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How to Achieve Freedom in Songwriting

Dan is a hobbyist musician and producer. Some of his instrumental music can be heard on Bandcamp via his LinkedIn page.

Music composition is not only for those who are advanced. Anyone can use music as an artistic outlet, even beginners. There are many facets to this and I will cover them below.

For starters, there’s no rule music has to be written in a genre commonly heard on the radio: pop, rock, jazz, blues, rap, or some cocktail of them such as alternative or progressive. There are plenty of other genres in which musicians can dabble. "Experimental" could be considered a genre, although certain established genres have subgenres that are experimental.

Avant-garde can fall under the domain of experimental, even though it contains facets of different established genres. It has a large following and is almost considered noise , although artists often add melodic ideas and harmonic structure to create their own unique style.

I prefer the term "free music" for composing without restrictive conventions. Free music can come in many forms. Live improvisations, for example, are often done where a band creates nice sounding melodic content on the fly. I myself have dabbled with live improvisations, although I’ve also carefully written and produced music.

That isn’t to say certain styles or conventions are good or bad. Play free music, pop music, or whatever makes you content. However, creating your own style can be liberating.

R&B Guitar: Connecting Chords to Melody

Rhythm + Melody = Composition

Music composition can be done before you've attained expert status. Sometimes all work and no play can make you a dull person and it’s good to stop and have some fun. In fact, being a relative beginner means you'll probably bring a fresh perspective to composition.

First things first, though. Music has two primary components: rhythm and melody.

Rhythm

If your time-keeping or rhythm skills aren’t up to par, you can always embrace free time. There's no discernable beat in this type of music. Orchestral music often uses this type of approach in parts of a composition and it can be a fun way to approach a song. Let go of the beat and use soul and feel.

The free time concept can be applied to solos, as well. If soloing along with a steady rhythm and beat, opting to play on the beat in some parts, and play over the beats in other parts, is generally acceptable. When playing over a beat, you’re stepping outside the tempo and rhythm for short-term creativity and that can add a sense of tension to the music.

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Tension helps keep music interesting. Occasionally, locking back into the tempo and rhythm will keep the song listenable, although there are no hard and fast rules for this.

Melody

Songs are commonly composed in a specific key. For example, the key of C major represents a seven-note series of whole and half steps. However, just because a song is in C doesn't mean a musician shouldn't play notes outside of the key. In fact, when this is not done, it can make a song sound boring.

Moving outside the key structure is a way to create tension in music and can help keep a listener’s attention. By moving outside the key and resolving back in, tension and release is created. Oftentimes, as was the case when I first started learning how to compose music, people will write songs and throw them away  —  or change them because they realize one or two notes reside out of the primary key. If the song generally sounds good (to you), then keep it the way it is. Take a shot at writing mindfully, however.

A neat trick is to create a four-chord progression with the notes all in one key. When playing the third chord, replace one note with an out-of-key note for a sense of tension. If that note doesn’t satisfy, try another. You'll know you found the right note when you move to the last chord and the idea sounds resolved.

The Ballad of Lo-fi

When a musician casually records music without understanding how sound works, it can lead to unsatisfactory, discouraging results. The two options musicians have are:

  1. Improving their audio productions skills, or
  2. Hiring a producer to record their music

It should be noted, that even if you improve your production skills, it's perfectly acceptable to incorporate lo-fi (or quasi-amateurish) elements into your composition. Lo-fi has been around forever, but it became somewhat mainstream in the 1990s through recordings by the Beastie Boys, Beck, and Guided By Voices. Even though lo-fi implies "low quality," in the right hands this music can be super fun and inspiring.

Guided By Voices - Godfathers of Lo-fi

Give lo-fi a try. Get some cheap recording equipment and learn how to use a digital audio workstation or DAW. Audacity is a popular free DAW program. The key to the lo-fi sound is generally using low-grade equipment to record or using various methods to degrade the sound. Take the recorded sound files and import them into audacity for mixing  —  a topic for another article.

Musicians can be happy and generally successful without getting signed or aired on the radio. Several digital distribution and peer-networking programs are available online. Bandcamp and CD Baby are examples.

When in Doubt, Play

If you're a musician, reading about music theory and even listening to music only takes you so far. At some point, you have to play. In 2016, I recorded an accompaniment section over which I was going to add some guitar leads. I used a jazz chord progression, although the rhythm isn’t technically jazz. On one occasion, I improvised a guitar solo on the fly. The accompaniment background was done with a strict tempo and rhythm, but my solo improvisation was done in free time. Instead of using the beat, I let myself go and used feel.

You can learn to do the same thing. YouTube is filled tons of examples of musicians being experimental, being avant-garde, being lo-fi, and doing it themselves. It doesn't have to be "right." Making mistakes and experimenting is part of the process of being a musician.

© 2022 Dan Martino

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