I always used to think writing a song was easy. You have a verse, a chorus, probably repeat them both again, then another section in the middle, and finally the chorus again with an optional outro. I used to listen to cheesy pop numbers in the 90s such as Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys thinking that as a musician from a classical background, I could write songs like that no problem. However, writing seemingly-simple songs can actually be extremely difficult and challenging. Realising this started me on a road that has since led me through a true song-writing evolution.
Could Mozart write a #1 hit?
People always talk about how classical music is full of geniuses such as Mozart who wrote symphonies when he was four years old, or Beethoven who learnt to feel vibrations after losing his hearing over several decades. However, I highly doubt that either could write a pop song that could become the next big hit!
The fundamental issue here is that classical music is very complex in terms of melodies. You could not, for example, sing along to Mozart’s operas after hearing them once. Furthermore, Mozart’s arias are famous for their sheer difficulty, such as “Queen of the Night” which reaches dizzying heights in terms of vocal range.
Beethoven does have one exception, in that the main melody of the fourth movement of his final symphony, which became known as “Ode to Joy”. It is a very well-known classical tune in the same way as the main melody of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” is famous. However, thousands of musical masterpieces were written before the emergence of pop music and barely any those have stuck in the mind of the general public.
Starting Song Writing
My first songs came after I had spent my school years composing with a pastiche method. In other words, I would take a type of classical music such as an organ fugue, and write my piece in a style that matched. I found it challenging to a degree, but actually classical music can be very restrictive in what you can actually write. You have to follow certain harmonic and melodic structures for a piece to be “correct”. There were times when the harmony I had written was “wrong”, and I had to go back and change several bars of a part in order for it to be “right”.
All of this had to be thrown out of the window when I began to write metal songs in my band.
Suddenly I leapt from these well-defined boundaries and structures to an entirely blank canvas. There are some conventions that metal music sticks to, however metal is a genre that encompasses many styles outside of a simple comfort zone. More on this can be found in my article Metal Vocab 101.
I persevered and more songs came. I could also see a slow improvement in terms of my writing, in that the melodies were catchier and not so based around classical harmonies. However, a big issue I was facing is that I was writing songs based entirely on current influences. My first band was folk metal in its style, but I started incorporating black metal chord progressions because I had started listening to more black metal! This was of course a problem if the band was going to define itself clearly in terms of musical style.
Eventually, that band imploded. I started a project up with the band’s guitarist and we formed Quietus, utilising heavy guitars with electronics. This is known as cyber metal. The guitarist wrote most of the music, but I really developed my song-writing too by writing almost all of my own vocal melodies.
We all know that the vocals in a song are normally the aspect of the song that makes it catchy, and vocals are the thing that the audience most remembers.
Some melodies came instantly and stuck, while others had to be changed over and over again until I was happy. Inspiration was coming only rarely now that I had stopped letting myself be so influenced by my current musical playlist.
A Fresh Start
Things continued to be a bit of a struggle until this year, when I decided to write a song of my own that was completely different in terms of genre. In fact, I still cannot say entirely what genre it is. The song is a ballad with piano, drums and some string pads, and eventually it turns into a power ballad with an epic guitar solo. But my vocals are a mix of old-school rock-and-roll and gospel. The difference, though, between this song and all the other songs and melodies I had come up with, is that this one came 100% naturally.
Writing from the heart or coming up with music “naturally” felt like a very foreign concept to me. I had no idea how to do this. Yet I knew that lots of my favourite artists use this approach frequently.
Freddy Mercury, for example, had a fantastic way of writing music, in that he came up with the initial “skeleton” of the song. That was the “natural” part, in other words it was not forced. It was completely creative. If it sounded good, then it stuck. But if he came up with half a chorus and could not come up with the rest using the same way of thinking, it would be scrapped.
I used to be very scared of scrapping material since I had made the effort of coming up with it. But then I realised that the more I came up with things naturally, the more I would be able to write. I was always told to persevere with my song-writing, or come back to it later, but honestly I cannot think of any song I have written naturally where the song has not been written in one sitting.
I also used to attempt to come up with the entire song in terms of every single part and detail, but frankly that is impossible unless you manage to have the entire song mapped out in your head. Sometimes I do hear entire sections of songs in my head with all the decorations, but it is very tricky to then write it all down. So instead I record the main skeleton of the song. Usually this is in the form of a melody with chords underneath, and I have a general idea for the guitars and drums. Then, just as Mercury did, I go back to the song later and work on it more analytically in order to get the catchy tune to have depth and foundation as an entire song.
The “Natural” Way
This is now my main method and it works far better than any other method I have used so far. I am still finding my style with composition and song-writing, especially as I am quite irregular in my writing. I definitely find it healthy for creativity to improvise on the piano now and then and see what I can come up with.
They say some of the best music is written in a matter of hours and I agree this is true. Several of my more recent songs took only a couple of hours to finish the skeleton. I am now working on them with the rest of Quietus in order to give them the sound we want for them to really come to life.
Remember that everyone’s method is different, but song writing is different from classical composing and ultimately has to be done naturally. It is not something that can be churned out, forced, or done by following rules. Song writing is a very creative art style.
Music relies heavily on the creations of individuals, just like paintings or sculptures. If you follow someone else’s style you will not be as interesting, but more importantly you are not being genuine to yourself.
My final piece of advice is that it does not matter if one of your riffs sounds a bit like something you’ve heard before. Don’t spend hours trying to place where you have heard it either! Pretty much every piece of music uses elements that are borrowed or influenced from other people’s works, and often we do it without thinking.
When writing songs naturally we come up with things that sound right to us and build from there. If you’ve felt limited by the “rules” or struggling for creative ideas, give the “natural” way a try. You will find it far more rewarding to write from the heart than from the head!
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