Okay, I want to write a song. I have no idea what I’m going to write. Where do I start?
Chords. They are lovely when they’re weird. Like people. But if you’re just starting out, you need to establish some ground rules before you develop delusions that you are Claude Debussy… Or at least I needed to! I learnt a three chord sequence and went wild with that when I was first starting out. Wrote about 20 songs all in D major before I got extremely bored of myself and decided to improvise a bit…
I still absolutely love just having a play around with some ideas on my main songwriting instrument, the guitar. For this particular post, I’m going to be talking about guitar, as opposed to piano, or uke, or the Vietnamese nose-whistle. (That’s a real thing, I just Googled it.)
Because I’m mostly self-taught, when I discovered E minor at the age of 13, I thought I was some kind of mystical genius. I ran to show my dad this new amazing thing that I’d discovered, only to be cruelly thwarted by the discovery of the fact that everyone else who had ever spent more than 16 seconds with a guitar had also discovered it. But I was a stubborn little sod, so I carried on trying out new things until eventually they challenged my dad’s musical theory, and then I was smug, and stopped trying so hard.
Ever since, though, the smugness has at least residually remained, and I have continued to pick out weird chords that make my spine all tingly. If you want my advice on writing harmony, I guess that would be it. Play around until you get a spine tingle. Then if you can sing something even more tingly over the top, (and by that I mean using unusual melodic phrases or big jumps in intervals to 7ths, 9ths or to other unexpectedly delicious places) you have won! Congratulations! Imogen Heap puts lots of very delicious harmonies into this acapella track, Hide And Seek:
She frequently makes me feel like I’m on music drugs with her use of harmonies and incredible vocal range. Buy all her stuff now. Also, if you haven’t seen this… It might not help you with songwriting unless you’re really into tech, but it is just so fucking awesome that I have to show you:
Basically, I have been doing weird chords since I was a nipper, and I would heartily recommend trying out random shapes along the guitar neck. This will also help to hone your sense of relative pitch, which is always useful for remembering melodies and making up harmonies.
I started using DADGAD tuning, as opposed to standard tuning, a few years ago and haven’t looked back. I love experimenting with new tunings when I have no idea what the theory is. I just don’t engage the theory side of my brain when I’m “in the feeling” of creating a piece, or even just a mood, and I like being surprised as to where it wants to lead me. A few months back, I started playing in DADF#AD tuning, and I’m still having loads of fun figuring out what the hell is going on and which shapes lead to which sounds!
Some people really like structure. They love putting limits on themselves and challenging their sense of music. For me, I think the biggest challenge I could set myself these days is to write a good, musically interesting and engaging two chord song that keeps you listening. I used to be able to do that when I was about 15, but I seem to have lost the knack! (Probably because when I was 15, I didn’t know how hard it was so I did it without thinking! Curses.) So I guess I haven’t put enough exercises in these here posts yet… Here’s one, if you don’t feel like writing a two chord song… Write a song with no normal chords in it. By that I mean no major or minor traditional happy or sad chords. Only use made up chords that you have not thought about. And if your sense of theory is such that you have to think about it or nothing will come out, play blindfolded or with your eyes closed, don’t think about being musical, and just make weird shapes with your hands on your preferred instrument until something sounds like it would like to become music. This, on the guitar, doesn’t always work if you’re playing all the strings at once, so maybe devise a plucking pattern if your chords are a bit “far out” and that usually registers as melody for people then, and isn’t as overwhelming!
Remember, you are love.