Becoming a creative songwriter, rather than a gift a few inherit through their genes, is a skill that can be trained and developed.
There are theoretical aspects that can be learned (such as the elements of music), but it also requires a lot of time training your mind to create.
In today’s songwriting exercises, we will take the different elements you’ll be using when writing songs and practice training them separately.
Exercises 1-3: Answering rhythms
Music is an art form that moves in time.
Every note, chord, or period of silence has a specific duration. The combination of these different note durations creates what is known as rhythm.
In the following exercises, you are given the first half of a rhythm, which you should complete with a rhythm that fits.
To play this rhythm, you can use one note on your instrument of choice, as well as clap, sing, or bang. What you choose doesn’t matter since we’re not dealing with pitch here, only rhythm.
Now, how will you know if the answering rhythm is correct?
Musicologists can provide detailed answers to this question, but since you’re training yourself to become a songwriter and not a musicologist, the answer to this question can be identical to the answer to the following question: Does it sound right?
Knowing if you came up with a matching rhythm this way helps you develop one of the most important songwriting skills: trusting your ear.
You’re the one who judges what the next note, chord, word, and, in the case of rhythm, note duration, is going to be when writing songs. Start training yourself to make decisions and trust your judgment.
That being said, here are some things you can keep in mind when answering a rhythm:
- If you don’t use any of the elements used in the first part of the rhythm, the answering part will likely sound chaotic, as if it doesn’t fit.
- If you copy the first part without variation, the rhythm may sound boring. This is not necessarily wrong since in a real melody the pitches can provide the variation, but to get the best from these exercises, don’t just copy and paste the first two bars. Experiment with variation, like dividing a note into two notes of its equivalent or changing the order of the eighth and sixteenth notes when grouped into a beat.
Exercise 4-6: Answering a melody
The most important skill a songwriter should gain is a sense of melody.
Rhythm is part of the melody. The other important element is that these notes of different durations vary in pitch.
In the following exercises, you’re given a partial melody and asked to finish it.
Though you can do this exercise on an instrument, try to sing it, even if you don’t like your voice. You don’t need to be a singer to be a songwriter, since you won’t be the one singing the songs. However, you will likely need your voice to communicate the melody to the singer. It’s good to start training yourself to hit the right notes with your voice.
Note: In the exercises you’re given two empty bars of music however your melody can be longer than that).
Exercise 7: Coming up with a melody
The next songwriting exercise is to come up with a melody from scratch.
There is more than one way to go about this. One that I suggest is deciding on a scale you will be creating your melody in and singing it a few times first.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- If your melody uses very few notes or just notes that are close to each other (ex. A-B-C-B-C-B), it will probably sound boring unless you compensate for that with an interesting rhythm.
- If your melody uses too many leaps and notes far away from each other (ex. A-F-B-E-C), the melody may sound chaotic and lose the listener.
Exercise 8: Coming up with lyrics
Now that you have a melody, it’s time to put words to it.
Unlike music theory, I never formally studied lyric writing. It’s something I just learned by doing it regularly as well by studying the lyrics of my favorite songs.
Here are some suggestions I have for beginners in lyric writing:
- In these songwriting exercises, you have a melody and you’re giving it a lyric. This doesn’t mean you should only write lyrics when you have a melody. It also works the other way round. Practice melody and lyric writing both separately and together.
- Study great lyrics and discover what makes them great so that you can emulate the process. For instance, pondering the phrase “the stars aren’t aligned or the gods are malign” from Rush’s song Freewill inspired me to write lyrics that are completely different but use a somewhat similar template, such as “There’s hundred ways to tell the truth, and they’re all lies but one.“
- Practice coming up with lyrics in your head anytime your mind is doing a task that doesn’t require concentration, such as walking or waiting. It’s cool to keep a notepad and write good ideas down, but the main goal is to train your mind to come up with lyrics at will.
Exercise 9: Come up with a chord progression
The following exercise is simple, but it covers an important aspect of songwriting: harmony, the chords and chord progressions that support the melody.
All you have to do is create a sequence of two or more chords that sound good when played in succession.
Then, as in the example chord progression below, give them a simple rhythm.
If you don’t yet understand the theory, you can find chords that sound good together by ear. However, as a songwriter, it is critical to begin learning how diatonic chord progressions work and how to find chords by key.
Exercise 10: Come up with a melody over the chord progression
One way of beginning a song is to come up with a melody, like you did in songwriting exercise 7, and then harmonizing it with a chord progression.
Another approach is coming with a chord progression first, as you did in the previous exercise, and then sing a melody on top of it.
Thus, in this exercise you should use the chord progression in the previous one, or come up with a new one, and sing a melody that fits on top of it.
Becoming a skilled songwriter is a craft that can be learned and developed with practice.
Today’s exercises provide different approaches to help you improve various elements of songwriting, such as rhythm, melody, lyrics, and chord progressions.
By answering partial rhythms or melodies, coming up with original melodies, lyrics, and chord progressions, you are developing your skills in creating music.
The next step is to use these different elements together and write a whole song.
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