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How to compose a song?

  1. Nov 14, 2005 #1
    What might be the most effective method for a singer without instrument training - but with some music theory, skilled poetry and reasonable repertoire - to create a song?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 14, 2005 #2


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    One thing I used to do, in order to practice writing songs, was borrow the melodies from old folk songs and write lyrics to them that fit the meter (that is, after, how many of the folk songs themselves were written, borrowing melodies from other tunes). If you want to compose something and see what it sounds like, but cannot play an instrument, you can always use a computer program.
  4. Nov 14, 2005 #3


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    1. The singer should record his or her voice. My PC has a mic input and my son records himself.

    2. Music software is available, and some software is pretty sophisticated, but I am not familiar enough to make a recommendation.
  5. Nov 14, 2005 #4
    Basic knowledge of chords (and also basic fundamentals of reading music) will help greatly:


    This way, when creating the music, you won't end up with a sound that you weren't intending to create. Icky sounds have their place, but not for most new composers :yuck:. That is, unless you want to create an ugly sounding F# Major-minor 7th 11th 13th chord :tongue2:.

    The best thing to do is to use some sort of free composition software, I haven't used one in a while so I don't know which one is the best. If only the opensource projects had a foothold on music composition software.

    Music composition for me is rather difficult. I would start out first arranging songs that you do know, and then working your way up from there.

    Perhaps I'll write more when I'm not as scatterbrained. Good luck.
  6. Nov 15, 2005 #5
    the only thing you need is a great source of inspiration.

    For example, you could "steal from birds" like Mozart used to do. It worked quite alright for him, didn't it ?

  7. Nov 15, 2005 #6
    Another piece of advice. In order to compose a great song,you should have decomposed lots of already existing songs. My point being : no great music is composd without a thorough knowledge of music itself and its history.

  8. Nov 15, 2005 #7
    Define compose... Are you wanting to have songs you can play on, say, piano or guitar to your and your friends' amusement, or do you want to record complete demos to distribute and/or listen back to? The approach is different for each. For the former, I'd recommend learning basic guitar. It's the easiest thing in the world and by far the easiest instrument to use to aid writing a song if you're a novice. If the latter, you need a PC, some good software like Cubase and Fruityloops, a good sound card, a mic, a mixer and at the very least a decent synth. For recording guitar, I recommend a POD.

    As far as the beginnings of composition go, I guess everyone's different, but I'm always composing in my head (especially in the shower - don't ask me why). I find it much easier to think of something and then play it rather than pick up a guitar or something and try to write it.

    You can find the start of a song in anything. Of late, my recent compositions have started with the bass, but then I've been doing more jazz and r'n'b recently. A good punk or rock tune usually starts with a good riff. A good ballad often starts with an interesting chord sequence. On the other hand, a melody will often just come to me (usually when smoking - don't ask me why - but I've quit now so I may be screwed in that dept.) - in this case it is imperative to get it recorded before you forget it.

    A few people have mentioned "borrowing" stuff. It might be good for practise, but it will not yield good songs on the whole. However, I occassionally hear a snippet from a song that captivates me but seemingly didn't captivate the writer since it was undeveloped or little used. In these cases, I'd say it's fine to take that and run with it (or is that me just rationalising my dishonesty?).

    Only certain kinds of poetry seem to make good lyrics IMO. Best focus on individual sentences that sound good on their own, even if they make no sense together (worked for Kurt Cobain). Once you've got good at thinking in lyric-speak, it becomes easier to write songs with meaning and message. Often, good lyrics will not look good down on paper (unlike good poetry) so don't judge them by how they look.

    Like writing fiction or drama: 90% of what you compose will suck (unless you're a super-genius). This doesn't decrease with practise, but your definition of 'suck' will expand.

    Songs take however long they have to. I've worked on the same song for years in the past. Currently working on one I started 9 years ago. Sometimes I've worked on them for years before I realised they weren't very good.

    I can be more specific if you can tell me why you want to compose songs.
  9. Nov 15, 2005 #8
    Also, what kind of songs do you have in mind?
  10. Nov 15, 2005 #9
    I taught myself chord forms on the piano so I could write songs. I find that the piano gives me a better idea of the sound or voice of the chord than my guitar. Once the song is written I can play it on guitar.

    When I get a song idea, I either hum the melody or, if I have some words, or a phrase already figured out, I sing that into a tape player. This way I remember it until I can sit down at a piano. After I come up with a tune, I write out in longhand the entire song (while thinking the tune) all the verses I can think of, any bridge or chorus (I often rearrange these when working out the music). Even if the tune changes from my original idea, the words will usually fit into a new tune. Then with words in hand, I go back to the piano and write the chords changes on the lyrics sheet, play it a few times and and record the finished product.

    I once wrote words for a song to a tune in my head and someone else wrote the music for the song. It was not at all what I was thinking, but it worked real well. The guy said the music came easier to him than to any of his own words.
  11. Nov 15, 2005 #10
    El Hombre,

    I was thinking along composing a one-hit wonder of the Classic Rock variety. It seems as though software is my way to go for me - other than voice, I am fairly inept at playing an instrument.

    You all have given me a lot of good leads for a start. Any more gems?
  12. Nov 15, 2005 #11
    It's hard to write a rock song without some ability on an instrument. Think of your faves and they will probably have some showy piano or guitar involved. Of the two, piano is by far the easiest to emulate with software, not least because good piano voices are easy to come by, both on synths and in software and downloads. I have yet to hear a guitar voice, either acoustic or electric, that sound really realistic. Some sound superb when playing single notes, then you try and do a chord or a complex riff and they always sound poor.

    There are some good realistic drum samples available. If using something like Fruityloops to do your drum tracks, a good tip (one many still haven't learned) is that where doing some kind of roll, such as a snare roll, have two of the same instruments (e.g. snare) and alternate between them in your roll. If you have fast, consecutive beats on the same instrument, the second will cut out the first, creating that tell-tale sampled sound. The longer this roll, the worse it sounds. Two different channels will allow the notes to overlap and it sounds infinitely more natural.

    And rock usually demands harmony which is, IMO, the most fun part of composing a song. Good arrangement of accompanying instruments (e.g. violins, cellos, bagpipes, no - not bagpipes) is fun to sort out too and quite simple to make the song sound professional.

    In your classic rock tune, percussion and melody are key. I often think in drums and get the loops down quick, but just playing around with loops will get you going. However - it is very easy in rock to get a good beat, some nice rhythms on piano, and then find yourself consistently hollering uninspired vocals over them. I know this is easy because that describes pretty much every stadium rock tune ever released.

    So I suggest starting with the melody, and singing (out loud or in your head) random stuff is probably the best way to go. There's no formula for thinking up melody - it's just inspiration. When you hit on a verse or chorus you think is different and worthwhile, get it down on tape (a cheap tape recorder is all you need for this). Then go and listen to some great rock records, then listen back to yours. Is it any good (bearing in mind you're just starting out)? If so, slap your thighs to your recording til you got the beat and get looping some drums.

    Bass & snare first (the backbone of the beat), then crash symbols (the punctuation), then ride and hi hat (the padding). When your basic beat is down, you can start on your fills and your rolls and all the other stuff that breaks the monotony. Listen to a lot of records just for the drums. Try and move the other instruments to the background and just listen to the individual drums and cymbols.

    Rock songs usually have instrumental interludes (sometimes several brief ones, sometimes ones that are waaaay too long - guitar solos usually) to give certain instruments time to shine without distracting from the main song and adding some kind of punctuation to the song as a whole, such as building to a powerful final chorus. Percussion is key here again. Ignoring drum solos, drums often build up in these interludes to quite a frenetic but sticcato drumming style compared to the rest of the song. Again, listen to a load and see how they're structured.

    That any help?
  13. Nov 15, 2005 #12
    Adding on to what El Hombre Invisible said (good post btw), rock songs tend to be a little more simplistic than say writing a piece for a 70-something piece orchestra, for obvious reasons.

    And now for technical information (this is an empirical forum so might as well):

    Rock songs are almost invariably in 4/4 time, less often in 2/4 (if you could tell the difference, it takes some practice), and rarely if at all in other time signatures (such as 6/8, 3/4, etc). Usually they are around 120 bpm, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, the songs even sound like they are going really fast but only have a tempo of just 60 bpm :surprised. Key signature wise, rock songs are usually fairly simple. There are no super-nasty augmented or diminished chords, or anything minor for that matter (unless the goal is to try to freak out the audience).

    Judicious usage of crescendos and decresendos help, usually at the beginning and end of song (for rock songs), but usually those are done by mixers if the sounds involved are electronic in origin.

    Determining what the song is going to be like is usually evident in the introduction of the song, as it introduces the beat and the first melody. The beginning of a song, for me, is like an abstract to a paper. It has to sound good enough to want to listen to it the entire time.

    Heavier rock styles tend to have beats on 1 and 3 of every measure, and jazz usually tends to have the main beats on 2 and 4 (though I have heard rock bands centered around beats 2 and 4 and those usually sound pretty good too). Be creative.

    If I were to create a rock song, I would follow the layout of ABA format, making a few repeats therein along an attractive melody and countermelody, and perhaps a solo here or there that is ear-catchy. I'm rather fond of electric guitar solos that show off the musicianship of the guitarist. Of course, I'm more of an instrumentalist myself, so I can't offer any advice for vocal things (perhaps sing good maybe?)
  14. Nov 15, 2005 #13


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    Take a lesson from the Adam & James School of Rock (TM). http://www.myspace.com/trilogyofsexy

    Follow these simple rules:

    Pick three chords, put them in an arbitrary order, and repeat them four times. Think up lyrics. It's generally wise to reject such tired themes as love, war, hate and sex. Stick to songs about building sites, ugly cars, Coca Cola and beards instead. This is your verse.

    Pick two different chords, repeat these four times. Find a catchy/irritating motif to repeat, playing on the general theme of the song. This is your chorus.

    Create some kind of funky breakdown, perhaps with some shouts, whistling, or a Casio keyboard solo (from the early 1990s).

    Go verse, chorus, verse, chorus, funky breakdown, chorus, end.

    And it's finished. Listen to the four Adam & James tracks at the link above for stunning examples.
  15. Nov 15, 2005 #14
    I have known a couple of people that write songs, and they have answering machines on their phones at home. If they are out and they think of something good, they call home and sing it to their answering machine so they don't forget.
  16. Nov 15, 2005 #15
    I am saving these generous suggestions as my introduction to actually creating music. At least you all have enabled me to catch a melody and generate beauty of the acoustic kind. Any pointers about how to incorporate music with existing poetry?
  17. Nov 15, 2005 #16
    get fruityloops, and start screwing around. maybe you'll make magic. I made migraines, but fruityloops is cool
  18. Nov 15, 2005 #17


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    If you have written the poetry and are happy with the results, you've got the hard part done. Listen to some simple stripped-down folk music, like early Dylan, and you'll get the idea. Once you have decided on a melody that fits your lyrics (you may have to steal one and modify it), you're done. If you want to perform the song, you will have to sing it a capella, or develop some instrumental prowess (guitar is the best instrument by far for this) or collaborate with someone who has the skills and the feel to interpret your song. Never fear that your song is too stripped-down and simple to be re-interpreted as a rock song. So many of Dylan's songs were covered by the Byrds, Hendrix, Johnny Winter, etc, etc that it would boggle the mind. Simple is good.
  19. Nov 15, 2005 #18
    wow, I disagree 100%. for me the words are a piece of cake the music is an impossibility
  20. Nov 15, 2005 #19


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    This is where we diverge musically. I can improvise instrumentally and have a great time doing so, but lyrics are the weak point. The most productive period I had lyrically was when I was running a huge gang-saw cutting cabinet panels as a summer job during college. It was loud, and the earplugs turned the sound of the blades into a complex not-quite monotone chord. The lyrics and the meter came almost automatically, as did a simple melody based on the root tone of the saw. Since I couldn't stop working and write anything down, I committed everything to memory by simple repetition. When I got back to my apartment after work, I would accompany myself on guitar, fix the key to match my vocal range and the quality of the song (root-position chords have qualities that make the character of simple folk songs very key-dependent) and write it all down. I imagine many songs written by working people originated in a similar way.
  21. Nov 15, 2005 #20
    If I stay up late enough, I often hear a distant music.
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