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Keeping it simple


SMcD

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Recently, my rock band has shifted focus to writing original songs. Since we're working in a "modern rock" context (We're having some trouble "finding ourselves" stylistically - but that's another story), the songs are usually simple - 3 or 4 chords, simple song structures, etc. Now, I'm not saying that's a bad thing - simple can be quite effective - but I find it difficult to write songs in this style. Most of the songs and progressions I write end up being really complex and "far-out". It doesn't really "fit" in the context of the band. I'd like to contribute more, but I can't seem to simplify my creations. All of my ideas come from a "high-up" place with advanced harmonies and complex structures. How can I "dumb myself down", for lack of a better term?
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Thanks guys!

 

I think a lot of the problem is that I can write simple stuff, but it ends up sounding forced, or even "copied". I end up accidentally mimicking another riff I'd heard somewhere else. My creativity comes out in complexity, and I'd like for that to be different.

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The key is...do you write with vocals in mind? Or are you writing "compositions" and imposing vocals on them later? That will tell you a lot.

 

Grabbing an acoustic guitar is a great way to start dumbing down, easier than on keyboards I find. (like drawback said)

Hitting "Play" does NOT constitute live performance. -Me.
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Some random ideas that help me (from time to time):

 

- clear your head of the genre you're writing in. Go buy Yo-Yo Ma playing the music of Ennio Morricone, and spend a few hours bathing in some beautiful melodies. Or a half hour of Stevie Wonder or Cocteau Twins. Or the release of 7 different versions of Barber's Adagio - everything from synth to the Canadian Brass. Relax as you take in how different timbres and orchestration takes the same piece and breathes new life into it.

 

- force yourself to transcribe some moldy old melody - like the theme from the TV show MASH or something. Most of the time I actually force myself to transcribe a full verse (8 to 16 bars), I'll end up seeing a different way to approach motifs, intervals in relation to harmony, etc.

 

- take you most recent complex piece. examine and ID the section you like the most out of it. Isolate and distill that. Now take the Eno approach and try and pare away everything that is unnecessary to making the statement that you really like. Try expanding that idea (and only that idea) over twice the amount of measures.

 

- collaborate with another musician who's ideas you often like. I ended up collaborating with my bass player and the result has been some revisions to old compositions I had lying around. you'd never recognize the original and the new product unless I told you how one led to another - but the result is often one or two editorial decisions that completely transform the old thing into something new and better.

 

- single malt scotch. Preferably Lagavulin. In moderation it may help you relax and push past your internal barriers.

 

- search through your synth patches to find something you've never used before. Force yourself to use that patch as a basis for at least 8 bars of melody. Then create at least two different harmonic resolutions for it and compare. See if it translates to piano.

 

Sometimes these things help me when I feel I'm in a rut. Hope they maybe spark an idea or two for you, mayne.

 

 

 

 

..
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Tony, that would make a lot of sense. I guess my writing comes from more of an instrumental place.

 

That said, I think it's easier to write vocals after the music itself is written.

 

Another thing that might be limiting my ability to write "modern rock" is my unfamiliarity with the style. I come from more of a classic rock background, where songs are a little more "advanced". That's also one of the things that makes it tough for us to pin ourselves down in terms of specific style - We come from a lot of different places.

 

At any rate, I'll do some listening and maybe find a lefty guitar somewhere. :laugh: Thanks!

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Thanks guys!

 

I think a lot of the problem is that I can write simple stuff, but it ends up sounding forced, or even "copied". I end up accidentally mimicking another riff I'd heard somewhere else. My creativity comes out in complexity, and I'd like for that to be different.

Most 'simple' music works because it sounds familiar yet maintains its originality. :)

 

So, do not worry too much about a riff or progression that sounds copied. Every last one of them has already been played. ;)

 

The lyrics and more specifically, the chorus will make or break a song. To that end, I would suggest writing the lyrics first and putting music to them.

 

Also, the band should have jam sessions to find its comfort zone as a unit. That could provide some direction when it comes to composition, songwriting and quite possibly, a signature sound.

 

Many musos think it's easy to write and compose a song. The end result of that belief is a lot of filler material. :laugh:

 

Otherwise, to write and compose a song that others want to listen to repeatedly takes experience, inspiration, practice, patience and luck. The good news is that you are right-thinking. :thu:

 

When the music comes first, strip away layers from those complex compositions. Come up with strong hooks. The song will write itself. Keep it simple mayne. :cool:

 

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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Prof, this is awesome advice! I think I'll show this to my bandmates, and hopefully they share the sentiments. :)

 

The lyrics and more specifically, the chorus will make or break a song. To that end, I would suggest writing the lyrics first and putting music to them.

 

Ah, but then I find the music sounds forced. On the exceedingly rare occasions I try and write lyrics, I try to think of vocal rhythm while I write - almost invariably, I end up using a vocal rhythm from another song: in other words, writing new lyrics to a pre-existing song. :P

 

I heard once that Paul Simon suggested to start with a drumbeat, then instruments, then vocals.

 

 

Also, the band should have jam sessions to find its comfort zone as a unit. That could provide some direction when it comes to composition, songwriting and quite possibly, a signature sound.

Lots of the time, our songs come from the bass player (Who has a great talent for writing) showing us a bass line he made up at home, then we jam our parts over it and talk about it afterwards to refine it. Unfortunately, different jam sessions lead to different styles - a heavy song one day, a power ballad the next day, a funk jam the next day. :laugh:

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the main problem is you've probably listened to way too much Rush,what with being Canadian and all.

listen to the songs on the list below,they are the stepping stones of what we now consider "Classic" rock

(they're all available on YouTube)

 

1.louie louie, the kingsmen

2.gloria, them

3.wild thing, the troggs

4.hey joe, the leaves

5.stepping stone, the monkees

6.96 tears, ? and the mysterians

7.wooly bully, sam the sham and the pharoahs

8.hang on sloopy, the mc coys

9.house of the rising sun, the animals

10.pushin' too hard, the seeds

11.she's about a mover, sir douglas quintet

12.telstar, the tornadoes

13.runaway, del shannon

14 la bamba, ritchie valens

15.psychotic reaction, the count 5

16.wipeout, the surfaris

17.twist and shout, the isley brothers

18.you're gonna miss me, 13th floor elevators

19.walk don't run, the ventures

20.dirty water, the standells

21.shakin' all over, johnny kidd and the pirates

22.doo wah diddy, manfred mann

23.secret agent man, johnny rivers

24.liar liar, the castaways

25.misirlou,dick dale and the del tones

26.rumble, link wray

27.surfin' bird, the trashmen

28.tequila, the champs

29.the hanky panky, tommy james and the shondells

30.pipeline, chantays

31.green onions, booker t and the mgs

32.apache, the shadows

33.little girl, syndicate of sound

34.strychnine, the sonics

35.talk talk, the music machine

36.fortune teller, bennie spellman

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Unfortunately, different jam sessions lead to different styles - a heavy song one day, a power ballad the next day, a funk jam the next day.

I'm not seeing a downside. You say you haven't defined yourself stylistically, and your jams keep producing different styles; that's a strength, not a weakness.

 

Don't confuse the ability to play more than one style with the inability to "keep it simple" and play "modern rock" whatever that is. Listen to The Smithereens, the Pretenders, the Kinks.

"Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.'-Hamlet

 

Guitar solos last 30 seconds, the bass line lasts for the whole song.

 

 

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There's a lot of very good advice above. I agree that taking you out of your comfort zone -- playing an instrument you don't know well, starting with lyrics or melody when you've been used to starting with backing tracks, etc. -- will help to produce simpler results.

 

So let's move on to the next issue, which in my opinion is also very important:

 

Another thing that might be limiting my ability to write "modern rock" is my unfamiliarity with the style. I come from more of a classic rock background, where songs are a little more "advanced". That's also one of the things that makes it tough for us to pin ourselves down in terms of specific style - We come from a lot of different places.

 

At any rate, I'll do some listening

Great idea! You can't write in a specific style if you're unfamiliar with it. I suggest visiting Pandora Radio, which will help you become better acquainted with modern rock. There's an added benefit to using Pandora for this purpose, because you can give songs a thumbs up or down as you listen and Pandora will give you more of what you like and less of what you don't as you go. To get started, just click on the "Create A New Station" button, enter the name of a modern rock song or artist that you like, and you're good to go.

 

This is crucial in my opinion, because if you find music that speaks to you within this genre, you have a much better chance of writing a modern rock piece that speaks to someone else. And if you discover modern rock that you like to listen to and then write within that vein, you'll not only enjoy your work more, you'll be more likely to write sincere music that speaks from the heart as well as from the mind.

 

Good luck, SMcD.

 

Best,

 

Geoff

My Blue Someday appears on Apple Music | Spotify | YouTube | Amazon

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Prof, this is awesome advice! I think I'll show this to my bandmates, and hopefully they share the sentiments. :)

 

Lots of the time, our songs come from the bass player (Who has a great talent for writing) showing us a bass line he made up at home, then we jam our parts over it and talk about it afterwards to refine it. Unfortunately, different jam sessions lead to different styles - a heavy song one day, a power ballad the next day, a funk jam the next day. :laugh:

No problem mayne. Been there, done that. Think I'm transitioning from muso to advisor. :)

 

Make sure everybody brings lyrics to the jam session. Otherwise, it will sound like all types of music with little or no direction. ;):cool:

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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That said, I think it's easier to write vocals after the music itself is written.

 

It's the only way to win the war of quality control IMHO. A pop composition is a dynamic living thing and getting attached to an early version doesn't work for many pop writers.

 

From what I read many writers worked that way notably I think David Byrne as Talking Heads was growing into a jam band it was easier to wait until the music was done even if it had some working vocals and scratch melody by the band that would be dumped and reworked completely by Byrne.

 

The whole Rolling Stones 'Heroin' album myth (Sticky Fingers) is based on the belief that Richards wrote a lot of songs with lyrics about Heroin knowing full well Jagger would dump large parts of the working vocals, melodies, and lyrics.

 

I think INXS worked that way at one point: it's once of the reasons their best stuff is really a well arranged backing track as the backing track had to stand on its own. "Need You Tonight" is the one I seem to remember evolving that way.

 

In other words take the tape from a great jam. wipe out the vocals and then start writing and work it and work it until you feel comfortable bringing it back to the band.

 

Repeat as necessary with the same track: Then when you have five good ones take the whole lot to another band and producer :).

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Hate to take the contrarian position here, but the red flag for me is:

How can I "dumb myself down", for lack of a better term?

 

I don't think you can. When you start from the assumption that you are a better or more sophisticated musician, and you're just playing down to their level, the result is insincere and certainly inauthentic. Perhaps this is no longer the band for you.

I'm sorry, but this reminds me of all of those "oh woe is me, the blues is so boring, what can I do" threads. If Blues bores you, you just don't get blues. Move on, play something else. If

you find the music this band wants to play uninspiring, why stay in the band, let alone presume to write songs for them?

Start another band and play the more complex material you enjoy.

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Limit yourself to I and IV and V and then for a treat go so far as vi. No more than that.

Harry Likas was the Technical Editor of Mark Levine's "The Jazz Theory Book" and also helped develop "The Jazz Piano Book." 

Harry teaches jazz piano online using Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, or Google Meet.

 

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I'm not seeing a downside. You say you haven't defined yourself stylistically, and your jams keep producing different styles; that's a strength, not a weakness.

 

Don't confuse the ability to play more than one style with the inability to "keep it simple" and play "modern rock" whatever that is. Listen to The Smithereens, the Pretenders, the Kinks.

 

Whoops- some poor wording on my part. My inability to write simply was a different issue from the band's inability to stick to a genre.

Nobody's saying it's a bad thing to be diverse. It's a matter of not knowing what we "sound like". Some of the guys in the band (And to an extent, I see where they're coming from) feel that we're in a sort of "genre limbo" and we should more firmly identify ourselves in terms of sound and genre.

 

 

Also, I'm getting some conflicting advice about whether music or lyrics should come first. Which is the "true path"? :laugh:

 

I guess it all comes down to what works for us. Some songs will start as lyrics; others as riffs; others as drum beats.

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Usually, we write the "music" (Riffs, chords, structure, etc.) to our liking, then the singer interprets the mood of the song and writes vocals that reflect that mood. For example: We wrote a powerful, "heavy" song. She felt this powerful, adventurous feel from it, and wrote lyrics about skydiving (She tried skydiving for her birthday a few months before). So the vocals happen semi-independently from the music - it's not like they're directly derived from the music. We also change the structure of the song based on the way the vocals "flow".
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Jamming is the best thing that can happen to a band. We jam for hours ono end without stopping, melding all kinds of styles and influences. It's really helped us find ourselves, as you say you need to. Steve Nathan might be right, though. If you jam and go in a direction you don't really like, just axe yourself. You need to make music that you want to listen to yourself. If modern rock ain't your thing, modern rock ain't your thing.

 

Edit: I don't know if there are any personal issues in your band, but there were some major ones in mine at the beginning. Those jams brought us closer together, made us appreciate each other, write, play and perform better together and just want to hang out more. Not kidding, jams are, IMO, the best thing you can do.

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As Geoff Grace said, there's already a lot of good advice on this thread, but I'll offer my own opinion :wave:

 

 

I am most comfortable playing piano, and when I compose something it tends to get a bit complex

 

(and generally slow-paced & melodic etc).

 

However, I now have an acoustic guitar to hand at all times - my guitar 'skills' are at best 'limited' !

 

With the limited range of open/bar chords I know, I've come up with ideas I wouldn't have done on the piano,

 

especially rythymically (is that a proper word???:confused:)

 

So, yes - I'd agree that the way to 'dumb-down' is get yourself on an unfamiliar instrument,

 

& play from the heart :rawk: !

 

 

 

 

 

John.

 

some stuff on myspace

 

Nord: StageEX-88, Electro2-73, Hammond: XK-1, Yamaha: XS7

Korg: M3-73 EXpanded, M50-88, X50, Roland: Juno D, Kurzweil: K2000vp.

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Outside of making the definition of "modern rock" no clearer, I still don't see why you're trying to fit yourself, or the band, into a box called "modern rock" You guys can make up a jam in any one of several styles, and you have someone who can make lyrics for that jam? Go with it!

Look at it this way, the more styles you can play, and make strong songs to, the more likely you are to gain an audience.

 

 

"Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.'-Hamlet

 

Guitar solos last 30 seconds, the bass line lasts for the whole song.

 

 

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Hate to take the contrarian position here, but the red flag for me is:

How can I "dumb myself down", for lack of a better term?

 

I don't think you can. When you start from the assumption that you are a better or more sophisticated musician, and you're just playing down to their level, the result is insincere and certainly inauthentic. Perhaps this is no longer the band for you.

I'm sorry, but this reminds me of all of those "oh woe is me, the blues is so boring, what can I do" threads. If Blues bores you, you just don't get blues. Move on, play something else. If

you find the music this band wants to play uninspiring, why stay in the band, let alone presume to write songs for them?

Start another band and play the more complex material you enjoy.

 

Maybe "dumb myself down" wasn't the right term to use. I don't consider modern rock (Which refers to bands like King of Leon, Paramore, the Raconteurs - the new crop of popular bands) to be below my level. What I meant was that I'd like to be able to write things that are simple and to the point. I have a lot of respect for somebody who can make a clear message with only 2 or 3 chords, and I consider it a skill in itself.

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I can't write songs on prescription - like, say Randy Newman, etc, do for movies or stage shows. I don't have that kind of talent. I can only write songs the way I write them. If you have to write down to some groups level, I can't do it because it sounds phony. Maybe that's why I don't do it much. One should write what pops up for them. Songs will sort of present themselves - I don't know how else to put it. Oh, and be careful; you don't want to end up like Men at Work and get sued for copywrite infringement for copping a lick out of 'happy birthday' or something else! ;)
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
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Don't worry about Pandora. You've already identified the kind of music you want to write. I'm sure you already know plenty of examples of 3 chord songs that have the sound you're going after. You don't need no stinkin' examples!

 

Just do it.

 

Take 3 chords. C - Bb - G. Whatever. You choose the order. Lay something down. Make sure you give it some rhythmic interest, but don't overplay. Work with the offbeats. Maybe to start off, follow a clave pattern. Then Mix it up. Record it. With any luck, you'll find some bits and pieces that raise your eyebrow. Throw the rest out. Bring those bits to your next jam session. Let your band mates try to expand on your ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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