Unique Songwriting

Tired of predictable songs? Learn how to write songs in an usual kind of way.

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Ultimate Guitar
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I thought I might share some of my own experiences, or coming experiences (seeing that I'm still young), with unique songwriting. It will also feature some methods to arrange the song. Note: it may be a bit long, so take it one step at a time.

Study The Bands

Most of my knowledge in unique song writing comes from studying the bands who do it. Most of you who read this article, may not be familiar with these bands. Most of them can be labelled progressive, but that is not a must. Examples of these bands are: Prog-rock:
  • Pink Floyd
  • Yes
  • Rush
  • King Crimson
  • Jethro Tull Progressive metal:
  • Dream Theater
  • Tool
  • Opeth
  • Symphony X Check them out if you haven't already. Progressive music is probably the only musical genre where you in advance knows least what to expect. Some things comes and goes, like long songs and high technical mastery of the band members' respective instruments, but there are no rules. What [i]you[/i] gotta do is to listen to the song, maybe even learn them. You will learn a lot about songwriting by learning and listening to songs. Here are some examples of methods to use while writing unique songs:

    Dynamics

    What are dynamics? Think about the conductor in an orchestra. He controls the players and decide wether to play softly or loudly, although they are still playing the same notes in the speed no matter how hard he tries to make them speed up. So a piece of music can be played in many ways considering the use of quiet/loud dynamics. In an acoustic passage one might play soft and slowly, but the acoustic guitar can be played both loudly and fast. Speed is also a valuable dynamic. Listen to Opeth's "Advent" at 3:19. That acoustic guitar is quite fast (not shred though), and serves another purpose than the outro (which is quite slow). It keeps the intensity up, and when the electric guitar comes back, you don't feel relaxed. So just because you're a death metal doesn't mean you can have soft acoustic noodling or ballads. Try to stretch out. I always thought Opeth was one of the bands with the most extreme dynamics, and it gives them so much more oppurtunities when writing a song, instead of some grindcore band who's determined to play fast and hard all the time.

    Think Outside The Box

    When writing unique songs, you have to think wide. You have to do stuff you normally wouldn't do (unless you're a jazz/pop/metal/rock/reggae/ska-guitarist or something like that). Try to look back at your previous songs and notice what you tend to do a lot. Some of it might be your "style" or "sound", but seen by others that can be a sign of little variation. Do you always write in 4/4? Are all your chord progressions standard? Are all your songs circling around a specific number of minutes? Try varying! The most standard riff you probably could create would be something like this:
    1 2 3 4 |---------------------------------| |---------------------------------| |-9--7--5--5----------------------| |-9--7--5--5----------------------| |-7--5--3--3----------------------| |---------------------------------|
    It has 4 notes in a 4/4 beat, it uses only power chords and the chord progression is the simplest you can do with three chords. So what can you do to make it more interesting? Take a look at this:
    1 2 3 4 |-7-7--5---------0----------------| |-8-8--5---------3----------------| |-9-9--7----5----2-2--------------| |-9-9--7----5----2-2--------------| |-7-7--5----3----0-0--------------| |---------------------------------|
    You still count to four, but the riff is definitively more advanced. Why? First, you use something than power chords, but you also don't just move the same chord around in different keys. Plus, at some counts you have 1 chords, but at some there's 2. That means that the last count doesn't replicate the last one by just moving it to another key. Let us spice it up with some more techniques, shall we?
    1 2 3 4 5 |-7-7--5-----------0----4-2-------| |-7h8--5-----------3----4-2-------| |-9-9--7----5---5--2-2--4-3-------| |-9-9--7----5-5----2-2--6-4-------| |-7-7--5----3------0-0--6-4-------| |-----------------------4-2-------|
    The riff has moved to 5/4 (meaning 5 counts instead of four... I think). That's like jazz, you know? At the first count you also mix hammer-ons with chords, something I could never come up with myself. I saw it in an Opeth tab, because I were studying the song. Get it? Count three also use arpeggios, which is used very rarely with distortion (so you're either gonna have to palm mute the notes or let the finger of the last one go when you play the next). Count 5 doesn't even stay in the same key. This is just basic of course. That riff probably doesn't sound good, but feel free to steal it (I just made it up in the tab). Now take a look at this:
    Head 1 Tail 1 Head 1 Tail 3 |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| Head 1 Tail 1 Head 1 Tail 3 |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------|
    What you get here is a long riff. A long riff will serve you better than a short riff (but take notice that long riffs may be extensions of several mini-riffs). What you do here is to use "Head 1" as the start of the riff, play a ending to that ("Tail 1"), repeat "Head 1" and end with a second ending, "Tail 2". Then you can move it to 8 beats, giving a last ending ("Tail 3"). Example:
    Head 1 Tail 1 Head 1 Tail 2 |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-------4-5-| |-5-5-5-5-5-|-----------|-5-5-5-5-5-|-----2-----| |-5-5-5-5-5-|-4-5-6-----|-5-5-5-5-5-|---2-------| |-3-3-3-3-3-|-------5-4-|-3-3-3-3-3-|-1---------| Head 1 Tail 1 Head 1 Tail 3 |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-----------| |-----------|-----------|-----------|-5-4-------| |-5-5-5-5-5-|-----------|-5-5-5-5-5-|-----2-----| |-5-5-5-5-5-|-4-5-6-----|-5-5-5-5-5-|-------2---| |-----------|-------5-4-|-----------|---------1-|
    Also, did you know that Metallica's "Enter Sandman" riff was originally written like this:
    |-------------------------------| |-------------------------------| |-------------------------------| |-------------------------------| |-----7--------5---4---4-5-4-2--| |-0-0---6-5--0-3-0-2-0-2-3-2-0--|
    Don't see any difference? This is how it's played now:
    |-----------------------------------------------------------| |-----------------------------------------------------------| |-----------------------------------------------------------| |-----------------------------------------------------------| |-----7------------7------------7----------5---4---4-5-4-2--| |-0-0---6-5--0-0-0---6-5--0-0-0---6-5-0--0-3-0-2-0-2-3-2-0--|
    I think you'll figure this one out yourself.

    The Arrangment

    Now that you know how to write "unusual", let's see how we can use that in a larger setting. Again, I'll use Opeth as an example. If you don't like that the band, that's fine, but don't give me 1 star just because of that. If you look at Opeth's first album "Orchid", you'll definitively see that the songwriting and arrangments are pretty raw. The songs have LOTS of riffs. Is that a good thing? Not necessarily. It's better to have 5 super-good riffs than 20 mediocre, right? I'm not saying that anything on "Orchid" is mediocre, I'm just giving an example. Again, try to merge some of your own 20-something riffs to 5-10 longer and better riffs. It can't hurt, can it? If you look at "Master's Apprentices" from their newer album "Deliverance", you can see that the songwriting of the band has increased. You might not agree that the song is better, but it shows a more mature aspect of writing (judging completely on structure instead of sound). The songs on "Orchid" constantly jump back and forth between acoustic and electric, while "Master's Apprentices" has only one acoustic passage. It's a long one in the middle, but the song doesn't feel long. Also look at the "The Leper Affinity". Only one acoustic passage, but more use of dynamics in the electric guitar. Listen to the song at about 3:30-4:00. That section use extreme dynamics. Then it glides gently into a softer (but still electric) riff at 4:00, before at last giving in to the acoustic guitar. A good example of using the same instrument in different dynamics. To make it all flow really good, write it all on an acoustic guitar (or electric guitar on clean channel). Make sure you write it so sounds good on acoustic guitar. That means that long, ringing power chords won't sound good. It gives a stricter demand, but in ten years you're gonna be glad you pushed yourself. Have a high demand for riffs. Did you notice that some songs can be seen as "cheating". It's like "make two riffs and then you'll have a song". That's cool, I know cool songs with only 1 riff, but that isn't very unique is it? I myself like how the second half of a long song can be completely different than the beginning of the song, instead of hearing the first verse with different lyrics and then the same chorus again. Try to put something special in your song that's gonna make people remember it. Like the opera in "Bohemian Rhapsody" or the 11 guitar solos in "Hangar 18". You might hate opera and you might hate guitar solos, but you can't argue that those songs have something few other rock songs has. Stay tuned, and remember to study the bands!
  • 37 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Inf1n1tY.
      ok but all i learnd from this is that i should study the bands i like and mess arround with my playing. all i ve known an done before. good for beginners. no unique songwritting-technique or something. The bands you have mentioned may have unique songs but you dont explained it at all
      Danielj
      i'm a guitarist wrote: one listen to bands and artists who have been into acid two learn music theaory to keep it fresh
      Okay i agree with learn theory, but listen to bands that have been into acid? That has nothing to do with their songwriting capabilities however much they say it does in my opinion. all ity does is give them something to sing about. Listening to those bands isnt going to make you a better songwriter . .. not for that reason at least. Im young too btw, 14
      allareone_421
      ok bro, what the **** ever. here's my two cents... Pink Floyd and Tool are the shit. period. The other band are commendable as well but where is Radiohead and Primus? Primus is probably one of the most unique rock bands of all time. In the article you mention there aren't any unique songs with only one riff; listen to primus. But odd time signatures are key to a different sound. Know your theory in order to consciously write songs out of the ordinary. But in music there are only twelve notes. How many different ways can twelve notes be played? And there in lies the secret to unique songwriting... There is also such a thing as overkill. You have to *feel* when more is need and when less is needed. You don't necessarily have to throw in so many crazy scales and arpeggios everywhere with every part of the song filling it all with lyrics and drums that are too busy rather than technically intriguing. Let your music breathe. Lengthen it out and think as if you and you band members are having a conversation, if everyone talks at once then whatever is said is inaudible and nothing is reached. Not every fill is everyones time to shine. whoevers turn it is is to talk, his bandmates should back up what he has to say. Sorry for the long post... im ****in stoned man.... i think overall you might wanna just let it flow bro...
      noneoftheabove
      kind of inspiring. not the best article, but it definitely gave some good ideas. i know pink floyd and dream theatre but when you started talking about opeth i was lost. good points tho, i agree we need more bands like this.
      pumba211
      At the start of the review, you said you were young. How young exactly are you??...because i am 13.
      Danielj
      You can't write an article to teach or explain how to write a song, for those who do it uniquely, it comes to them automatically.
      RIP_Kurt_Cobain
      Is this your first article? Dude, did you drop out in the second grade or something? wow. Doesn't anybody listen to Nirvana anymore? I mean, talk about some unique melodies!
      TyphoidSpider
      Im so glad that a lot of people on here can appreciate and like tool. I love tool. Do I have the right to kill my drummer when he says that he thinks Black Eyed Peas is the best band ever and that tool suck? Please say yes. Anyway, back on topic, the world needs more musicians of every genre to be innovative. What the article says is right, you should listen to as many different artists, learn from them and be inspired.
      TimmyHendriix
      Yea nirvana had unique melodies but they also took every good power chord riff. soo thats y its unoriginal.
      iggy pop
      This got boring quick and didn't teach me much. 2 be unique do stuff thats never been done be4
      Steelman
      Personally, I think this article kinda sucked dude. Going perhaps a little more indepth into the topic of unique songwriting would have been good. Also, you totally come off like you haven't the slightest idea what you are really talking about, and that you're just regurgitating something. Musical expansion can come from different genres. Chord extensions and modes might have also been a bit helpful. Still, right on for giving a stab at it.
      SethMegadefan
      [quote]n0e wrote: if i remember correctly, you've had a couple sequels to your harmonizing articles quote] Yes, I know. That was the joke. Don't worry, I wouldn't be dumb enough to unintentionally leave a loophole like that in my post. It's at least good to know that you know my articles enough to even catch that joke.
      thefinalcut
      He's exactly right on coming up with something unique with dynamics and a good arrangment but he came off like his songwriting style is better, because it's "progressive", and he could've expanded topics. Listening to lots of different records and live bands is good. If you listen intently, you can come up with offshoots of melodies, riffs, licks and strumming patterns.
      tulkas_1985
      you lost me right with the introduction... i'm bigtime into singer/songwriter stuff and i tend to think a lot of unique songwriting has been done on 4/4 time-sig with a simple four chords progression (bob dylan, johnny cash, dave matthews, john mayer, jack johnson, herbert grnemeyer, reinhard mey, etc...). i agree it's important to let yourself be influenced by other styles, but i wouldn't limit that to prog-rock/metal.
      Rodders
      How could you do an article on unique song writing and not mention Biffy Clyro? Apart from that it was ok...but nothing special...
      Hotfox_07
      Dante's Inferno wrote: Hey wait a minute! I wrote this, not Dante. Did UG get this wrong?
      Who's I? Good article, I especially liked the step by step approach...but one thing bothered me as a hardcore metallica fan. You posted the riff to enter sandman as: |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----7-----5---4---4-5 -4 -2--| |-0-0---6-5--0-3-0-2-0-2- 3-2-0--| Where it's actually played like this: |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----5-----5-----| |-----7-- ---5---4---4-5-4 -2--| |--0-----6-5-----0--0-3-0 -2-0-2-3-2- 0--| Just a little side note. Otherwise, it was really good!
      Hotfox_07
      Hmm...That didn't work....let's try again...
      This is the way it was posted... |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----7-----7----- 7-----5 ---4---4-5-4-2--| |-0-0---6-5--0-0-0---6-5- -0-0-0-- -6-5-0--0-3-0-2-0 -2-3-2-0--| This is the way it's played... |-----| |-----| |-----| |-----5-----5-----repeat- ----| |-----7-----2x-----5---4- --4-5-4-2--| |--0-----6-5--- --0-----0- 3-0-2-0-2-3-2-0--|
      i'm a guitarist
      your young ? im younger and have been writing songs for years and u can sum up how to be song writer and be unique in a few simple instructions ... one listen to bands and artists who have been into acid (beatles, john frusciante solo work, the doors, the mars volta) ... two learn music theaory to keep it fresh
      Metalhead_Jams
      You only mention prog bands as unique songwriters, what about the more mainstream bands who still write original stuff. e.g. Radiohead. (regardless of weather you like them, they're definitely unique.) I think you also should mention listening to all different types of music including classical and jazz, country and folk, funk and even Hip hop. Also Music theory really helps. (you need to know the rules to break them)
      SethMegadefan
      So basically, what you're saying is, all modern song structural formulas are crap and as an alternative you're asking us to get into prog rock? Some of those bands you mentioned are okay at best ('cept Rush and Floyd, which both are awesome), but I think you could've offered some different approaches to lyrics, progressions, concepts, etc. Playing complete chords as opposed to power chords isn't going to magically make your song stand out. It's almost as if you think playing "Blitzkrieg Bop" with full chords will make it sound un-punk and people will go "Wow, these people are different!" I respect the article's concept, but it didn't deliver as much as I was expecting. 6/10. Ah hell, I'm in a good mood today: 7/10. A part 2 that goes more in depth would be nice (though only pussies keep making sequels...).
      n0e
      if i remember correctly, you've had a couple sequels to your harmonizing articles as for this article, i didn't get much out of it. basically it sounds to me like i should keep playing power chords but add some hammer ons in there to make it "cooler". the name of this article is "unique" songwriting but there nothing unique about doing the exact same things as all these band you like... and theres DEFINATELY nothing unique about power chords.
      caucasian_ninja
      Mountain Song by Janes Addiction = Pretty unique use of powerchords. Its just a cool riff, but very repetitive.
      st.jimmy3
      i think this is pretty good but like i have trouble finding the inspiration to write songs, i need help on were to look
      bass_gtarace
      This article makes me want to punch a walrus. Poorly written and useless. Thank you Dante