoire -- c'mon who hasn't done a version of "All the Things You Are"

In any case, start out by learning how chords are built (R 3 5 major, R b3 5 minor, R 3 5 b7 dominant 7, etc) and learning the fretboard well so that you can work out different places to play a chord and it's inversions (like how Hendrix would often use a major chord form and slide the bass note up to the 3rd and noodle around with some scale tones/extensions while still holding the basic chord).

Start with something simple like Em - Am - Dm - G7 - CMaj7 and find a bunch of different places to play the notes E G B on the neck to get some ideas on how to start that progression off, then find a bunch of places to play A C and E on the neck .. work out some interesting way to play the first two chords, vary it.

To hear amazing voice leading, check out one of Hendrix's fave guitarists, Barney Kessel

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAsEfhU2Ehg

That sounds NOTHING like Purple Haze .... but he is doing voice leading and mixing rhythm and lead lines -- something Hendrix emulated. (it's also the other most common jazz standard!!)
#24
Quote by Xiaoxi
Well a song inherently has a singable melody. But just any piece does not:

no melody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfBVYhyXU8o

too rhythmically active: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YvnW_lMNTM



Haaaaa!

I was thinking "Penderecki" before I clicked that link

Can one sing Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes?? I'd be impressed!!