Monday, February 28, 2011

Latin Rock Music, Part 2

My Writing Process, Part 2

Breaking the Patterns

When it does come time to write the chords to the song, I'll try to avoid the typical 4-chord progression, where each chord lasts for the same length of time. One way is to simply vary the amount of measures each chord lasts. Or, you can go back and forth between two chords; then when you introduce additional chords, they have drama.

Another "trick" I use is to change the chords at unexpected times. For instance, if your verse was based on two chords, it might go like this:

Chord 1 | Chord 1 | Chord 2 | Chord 2 | repeat

But what if you change in different spots? Like this:

Chord 1 | Chord 2 | Chord 2 | Chord 1 | repeat

It seems like a simple modification, but what it does is to put the changes where you don't expect, and keep the chord the same where you might expect a change. It's all about breaking the pattern.

Getting Feedback, and Listening

One of the big advantages of having a working band like Savor, is that when playing as a Santana Tribute Band, we can throw in our own songs, too. As long as the songs fit the style (Latin Rock), many people don't know they're original. After all, beyond the classic hits: Oye Como Va, Black Magic Woman, Evil Ways, Smooth, Europa, and a few others, most people are not familiar with Santana's catalog.

When you play an original song like that for people who have never heard it, the reaction is honest, and, often, brutal. My rule of thumb was: play the song for a few different audiences. If they didn't react (dancing, nodding their heads, clapping enthusiastically afterwards), I knew I hadn't done my job as a writer. I would make changes, reintroduce it to audiences, and keep doing that until I did get a positive reaction.

Frustrating? Yes. Sometimes I think the players in the band consider me a bit loony -- especially after I had re-written one of the songs three times during the course of a couple of years! But in the end, I really believe that we wound up with a stronger, more effective song. After all, the purpose of songwriting is to reach people, right?

Writing vs. Arranging

This is sometimes difficult to explain to non-musicians, and in fact the lines blur. The way I think of it is, the basic, stripped-down lyrics (if it's a vocal song), melody and chord progression together make up the song writing.

What the bass player does, how the drums interact with the percussion, the guitar riffs that go under and in between everything else -- that's the arrangement.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Latin Rock Music, Part 1

My Writing Process, Part 1

Due to the widespread popularity of Amadeus, the movie based on Mozart's life, it's well known that Mozart was a prolific composer -- the music pouring out of him as if by magic.

In more modern times, The Beatles, Paul Simon, Elton John, Prince, and others, seem to be able to create songs at a breakneck pace. Not so with me. (And, from what I've learned, with many other songwriters as well.) In fact, I feel that I am not so much a song writer as a song crafter. I often work for days, weeks or months developing a song, before I'm satisfied.

Over the years my writing methods have changed, but one of the most drastic changes occurred about 10 years ago. I was watching a well-known songwriter speak, and he said that he would start by writing melodies with no instrumental accompaniment at all. Huh? But as he explained, I began to understand: it is the melody that most people connect with, that most listeners remember, that audiences identify and sing along to.

The Songwriting Rut

After that, I began to see the patterns that I -- and, as far as I can tell, many songwriters -- fall back on. It goes like this: using a harmonic instrument (usually guitar or keyboard), write a chord progression. And, what's more, make that chord progression consist of four chords, lasting one measure each. For example: Chord 1 | Chord 2 | Chord 3 | Chord 4 | repeat.

(If you start analyzing songs you hear, especially songs by amateur, independent or "unsigned bands," you'll begin to see that this is an amazingly common formula.)

Next, fit a melody to the chords. That's a trap, because while it's pretty easy to make a melody work with a chord progression, it's much more difficult to write a melody that stands on its own. However, that lack of melodic power is often disguised by its interaction with the chord progression.

Breaking the Pattern

How do I avoid that songwriting quagmire? I have several methods, and I'm sure many songwriters have their own tricks. First, as I mentioned, whether I'm writing an instrumental song where the guitar plays the melody, or writing a vocal song, I create the melody on its own. If it doesn't work on its own, I keep re-writing it until it does.

Another technique I use is to write songs in unusual keys. (This drives our keyboard player crazy, such as when I present a song written in Eb minor -- a very difficult key to play in!) But there's method to my madness: instrumentalists tend to go to familiar places when playing in common keys; without those crutches, we're more likely to create something new.