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Songwriting techniques

Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
I'm curious, is there any other songwriting techniques out there that are used that I'm unaware of. I've taken many songwriting classes and all I've ever heard is four main concepts:
1. Modal Interchange
2.Secondary Dominance
3. Relative Minor
4. ii V I to change keys

Are there any others that anyone can think of, and can you give some examples?
 

stevel

Member
Messages
15,210
FYI, there are other styles than Jazz.

What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to write music? If you are, simply compiling a listing of "songwriting techniques" (these are actually specific techniques used to accomplish specific things and have very little to do with songwriting) isn't going to help you much.

Can you write a melody? There are many great songs that use NONE of these 4 things you listed.

Steve
 

Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
FYI, there are other styles than Jazz.

What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to write music? If you are, simply compiling a listing of "songwriting techniques" (these are actually specific techniques used to accomplish specific things and have very little to do with songwriting) isn't going to help you much.

Can you write a melody? There are many great songs that use NONE of these 4 things you listed.

Steve
Thanks for your response. I'm not even into jazz. I just want to write better songs. More specifically my transitions between sections are just okay. I want to learn some new techniques on how to write better transitions and those were the tips that were given to me by my songwriting professors at Berklee which is primarily a jazz school. I can write a melody fairly well. I know there are great songs that use none of those techniques, I'm just getting bored with the way my songs are coming out and I know there's got to be other ways to accomplish this.

"Go read Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, by Pedler. "

Thanks. I will take a look at that book. But can anyone give a specific example of techniques to transition between sections that are not those 4 that I have listed above?
 

Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
"these are actually specific techniques used to accomplish specific things and have very little to do with songwriting"

can you explain that? how do those techniques have little do with songwriting?
 

Twitchey

Member
Messages
297
a song should have a good concept, intended effect or emotional back bone.

Bear in mind that writing boring dross is a part of song writing: 95% dross, to 5% gold is a ratio for even great song writers.

Keep on writing, listening to cool stuff and get connected (emotionally, in a vulnerable way) with your feelings.

Be positive, tell yourself what kind of song you want to write (send the message from your conscious mind to your sub conscious) and have faith that the song will come.
 

JonR

Member
Messages
15,699
Thanks for your response. I'm not even into jazz. I just want to write better songs. More specifically my transitions between sections are just okay. I want to learn some new techniques on how to write better transitions and those were the tips that were given to me by my songwriting professors at Berklee which is primarily a jazz school.
OK.
You do realise it's Secondary "Dominants", not "Dominance"? You know what they are and how they work?
And you know how the others work?

I ask because they are not all distinct from each other - there is some overlap.
I can write a melody fairly well. I know there are great songs that use none of those techniques, I'm just getting bored with the way my songs are coming out and I know there's got to be other ways to accomplish this.
Different transitions may not be the answer .;)
"Go read Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, by Pedler.
I second that recommendation. As huw says, it's not just about the Beatles, but contains very accessible guides on general rules of theory relevant to popular music.
But can anyone give a specific example of techniques to transition between sections that are not those 4 that I have listed above?
I'd re-list them (and expand on them) as follows:

1. Modal Interchange. Most commonly, between parallel major or minor. This is not only a transitional device between sections, but a source of borrowed chords. In rock major keys it's conventional to borrow chords from the parallel minor.

2. Secondary Dominants. This is more a jazz thing than a rock thing, and - again - it's not about transitions between sections, but about providing stronger moves to chords in the same key.
In jazz, you'll also find "secondary supertonics" (every V7 chord seems to get its own ii7 chord before it), and "secondary leading tone chords" (dim7s usually).
You'll also find "tritone substitutes" for any V7: dom7-type chords resolving down a half-step instead of down a 5th (or up a 4th).
Tritone subs are common in the jazzier kind of blues tunes, but rare in pop and rock.
Most common SD is V/V, which occurs a lot in country music, and in country-influenced rock.

3. Relative minor or major. Probably one of the commonest modulations between sections. Commonly achieved by preceding with the V7 of the new key - which is a secondary dominant in the old key. Eg, to go from C major to A minor, insert an E7 (followed by Am of course). To get back to C major, insert a G7.

4. ii-V-I to change keys. This is definitely a jazz thing, although does occur in pop (eg in Beatles songs). Rare in rock. When rock songs modulate they can often do so with no preparation, no "transition". That's because rock values dramatic moves, and ii-V-Is tend to sound smooth, if not downright cheesy.
ii-Vs can of course be used in relative key changes (#3 above) and - as mentioned - with secondary dominants.
There is no limit as to what keys you can move to. As well as relative minor (or major), there is:
(a) the parallel key of the relative key (eg from C major to A major) or vice versa.
(b) up or down a 4th or 5th (the closest key, only one note different; eg C to F or G).
(c) up or down a minor or major 3rd (eg C to Eb, E, A or Ab).
(d) to the relative minors (or majors) of (b) or (c).
As mentioned, you don't always need a transitional "preparation" - although it helps if going to a close key (up a 4th or 5th) because otherwise it's hard to tell you've actually changed key.

5. The "truck-driver's modulation". This a time-worn cliche, whereby a song is shoved up a half-step (like a crude gear change, hence the name), at the point where it's risking becoming boring. No new section, just the same old verses/choruses, moved bodily up a half-step, as a way making the same old stuff seem fresh. It may or may not be preceded by the V of the new key.
It's not always tasteless or amusing. Otis Redding's "I Been Loving You Too Long" does it effectively.
If you want to hear the most audacious use of the TDM, check out Bobby Darin's Mack The Knife - it contains 5 of them in around 3 minutes. That's what I call chutzpah. ;)
Some people also include a move up a whole step under this title, but that's a little more sophisticated, IMO.
 
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Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
OK.
You do realise it's Secondary "Dominants", not "Dominance"? You know what they are and how they work?
And you know how the others work?

I ask because they are not all distinct from each other - there is some overlap.
Different transitions may not be the answer .;)
I second that recommendation. As huw says, it's not just about the Beatles, but contains very accessible guides on general rules of theory relevant to popular music.

I'd re-list them (and expand on them) as follows:

1. Modal Interchange. Most commonly, between parallel major or minor. This is not only a transitional device between sections, but a source of borrowed chords. In rock major keys it's conventional to borrow chords from the parallel minor.

2. Secondary Dominants. This is more a jazz thing than a rock thing, and - again - it's not about transitions between sections, but about providing stronger moves to chords in the same key.
In jazz, you'll also find "secondary supertonics" (every V7 chord seems to get its own ii7 chord before it), and "secondary leading tone chords" (dim7s usually).
You'll also find "tritone substitutes" for any V7: dom7-type chords resolving down a half-step instead of down a 5th (or up a 4th).
Tritone subs are common in the jazzier kind of blues tunes, but rare in pop and rock.
Most common SD is V/V, which occurs a lot in country music, and in country-influenced rock.

3. Relative minor or major. Probably one of the commonest modulations between sections. Commonly achieved by preceding with the V7 of the new key - which is a secondary dominant in the old key. Eg, to go from C major to A minor, insert an E7 (followed by Am of course). To get back to C major, insert a G7.

4. ii-V-I to change keys. This is definitely a jazz thing, although does occur in pop (eg in Beatles songs). Rare in rock. When rock songs modulate they can often do so with no preparation, no "transition". That's because rock values dramatic moves, and ii-V-Is tend to sound smooth, if not downright cheesy.
ii-Vs can of course be used in relative key changes (#3 above) and - as mentioned - with secondary dominants.
There is no limit as to what keys you can move to. As well as relative minor (or major), there is:
(a) the parallel key of the relative key (eg from C major to A major) or vice versa.
(b) up or down a 4th or 5th (the closest key, only one note different; eg C to F or G).
(c) up or down a minor or major 3rd (eg C to Eb, E, A or Ab).
As mentioned, you don't always need a transitional "preparation" - although it helps if going to a close key (up a 4th or 5th) because otherwise it's hard to tell you've actually changed key.

5. The "truck-driver's modulation". This a time-worn cliche, whereby a song is shoved up a half-step (like a crude gear change, hence the name), at the point where it's risking becoming boring. No new section, just the same old verses/choruses, moved bodily up a half-step, as a way making the same old stuff seem fresh. It may or may not be preceded by the V of the new key.
It's not always tasteless or amusing. Otis Redding's "I Been Loving You Too Long" does it effectively.
If you want to hear the most audacious use of the TDM, check out Bobby Darin's Mack The Knife - it contains 5 of them in around 3 minutes. That's what I call chutzpah. ;)
Some people also include a move up a whole step under this title, but that's a little more sophisticated, IMO.
But i like my secondary dominants to dominate. DOMINANCE. That makes more sense. Thanks for the detailed response. Exactly what I was looking for.
 

cameron

Member
Messages
4,284
5. The "truck-driver's modulation". This a time-worn cliche, whereby a song is shoved up a half-step (like a crude gear change, hence the name), at the point where it's risking becoming boring.
Heh. I've never heard that term before. I learned that one from an old friend under the name "Barry Manilow change". The old friend in question had presumably noticed the prevalence of that move in Barry Manilow's oeuvre.

That move can actually be quite impressive in a hard-driving stripped-down Ramones-ish arrangement of a pop song.
 

stevel

Member
Messages
15,210
Thanks for your response. I'm not even into jazz. I just want to write better songs.
Those items on the list had a decidedly "jazz-tinged" wording.

To write better songs, try learning the songs of the masters, tearing them apart to figure out what's going on, absorb what you like, and try your hand at writing your own that incorporate those things you find cool about the others.


More specifically my transitions between sections are just okay.
MOST transitions are just "okay". In pop music transitions are more of a non-issue as they just kind of go by. Transitions are the hardest thing (or the weakest point) of even most trained classical type composers, but again, the pop music world doesn't necessarily demand great transitions - a "hook" is more important and where most of the emphasis is placed.

I want to learn some new techniques on how to write better transitions and those were the tips that were given to me by my songwriting professors at Berklee which is primarily a jazz school. I can write a melody fairly well. I know there are great songs that use none of those techniques, I'm just getting bored with the way my songs are coming out and I know there's got to be other ways to accomplish this.
Go back to square one then. WHAT about your songs are making you bored?

No offense to all the jazz players out there, but somehow jazz pedagogy seems to get over simplified into "hip chord changes" and "hip scales to play over said chord changes". Many jazz players to me are like the comedian/actor Robin Williams. If you've ever seen him in an interview, he can not sit still, he can not be quiet, he can not be serious, and he can not not crack a joke. He's like a hyperactive kid. A lot of jazz players I know are like this - you show them a chord progression and the first thing they say is "wouldn't it be cool to add this extension" and "wouldn't this be a hip substitution"... They can't not embellish (disclaimer - this is of course not true of everyone and can be true in other genres as well, but it seems to be a bigger distraction with people who like to play/listen to jazz).

If you're into that, great.

But you also might want to look at the standards before they were "corrupted" so to speak.
"Go read Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles, by Pedler. "
Yes, good suggestion.


Thanks. I will take a look at that book. But can anyone give a specific example of techniques to transition between sections that are not those 4 that I have listed above?
Go analyze some Mozart. He has the most brilliant transitions between sections. The Beatles do too. In a sense, they use a process where one section "becomes" the next section rather than simply a new section just happening.

And if we all could do that effectively, we might all be closer to the level of The Beatles and Mozart!

Steve
 

stevel

Member
Messages
15,210
"these are actually specific techniques used to accomplish specific things and have very little to do with songwriting"

can you explain that? how do those techniques have little do with songwriting?
It's like listing I-ii as a "songwriting technique".

Modal interchange just means you use a chord from the parallel minor in a major key, such as bIII, minor iv, etc. They help you produce "different" or potentially "unusual" sounds, but they're just chord progressions.

Remember - what's copyrightable about songs? NOT the chord progression.

My point about Jazz and even the way most people write music nowadays in many styles is they spend so much time worrying about the chord progression when really, that's the least important aspect of the song.

Your list should look more like:

1. Lyrics (unless writing instrumentals)
2. Melody
3. Setting
4. Form

A little further down the list would be things like "mood" and "texture" and then further down at the bottom would be "notes" and "chord progression".

In other words, the way people "songwrite" is kind of bass ackwards from the way it *should* or at least *traditionally* has been done. That doesn't mean any other method is wrong because as long as the means is to the end that is "the song", then it's the right means. Also, of course, many times elements are created "simultaneously" or "improvisationally" but sitting down writing down a string of chords and then doing stuff like saying, "this is my verse" and "this is my chorus" and "here's the bridge" without any melody or lyrics is, for all intents and purposes, putting the cart before the horse.

Best,
Steve
 

stevel

Member
Messages
15,210
But i like my secondary dominants to dominate. DOMINANCE. That makes more sense. Thanks for the detailed response. Exactly what I was looking for.
Secondary Dominants are said to, in academic theory texts and studies, "intensify" a chord.

So when you see a V "applied to" the V of a key (V/V) the composer is "intensifying" the V. Calling attention to it.

This is generally done in tonal music to do a couple of things:

Point to a secondary key area, for relief or change.
"Play with the listener" - trick you into thinking a new key might be coming - a surprise.
Set up a modulation or transition that will come later - a "precedent" so to speak.
To emphasize a particular melody note.
To add "drive" to a certain point, introduce chromatic voice-leading, because it sounds cool, introduce a sequence, because it's commonplace in a certain form, etc. etc.

In other words, most of the time, composers don't just stick one of these things in to be sticking them in because they felt like their music needed "sprucing up". They do it for a *musical* reason. Its inclusion *serves the song*.

A good example might be Jimmy Buffet's song "Pencil-Thin Moustache". The song is about wanting a "return to the old days". The chord progression is a lift from things like "5 foot 2, eyes of blue". Why? Because he wanted that kind of sound. He could of chosen a blues-based chord progression but it wouldn't have gone with the lyrics. So the secondary dominants Buffet used weren't really for using secondary dominant, but for the entire cliched chord progression that gave it that "old-timey" sound (especially to listeners of that generation and his audience in general) and it works brilliantly. It's not unlike "When I'm 64".

Best,
Steve
 

Hotspur

Member
Messages
375
In other words, the way people "songwrite" is kind of bass ackwards from the way it *should* or at least *traditionally* has been done. That doesn't mean any other method is wrong because as long as the means is to the end that is "the song", then it's the right means. Also, of course, many times elements are created "simultaneously" or "improvisationally" but sitting down writing down a string of chords and then doing stuff like saying, "this is my verse" and "this is my chorus" and "here's the bridge" without any melody or lyrics is, for all intents and purposes, putting the cart before the horse.
This. This. This.

I've found that in my songwriting, I can't control where the inspiration comes from -a chord progression, a fragment of a melody or rhythm from another song, or whatever -

- but I have found that I have the best results when I take that initial seed and then focus on melody.

Chords? Chords are easy when you have a melody. The reverse is not the case.

Work on your ear, and then when you're writing a song listen. What do you WANT to hear?

The sounds you want to hear will be a function of the sounds you have an internal mastery of. You expand that palate by honing your ear, listening to songs that contain these concepts until you can hear them in practice. (The plethora of examples is why the Pedler book is so good. You work through it slowly, making sure you can hear everything before you move on).
 

Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
There have been a lot of great responses. Steve, thanks for clearing up Secondary Dominants for me. Regarding starting with something other than the chord progression, let's say i have some lyrics, with a melody in mind, in AABA form and the melody is in A minor. How do you write chords around a melody? Whenever I've tried to write over anything but a chord progression I feel lost. any suggestions?
 

Hotspur

Member
Messages
375
There have been a lot of great responses. Steve, thanks for clearing up Secondary Dominants for me. Regarding starting with something other than the chord progression, let's say i have some lyrics, with a melody in mind, in AABA form and the melody is in A minor. How do you write chords around a melody?
Simple.

Identify the notes in the melody.

Now identify the stressed notes.

Harmonize those stressed notes with chords that contain them, or add with those notes to create new chords which have the emotional effect you want.

For example, we're in the key of G. I want to harmonize a C note. The most obvious choices are: C major (C is root), Am (C is third), F major (modal interchange, C is fifth. In jazz a F#dim might happen here but we tend not to use diminshed chords in this way in rock and pop). D7 is also a possibility (C is the 7th).

If you play a D chord over the C melody note you're playing a D7 chord between the two together.

Now, you don't have to change every note - you vary your harmonic rhythm for a reason - and part of the art of songwriting is finding chords that support the emotional content of the song.

When people start this, they tend to harmonize the roots, because it's easiest to hear. But as your ear develops, you'll find it easier to harmonize the other notes in a chord, too.
 

Twitchey

Member
Messages
297
Sorry guys but i really feel that a good song cannot be reverse engineered by analysing music theory.

... most of what is being discussed here seems how to be about embellishing chordal arrangements. Which is an interesting topic in itself ... But nothing to do with the art of writing a song.

Remember the part in George Orwell's 1984 where the protagonist describes listening to a washerwoman singing a machine generated popular tune?

OP, that is the logical extension of approaching song writing using the 'techniques' you mention.

I think that you should find something to actually say in your songs and work from there. Limit yourself to I IV V type progressions until you come up with something you are proud of and then expand your chordal repertoire.

I also think that it could be helpful for those giving advice to show examples of their song writing to show where they are coming from in this topic?
 

Mattskito

Member
Messages
9
Sorry guys but i really feel that a good song cannot be reverse engineered by analysing music theory.

... most of what is being discussed here seems how to be about embellishing chordal arrangements. Which is an interesting topic in itself ... But nothing to do with the art of writing a song.

Remember the part in George Orwell's 1984 where the protagonist describes listening to a washerwoman singing a machine generated popular tune?

OP, that is the logical extension of approaching song writing using the 'techniques' you mention.

I think that you should find something to actually say in your songs and work from there. Limit yourself to I IV V type progressions until you come up with something you are proud of and then expand your chordal repertoire.

I also think that it could be helpful for those giving advice to show examples of their song writing to show where they are coming from in this topic?
There's definitely some truth to that. Obviously songwriting isn't a one size fits all. I think some people can "reverse engineer" as you put it, and others just have a hard time doing it. I was a ****** guitar player until I learned a little bit of theory and it took me a long way til I eventually became the mediocre guitar player that I am today. So that's where I'm starting from, so I figure why not start from where I'm comfortable?
 

ksandvik

Member
Messages
6,328
The more tools you have in your toolbox (i.e. chords and scales in your brain), the more you could improvise and find new melody lines and song structures.
 

Hotspur

Member
Messages
375
Sorry guys but i really feel that a good song cannot be reverse engineered by analysing music theory.
It's not about "reverse engineering" anything. It's about getting various sounds into your head.

If all you know "secondary dominants" as is a definition in a textbook, then you don't know them at all. You know them when you can hear them in practice. (Not be be a shill, but part of why I think the Pedler book is so great is because he explains things in good-sized chunks with a ton of practical examples, to help you get the concept in your ear.)

Because my experience is that the ideas that I can hear in practice are the ones that spontaneously appear in my songwriting. I don't make choices like "Oh, I'll transition to the relative major here," rather, once I understood the concept of relative majors and minors (in the sense of being able to HEAR what those changes sounded like) I found myself using them automatically in my songwriting.
 




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