Posted by: Corey | February 14, 2012

Does Your Song Have An X-Factor?

It’s time to learn how to put an x-factor in your song! You might be wondering how exactly to do that. Simply put- all you have to do is think of something grandiose and amazing that the other songwriters haven’t thought of 🙂

I realize you might need a bit more clarification than that. Let me start by defining this concept.

First of all, this isn’t a universal notion. It’s something that I’ve personally noticed, and that I decided to name. To me, it’s when a song has a large-scale, completely unique component about it. It’s easier to explain by example.

A normal song will often have instruments strumming chords. A normal song will often have some subtle elements like backing vocals or light percussion to spruce up the track. Nothing that really blows you away or totally stands out from the crowd.

On the other hand:

  • A song with an x-factor might have a 27-person band, complete with horns, woodwinds, traditional rock instrumentation, and a choir!  Such as The Polyphonic Spree’s “Light And Day”.
  • A song with an x-factor might have 10+ vocal tracks at once to create a vocal wall of sound, such as in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
  • A song with an x-factor might have breakbeat electronic drums over a rock instrumentation. Or include an acoustic guitar being played in a slap-style open tuning, such as in the movie “August Rush”.

In other words, think big! Get excited about what you can do with your songs. Brainstorm ideas that you wish you’d hear more often, or that you haven’t heard yet.

As you can see- this mindset can be incredibly powerful. But in keeping with my overarching theme of “songs-are-about-emotion”, these ideas should only be used if they fit. If your song is a soft, tear-jerking ballad, you obviously will want to skip the 4 minute, distorted sitar solo! That said, I’ll now reveal a more subtle application of the x-factor: sometimes what really gives your song that legendary edge isn’t these dramatic ideas. It could be the amount of heart behind the simplest song, or maybe a unique combination of elements that doesn’t sink in until repeated listens. It’s up to your own taste. But it will help to keep the idea in mind that your songs should stand out, that they should be legendary.

You get the idea. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and ask yourself what innovations you could include in your songs that would instantly blow people away!

at said, I’ll now reveal a more subtle application of the x-factor: sometimes what really gives your song that legendary edge isn’t these dramatic ideas. It could be the amount of heart behind the simplest song, or maybe a unique combination of elements that doesn’t sink in until repeated listens. It’s up to your own taste. But it will help to keep the idea in mind that your songs should stand out, that they should be legendary.

You get the idea. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and ask yourself what innovations you could include in your songs that would instantly blow people away!

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Posted by: Corey | February 6, 2012

Learn Music Theory 4 [Melody Rundown]

Hamburg Steinway D-274

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t normally delve too deep into melody, because to me it’s a very subjective topic. But what I do tell people is that the functions are completely different between when a note is being used for a chord, and when it’s being used for a melody.

For instance, the IV chord is one of our easiest to use chords. Remember? But as a melody note, it’s one of the most difficult!

Before I go into the full breakdown, let me explain a little musical idea called tension. If something is unresolved or tense, that means it generally wants to go to a more resolved, stable place. Sounds a little fancy, but you can hear it naturally. Sing Old McDonald out loud. Right now. Do it.

“Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I….” now just leave it hanging without going to that last “O”. Right now you want to hear it “resolve”. Bam.

Now for the full rundown. Melody notes are kinda too vague to try and categorize, but generally it goes kinda like this:

1 – A very resolved sounding note. It sounds at rest. A very basic and simple sound.

2 – A note that adds a sort of heavenly pull in major keys, or a dark flavor in minor. I love it.

3 – Sounds at rest, but not as much as the 1.

4 – Extremely tense sound, hanging on this one too long is dangerous! But don’t neglect it either.

5 – To me, this has a lifted sound. Like it’s soaring almost.

6 – Can be used for dark sounds. But also has a lot of other uses.

7 – Also extremely tense, but that just makes resolving it all the more beautiful!

There you go.

 

Now, using all of this is a little harder. With the chords, you can pretty much just slap them together in any order that sounds good to you, play them for a measure or two each, and you’ll have some workable stuff. But with melodies, it’s not quite that simple.

At this point, people get very into a lot of things that I don’t care to delve to deeply into. We get into strategies that are supposed to help us develop our ideas and focus a song together. Ideas like taking a melodic phrase, and reversing where the high and low notes are (inversion) or trying it backwards (retrograde) or both (retrograde inversion). There’s so many more. And people will look at a song, and pick apart every 3 note strand and categorize what’s happening.

I don’t get into any of that as a part of my personal process, and I’m not really going to get into it on my blog either, and I’ll tell you why. I think that when these great songs are being written, the artists are focused on channeling an emotion, or expressing something, or feeling something. I doubt they’re sitting there analyzing every note that comes out. Now, if you get into a rut, or if you want to give it a spin for kicks, go crazy and try some of that stuff out! But I’d say don’t usually sweat it.

 

Next time, we’re going to get into how I think you actually should write melodies.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Posted by: Corey | February 5, 2012

Learn Music Theory 3 [Chords Explained]

Chords Explained / Chord Theory

Okay, now it’s time for what I’ve been wanting to get to this whole series- what on earth all that all means.

Each of the chords we’ve built have a distinct sound.

Here’s the walkthrough. (These are just my opinions, and I’m sharing them to get you started. You’ll have to play around with these chords on your own time to develop your understanding of them)

I – Your basic, bread and butter starting place. It’s usually home base.

ii – A subdued sounding, kind of strange chord. Great for bridge sections.

iii – A very melancholy, and painfully beautiful chord. A little hard to use.

IV – Peaceful, happy, simple. A very versatile chord.

V – A tense chord, yet also very versatile.

vi – Your basic dark or sad chord.

That’s it. Once I get to this point, I wanna pat people on the back and tell them “You now know most of what you could ever need to know to write pop/rock music.” Which probably angers a lot of musicians. There’s a lot more to the world of music. A LOT MORE. But, you can get away with a TON just by knowing this. Millions of songs are exactly this simple. What you need to do now is learn what these each sound like on your own. The way I’d do it is by playing between the I chord, and other chords over and over. Like I to IV over and over, or I to vi, etc.

And like I said earlier, these chords all relate to each other the same way, no matter what key they’re in.

You know what? I did them for you to hear. You’re welcome 8)

I to ii

I to iii

I to IV

I to V

I to vi

Use these formulas to figure out the scales and chords in other keys! Write some chord progressions! Have fun!

To get you started, the most common rock/pop chord progression is [I – V – vi – IV]. Which in the key of D is [D, A, Bm, G]. (For those of you who don’t know, a chord progression is a set of chords that you play, one after the other.)

Okay. Phew. We’re almost there. The last element in our music theory crash course is: melody.

Posted by: Corey | February 1, 2012

Learn Music Theory 2 [Building Chords]

English: Chord progressions. Français : Progre...

Image via Wikipedia

Now that we’ve learned about what scales can set us up to do, let’s dive into the world of chords. Here’s how to make a basic one.

1. Pick any note from the scale. Using the D scale that we figured out in scales-the formula, we could pick D, E, F#, G, A, B, or C#. Let’s pick D to start with.

2. Now, go two notes up the scale from your starting note- that will be the next note in your chord. (Two notes up from D lands you on F#)

3. Now, go up two more notes, and that will be the final note of your chord. (from F#,  up two more notes gives us A)

4. Play those three notes at once! (D, F#, A)

It sounds complicated, but once you try it out you’ll see it’s actually REALLY easy to get the hang of.

To prove it, I’m going write out all our chords in D, and show you what it looks like:

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

(D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# etc.)

See that format? Pretty easy.

Notice I’m not building a chord off of the 7th scale note, C#. More on that later. Alright, moving on.

Since D is “Do”, or 1 (like we talked about)- the chord we built off of it is the 1 chord. We use roman numerals, though, so it’s called the “I” chord.

Now each of these chords is either major or minor. (Major if the second note is 2 whole steps from the first, minor if it’s 3 half steps away). If it’s major, it gets an uppercase roman numeral. If it’s minor, it gets a lower case roman numeral.

So our chords are.

I – D (D, F#, A)

ii – Emin (E, G, B)

iii – F#min (F#, A, C#)

IV – G (G, B, D)

V – A (A, C#, E)

vi – Bmin (B, D, F#)

Next, we need to learn what these sound like
Please leave a comment and let me know what’s on your mind!
Posted by: Corey | January 26, 2012

Learn Music Theory 1 [More Than Scales]

I’m so excited to start this crash course on music theory from a songwriting perspective. This is how you become able to just listen to a song, then immediately go and play it. This is how you understand what’s actually happening in music, and see it an entirely different way.

Put simply, you’re like Neo at the end of The Matrix. You’re no longer struggling to understand what’s happening and getting tripped up all the time, you’re a masterful ninja who stops bullets with your mind.

And my favorite: this is a giant part of your songwriting process.

Let me level with you though. I know what you’re thinking. We’ve all been there- a couple piano lessons, or being in a school band- and you’re forced to learn a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t really make sense to you. But the problem I have with the way most people teach music theory is this:

If you were going to learn a language, would you just open up a dictionary and start memorizing words? NO! Yet that’s the way we’re taught theory. We don’t learn structure or meanings, we just jump into random facts with no context. And today I want to fix that. Let me preface all of this by saying I’m talking about music theory in terms of modern music and songwriting. Things are VERY different when we’re talking about classical music.

To me, there are two main elements to music: Melody and Chords.

However, before we get to those, we have to start somewhere that you probably already know. But stay with me- I promise I’m going somewhere with it.

Where we have to start is: the scale.

You’ve heard a major scale. I get into more detail on how to make scales here, and if you don’t know how to do make a scale on any note you should DEFINITELY read that article. But for now, lets just say a scale sounds like this

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do

Bam. Most people know that- but here’s what most people don’t know. Each of those notes, in music theory, is assigned a number. “Do” is 1, “Re” is 2, “Mi” is 3, etc.

Now what most people FURTHER don’t know- is that each of those notes can also be the foundation for a chord. There is a specific chord that can be built off of each of these notes.

There’s technically 7 notes in the scale (because there’s 2 “Do’s”, the first and last note are the same). And out of those, I’ll tell you right now we’re usually only going to use 6 of those notes as the foundation for chords in our modern songwriting. And here’s what ROCKS MY WORLD.

Notice I haven’t mentioned a specific key. Once you learn about how these chords work together, they will work together in that same way no matter what key you’re in. This means you don’t have to memorize a ton of scales, or learn about key signatures, or the order of flats and sharps, etc. (even though you should). Just learn about these chords, pick a key to plug them into, and you’re good to go! That’s where we’re heading next.

Please leave a comment and let me know what’s on your mind!

Posted by: Corey | January 24, 2012

Scales Made Easy – The Formula

A scale is a series of ascending or descending notes that usually outline a key. You know what a basic major scale sounds like if you’ve ever heard this:

Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do

To build a scale, we use whole steps and half steps.

Half Step: One note to the next immediate note. This is one key on the piano to the next (INCLUDING black keys), or one fret to the next on guitar. For example:

C to C#

E To F

Whole Step: Two half steps. For example:

C to D

B to C#

To build a scale, pick any note, then use this formula.

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.

or

W-W-H W-W-W-H

So for instance let’s start on D (and get to an instrument to try this out!)

Then a whole step (WWHWWWH) gets you to E.

From there, another whole step (WWHWWWH) gives you F#

Then a half step (WWHWWWH) – G

Then a whole step (WWHWWWH) – A

Then a whole step (WWHWWWH) – B

Then a whole step (WWHWWWH) – C#

Then a half step (WWHWWWH) – D

Bam. D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. There’s a D scale! You can see why its usually recommended that you learn your different scales and what notes are in them. You don’t want to have to walk through this every time you want to jam or write a song! But it’s a great place to start, and you can use this formula to find out every note in every key 🙂

Posted by: Corey | January 20, 2012

How To Write Lyrics 3 [Lyrics Are Not Poetry]

Often when people first start writing lyrics, they equate good lyricism with intricate lyricism. They take an approach to it that’s more like poetry. Song lyrics and poetry do have a lot of similarities, but they are NOT the same thing.

Something to avoid is that pitfall of making things too complicated and too wordy. When you’re dealing with the medium of song, it’s really easy for things to start sounding convoluted. I’ve mentioned before that I personally like lyrics that are really direct, even to the point of almost being TOO simple. The kind that if you read them on a page, they wouldn’t look like anything special; but in the context of the song it just fits.

And even if you like vague, cryptic lyrics- you’ll often find that the actual wordings and phrasings are still very concise. They just evoke something bigger for your mind to chew on.

The reason I recommend this direct approach is as follows. In poetry, your words have to create the emotions AND send a message. You need to appeal to the senses, create feelings, be descriptive- all with words. But with a song, you have music to provide emotion, which renders the lyrics’ main job to be conveying a message. Adding in too much fluff sounds very transparent and pushes the listener away instead of engaging them.

Now, of course there are appropriate times to use literary devices and flowery language. And my rule for when to use them can be summed in one word: sparingly. Once you’ve got the mindset of keeping things concise, then you can add in a little bit of these other elements. And a little goes a long way.

And if you don’t want to take my word for it- John Mayer did a lecture at Berklee about how a lot of songwriters will say something like “The knight, clad in blazing white medal- (who is I) has only words of longing for his muse. The love of all his days.” as opposed to just “I love you.” I’m paraphrasing because I wasn’t there (a friend told me about it), and this of course is an extreme exaggeration, but you get the point. Would you be more moved if someone said the first sentence to you, or the second? I’m guessing if someone tried that first one you’d probably just stare at them for a couple seconds and then walk away in dead silence. Even though it’s awesome, it sounds like comedy, rather than a heartfelt confession.

A band that strikes the balance perfectly, to me, is Smashing Pumpkins. Look at the lyrics to “Today”, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s mostly comprised of some of the simplest sentences you’ll come across, but in a few sections the wordings get a little more intricate (such as at “Pink ribbon scars”).

 

Here’s a video I made on the topic:

 

Alright that wraps up this blog post. Feel free to drop a comment below and let me know your thoughts!

Posted by: Corey | January 18, 2012

How To Write Lyrics 2 [Analyze]

Alright, tip #2 for writing better lyrics is this: analyze what you’re into. Pull up some lyrics that you think are truly phenomenal, and take a look at them. Are they:

  • Poetic
  • Direct
  • Simple
  • Full of imagery
  • Deep concepts
  • Fun
  • ????

Find 3 words that pinpoint what your favorite things are about these lyrics. The cool part is, you probably won’t have to look at too  many songs before you start to get a clear picture of what it is that you like. For me, I love incredibly simple lyrics with a high emotional content. People have let me know they were taken aback by how direct my lyrics are, and I’ve even been criticized for it. It’s all about what you like.

After you figure out what it is that you like, go to step 1 and practice it! If you like things with a lot of imagery, write a couple of stanzas that are so descriptive they could be a novel 😀 If you like something more intimate, write some lyrics that almost sound like a conversation with a friend, or a journal entry.

And remember, the more you practice the faster your skills will grow!

Here’s a video I made on the subject:

 

The next thing you’ll want to do is understand the differences between lyrics and poetry.

 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Posted by: Corey | January 17, 2012

How To Write Lyrics 1 [Practice]

It’s a common situation where you’ll have a musician who’s great at writing music, but gets completely hung up on writing lyrics. And they might want to delve into lyric writing, but they don’t know where to start and they’re not sure how to approach it. Or maybe you’re an aspiring songwriter who doesn’t even have a handle on music just yet.

So in this post, I’d like to talk about how to write better lyrics for your songs. The most important thing in getting past that initial roadblock of getting started, (AND the most important thing for long-term success), is doing exactly what you did to learn how to play your instrument- practice.

If you sit down for ten minutes a day and you just practice writing out some lines, you’ll actually get a lot better at it. Some things you could write about are:

  • What you’re thinking
  • Something you have to say
  • A scenerio
  • A dream you have
  • A literal dream you had at night

Just practice putting your thoughts down into a form that looks like lyrical stanzas, and that will help you to feel comfortable with the process.

I know this first post sounds a little bit like a cop-out since I’m telling you to do the work. But listen. When I first started out, I got about a stanza of finished lyrics done in a year. And that was good for me 🙂 But the problem was that I was doing what a lot of people do- only occasionally taking a stab at writing, and then trying to come up with something great. You don’t know what you’re doing and you’re pressuring yourself for gold.

The truth is that you have to do the opposite of both of those. Write anything, and write it often. This is how you unlock the ability to be a consistent lyricist.

Here’s a video I made about the subject:

Okay. So practice is the first step. The next thing you’re going to want to learn to do is analyze the lyrics you’re into.

Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts 🙂

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