When you’re writing a new song you’ll often start out with the seed of an idea. This could be a melody, it could be a chord progression, it could even be an overall idea of the sound of the song.
More often than not, this seed becomes the “theme” of the song for you – and often for the listener too. But how do you go beyond that simple seed and grow it into a full theme?
Before we continue, let’s clarify this word “theme”. We’re not using it in the traditional classical music way, where “theme” essentially means “melody”: a simple motif that’s repeated and defines the piece.
We’re going to use the word in a more general sense. “Theme” is the character of your song or non-vocal track. It could be some recognizable melody, meaningful lyrics or the overall mood of the track. It’s important because it makes the track unique and it usually establishes the connection with the listener. It’s the thing they’ll remember immediately when they think of your track.
There are various techniques for developing your theme. Some happen before composing and some in the process of composing. This article will present you with a step-by-step guide on how any composer or song-writer can create a powerful theme for their track.
Many composers first develop the overall mood of their new track in their mind and this acts as the theme. Whether they find some random inspiration or want to express particular emotions, it all starts as a hazy idea or feeling in the imagination.
That’s why if you’re starting from a completely blank slate, it’s recommended to sit down and think about the main mood theme of your track.
Think about the motive of the track: what emotions you would like to express, what kinds of chords you want to hear harmonically, are there any specific lyrics or words you would like to include.
You don’t have to sit in your studio while doing this. In fact it’s better not to! The best ideas are always generated while on the move exploring the world. Go to see a movie, take a ride on your bike or make a camping trip with your friends. You’re sure to discover some new moods to inspire your new track.
Once you have a mood in mind you can begin to compose, choosing your melody, harmony, instrumentation and audio effects to craft that mood in music.
Key and Harmony
Another area which has a major effect on your track’s theme is the key and scale you choose to use. This determines which chords you’ll use and also has an impact on the melody.
As a simple example, it is generally the case that major scales sound happy and uplifting whereas minor scales sound more sad and depressing. This means that choosing one type of scale can create particular emotion to your composition.
Additionally, different keys are thought to have different emotional resonances. This was more strongly believed in earlier times when instrument tuning was different but it is still worth considering today. In particular, choosing a different key may affect the note range you end up using on an instrument or with your singer, and that can strongly affect the sound they produce.
Although emotions relating to each key is a very subjective topic, there have been many attempts to describe the feelings on each scale. If you want to get wider look into the particular topic, it is highly recommended to read Christian Schubart’s “A History of Key Characteristics”.
Here are three examples of full octaves of major and harmonic minor scales in the keys of C, G and A, so you can feel the emotional difference between them:
For most tracks, the listener will remember the melody as its theme. Some examples which first come to mind would be TV Theme Songs such as The X-Files, Knight Rider or The Addams Family. You can probably immediately imagine the melody of each in your mind! But you can probably also remember the overall mood of the track, demonstrating that theme is broader than simply melody.
Some may ask what makes those tracks so famous and recognizable.
Creating such memorable themes is not easy, especially if you are beginner. To get you started it is recommended to choose a chord progression, and then improvise around them trying to come up with some melodic ideas.
Record yourself as you improvise and then listen back later on. Try to find the parts that sound harmonically and melodically great to your ear. Wait a few hours and see if you can still remember any of the melodies. Wait a day and check again. If any have stuck in your head that’s a strong sign that they are suitable for use as a theme.
Then you can refine the melody from there. Edit out any weaker parts. Try changing some single notes to spice it up or switch positions of some parts or repeat them to fill in any missing areas. Soon you will have a complete and memorable melodic theme!
If your new music track is in fact a song, then the lyrics can create the theme verbally. Lyrics can create a strong theme for a track, because they give the track such specific meaning and can quickly create a connection with listener.
Your song could be about anything: love, loneliness, happiness, sunset, sorrow, your best friend; basically anything which comes to your mind and feels inspiring.
As most famous song-writers believe, the best lyrics tend to come from the particular moment. You have to feel it. Clearly you might not have the opportunity to write length lyrics in every situation in life – but when you have that moment of inspiration try to at least jot down a quick sketch of the idea; you will have time to develop it into full lyrics later.
When you’re ready, relax and make yourself comfortable and start to write as many details as you can. Try to remember all the feelings you felt. Don’t push yourself, as there are no right or wrong ways to write lyrics.
After you have done this “braindump” of ideas and feelings you can begin to refine, edit, and re-arrange your lyrical ideas to form lines, verses, choruses, until eventually you have a full song.
Take it step by step and you will see, the lyrics will gradually become better than you first expected. Try to stay abstract: the more colorful you let your imagination be, the more unique your final lyrics (and hence song theme) will be.
If you struggle to create the theme of a track based on the methods described above, just try to express your emotions in any way possible. Maybe you just met the love of your life, maybe you just lost someone very close to you or maybe you feel scared and lost inside. These are all powerful emotions and could serve you very well to develop the theme of a new track.
If you keep a diary, just write down how you’re feeling in as much detail as possible. Or, if you don’t like to write, try just recording yourself talking about it. Find a quiet private place and use your mobile phone or computer software to record audio (or video) and just spill out everything that’s on your mind and in your heart.
There is the famous saying: “Music is what feelings sound like” – so go ahead and try to set it down on paper or recording first, and later you can turn it into a track. This has the benefit of capturing the moment while allowing you some time and space to start to feel comfortable using those powerful emotions for creating music.
If you don’t find any inspiration for a theme inside yourself, you can also draw it from other people. Start developing the theme of the track by listening to famous speeches in them. This can be very effective because they are usually based on powerful ideas and feelings about war, humanity, faith, equality, freedom and bravery. Here are some examples of famous speeches which might inspire you:
Search YouTube for “inspiring speech” or even something more specific like “love inspiration” and you’re sure to find plenty of fresh ideas.
One more way to find inspiration for the theme of your new composition can come from a book or movie. Let’s say you’ve been reading an amazing book with a love story. Imagine yourself inside it, gather all your feelings, choose an appropriate scale like described above, get inspired by the love language to write lyrics, etc. When you feel like you’re in the mood yourself, the theme of the track will emerge automatically.
Stay focused – and don’t give up!
When developing the theme, the most important part is to find and capture your inner feelings and use your composition skills to express those emotions into music. This takes a lot of practice but will improve continually as you work on your compositions.
Don’t worry if you can’t find a good theme at first try. Although you are not yet writing the track, developing a theme can actually be considered the hardest part of composing, as this stage will determine the potential of your final result.
And remember: if you are feeling out of inspiration for your new track’s theme, leave composing aside. Go for a walk in the nearest forest or play sports with friends. Expose yourself to new activities, new books, movies and music, new people. In this way your creativity levels will be boosted and you are sure to come back with some fresh ideas, ready to continue work on developing an incredible new theme for your new track.
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