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Music Theory Tricks Used in Hit Songs

Music Theory tricks used in hit songs

Try out these music theory tricks

Songwriting is often simultaneously one of the most magical and frustrating parts of being a musician. Sometimes, the best songs seem to appear in our heads without prompting and demand to be written down before they disappear, while other times great songs take forever to finish and are nothing but hard work.

Musically speaking, there is another way to write great songs: You can learn the theory behind them that helps make them work. Here are a few common music theory tricks that are frequently used in hit songs.

Magical Chord Combinations

One of the most frustrating challenges when writing songs can be finding the right chords to play. So here’s music theory trick number one: Understanding harmonic function. This is extremely helpful to know because it tells you how chords are related and which chords sound “best” together.

For instance, if you are building a chord progression in C major, knowing chord function tells you that the following chords can be mixed and matched together in whatever order: C, D-, E-, F, G, A- and (sometimes) B diminished. You can know this because the key of C major provides seven notes to build chords on. If you know how to build chords, you can then combine the seven chords in C major however you like.

I can go further and categorize these chords into three basic groups based on how they function in my ear: tonic, dominant and predominant. Tonic is typically the most relaxed, dominant is usually tense, and predominant chords are somewhere in between. This helps me choose chords for my song based on how much tension I want to hear.


Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are at work in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs


Harmonic Sequences

One of the most effective music theory tricks you can use to develop strong chord progressions is to create a harmonic sequence. All that means is that you play a set of chords (usually inside a particular key) whose root notes (the notes the chords are built on) follow a particular interval pattern.

For instance, a common harmonic sequence uses the interval of a fourth. if I wanted to create this chord sequence in C major, I might start with a C major chord and follow it with chords that are each a fourth above C (F, B diminished, E-, A-, D-, G, C). Doing this creates a strong expectation in the listener’s ear that can make your chord progressions feel exceptionally strong. Pachelbel’s Canon is a well-known example of this.

Read more here http://hitmusictheory.com

How Music Theory Can Improve Your Songwriting

Improve your songwriting

Songwriting is often a mysterious, transcendental experience when it is going well. It can also be one of the most challenging and frustrating creative experiences in music. Often, songwriting seems almost like a spiritual place we must magically arrive at through some sort of weird set of unexpected and inspirational circumstances – but it is also a craft that can be learned and improved on by building the skills to catch the inspiration when it hits and to create inspiration when it seems far away. 

Understanding and being able to apply music theory is enormously helpful in this process and can help you improve your songwriting. Here are a few of the big ways it can help.

Find the Best Chord for Your Song

How many times have you sat down, written inspired lyrics, strummed the first chord, started to sing and then found it impossible to find the next chord you hear in your head? Music theory can save you in this situation by helping you learn to name and identify what you hear in your head so that it is easier to find the right chord. 

A major aspect of music theory is describing the way a chord functions inside a key – or how it interacts with all the other notes and chords. By developing your ear to hear these functions, you can learn to identify what you hear in your head and, in turn, play it on your instrument. You can also find great inspiration and ideas this way by thinking about which chords or chord functions you haven’t used as much and beginning with them when you write a new song.


Start learning music theory and see how the concepts are used in modern music. Download the free ebook – Inside the Hits: The Music Theory Behind 10 Hit Songs


Find the Strongest Pitches for Your Melodies

There is never a substitute for singing as a way to create melodies, but after singing melodies for a while, you may find yourself becoming stuck and not being able to find a new melody that seems “right”. One of the best ways to address this and to improve your songwriting is to understand how melodies fit inside chords.

Without often realizing it, we usually sing melodies made up of notes that come directly from the chords we play. Learning music theory provides a way to identify and describe the way we hear a melody and expand on it. For instance, you might find that a lot of your melodies come from the notes in the first chord of a scale. If that is the case, you can expand your melodic ideas by building melodies from notes in other chords in your song. Exploring theory intentionally like this can open up a huge range of melodic options that work well.

Find the Most Exciting Rhythms for Your Band

Great chords and great melodies often aren’t worth a thing until the groove being played underneath them makes people want to dance. Finding this groove depends on your understanding of rhythm – and music theory can help you with that too. 

Think about how you feel the beat underneath your song. How is it broken up? Are the rhythms you’re playing built out of eighth notes? Sixteenth notes? Triplets? How much space is there? Does it feel very even and straight or does it feel laid back like a heavy hip-hop groove? These are all rhythmic concepts explored in theory as well. Knowing how to identify and talk about them will give you all the power you need to write and communicate what you want to your band and help them play with a powerful groove that supports your song.

Read more here: http://hitmusictheory.com

Eight ways to start your next song

What is the best way to start writing a new song? Opinions differ but sometimes all you need is a new idea! Here are eight ways to start your next song.

New Artist Model member Lee Pat asked a number of songwriters and teachers 2 questions:

1. What is YOUR favourite way of starting a song?

and

2. What is the BEST way to start – lyrics, melody or chords?

You’ll notice no.2 is a trick question. So it’s even better that experience does the talking:

songwriters kickstart

Matt Blick

1. I usually start with the germ of a lyric idea – a few lines, a concept, occasionally a title. Then I’ll brainstorm or free write trying to come up with as much raw material as I can, not attempting to make it rhyme or fit into any particular structure. When I’ve totally exhausted that, I’ll begin to try and work it into musical shape. So the answer is I begin with a few pages of lyrical raw material.

2. The best place to start is with the most important element for your musical style. If you’re a rocker – it’s riffs and chord sequences. If you’re a folk troubadour, a praise and worship musician, a political protestor or a rapper – it’s lyrics. If you’re a dance or pop artist, it’s probably melody.

What I think is more important is not to let the initial element get too developed before your start to bring in the other things. Generally, the later one element is added, the worse it will be – sometimes to the detriment of the whole song. Or at least your options will be severely limited. For example, some bands (Rush, Manic Street Preachers) write an entire track without vocals while one member writes an entire lyric without melody. It’s then left to the singer to fit together. This often has an effect of the lyrics feeling shoehorned into the song with uncomfortable rhythms and melody.

Other bands (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin) write and record an entirely finished track and then leave the singer to write lyrics and a melody over the top. But having everything set severely limits the singer in terms of keys, tempos and arrangement. It can also have the side effect of a band having to guess from the backing track whether the song is going to be worth recording.

Writers who produce complete lyrics before music (like Dylan) could fall into a similar trap. The reason Dylan generally doesn’t is because he is aware of poetic structures etc. and writes with specific patterns in mind. However, this still limits you to a few standard schemes where a particular melody might push you in a new direction.

Key insights: start with the most important element for your style, brainstorm for raw material, don’t overdevelop one element before you bring in the rest.

Matt Blick is a songwriter and musical educator from Nottingham, England, and the founder of Beatles Songwriting Academy. Check out his Tickets to Write and his podcast!

 

The Dust Warrior

1. My favorite way of starting a song is with the bass.

In the genres of music I work in (post hardcore, indie, alternative), the bass is a critical part of driving the lyric. It sounds counter intuitive, but listen to anything by Stevie Wonder and you’ll see what I mean.

The bass is also the least complicated instrument on which to develop a vocal melody.  If you can work out the chord progressions on a bass (the root notes under a melody you are singing), it makes it a lot easier to work on where else the melody should go. The bass is monophonic and you can better sense where the vocal melody wants to go, because you are not jamming yourself up with the bazillion voicings you can play on a six string guitar or on the piano.

This is by no means the only way that a song gets written, but it’s my favorite way to start.

2. The best way to start writing a song is to have a deadline for having a song finished. Working backwards from there, go with whatever hook first appeared in your mind (lyric, melody, chord progression) and develop the rest of the song from that. A hook would be anything repeatable that catches the ear – a riff on a guitar (like the opening of Whole lotta love – probably one of the most widely recognized hooks ever stolen and exploited by white guys from the UK), a bass line or a sung melody – the thing that makes you keep going and that you think the listener is going to dig when they hear the song.

Be sure to consider the listener and give them a reason to stick around. In my experience as both a fan and creator of songs, that’s something that’s going to get me to play the song again, most likely a big vocal refrain. But it could be a certain musical riff that repeats really well. I’m a sucker for anything that really grabs your attention and makes you move your body.

For example, Let the rhythm hit em by Eric B and Rakim or Snap your fingers, snap your neck by Prong. Or even better – the “When you’re down, it’s a long way up” part of the bridge in the No new tale to tellsong by Love and Rockets.

Key insights: work to a deadline, start with a hook, write with the bass.

The Dust Warrior is a Los Angeles based producer and artist, previously the driving force behind trip-hop New York duo Subtech, described by Mix Magazine as “Beck with a probation officer”. He also writes and performs with the only known US Citizen French Pop-Punk band Tour de France who will be releasing their third album in 2016.

 

Kevin Thomas

1. Sitting on the couch with an acoustic guitar and a notebook, putting together chords, melodies, and lyrics, is a very familiar way for me to write. So, to break out of the box with my creativity, I will often push myself into other ways to write: creating melodies on the piano, sitting at the park writing only lyrics, experimenting with music notation software, playing bass and singing, searching for unique electric guitar effects, etc.

Having a regular routine for writing is very important to keep you from being unproductive as a writer, but it is just as important to break out of that routine with less familiar ways of writing. This will keep you productive, while expanding your creative boundaries at the same time. Another way to expand your boundaries is to mix solo writing, co-writing, and writing with a band.

2. I think that there are more than three ways to start a song. You could start with chords, lyrics, or melody, but you could also start with a drum beat, a sound effect, an unusual instrument, a concept, and quite a few other methods. There really is no best way to start a song, so long as your final product has all the major components of a finished song.

Key insights: have a routine and routinely break out of it, write with a co-writer or with a band, start with tools you’re less familiar or comfortable with.

Kevin Thomas is the owner of Songwriting Planet, an online education company that teaches the craft of songwriting, and is a renowned singer/songwriter. Check out his new course on how to make your average songs awesome!

 

Ari Herstand

1. I always start my songs with chords and melodies first and then add lyrics to fit the melody. Music is the most important aspect of a song to me and what I listen to first when I fall in love with songs. However, lyrics are extremely important to me as well. I’ll edit and reedit lyrics (and melodies) 100 times before I end up tracking them.

Sometimes, I start songs by listening to someone else’s song I love and play off the vibe and energy of that song. I recently tried something I had never done before which actually worked out well. I cut and pasted one bar of drums/percussion from Bill Withers “Use Me” live at Carnegie Hall and then looped that in Logic. I wrote the entire song based on that drum groove. It brought inspiration I would have never gotten just sitting along at the keys or guitar.

2. Тhere definitely isn’t a “best way” because every songwriter’s approach is different. Even I don’t have a “best.”

Key insights: start with what you love in other people’s songs, get inspired by a vibe or energy.

 

Antony Ceseri

1. My go-to, “automatic” way of starting a song tends to be chords, then melody, then lyrics. It’s less natural for me to do it in a different order.

2.I think the best way to start a song is to keep changing the first part of the song you write as that’s how you’ll improve the most as a songwriter. So sometimes start with lyrics, sometimes with chords, sometimes with a melody.

Key insights: vary what you start with, plan out each section before you write the lyrics.

Anthony Ceseri is the founder of Success For Your Songs, where he shares advice from the most well-respected professional songwriters, producers and performers in the industry.

 

 

Declan O’Shea (Mako)

1. When I write with a partner, I would be sitting with the music I’ve been given for a few days at home or driving to it, all the while singing with it, no finished words, just whatever comes out. As the melody and lyrical idea form and I have a rough idea, I sit and write the lyrics around the feeling of the track and usually around what’s going on in my life at the time. Then, I’ll arrange the track in my DAW, record vocals and vocal harmonies, and any counter-melodies in the instruments I may come up with, if the track needs them.

When the first vocal demo is done, I send it to my writing partner and we discuss possible changes to the music and the vocals and record the next demo version. It’s usually done in 2 or 3 versions, but it can also go on to 4 or 5 !

In the end, we record the final version in the studio.

When I write alone, I sit with my acoustic guitar, whether I want to or not, and I play random chord ideas and sing, not caring what comes out. Once something catches my attention, I follow it and keep going while recording into my phone with a notepad close by for lyric ideas as they pop up. I do this as regularly as possible and then review the ideas in the car as I drive. If something stands out, I sit with it and finish the piece on the acoustic with lyrics and then put it together in the DAW.

I like this approach but have ended up with loads of songs that need to be recorded so that’s going to take good scheduling on my part to get through them all. Having a deadline is really important!

Key insights: start with chords and then melody, base lyrics on the feel of the music, improvise while reconding to find a catchy idea.

Mako is an Alt/Indie rock band from Ireland and France featuring Declan O’ Shea & Christian Montagne both former members of the acclaimed cult band Cyclefly. Follow them on Twitter @makotunes andFacebook

 

Gary Ewer

1. These days, most of the music I write is for choral groups, and most of it has been arrangements of pre-existing folk songs. So in that regard, my writing starts by working primarily with the melody as a first step. I familiarize myself with the tune, then work out chords. And because I’m doing an arrangement, I often find that I use lots of different progressions to set the same melody as the song progresses.

2. Gary’s answer to the trick question is in his recent post on the methods for starting a song, which is actually an excellent summary of the current article and better-structured to boot!

In true teacher fashion, in yet another post he reflects on why we ask this question and I find his reflections nothing short of inspirational.

Key insights: try out different chords for the same melody, start out differently each time.

Gary Ewer is a composer, music teacher and the author of the Essential secrets of songwriting blog and books. Check out his detailed posts on chords-first and lyrics-first songwriting!

 

Your Name Here

So, what is YOUR favourite way of starting a song?

Who are YOUR favourite songwriters and teachers you think I should ask these questions next?

Would YOU like to be in Part 2 of this article?

Leave a comment below or write to me at leepat@oneminutesong.com!

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“Eight ways to start your next song” is a guest post from New Artist Model member Lee Pat. Lee plays guitar and sings for Let Bygones and is the founder of OneMinuteSong.com, dedicated to music theory for busy songwriters.

For more songwriting tips check out Songwriters Kickstart.

http://songwriterskickstart.com

 

Making Inspiration as a Songwriter

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There’s a concept in music called “making it.”

You know the story. “Making it” could be getting that big publishing deal, it could be getting the chance to perform in an awesome venue or at an event, or it could be a having your own band and recording your first few songs.

It’s interesting that, although we use the term “making it” in the music industry, most musicians and songwriters have this idea that someone else will give them their big break – be it a publishing company, and A&R agent or a booking agent.

The truth is, if you want to “make it,” you need to make it happen – you make your own opportunities.
It’s the same for inspiration.

Writer’s block is a big topic in the world of songwriting. It seems like it’s an impossible barrier that we will all inevitably face at one point or another. The ideas will be flowing, you’ll be on a roll, and then one day you’ll hit a brick wall and words won’t come out anymore. Sometimes the block will last a few hours, and sometimes you can feel like you’re stuck in a rut for days or even weeks.

Just like “making it,” inspiration seems like an uncontrollable force. Sometimes it’s there and you’ll write incredible songs, and sometimes it’s just not. But there are actually some things you can do to make inspiration something you control. If you want even more great songwriting tips, you can sign up for these free lessons.

1. Schedule Your Writing

This may sound overly simple, but the best way to find inspiration is to just write. Set aside a certain amount of time every single day to work on your songs whether you’re feeling inspired or not. Eventually your mind will know that when you sit down at your desk, it’s writing time, and you’ll be able to snap into the right state of mind almost immediately.

2. Always Carry a Journal

Although you can train yourself to get into the right mindset to write, inspiration will still strike you throughout the day when you least expect it. You could be doing something as mundane as sitting on a subway and the perfect song title or lyric line will hit you, and if you don’t write it down, you’ll often forget it before you get home.

With that in mind, always have some way to write your ideas down. You could carry a small journal, take notes in your phone or tablet, text yourself the lyrics, or record a short voice memo. Then, when you sit down in your writing chair, you’ll be able to come back to your ideas.

3. Challenge Yourself

With any activity, you’ll hit plateaus, and songwriting is no different. Even if you’re writing a lot of songs, you get this feeling that you’re not progressing, or that your lyrics seem to be different variations on the same thing.

A plateau is just a comfort zone. You get comfortable writing about certain themes, in certain keys, or with certain melodic phrases or song structures. And the only way to break out of that comfort zone is to challenge yourself. Set yourself little tests like writing a song about an everyday object, writing a song that modulates, writing a song that uses a particular word, or writing a song that’s under two minutes long. These exercises may not go on to be a top 40 hit, but they will help you expand your creativity.

The truth is, songwriting is a craft, and something you can learn to do better with practice and a plan. If you’d like more songwriting tips, you can sign up for these free lessons I created with Kevin Thomas, songwriter, teacher, and founder of Songwriting Planet. In the free lessons, we go through techniques that will help you write better lyrics and melodies, and then protect your songs and start growing a fanbase.

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FUTUREHIT DNA for Songwriters and Producers

On my way to the TED conference last week, I devoured Jay Frank’s book Futurehit.dna on the plane.  Jay has some great insights into the past, present and future of songwriting and hit making that we can all learn from.  This is a must read if you are composing for the digital age and trying to gain an edge and find exposure opportunities for listeners.

Jay breaks it down for us on the impact of technology on songwriting and how hits of the past have been carefully crafted to fit into radio airplay on to the iPod, Pandora and streaming era.  His insights into how song form, intros, chord changes, repeats, hooks and other techniques connect a good song with a listener are invaluable.

With today’s digital music is it crucial to catch your listeners attention in the first seven seconds of the song.  After that, repeats are key as well as how the complexity of the song changes over time.  Some of this is old news, but the way he relates it to the technology platforms is interesting and valuable.

How you release music and in what form will determine your chances that your songs will be listened to and remembered enough to make an impact.

Technical, detailed, clear and concise Futurehit.dna will get you thinking about how to create a competitive advantage for you and your music in the days ahead.  Highly recommended food for though.

Check it out here.

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Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

From TED 2009

While not exactly on-topic, I think you will enjoy this insight into the creative process from Liz Gilbert – author of Eat Pray Love. She riffs on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius.

It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk and – interesting.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf