So listen. Improving your songwriting skills involve consistency in practice. Write as many songs as you can without caring about whether it is going to be a hit or not. I heard Ed Sheeran say that song writing is very much like letting a dirty water faucet run - you have to write as many bad songs in the beginning (ie. let the mucky water drain out first) before you can start writing great songs (ie. the clean and crisp water that is safe to drink that follows!) But another piece of the puzzle to improving your songwriting is listening. I'm not talking about the type of listening you do when you're driving in your car or have in the background when you're entertaining friends. This is the deep, analytical, and understanding of how you feel while listening. Like practicing, you must incorporate this into your daily music practice regimen and stay consistent.
All musicians alike, we strive to be different, unique and authentic in our sound, in our image and in our brands. As a singer-songwriter, I write and create my own music. To 'create' implies that we conjure something new from thin air void of any previous existence of matter. Is Natalia Chai Music's sound unique? The answer is no and it's not a bad thing. In fact everything that we all create is INSPIRED and BUILT ON what's come before. In the biography tab of an artist's website you will almost always find out about their musical idols and influences and most often you can hear those influences in their songs. For example, Alicia Keys is my spirit animal and when new listener's find out about this they can hear the AK's influence in the songs that I write. I think there is a fear among songwriters that if we get too influenced by someone else's work, that we could be accused of plagiarism, labeled as unoriginal and worst yet be faced with a million dollar lawsuit! YIKES! But when you really think about it, nothing is truly original or unique.
Daily listening for musicians mean that we are modifying our own approach to songwriting in small ways to stay "current" and inspired while seeing how you can make it your own. A lot of these modifications occur on a subconscious level. Deep listening is where you analyze every component of a song and apply what you like to your own writing. In classical music there is a theoretical component called ANALYSIS (which I admit that I failed haha) where we literally analyze every part of the classical score and that's what I am encouraging all musicians and songwriters to do - myself included! So what are we listening for exactly? Choose one of your favourite songs and turn on your curiosity. What makes this song sound the way that it does? Why do I love it? Is this something that I could apply and modify in my own writing?
1) Melody: A memorable melody is called a MOTIF that combines RHYTHM + PITCH.
a) PITCH: Every song has a home "key" that it's written in and will almost always change (or modulate) to at least one or more different keys to keep listener's engaged. Are the notes close together or jump ie. separated by intervals? Are they going up or going down? Are the pitches in the high, middle or lower registers?
b) RHYTHM: Are the notes long or short? Do the notes fall on the down or upbeats, or are they syncopated? Are there breaks between the notes?
2) Chords: In my earlier days I got trapped in using similar chord progressions to the point where I would get confused between my own songs. But after expanding my listening repertoire last year, I started to pick up on some gospel jazz chords that PJ Morton would use, then I would hear what Robert Glasper would do on his tracks then I would hear what Nao Yoshioka's tracks would incorporate and it gave me a whole playbook to experiment with for my own stuff. My newest track, "Ride or Die" I am particularly proud of the bridge that uses neosoul chords and harmonies that I never thought I could come up with! Check it out!
Some questions you may ask while listening are:
How often do the chords change?
How do the verse progression differ from the chorus progression?
How many beats do each chord last?
Over how many measures does the chord progression last?
Are there major and/or minor chords?
Extended chords - 7ths, 9th, 11ths and even 13ths?
Diatonic (notes built from the scale the song is written in) or is there a note that sticks out like a sore thumb?
3) Lyrics: Listen to the message. What is the song about? Listen to the form and structure. Would you describe the lyrical approach as telling a story? A narrative? Is it poetic? Casual? Does the writer write from the 1st or third person perspective?
4) Groove: This component to me ties closely to melody and chords. Many songs can use the same format - for example in R&B the II-V-I progression is a very common formula. What differentiates one song from another? It is the groove or simply put, FEEL. How are the chords and melody expressed by the musicians playing the instrumentation? How is the vocalist singing the words and delivering the message? EMOTION. How does the song make you feel? Happy, sad, angry, hopeful, inspired, relaxed?
Listening to different genres than the one you write is just as important to improving and developing your skills as a songwriter. For me I also listen to classical (I am classically trained in piano as any Asian child), I also listen to folk, some country and international music such as those in Afro-Caribbean Dance such as Merengue, Calypso and Soca and Latin music. How do these different genres express an emotion such as sadness - do the different genres use different chord and rhythmic combinations than I normally would?
Listening to different eras of music will also broaden your scope of music writing. I listen to a lot of Motown and go back to my childhood when I listened to 90s R&B and Pop. Simple vs complex arrangements? What are makeshift sounds prevalent in the 90s music vs today's music?
Being at home more, do not fear! We can utilize this time to LISTEN and learn! I have a feeling we might be in our "new-normal" for at least another 2-3 months so let's make productive use of our time and create our next master piece! Hang in there a little longer ! I hope you all stay..
"smooth, groovy, inspired and believe!"