You may have heard of the phrase, The Circle of 5ths. It’s a useful tool for musicians to understand, and for composers and songwriters to use in their pieces. In Part 1 of this series on Composing and Songwriting, I suggested that you start by limiting your piece to just the chords which are built on the C scale (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim) and I provided you with a chart so that you could figure out the seven chords in any key. But perhaps you are now feeling that you want to step outside of the key. For example, if you are in the key of C and want to move to an unexpected B-flat major chord, you can use the circle of 5ths to help navigate your way back to the key of C.
I’m going to let my friend Fred Sokolow take it from here because he is the Circle of 5ths master. Start at 5:30 in the video below and continue on to the end if you would like to join him for his jam:
Fred is an crazy good multi-instrumentalist and has created a small vinyl cling decal of the circle of 5ths for $3 which you can purchase here. You can safely stick it to your piano because there’s no adhesive. (Fred also gives private online lessons in banjo, ukulele, guitar, mandolin and dobro if you are so inclined!) If you have a Paypal account would you consider “tipping” Fred to say thanks for today’s instruction here or search for Fred Sokolow on Venmo? Any amount even $1 or $2 would be appreciated! You can receive notice of Fred’s future mini lessons (there are a lot of great ones!) by joining his mailing list: email@example.com. For more jams and free lessons, follow Fred on Facebook.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece. All of what I wrote about in Parts 1 (chords), 2 (melody), and 3 (melody and chords) are relevant to composing classical music, as well as the Circle of 5ths discussion above, as all melodic music is based upon chords. You can also add lyrics to your classical piece, as with an aria or operatic piece. Feel free to ask questions in our comments below, and please tell us how your songs and pieces are coming along! It would be great to emerge from the Covid quarantine with a few original songs or pieces under your belt!
I have a piano student who had always wanted to write songs, but just couldn’t seem to get started. When I asked him what he’d like to write about first, he grimaced, “I can’t do it! I’m so uncomfortable!”
“Great!” I replied. “I’m so uncomfortable. That’s your first line.” And he wrote a wonderful, poignant song called, Uncomfortable. If you want to write a song, start from where you are or what you are feeling, and just jump in.
The first step when considering lyric ideas is to get it all down – out of your head, onto paper or into your recording device or app (the Voice Memos app in iPhones is handy). Writers speak of their messy first draft, and the same applies to songwriters. Don’t censor your impulses, just let the ideas flow spontaneously. When you feel you are done, take a break, for at least a few hours. Do something else to clear the palate of your mind, heart and soul.
Then sit back down with your words, read them aloud, and see what you think. Which lines do you love? Which are not flowing well? Have you said what you need to say, or do you need to dig deeper? Or do you want to lighten up the mood a bit? Make notes on your initial impressions, and then get down to work.
If you have started with your lyrics, you will need to begin singing them into a melody. As I have said in Part 3, sometimes it helps to take a walk or drive while singing your lyrics to activate your creative juices in a less pressured environment.
If you have started with a melody, hum the melody and see if any lyric ideas arise from the rhythm of the notes. When the melody dictates the words they are likely to fit really well; but if lyrics arise with a few too many syllables, you can easily add extra notes to your melody.
When writing a popular song, you have two primary kinds of lyrics to consider. The lyrics for the verse, and the lyrics for the chorus. Generally the verse lyrics tell what the song is about. The chorus contains the hook, which is the part of the song we remember best; the chorus lyrics usually repeat, and consist of shorter phrases sung to a memorable melody. The song Every Breath You Take by The Police starts with two verses, each with 5 lyric lines, the last of which repeat in every verse (I’ll be watching you). The chorus reads:
Oh can’t you see, You belong to me.My poor heart aches, With every step you take.
Every Breath You Take has such simple words! Its chords, melodies and structure are also very simple. And yet it was the biggest hit The Police ever had. I’m not suggesting that you write a song with a view to it being huge hit (that’s never a good way to create art), but I do want you to remember that a song doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be really good.
Many songs also contain a bridge. The bridge serves to elevate the song to greater energy or excitement. Every Breath You Take has a bridge at 1:22 consisting of five lyric lines followed by a 16-bar rhythmic instrumental passage.
Some songs also have an instrumental hook such as the Gary Jules recording of Mad World. In Mad World, the piano hook comes as an introduction that repeats in the choruses. Notice also in Mad World that there are two distinct sections to the verses. When that is the case, we call the first section the A, the second section the B:
A: All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces. Bright and early for the daily races, going nowhere, going nowhere. Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression, no expression. Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow.
B: And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it’s a very very…
Chorus: Mad world. Mad World.
There is no bridge in Mad World, perhaps because the verses are long, and the B-sections feel like a bridge. Notice that there are a lot of repeated lyrics, which can be a great dramatic tool.
Generally, there are two categories of songs; there are songs that tell a story, and songs that paint a picture. Sometimes you might want to write a song that tells a story about something traumatic or something wonderful that has happened to you, or as with the song Raymond by Brett Eldredge, your song can be like a short story. Other times you might just want to paint a picture for your listener such as Paul McCartney’s Junk, or create an impression about something such as what it feels like to be in love, or to be the victim of discrimination, or how to live a better life.
Some examples of songs that tell a story:
Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles
Cats In The Cradle, by Harry Chapin
Runaway Love, by Ludacris and Mary J Blige
Whisky Lullaby, by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
Just My Imagination, by The Temptations
Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman
Raymond, by Brett Eldredge
American Pie, by Don McLean
Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel
Jack and Diane, by John Mellencamp
Some examples of songs that paint a picture, which can include expressing an emotion, giving advice, or making a political statement :
Over The Rainbow, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
Yellow, by Coldplay
Shallow, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Girl On Fire, by Alicia Keys
Thinking Out Loud, by Ed Sheeran
Unanswered Prayers, by Garth Brooks
Running On Empty, by Jackson Browne
Good Riddance, by Green Day
Complicated, by Avril Lavigne
Under The Table, by Fiona Apple
Let’s take a closer look at a song that incorporates all of the song elements I have discussed so far. I first heard Ben Fold’s song The Luckiest while watching one of the best, most positive movies ever made (in my humble opinion), About Time.
There is an introduction at the beginning of the song, with a piano hook, and for the rest of the song Folds is playing simple major and minor chords which he is constantly breaking up into single notes.
In the A-section, Folds paints a picture of a man who makes mistakes, and he also acknowledges that our mistakes are an important part of who we become:
I don’t get many things right the first time. In fact I am told that a lot. Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles, the falls brought me here.
In the B-section of the verse, Folds reveals that he is in a relationship. It is also in the B-sections of The Luckiest that Folds provides the only rhyming lines: day rhyming with face:
And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face. Now I see it everyday. And I know that…
And the second B-section rhymes eyes with recognize necessitating a few extra notes for the extra syllables in the word recognize:
In a wide sea of eyes, see one pair that I recognize. And I know that…
The choruses are simply: I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
After the chorus, Folds plays his piano hook again, then another verse and chorus. After the second chorus he provides a short bridge:
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
Up until now I would unreservedly call The Luckiest a song that paints a picture. But in his third verse Folds tells a story:
Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties, and one day passed away in his sleep. And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away.
In the B-section that follows, the lyrics read: I’m sorry I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong. So although the song contains a short story, the song is not about that story; Folds simply uses it to illustrate his feelings about his own loving relationship. So, The Luckiest is not a story-song.
While most of the lines in The Luckiest don’t rhyme, almost all of the lines in Every Breath You Take do rhyme. So remember that while some rhymes in your song give the song sing-ability and cohesiveness, you don’t have to rhyme all the time if you don’t want to.
Once you have finished the first draft of your song, take another break from it for at least a day or two. Enjoy your time away and trust that you will take a look with fresh eyes when the time is right. Then come back to fine-tune it. The process of editing is often where creative flow breaks down. Editing your song is a daunting task and the failure to face up to it is why many would-be songwriters never finish their songs. Ask yourself if there are any lyrics, chords or melody notes that aren’t quite there yet. Work on it everyday until you feel good about all of it. Don’t let too many days go by without completing your song, as you run the risk of having nothing but half-finished melodies in your repertoire. On the other hand, you also need to be able to intuit when to stop editing and call it done.
Even if you ultimately decide it’s not very good, finish your song. Completing things is a practice of its own, and we only get better and faster at writing, editing and completing our work though consistent practice. The willingness to edit and complete a song makes the difference between a songwriter and a wannabe.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece.
In my next and final post about composing I will expand a little on chords, then will move on to the next musical topic! I hope you have enjoyed analyzing a few good examples of how to put together simple but effective songs. If you are interested in further study, look up some of the songs from the bulleted lists above on Youtube.com and ask yourself questions to deepen your understanding of the writer’s style: What is the structure of the song? Do the verses have a B-section? What are the choruses? Is there a bridge? Does the song tell a story or paint a picture? Are lines repeating? Rhyming? Do some of the verses add extra lyric syllables requiring extra notes?
But don’t analyze too much or for too long. Rather than continually asking what makes a great song, take that time to create one of your own. Remember that your song will be different from anyone else’s because no one has experienced your unique life. You can create something fun or personal that is as beautiful, important and valid as anyone else’s. So get to work!
I first fell in love with Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do when I heard Alison Krauss sing it in the 2003 movie Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst. It has also been featured in other films and television shows, and was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Linda Ronstadt.
I have created two arrangements for you. The first is an intermediate/advanced arrangement with a moving bass line:
One of the things I love most about this song is the way it moves from major chords to minor chords so much. For example in the first full measure with lyrics (lyrics starting with “do”) there is a C major chord. In the second measure (lyrics starting with “you”) there is an F minor chord (Fm6 in the intermediate arrangement). In the third measure it’s major, the fourth it’s minor, and so on. Reflecting life itself (especially now), this song alternates in tone between gratitude for we have cherished, and grief for what has been lost.
(Remember that the free sheet music I post is only available for a year, so be sure to print before May 2021!)
I hope that you are staying healthy and are enjoying playing your piano. Have you tried some composing or improvising as I discussed in my last post? Please let us know how you are doing with it in the comments below! Coming soon, I am going to give you some tools for taking the next step towards writing a song or piece.
Be well and practice on! With love and music, Gaili
P.S. Hershey Felder is doing an online encore production of his portrayal of Irving Berlin to benefit The Wallis Center for the Performing Arts on Mother’s Day! I have seen this show and it is truly wonderful, and very educational. For example, did you know that Irving Berlin wrote about 1500 songs, but dictated his songs instead of writing them down? And he played almost entirely in the key of F# because he preferred playing on the black keys! You can can view the show by clicking here. There is a household fee to watch.
With all of the extra time you now have, it is a great time for you to stick your toe into the pool of songwriting. Ok don’t scream, shudder or declare “absolutely not!” before you hear me out. Think about this: We improvise all of the time in our daily lives; when we speak, when we prepare a meal, when we exercise, etc. We are born improvisors, putting things together as we go along. So why not play around a bit on your keyboard just for the fun of it? Or just out of curiosity? Also, improvising is REALLY GREAT for your brain. If you don’t believe me, listen to Charles Limb’s 16 minute Ted Talk and you’ll be fully convinced. Then please read or reread my blog posts about improvising: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to get you started playing to some chord progressions.
If I have convinced you to try improvising, here are some ideas to take you to the next step. First, de-clutter your practice space. Move sheet music you aren’t currently playing away from your field of vision. An open space supports an open, creative mind. Keep your tools (blank manuscript paper, pencils, eraser, pens) neat, clean and visible, so that you’re reminded to practice whenever you pass by. Begin your practice with small steps and low expectations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” Start by setting an intention to just mingle with your keys for 10 minutes a day. Make it part of your healthful daily routines such as brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast. Don’t let your head hit the pillow at night until you’ve jammed on the keyboard for 10 minutes. Notice which musical phrases you liked, and which you didn’t like. Write down the phrases you liked either as notes on manuscript paper (blank sheet music lined paper) or as letters going up or down on the page. You might use the phrases you like in a song later.
If you would like to try to write a song with lyrics, scribble words—any words—on paper for 10 minutes. Write about your angst, your fear, your lethargy, your blank page—whatever the obstacle is feeling like at the moment. I have a piano student who one day realized that he wanted to become a songwriter. When I asked him what he’d like to write about first, he grimaced, “I can’t do it! I’m so uncomfortable!” “Great!” I replied. “That’s your first line.” And he wrote a great song called, Uncomfortable. Or you might write about what or who you love, about your gratitude, or about something fun (remember having fun? call upon those memories even if you aren’t having fun right now!) Just play around with your lyrics ’til you get a couple of lines down that you like. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is great advice. Forget about creating your masterpiece. Just flex the muscles of your imagination. Shake hands with it and take it out for a little spin. Taking those first tentative steps daily, saves us from the tyranny of procrastination. With time, try to become a little braver during your 10 minutes . Trust your creativity more than your fear. As author John A. Shedd said, “A ship in harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for.” What are you built for? Begin to tap into your own style, voice, and perspective. Get curious and dabble. Then find a small focus towards your creative progress and work on it. For at least 10 minutes each day. Set your phone timer for 10 minutes then forget about time and focus on your art.
In my next post I will help you get started with putting a song (with lyrics) or instrumental piece (without lyrics) together.
How is your piano practice going? Do you find it relaxing to practice? I hope you are coping as well as can be during our quarantine. With love and music, Gaili
P.S. If you need a manuscript book for your compositions you can click on the yellow book below to purchase ours on Amazon. You can also check out our Upper Hands Piano instruction book and our Songs of the Seasons: Spring book!
Subscribe (top left) to receive new sheet music coming May 1st!
I am so pleased to hear that some of you are doing a little improvising. It’s great to try something new, isn’t it? We need to keep pushing our creative boundaries in order to learn and grow. We don’t need to live there, but an occasional visit outside our comfort zone is a good thing.
Today I would like to offer another improvising exercise, this time on the white keys, in the key of A minor.
Start by playing and holding AEA in your left hand (an octave plus a 5th in the middle). Let your right dance around on the white keys. Since we are in A minor (no flats or sharps) every white key will work. You can start by playing 5-6 notes in a row, then change direction. Move up and down, skipping, stepping and jumping across the white keys, repeating your left hand AEA each time it fades.
Next, improvise to a slow steady tempo in 4/4 time, playing your left hand AEA on the first beat of each 4/4 measure. Keep your right hand simple so that you can keep the beat going.
Now I’d like you to try a chord progression. With your left hand practice playing these four chords as whole notes occurring on the first beat of each measure: AEA, CGC, GDG, DAD. Keep playing them holding each for four beats until you are comfortable with the jumps.
Next you will add improvised notes in the right hand on the white keys. If it’s too difficult to improvise while playing those four left hand chords, record them and improvise to the recording with your right hand alone. (If you own an iphone, you can record on your “voice memo” app that comes with the phone.) There are no wrong notes, all the white keys work!
Once you have gotten comfortable playing on the white keys, you can play to my recording below. I am playing fairly fast 4-beat chords with a popular-style rhythm to which you can improvise on the white keys.
Experiment with various note lengths–quarters, eighths–and repeating any phrases that you like. There is a lot of repetition in the chords, so feel free to use repetition in your improvisation.
For those of you who like a written representation of the chord progressions I’m using, here’s a “lead sheet” for you:
Today I’d like to delve further into the question, why should we improvise?
Firstly, if you read my post from yesterday, Improvising, Part 1, you know that brain scans ( fMRI) show that improvising activates a whole other part of the brain. It is called the Brodmann 9. The Brodmann 9 deals with short-term memory, verbal fluency, error detection, empathy, attention to emotions, planning, calculation and a host of other brain functions. Brain stimulation alone is reward enough. But improvising brings other gifts:
Once you become more comfortable with improvising, you’re able to cover up memory slips in your playing much more easily. You trust that you can fill in a couple of notes while you recover and keep going.
Recent studies show that improvising has a “releasing” effect on your creativity and originality in general. When you practice improvising, you are practicing letting go, opening your mind, inventing, risking, and imagining. You are becoming more adaptable. Adaptability is an important component of aging well.
As Sophia Loren said,
There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.
Let’s face it, studying the piano can be tedious. Practicing an exercise and playing a piece is challenging, and coming up against a difficult passage can be frustrating. Sometimes we just need to let loose and play something with no right- or wrong-ness to it.
Being creative is tapping into our humanity. It is an expression of our inner experience and our uniqueness. It is like a spoken history of who we are, and where we have been. Let the piano be your palette; paint a picture with your music.
Have I convinced you that improvising is at least worth a little experimentation? If so, try this:
BLACK KEY IMPROVISATION
Hold down a low F# octave (the two lowest F#s on your piano) with your left hand. Keep repeating the octave whenever it starts to fade away. With your right hand, play the black keys from the C# below middle C, moving up the keys for a few octaves. Then play the black keys moving back down to where you started. Next, move up and down within one octave.
Continuing to play F# octaves with your left hand, have your right hand skip around amongst the black keys. Play some that are next to each other, and some out of sequence.
Now vary the rhythm. Imagine that some are quarter notes, some are eighths moving twice as fast. Play some half and whole notes. Form a pattern with your rhythm such as quarter, quarter, eight, eighth, quarter, across the keys.
Repeat any phrases that you like, and make a mental note of them. Experiment with different key patterns such as moving up two keys then down one, over and over.
Now vary your dynamics. Play some notes forte, others piano.
Next vary your tempo. Play some notes allegro and others largo.
Try playing the black keys imagining you are in 3/4 time. Then go to 4/4. Then play with no meter, just let the music flow.
Try this improvisation again at another time and record yourself. Or write down any musical phrases you liked. You can use standard musical notation, or any type of short hand such as writing down the letters of the notes you played.
How was this for you? Did you enjoy it? Keep reminding yourself to let go, and not to judge. Think of it as finger painting! Dip In. Go to Improvising Part 3 here.