Composing In Open Tunings

Here I will point out where you could use concepts of music theory to your advantage.

Ultimate Guitar
Writing your own music is not as difficult as you think. As with most things, it requires some discipline and forethought. It is definitely easier to play your own songs than it is to play songs you've learned from books or friends because while creating the song you improvise on your own skill level. You may also think that to write your own music you need to know all kinds of music theory. But music theory, while essential for understanding musical construction, isn't really required for creating music. Music theory puts a logical structure on music which allows us to analyze and categorize it, but by its very definition, it can actually hinder the creative process. Its a left brain function (verbal/analytical side of the mind) and the creative process is a right brain function (spatial/holistic/artistic side of the mind). If you go into the creative process without an analytical mind set, you are free to find a musical expression "outside the box"; ideas you may not have discovered otherwise. Now that isn't to say that music theory isn't is. In fact, the more theory you know, the better, but the more you can free your mind of it while creating, the better....just don't use to do it :) I will point out below were you could use it to your advantage. So let's give it a try. As we go through the steps, I'll provide an example to help illustrate each concept. 01. First we need to decide what tuning to create in. Standard tuning can be a good starting point, but since this is an Open Tuning tutorial, I propose you try something in an Open Tuning, like DADF#AD. For one thing, I think you'll find it easier to explore new musical ideas in an Open Tuning. One reason for this is that open tunings are optimized for a particular key and the music can resolve itself to open strings in that key. Writing music in standard tuning usually requires that you fret every note and open strings are generally used sparingly. This usually means you need to think more about the key you are in and where you want to take the music; that music theory thing again. In Open Tunings, the opposite is frequently the case, and in fact, the open strings can offer some surprisingly refreshing sounds. 02. Most (if not all) songs are built from sub-parts. Step two is to build these parts. This is were your creativity comes in. Explore the new tuning. Some of your old fingerings may work, but will sound very different. See if you can "discover" five or six chords that you can use as basic material; but try not to restrict yourself too much with this. Use these chords to improvise from. Let your ears be your guide. If it sounds good to you, go with it. The goal is to find two themes of about two or three measures in length that are different but have something in common in terms of atmosphere. We'll call them A and B. 03. So far so good. You can now use A and B as building blocks for your song. To create something that keeps the listener on his toes, you will need to expand these themes. Again, start improvising and create two or three variations on these themes. The variations can be very small, a note added here, an inverted form of a chord, a rhythmic variation, a transposed form, whatever sounds o.k. Try slides, pull-offs and hammer-ons and see whether they add something. Approach one of the central notes in your theme in a different way. Do the same with Theme B until you end up with two or three variations of A (A1,A2,A3) and two or three variations of B (B1, B2, B3). Now pick the theme that has the potential to serve as an intro. 04. Setting the structure. The structure of a song is very important; it determines its emotional impact. One form that works very well is A1-A2-B1-A1-B2-A3. Again the form you select will depend on the material you have. The last part should have enough power to make a convincing statement. In some cases the last will be derived from A in others from B. You may need to experiment with different forms before finalizing your structure. Some of the themes will fit together effortlessly, others may need some bridge notes to make them fit. Another way to improve the result is to watch for tension and release moments in your themes. If these moments are lacking, you may have to adjust some of your themes to create more contrast and more of a question and answer feeling. 05. Capture or memorize what you end up with. If your song has the right length, you are ready to finalize it. If not, expand the structure to stretch it. One way to do this is to repeat the first section once: (A1-A2-B1-A1) repeat B2-A3. If you don't already have one, you should seriously consider getting yourself an inexpensive Tab software package like Guitar Pro or TablEdit and capture what you've settled on. For one thing, you'll find that it's easier if you don't have to keep the whole thing in your head. It's not at all uncommon to come up with a theme during one session, and find another theme to go with it a week or a month later. I frequently combine themes that were "discovered" months apart. Before computers and TAB software, I couldn't begin to tell you how much original work I forgot because I didn't take the time to write it down. Having it on paper and tweaking a section here and there is considerably easier if you can just call it up on the screen and make the adjustments to what you had. Once its on paper or on disk (with backups!), you can store it away and not worry about forgetting it. Open Tunings is whole new frontier that will give you an almost unlimited palette to draw from in your creative exploration of fingerstyle guitar. I hope you've found this process useful and I would be interested to hear what you come up with. Good Luck!

30 comments sorted by best / new / date

    nice article, i'd thought about using open tunings.... you theived my thoughts :o
    Yeah, I tend to disagree that theory will hinder you. If you do end up learning it and feel that it hinders you in anyway, you can chose to ignore whatever it is that bothers you. It is music THEORY, not music LAW. However, there WILL be things you learn ( I guarantee ) that will be useful to you and compliment your playing and you can use those as much as you'd like, being your own knowledge is free game. Also, music theory is as much a launguage as it is a set of guidelines and learning music theory will better enable you to communicate with the "theory stiffs" that you loathe so much. That way, if for some ungodly (but more often than not common) reason you find yourself in a musical situation where you are forced to play with the "theory stiffs" you can communicate in their quaint and obtuse launguage so that your dealings with them can be all the more swift and smoothe! :-d
    this is a piece of crap..we dont need no theory you idiot!!song came from the heart!!wipeass
    this was a crap article i thought i was going to find aome interesting ways to use open tuning but i only got some shit about theory being gay and how to make a simple song structure man this article could be renamed to composing in standard tunings and it would still be relevant theory is good as it enables you to have some guidelines as to how you can play certain things if you just hit random notes or chords some people will think your good but real muscians will have no respect for you, on that note you only need basic theory knowledge to increase song possiblities endlessly
    theory....? CAN BE USEFULL AND CAN ALSO BE HARMFULL IT DEPENDS ON YOUR CREATIVITY AND THE WAY YOUR MIND WORKS but i rather just play with having to think about it but thats just me
    About the whole theory thing. I think you have to find a balance when writing music. Because if all your making is logical theory then it's boring, and theres not heart behind the music, but if you don't use ANY theory, your music will sound like crap. You have to find that nice medium.
    I've been playing for years -I'm not bad at it- and I know almost none theory. However, if you tell me "allright i wanna play, what sould i do, by myself or take lessons" i will definitely tell you to take lessons. I didn't take them so i'm sort of proud of making my own way but... theory helps a lot and definitely does not cut your wings when you compose. It's been almost ten years since I started, I've been in two bands, I've written hundreds of songs..... and I'm starting lessons on June.
    I tend to disagree with that. Where you've got some good players who know theory, most of the people that play from the soul (Clapton, Hendrix, King) knew no theory. While theory will help in most cases, some guitarists wouldn't be able to apply it to their playing, and thus it may become a problem, much like in open tunings.
    i disagree to that, they did know the key it was in, and that is theory in itself, tool
    Spydr wrote: Theory will improve your playing and won't hurt your creativity. You have to know the rules to break them, if you list the best guitars players they probably all know theory, the ones who play power cords all day know none.
    I tend to disagree with that. Where you've got some good players who know theory, most of the people that play from the soul (Clapton, Hendrix, King) knew no theory. While theory will help in most cases, some guitarists wouldn't be able to apply it to their playing, and thus it may become a problem, much like in open tunings.
    Can you become a good player without naturally picking up theory on the way? Does it depend on what a 'good' guitar player is? What is a 'good' guitar player?
    Theory will improve your playing and won't hurt your creativity. You have to know the rules to break them, if you list the best guitars players they probably all know theory, the ones who play power cords all day know none.
    Yep, this article was borrowed, the writer should have at least referenced the site he where found the original article. My my.... Too bad the internet is public domain and if you don't copyright it, it could possibly be plagarized and there is nothing you can do about, but complain. Say it isn't so angtobitkuh, say it isn't so.
    I think you were mis-understood, about the "theroy" part of our article. You said theroy was good, but you shouldn't let it be your only driving force to creating music. It's like learning how to drive. The driving manual instructs you on the theroy of driving - keeping hands at two 'oclock and eight 'oclock and 55mph or 65mph depending on where you live or travel. If evryone drove in this fashion, it may be safer, but life will be dull. Now if everytime I started to create music, I had to worry about whether to use different phrasing here and there, what transitions og here and there creating music would be too much like doing school work and may be come uninteresting and for some may give up after awhile. Let your hair down, creativity should be unhindered by rules and regulations so to speak. It should flow naturally and it can, and if you want to go back and add your theroy to it then by all means do so. Not everyone can afford a $1000 fender , Martin Acoustic, or $800 or more for lessons (real lessons) on theroy. Theroy in away teaches you to be practical in composing music, but alot of times it can be beneficial to be impractical when being "creative". Excellent article, one should read between the lines.
    Yeah, I agree about the whole forgetting some riffs and stuff if you don't write it down. I've even recorded some things I've played, and not even remember how I wrote that particular song. Guess it's one of those things where it's just in the moment.
    I really cant pick a stance on how I feel about theory. Ill just say that going to theory school would probably kill a good portion of your creative ability. You may be able to write BETTER music, but it just wouldnt be as ORIGINAL I think. But then again, thats just me, I cant say for sure...
    Good article but I disagree with the idea that theory is a hindrance. Knowing theory opens you up to arpeggios, scales, and more advanced harmonizing that you wouldn't normally know. Melodic ideas come from some inspirational place, but having a strong knowledge of theory will help you take it to the next level.
    Jackolas wrote: Why say first but not write anything idiot?
    Heh heh,people do that all the freaking time! It's frustrating, I know. Pretty good article. Didn't explain everything I was expecting, but pretty sweet anyway. Excellent for beginners, too. 9/10.
    Interesting but writing music in open tunings is just the same as standard really. It's a matter of trial and error. I've been using open Dmin, DADGAD and DADEAD lately and i found the easiest way to write is just muck around with things and trying different notes in my motifs. For great ideas check out Keith Richards' work. Pretty much the father of open tuning in modern music. A great more modern band that use open tunings (primarily open Dmin) are Opeth