One of the most daunting aspects of writing music is the limitless possibilities for chords, melodies and lyrics. In this post I will give you some strategies for how to begin writing a melody using examples from popular songs and pieces, and by setting some limitations for yourself.
When I was a film composer in the 1990s and 2000s, I would ask the director to describe the emotion of the scene for which I was writing background music. How did s/he want the the audience to feel? Excited? Terrified? In love? Triumphant? Suspicious? Ecstatic? Once I knew the emotion, I searched for a childhood memory of feeling that emotion (childhood memories are the most poignant, but any moment from your history works). Then I started humming melodies, or playing them on the piano with chords, until I found one that seemed to capture the emotion best. (BTW- always record your humming or keyboard noodling – you can use the voice memo app on your smartphone, or invest in a small digital recorder.) If you are writing a song with lyrics, then you may already know what you want to write about. But if you are writing an instrumental piece, decide upon an emotion, or think about a story you want to tell through your music.
For your first tries at composing, write within a scale, (such as the C-scale as suggested in the Part 1video, as well as the Part 2 video below) and start the song on the 1-chord (C Major). Notes within a scale are not all created equal! Watch the video below to learn about the strong and weak notes in a scale:
After watching the Part 2 video, play a C Major chord with your left hand and experiment with notes with your right hand until you find a melody you like. Have fun with this first step and celebrate when you find your first melody line. In Part 3 we will go deeper into setting chords to melody, or melody to chords!
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!