Why do we like songs? What attracts us and what keeps us there? What’s important?
SongExpresso would of course like to say “everything”, but that may not be realistic (or even always true).
SongExpresso believes that there are three pillars of fantastic. If you don’t have at least one of these that is fantastic, then your song will not be fantastic. But, predictably, SongExpresso just has to ask – is one enough? Why not strive for two? And why be happy until we have all three?
The first is what SongExpresso calls “feeling”. We could call it “soul”, “swing”, “vibe” or anything else: it’s the non-verbal thing that gets you going inside. It’s probably the most important of all and probably the hardest to find. On the other hand, if you get this element right, then people can often happily forget the others. Some artists bring it and add this to whatever good or bad material they’re given. If you’re the songwriter and the artist then you have to bring it yourself (“BYOF”). But even if not, songwriters of course can and should sow the seeds of feeling and design it into the fabric of the song. It’s the performance, the style, the energy that we hear in our minds when writing.
It comes from many places. SongExpresso doesn’t have the secret recipe. But SongExpresso is convinced that, while some are born with more or less natural feeling, is not just about talent. If we know how to experiment and keep learning then we can find the right feeling for any song. Here are just a few SongExpresso techniques. The object here is not to write a text book but to get your imagination flowing. As Tom Waits said – “your hands are like dogs” – they always like to go back to the same familiar places. So here are a few ideas of some different places to go to find the one where your half-written song feels at home.
Let’s kick off with time signature. Take a progression in straight eighth notes 4/4 time (here’s one for free: G-Bm-C-D7) – we might have rock, country, maybe pop. But without changing anything, now play the same in triplets – you now have a different driving, dramatic mood, straddling waltz-time and common time (check out “Home” by Lisa Hannigan). Think also about strumming patterns (or equivalent if not on guitar): down-up-down-up is a really different (jolly?) feel from down-down-down-down (more rocky already). What about double time? Classic example: “All My Loving” by The Beatles. Something of a physical challenge (at least to SongExpresso) but a great weapon to have. Not really about time signatures, but now play “All My Loving” in shuffle feel. Now bossa-nova (great!). Now… you get the picture.
And now for something completely different (jazz lovers please look away now). Try taking our same major key progression (G-Bm-C-D7) and build the 7th onto each chord so we get GM7-Bm7-CM7-D7 (D7 stays a 7 – or does it? Let’s go crazy and make it a 9 – and the next time round a 13! Jazzers may reenter the room). Instant jazz. Or maybe folk. Try this new progression with some of the timing techniques we just mentioned – probably suits the tripleted/shuffle feel, or just some chunk-chunking. Your melody might not work the same now – but mix and match – try going back to the straight major progression and using the m7 – different more complex feeling already for the same melody?
Obviously, we have to talk about tempo. Most songs have a natural beat, but they need to find it (that means YOU need to find it). Remember what you start as a rock song might be a ballad or a dance number, or whatever. Check out “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis – sounds like it’s deliberately been held back a bit, which matches the theme and lyrics. If speeded up it could sound like a happy ditty – totally not appropriate. Leona Lewis’s version is even more deliberate. Now try this – play “New Year’s Day” as an accoustic slow ballad using arpeggios – still sounds good? Admittedly we are listening with familiar ears. Could be a winner at weddings. But would it have been a hit? Probably not.
We haven’t even started on different instrumentation yet – most of us have just one that we know well and habitually compose on – but we all have a whole orchestra in our heads and maybe even bandmembers or friends to experiment with (if your friends happen to be a string quartet or horn section then hang onto them, and never let them go).
The trick is to match the feeling with the theme. The more of these techniques you have, the more likely you are to steer the song towards its correct destiny. Get the music theory you need. Listen to all styles of music with a critical ear. Steal widely and imitate often. Play with others. Ask around. You’ll know the feeling when you feel it. Send us your own favorites. Or your experiences with the ones above.
A few different “feeling” examples to get us going:
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “You get me High”
- Barry Ryan (or The Damned) – “Eloise”
- Badly Drawn Boy – “Something to talk about”
These aren’t that interesting lyrically (“Eloise” is even on SongExpresso’s Rhyme Crime wanted list) or, with the possible exception of “Something to Talk About”, musically. And of course styles and tastes are very personal. But doesn’t each of them have something of that indefinable feeling that really suits the song and that we’re all looking for as composers and listeners? As always, send in your favorites – we’re particularly interested in songs that have “the feeling” but not much else to recommend them…
But don’t forget the other two pillars and to strive for all three together…
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)
Part 3: Lyrics: Always Be Diving For Pearls