Friday, January 18, 2013

A songwriter/arranger/producer thoughts about songwriting in 2013.

By Tim Dolbear -

By Tim Dolbear c2013
1. A pleasing succession or arrangement of sounds.
2. Music
a. A rhythmically organized sequence of single tones so related to one another as to make up a particular phrase or idea.
b. Structure with respect to the arrangement of single notes in succession.
c. The leading part or the air in a composition with accompaniment.
3. A poem suitable for setting to music or singing.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about why current music is so disliked by so many, including me. Basically we are bored with what we are hearing. This goes beyond the 'sludge' of bad music and ‘artist’ you find flooding Facebook and YouTube, created by people who now have GarageBand on their Macs and delusions of grandeur (a bad combination)...but this is not about or for them. This is for the serious artist and songwriters, the ones that want to strive for excellence, and create because of the love of art and not for a simple ego stroke from their friends. 

Recently, I listened through a new release from an artist I have been listening to for most of my life. They have had huge success and tons of hits.  I had high hopes for this new album, but the songwriting was…well, flat…and I had heard it all before. The artist is on their own label now so it’s not an issue with them just being forced to rewrite a hit, but more of an issue with them perhaps not trying new colors on the canvas.

Hearing this new album was perfectly timed, as I had been thinking a lot about songwriting and the future.  And here is what I found:

The next big change in music will come from a new type of use for melodies. We cannot do what everyone else is doing and has done; we must strive for better and different melodies.
It all comes down to the melody.

The Pentatonic scale, though tried and true for the last 100 years, still only has 5 notes. It’s amazing how many artists are still writing songs using only the Pentatonic scale.  Play most any current pop/rock or country song and you should be able to hum right along with the verse melody, being able to predict where the singer is going with the melody, and not for any other factor than you have basically heard it all before.

The Pentatonic scale has allowed writers and artist to stay in key with no real knowledge of music.  Many of today’s musicians and singers do not know anything different, they also do not know about scales or theory since they have relied on the Pentatonic scale their entire musical life. Both the major scale and minor scale have 8 notes, the minor Pentatonic scale only uses the 1(root), 3, 4, 5, 7.  If we are to bring out new melodies in our writing the first thing we must do is become acquainted with the 6th and the 2nd (9th).  

It’s much like a lead guitar player that plays the same licks that Jimmy Page did in 1972, we see them as dated, old school, even as a beginner. Yet we accept these 40+ year old melodies when it comes from a singer. Imagine if no one ever played a D chord, and then added a sus4 to it?

When rock and roll broke out in the 50’s, the melodies were different than what had been heard prior.  Compare Benny Goodman/Peggy Lee with Fats Domino or Elvis.

When the Beatles hit, their use of melody (and harmonies) was different yet. Then think about Paul Simon, Queen, Sweet, Boston, even Disco.  When The Police came out, there was nothing comparable to the melodies they were using. Jump ahead to the Grunge movement in 1992. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana, all brought out different melodies than we heard before.  Some may say the melodies were familiar, but the chords accompanying the melody were all new.

See, we also need to understand how chords work with the melodies. An example would be how interchanging the relative major and minor can completely open up how a melody is brought across. Try this: Write a simple melody in E major. Play the E major chord underneath as you sing this simple melody. Now sing it again over a C#m. 

We also need to learn and put into use different scale modes.  My personal favorite is the Mixolydian scale; it’s a major scale with a minor seventh.  What’s yours? Is it time to learn the different scale modes and even develop a favorite one?

My challenge for you is not to necessarily travel the world looking for a strange new melody, or go so left field that Bjork is waving at you to come back, but to simply look for the changes and additions to your melodies that opens up the entire song and takes it to a new level.