Category Archives: writing melodies
God, I’ve been so busy lately. Anyway…
Basics of Harmony! Ready? Go!
It’s actually quite simple.
Let’s say you’re singing a very, VERY simple melody. You’re playing a C chord on the piano in steady quarter-note pulses. And you’re singing a simple melody, that you want to practice harmonizing (say, along with your phone, after you record a voice memo or demo or whatever).
You’re playing C… you’re singing a C note, in this rhythm:
One and…. (rest on 2) and threeeeee…. (hold through 4)
Let’s say the lyrics are this… “thinking, of you…. thinking, of you”
The best way to harmonize this line is in THIRDS. What’s a 3rd? Well, it’s a distance between two notes. Often, the root note of a chord (such as C, in a C chord), up to E (in a C chord, that’s the 3rd).
So, you demo’d your simple song… and you sang “thinking, of you” in this rhythm: 1 + (2) + 3 (4).
Now you’re singing along to your idea… but this time, you’re singing an E note (above your original melody), with the same lyrics.
It’s literally that simple.
In ALL catchy music, vocals are most commonly harmonized by a 3rd (up from the original melody). You can also harmonize DOWN a 3rd (such as singing an A note while the lead vocal sings a C). This isn’t always a good choice, in a major key, because it creates minor harmony, or possibly a country thing (between the vocals and piano, you’re singing and playing a C6 chord, which is very oldschool country).
Less common are 5ths, because as you sing 5th harmony.. you create what is sometimes weird-sounding, called “parallel 5ths” (it’s a classical rule you don’t always want to break). Another good harmony is up a 6th. Or 4ths/suspensions.
I’ll try to find some audio examples of this on YouTube, for a future post… or an addition to this post.
Vocal harmony is friggin’ awesome.
Go listen to the cranberries “Dreams”, and “Linger”. And then Fleet Foxes “White Winter Hymnal”. And furthermore, anything Jacob Collier does on YouTube (that dude is out of this world insane…. I have no friggin’ idea what he’s harmonizing, most times I watch his videos). But, if you’re looking for pretty and simple— how about also checking out Band Of Horses’ “Marry Song”, or anything by the indie slowcore band Low.
Stay tuned for the next post… I’ll post audio examples and YouTube vids.
Stumbled upon this info, by Cliff Goldmacher…. thought you might be interested:
“Which do you write first, the music or the words?” This is the classic question that all songwriters get asked. In my experience, there’s no easy – or correct – answer to this one. Sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s the lyrics, and, often, it’s some mystical, organic combination of the two. More importantly, there is no one way to write a song. Some of the best – and worst – songs ever written were created using the same techniques. To that end, I’m going to cover four different ways to approach writing a song and some of the “dos” and “don’ts” you’ll want to keep in mind as you go through each one.
1. Writing based on a title idea/lyrical hook
Coming up with a really catchy title or lyrical hook is an art in and of itself. If you’ve got one, congratulations. Now that you’ve got it, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Do remember to make sure that everything in your lyric points to and supports your lyrical hook. Having a catchy hook only works if you build a foundation around it so that when the hook arrives, there’s a sense of drama and release.
Don’t forget to give the song real emotional content. It’s possible to be so focused on the hook and setting it up that you forget to be sincere. While the average listener might not be able to tell you why, the song won’t move them in the way that a song with genuine emotional content would.
2. Writing based on a general idea/lyrical concept
Sometimes you’ve been through an experience or have an idea for a song that feels important enough to write about. That’s as good a place as any to start.
Do capture the feeling and emotion of your concept. You obviously felt strongly enough to want to write about this idea, so immerse yourself in it and really tell the story.
Don’t be too vague. Because you haven’t started with an actual lyrical hook, you’ll need to remember to bring your overall concept to a very sharp point by summarizing it with a phrase or hook line. This hook is something you’ll hopefully come to as you’re developing your lyric around your idea. A story without a summarizing point or hook risks being too unfocused to keep your listeners’ attention.
3. Writing from a melodic idea
If you’re a melodic writer, then you’ve got a different set of challenges. Beautiful, catchy melodies are a rare commodity and should be treated with the appropriate respect.
Do honor your melody and build your song around it. Remember, people will learn your melody long before they learn your lyric, so having a good one is not to be taken lightly.
Don’t let the melody box you into awkward words or watered-down phrases. While a beautiful melody is one part of a song, it’s not the only part. Cramming in words or compromising on your lyrical integrity isn’t an acceptable approach when writing from a melody. Remember, it’s the give and take of a catchy melody and a natural, conversational lyric that makes for a great song.
4. Writing from a chord progression/groove
When you pick up your guitar or sit down at the piano, often it’s a chord progression or groove that comes first. Great!
Do dig in and develop the groove and feel. This can really set the mood of a song and inspire all kinds of interesting melodic and lyrical ideas. Also, a good groove is the very first thing the average listener will notice when they hear your song.
Don’t rely on a chord progression or groove at the expense of your melody and lyric. This is no time to get lazy. A chord progression and groove in and of itself is only – in most genres – an arrangement idea, which doesn’t really constitute a song. Without a strong melody and lyric, it’s entirely possible to have a great sounding track, and, unfortunately, a mediocre song.
As I stated at the top of this article, there isn’t one “right” way to write a song. I’d highly recommend trying every possible songwriting approach you can. Often, as songwriters, we find ourselves in a rut where we go back to the same approach over and over. While this may be comforting and even result in increased productivity, in the long run, it might not provide you with the most inspired or unique songs you’re capable of writing. Why not leave your comfort zone and try a couple of different ways of writing? You never know what you’ll get.
Good luck! – Cliff Goldmacher
Seriously. We are all bombarded by new/current/hot music. In the indie world, people are all about Half Moon Run, Daughter, Grimes, and First Aid Kit. They’re all great. But you know what you need to listen to more of?
Beach Boys / Brian Wilson
any 50s balladry (Gene Vincent, Flamingos, anything doo-wop)
Ya know? Man, is that music good. I’ve been listening to a lot of it this past weekend. At the end of February, it’s 61 outside in the Philly suburbs. Holy shit, man. This music’s perfect for it.
Listen to this absolute mastery… vocal harmonies… the writing…
And listen to a modern girl (Lauren O’Connell, half of My Terrible Friend, with Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose)… and her perfect spin on it:
So much to learn from all of this classic music. Man….. ya know? And I LOVE new shit… believe me… I’m always on the up and up when it comes to discovering new bands and introducing people to new, great shit… but please do not forget about where all the great songwriting started (in the 50s and 60s).
Listen to THIS, with headphones…. and FEEL this:
And feel THIS, too:
I’ve been heavily into the art and craft of songwriting since about 2003. The books I’ve found the most useful, and worth the money, are:
- Rikky Rooksby: How To Write Songs On Guitar (this is the best, hands-down)
- Rikky Rooksby: How To Write Songs On Keyboards (not as good, but still good)
- Rikky Rooksby: The Songwriting Sourcebook (a bit confusing at times, if you don’t know basic music theory, but a wealth of information/chord progressions/styles… amazing)
- Jimmy Kachulis: Songwriter’s Workshop: Melody (essential study guide… interactive!)
- Jimmy Kachulis: Songwriter’s Workshop: Harmony (essential, just as the first book… again, just as interactive)
- Michael Miller: Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory, 2nd Edition (awesome and very easy to understand)
- Michael Miller: Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Composition (very informative and fun to use/read)
- Robin A. Frederick: Shortcuts To Hit Songwriting (kind of expensive, and geared toward top 40 writing, but… LOTS of great tips… for chords, melodies, hooks, etc. Excellent book and the only of its kind).
Sorry for the late post, for those of you looking for holiday gift ideas… but, hopefully you give these a shot… either as a holiday gift or any time of year. Worth it, all of them!
Happy holidays, folks!
That’s right– we can learn a ton from bands and singer-songwriters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Seriously. I can’t think of better songwriters… in which the craft comes absolutely effortlessly. This is also true with Iceland, but we’ll talk about that some other time. There’s gotta be something in the air, in these three countries. These people know how to write killer songs.
It all started with ABBA, who, without a doubt, are probably the best pop band of all-time. That’s a broad statement, but it’s basically universally accepted that ABBA kicked ass. I mean come on… Waterloo, Honey Honey, Fernando, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, the whole nine.
Fast forward a few decades…. I don’t give a shit what anyone says, “The Sign” by Ace of Base (called the “New ABBA” at the time)… is probably in the top five of the greatest pop songs of all-time. I still fucking worship that song, and it’s a big reason why I love well-written music…. and it pisses me off when people discount that song and the group, just because every douchebag and airhead at the time were bumping the jam in their cars on their way to the mall in 1994. Still… holy shit, what a perfect song. FUCKING PERFECT SONG. And also, “All That She Wants” was quite good, too. But not as good as “The Sign.” However, “All That She Wants” needs to be recognized as a socially-conscious contribution to pop music…. I’m sure all of us know at least one woman who is a little careless about her sexual endeavors, and/or a bit too eager to have a bit too many kids, even though she may not be a good mom to the first of the litter. But I digress.
Right around the same time everyone was getting sick of Ace of Base, the Cardigans came out with their international smash hit, “Lovefool.” The first few seconds I heard that song, I knew I was going to be a lifelong fan of the Cardigans… I still remember the exact moment I heard “Lovefool.” I had a horrible job as a carpet-cleaning assistant, to a man named Ken who smoked cigarettes and drank coffee ALL DAY (so much so that his breath was so toxic, I could barely stand it, if he talked to me on the way to the next job. I made sure I had my headphones in, always listening to an awesome mixtape I made, so I wouldn’t have to converse with the guy. But again, I digress…. we were about to start cleaning the carpet in some shitty apartment, and there was this tiny radio on the counter that some painter had left or something. I immediately flipped it to the good modern rock/alternative station… and a song ended… and that perfect intro for “Lovefool” came on… I was like “whoa!!! Who is THIS!” Then, Nina started singing… and man, I was in love.
The Cardigans almost broke up for good in the early 2000s… they had written a new album, but fought so much that they scrapped it all, took a break from each other, and re-grouped and wrote another album called “Long Gone Before Daylight”… which in my humble opinion, is one of the best albums EVER… and the best Cardigans record. They followed up with another record, Super Extra Gravity, which wasn’t as good, but still good. They’ve been quiet since then (2005), but hopefully we’ll hear some new music from them.
Side note-– when I try to write my BEST songs… when I really try to write something great… I think of the Cardigans, and their arrangements and brilliant writing. If you are following this blog, do yourself a solid by at least revisiting their records First Band On The Moon, Gran Turismo, and Long Gone Before Daylight. The first is a bit on the kitschy pop side, but when you get to Long Gone Before Daylight, you’ll realize their songwriting went through the roof during that tumultuous time, and matured in the best way.
Since the Cardigans came out, I believe the indie/alternative/folk music has absolutely flourished in Scandinavia…. from Mew to First Aid Kit, Sondre Lerche to M2M/Marit Larsen…. to Hello Saferide and Oh Laura… my god… can music get better than any of these bands? It’s tough to top most of them, writing-wise.
Side note 2— Check this…. I have a soft spot for 80s hair metal. Yes, I do. One of the songs I LOVED tremendously when I was 13-14 was “Little Fighter” by White Lion (yes, the same band who wrote “Wait” and “When The Children Cry”. It’s probably my all-time favorite hair metal song. Would you be surprised that the lead singer is from Copenhagen, Denmark? The hooks in a lot of White Lion’s hits are unarguably AMAZING… especially throughout “Little Fighter.” I’m going to post the video, below my list of bands you need to listen to.
I realize that this entry isn’t going deep into theory… but it doesn’t matter. If you are having writer’s block, you need to discover (or re-discover) Scandinavian music. And when I talk about all of these artists… none sing in their native tongues. They all sing in English. So there’s no excuse for you not to check them out, being as I am American, I write this blog in English (the only language I can speak fluently). Definitely check out the following bands:
The Cardigans (keeping great, pushing-the-bar songwriting alive and well)
White Lion (if you like your hair metal/pop served hot and with lots of spicy hooks)
Mew (could they be the Danish Sunny Day Real Estate? Yeah, I’d go so far as to say that)
ABBA (if you don’t mind the whole retro/70s pop sound)
Ace of Base (at the very least… listen to “The Sign”, “All That She Wants”, and “Don’t Turn Around.”)
Hello Saferide (if you love your indie pop served with a side of sarcasm/blunt honest, and pop culture references… dude… seriously, they deliver in spades)
Lykke Li (you might remember her hit single “Get Some”, a song thought to be about how she loves sex, but no… it’s about how women in the music and film industry are oversexualized… brilliant song, and brilliant artist)
Oh Laura (nice Americana-ish sound… they don’t sound Scandinavian at all sometimes… definitely listen to “Joni Mitchell Song”)
Sondre Lerche (wow… this guy can WRITE. My favorite recording of his is the Dan In Real Life film soundtrack… CHECK IT)
The Radio Dept. (awesome shoegaze/electronic pop weirdness… love them.)
First Aid Kit (unbelievably great sister folk duo… their songs are and sound WAY beyond their years… tremendous maturity, talent, and honesty… and oh my god, the vocal harmonies!!! I’m so psyched to be seeing them live in less than two weeks!)
Marit Larsen (indie/folk stuff from Norway… she was half of the pop duo M2M, who are also fucking AMAZING)
M2M (I will NEVER, EVER, EVER tire of the song “Don’t Say You Love Me”, nor will I tire of “Pretty Boy” or “Everything You Do”. They wrote their own stuff, too… at ages 15-16!!)
Celestial (listen to their album “Crystal Heights” and float away on the twee/indie-dreampop beauty)
Ephemera (from Norway….. my god…. WOW. The writing… the WRITING!!!! The vocals!!!)
edit– HOW THE HELL COULD I FORGET Kings of Convenience??? Often called the Norwegian Simon & Garfunkel… FUCK. Check them out, too! And all their side projects– The Whitest Boy Alive, Erland Oye’s solo stuff, etc)
And, as promised… here’s White Lion’s “Little Fighter” video:
Study their chord progressions…. study their vocal melodies and just marvel at the great lyrics, by and large (especially in Hello Saferide’s “Long Lost Penpal”, or “The Quiz.”)
The Scandinavians just do it better than most…. seriously. The music is clear evidence.
It all started with ABBA– over 40 friggin’ years ago:
Hell… I made a Spotify playlist after posting the entry……. rock this shit.
So I just did a lesson with a younger student who was absolutely dying to learn how to play “Let It Go”, from the Disney movie Frozen. Sung (and I guess played) by Idina Menzel (“Maureen” from RENT, and also the main girl in Wicked)…. immediately, I noticed the 6-4-1-5 progression in the key of Ab (F minor)….. but, with a slight twist in the very beginning…
The progression is 6-4-5…. with a II chord that feels/sounds like a Bsus4 to Bbm in bar 4.
Without getting too technical… my god, is this song catchy. It’s because of that insane 6-4-1-5 progression (in the chorus… as I – V – vi – IV), that has driven hit songs for over 50 years. Use it if you haven’t. I’ve found that this progression helps one come up with vocal melodies/lyrics almost instantly… it’s the magic of this progression, or ANY order you play it in:
vi – IV – I – V (Apologize by OneRepublic, this song’s chorus, and at least 947 other top 100 songs from the last ten years)
I – V – vi – IV (Let It Be by the Beatles, and every song The Axis of Awesome plays in the “Four Chord Song” YouTube video)
It’s overplayed, but it still rules the world.
I like harmonizers (harmonizer pedals), A LOT. I use them as songwriting tools, and for playing my favorite songs, and having them sound as legit as possible (if the harmonies are simple, like most are).
It’s my belief that if a song melody is catchy enough, harmonizing that melody will make it ten times catchier.
It is also my belief that if a melody is well-written, harmonizing said melody works for all of the notes in the phrase, and really pushes it into the stratosphere.
Why some people hate harmonizers
They don’t like that a machine is being used as a tool for a solo singer-songwriter, for extra vocals. Most people assume that everyone should have a backup singer. But what if you don’t have access to a good one? What if you have a major personality clash with someone helping you harmonize? What if they look stupid up there, all alone, holding a tambourine, and simply singing, and doing nothing else? I mean, ultimately… what difference does it make, how the job (the song/performance/recording) gets done, as long as the end result is good?
The main reason I use harmonizers
As many people know, as I’ve been quite “vocal” about it (no pun intended), I’ve had vocal cord/singing problems since summer 2008, when I had a major vocal cord surgery. I was ok after, until early 2011, when some weird flu/swelling of my throat happened, and since then, I lost basically all of my falsetto and higher range, as it’s too damn “breathy”, often. I’ve done warmups, and vocal therapy, dietary changes, lifestyle changes, you name it… ultimately, most days, I can’t sing with my full range. So I use a harmonizer pedal as a tool, in recording situations, and performance situations. I consider my voice issues more a hardship, than a handicap… but whatever it’s called… I think this is an important tool in my arsenal. I never would ever say I’m an amazing singer… at best I’d say I’m competent and I can hold pitch. And often, when I hear people demonstrate these vocal harmonizers on YouTube, they are completely amazing and have high, powerful voices to begin with. It, of course, makes me feel like crap, but I see what they’re doing. Vocal harmony makes everything better and it’s extremely useful when you mainly write and perform completely alone (as I do). It’s nice to have background singers who don’t give me any drama or make me sing a song I’d rather not (or cannot physically attempt). As long as I stay in pitch, my harmony singers (my pedal) are happy.
So don’t fear ’em…. try them out. They’re extremely fun. I own the TC Helicon Voicelive 2, and also the Voicelive Play GTX (with the “Switch 3” pedal) in a small pedalboard setup, for live and songwriting use. Pro tip– common vocal harmony is a 3rd above, so try a preset in the pedal that is exactly that (most harmonizer pedals default to that, as preset 01).
Some of my favorite harmonizer pedal demonstrations:
Stumbled upon this while teaching one of my piano students this wonderful song– definitely worth a read.
This is probably my favorite piano-pop/drumless song of all-time. I did a substitute bass lesson for a 10-year old three years ago and he introduced me to the song (two years before anyone gave a damn about the band, who are now pop superstars). He’s like “Show me the bassline of the Gambler by Fun!” I was like “who?”
So let’s point out the things that immediately stand out:
1. There are no drums or percussion at all.
2. The song is either in 12/8 time, or (more likely) 6/8 time.
3. It begins with basic triad arpeggios (most in root position, some as inversions).
4. There are places in the song which leave “space” (verse 2), where there’s no piano arpeggio… just strings added to held piano chords (strings which remain through the rest of the song, and become the busiest when the piano chills out.
5. The song is extremely well-written, lyrically. It tells the story (at least from my understanding) of a lifelong love/marriage/family… and a man’s wife who is either very sick, or terminally ill. It moves along at the absolute perfect pace…
6. The melody phrases (vocal) are consistent throughout each verse, but with just enough “lift” to keep the song from becoming stagnant. Nate R. of fun. sure knows how to write melodies. I mean, this guy is seriously fucking top-notch. Every male singer should strive for vocal melodies this interesting. But I honestly think they just come to him…. in the same way very interesting vocal melodies often come to pop/indie female singer/songwriters (some that come to mind including A Fine Frenzy, Gregory and the Hawk, Ingrid Michaelson, etc). The melody is ALWAYS the thing that makes someone love a song FIRST (and forever). Always remember that.
7. In the 2nd verse, we hear a quarter-note triplet on the “collective hearts” line.
8. The lyrics have a lot of internal rhyme– rhymes in the MIDDLE of lines, not just at the end.
Slow down, we’ve got time left to be lazy
All the kids have bloomed from babies into flowers in our eyes
We’ve got fifty good years left to spend out in the garden
I don’t care to beg your pardon, we should live until we die
We were barely eighteen when we crossed collective hearts
It was cold, but it got warm when you barely crossed my eye
And then you turned, put out your hand, and you asked me to dance
I knew nothing of romance, but it was love at second sight
I swear when I grow up I won’t just buy you a rose
I will buy the flower shop, and you will never be lonely
For even if the sun stops waking up over the fields
I will not leave, I will not leave ’til it’s our time
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side
It was the winter of ’86, all the fields had frozen over
So we moved to Arizona to save our only son
And now he’s turned into a man, though he thinks just like his mother
He believes we’re all just lovers, he sees hope in everyone
And even though she moved away, we always get calls from our daughter
She has eyes just like her father’s, they are blue when skies are gray
And just like him she never stops, never takes the day for granted
Works for everything that’s handed to her, never once complains
You think that I nearly lost you when the doctors tried to take you away
Like the night you took my hand beside the fire thirty years ago to this day,
You swore you’d be here ’til we decide that it’s our time
But it’s not time, you never quit in all your life
So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side
You’re the love of my life, you know that I will never leave your side
You come home from work, and you kiss me on the eye
You curse the dog, you say that I should never feed them what is ours
So we move out to the garden, look at everything we’ve grown
And the kids are coming home so I’ll set the table…. you can make the fire.
This is how timeless songs are written, ladies and gentlemen. Play this song for your loved one on Christmas Day, or whatever holiday you may celebrate (and of course, play it for them on their birthday).
P.S. I dedicate this lovely song to Hanna from Hungary (even though she never reads this blog as she is an incredible artist, but not a musician, she means the world to me, and makes me think of this song).
With all the vocal problems I’ve experienced over the last two and a half years (almost three)… I’ve had such an issue singing the 3rd over a D chord (F#, which is the breaking point for most tenor singers– and the note where the passagio is… or the point where chest voice becomes head voice (as it has no choice, unless you like that strained, whiny sound)…
I play D a lot, on guitar (the chord). And singing an F# just feels so good (when I can even reach the damn thing). But what do you do when you have a lower or limited range, but you still use the D shape a lot in songs you write?
Well, you have two choices– 1. use a capo, and put it up higher on the neck (5th/6th fret) and sing in a lower range, so you’re still singing the 3rd of the chord, even though it’s not a D anymore)… or 2. de-tune your guitar one full step (which is commonly called D Standard tuning).
Elliott Smith used this in a LOT of his songs, including one of his most famous, “Between The Bars.”
Also, I just discovered that the lovely Madonna song “One More Chance” is tuned to D Standard (I love that whole guitar part… beautiful changes and an incredibly well-written song).
Finally, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf wrote “Blizzard of ’77” in that tuning (and it is also in that tuning on the “Let Go” record.)
Going back to the other two songs… Madonna has had a lower voice (especially since 1989 or so), and maybe that’s why “One More Chance” is tuned so low. And Elliott had an insanely high range, even though he always sung quietly and subdued most of the time (god, I miss that guy… thankfully he left us an incredible amount of perfect songs to enjoy and be inspired by)….. but anyway, there’s a lot to be said about this tuning. It really lends itself to sadder songs, usually. We are so accustomed to hearing the D shape in standard tuning (thus, that F# stands out so well in the chord)… but, in D standard tuning…. the D shape becomes a C major… and the highest note you hear is an E above middle C.
This is great for those of us with voice issues (or baritones), who can’t seem to hold that F# for a long while (or hit it at all), but yet, we can hold that E for a lot longer, and it feels just as good, as if it were a D major chord…. it’s a psyche-out sort of thing… but, it helps.
Maybe you wrote a song 7 years ago that you’re finally finishing. Initially it was in the key of D, and you sang that F# note a lot. Now your voice is lower or in worse shape, and you are dying to record the song and/or perform it live. Drop your tuning/change the key, but the song still feels very similar (and it doesn’t make you feel like crap if your voice cracks on that E/3rd).
Try this, if you’re running into a limited vocal range, or are just tired of the sound of standard tuning… you never know, you might even keep your guitar in this tuning for an entire album’s worth of songs. God knows, every time I learn a new Elliott Smith song that I love the sound of, I’m like “dammit, there he goes again with the D standard tuning”…. but, it’s so lovely, and it works. If you tried “Between The Bars” in standard, it sounds stupid (and MUCH too high to sing in the chorus), And “One More Chance” doesn’t work at all in standard tuning, but both of those song are lovely in D Standard— listen.