Archive for the 'songwriting techniques' Category


It’s all about unity…

I got a few insights from a songwriting presentation recently, the main one being that the fundamental ‘rule’ in all art, whether it’s songwriting, painting or writing etc, is unity. Which means that each element of the work of art must work together to support the main idea, message or emotion.

It makes sense, and seems obvious but it’s the hardest thing to do. Like with songwriting and arranging -it’s easy to put in bass, guitar, vocals with lyrics, drums and percussion -but how well do they work together? Does the guitar solo fit? Is the drum beat the most appropriate? Do the lyrics really match the emotion of the music? Is there groove in the bass, and does it work with the whole song or is it doing its own thing? Does the structure of the song work well with each section building on the previous, or are they kind of separate?

For example, I heard one demo from a music student recently and I was impressed with the production quality and especially the range of different instruments and sounds. I noticed the intro had an Indian feel with sitar and Indian drums, but then later in the chorus there was a Latin feel with South American percussion and later even a Middle Eastern drone.

It was impressive at first, but you don’t walk away after hearing the song with a single impression of the song. It was all hazy, complicated and easy to forget. It didn’t convey a single emotion or tell a story or inspire with a single melody…

And isn’t that always our problem at first? Making things complicated? Trying to do too much. Trying to prove ourselves or be over enthusiastic.

You may have several elements to work with and consider, but it’s your job as the artist/creator to take those elements and make a complicated thing simple for the listener/viewer/reader in order to impact them in the way you intend to. I suppose it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Like they say about the experts in a field: they make something difficult look so easy and simple when it’s not.


Cynical in the age of digital recommendations

This idea of the possibility that computers can analyse or take in certain input data of that last few decades of hits and then use that to determine whether new songs are hits or duds leaves me a little doubtful.

Isn’t one major part of art all about the search for something new and different? If you rely on computer-analysed data to determine a ‘hit’ song, it’s going be limited by the previous input of the past which surely can only produce something that will sound generic and done to death.

That’s why when we describe hit music as a kind of ‘formula’, it’s got a negative connotation. Like the Stock, Aitken and Waterman hits of the 80’s. OK, they did sell, but they don’t carry the same credibility as bands/artists that write from the heart, not from formula.

Isn’t what we look for in artists and their song things like inspiration, honesty, courage and the vision for something new and insightful? Will computers, based on past hits and music be able to recognise such qualities?


History of the World Part 1

I thought I’d look at The Damned’s History of the World Part 1  in light of some of the stuff I’ve been reading about making a good mix.

So basically, the foundation is the drums and bass (sometimes rhythm guitar) while the Lead comprises mainly the vocals, but also some lead guitar at the end.

 As for fills, I guess the keyboard jingly riff (and later cello-sound descending riffs in the chorus.

In the ‘rhythm’ (things that add to momentum over the foundation) I figured much of the keyboards and sometimes electric guitar. (e.g. chords in verse)

Pads (sustained notes throughout the mix): Organ sounds, and some sustained distorted lead guitar.

Anyway, I take the ‘five elements’ as a guide -I don’t assume The Damned and the producer consciously said “hey, we gotta have the five elements”. I think it’s a great song though, so enjoy.


Toto’s Africa

As mentioned in a previous past, I love all the songs on Toto’s fourth album, but I decided to use the hit song ‘Africa’ because I believe it really stands out, not just on the album but on the radio as well. To me it’s a real masterpiece and it is complex, but not complicated to the listener. It’s a unique song with the whole mix of rhythm, tone colours and keyboard sound, melodies and lyrics, but the depth of the song can be heard in the details:

Great intro with the iconic beat, then ‘call and answer’ keyboard melodies.

Great vocal melody and lyrics… flows like a story drawing the listener in…(I love the imagery: ‘She’s coming in, 12:30 flight, the moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation…’

Great simple drum fill leading into chorus…

Great vocal harmonies in the chorus, and I love the chord progression with the lulling rhythm (and the bass).

Great lead-off after climax of each chorus, that gives a bit of a ‘breather’ (note bass solo right at the end.)

Great layering (e.g.pan-flute sound in descending motif comes in on second verse, distorted guitar comes towards the end to thicken the sound, ) and ‘unlayering’ or stripping down to trail off in the ending.

Great guitarist, because he knows when to play, and when not to play. (I wanted to do a different song with a guitar solo off the album as many demonstrate how Steve Lukather can just ‘hit the right notes’ , but Africa is such a great song I had to choose it.)

I feel I could listen to this song a hundred times before I get to the bottom of it…



For Guitar Heads (Santana)

It’s a funny thing, vocals. I got this Santana album, “Zebop”, and never really listened to it much. Ironic, because listening to it again I think it’s going to be my favorite Santana album -not that I have that many. I originally didn’t like the vocals because they sounded outdated to me at the time.

Now, if you’re a really good musician, how do you make your music really outstanding? Surround yourself with outstanding musicians, particularly a really great rhythm section. We may only focus on the singer or guitarist, but the rhythm, the drums and bass matter. That’s what strikes me about Santana, he has a great team and fantastic rhythm section. I first got into Santana after listening to a live performance off my sister’s Woodstock album.

I’ve chosen the 9th track on the album, American Gypsy, to look at. This song is an instrumental and I think it demonstrates some tips and techniques for instrumentalists and guitarists.

Ever listened to a bunch of musos jamming? Or a guitarist with the over-extended solo? Or maybe you are one who likes to jam, but for those listening, jamming can get boring. Well, after listening to this a few times, I’ve realised this is not a jam. Yes, it has improvising and guitar solos, but it’s well structured piece using layering and building. (Live version may be different to studio version).

“Layering” in the sense that first piano comes in, then bongos one (on one stereo field), then bongos 2 (on the other stereo), then drums lead in to bring the rest of the band with Santana’s lead. It’s a common technique but effective, and it gives a chance to let the listener appreciate different instruments -like the bongos and the piano riff.

And I really like Santana’s playing because it builds -from lower range and longer sustained notes up to higher range in pitch. He doesn’t just launch into it and yabba away at the beginning-he has a method to it, like telling a story with a bit of build up. Then later in the song he can give the climax added impact as he plays in the higher range.

And the other thing I love, is the way the soloing toggles between him and organ. Even if it’s Santana, extended solos can tend to get tiring on the listener, but when toggling between the two instruments he can have these bursts of great smooth licks. And there’s the communication thing going on between the two soloists, like a conversation, two people really feeding off each other.

And they continue building up until the climax just before the 2 minute mark (on studio version) with drums helping, then there’s a pause, back to the piano riff, bongo solos and a lead into the vocal motif.

The guitar seems to have a loose melody at the beginning over the riff, but he doesn’t adhere to it rigidly. Nor does he need to -with the way the song is structured, the layering, building, climax, pull back, continuing and just the great vibe and groove, there’s no need to have a rigid “verse” and “chorus” melody structure like you may find in Satriani and Steve Vai. The song is 3 and a half minutes on the recorded version, but it seemed to go by quickly for me because I really got into it.

I could only find a live version off youtube, but it’s got a great vibe.