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Tips on writing in certain genres for inexperienced musician/singer?


BumbleBb

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I'm pretty new to music, started learning guitar a couple years ago as an older adult, have had a few sporadic lessons, and have no singing or music experience or instruction prior to that.

 

Do you have any tips for me on how to write in certain styles? I've written songs of various types but I still struggle at times with coming up with a genre that I predesignate. Sometimes I can do it, depending on the genre also, but other times I can't identify the characteristics of the genre that make it sound as it does, and so can't capture those traits in my own writing either.

 

Are there easily identifiable or easy to describe traits for certain genres that you could give me tips on? For example genres like country (say in the style of Waylon Jennings etc.), rock (preferably older rock like 79s 80s etc), or something jazzy/bluesy/swingy like Bessie Smith or the song The Way You Look Tonight? What makes each style identifiable as that style? What elements make say a Waylon Jennings song or other country have the sound that it does, and make it sound country?

 

It's weird but I've listened to so much country for so many years, yet it's one style (at least the type of country that I listen to) that I can't seem to write myself. You'd think that genre would be very ingrained in me, but ....

 

Often though I do have luck by listening to a lot of a certain style in a short time period, or by trying to just hear the style in my head, but other times I just don't succeed with those techniques. Any tips? I hope my question is clear, it was kind of hard for me to articulate what I want to say.

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Well, I'm pretty green myself when it comes to music composition (which I think is the essence of your question), but I can pass along the few simple observations I have collected during my brief experience.

 

Country: Stick to the tried and true chords - I, IV, V, and maybe a little vi. Lots of IV-I and V-I cadences. Vocal melody sticks pretty close to chord tones, especially the first, third, and fifth notes of the key scale. Sing with a twang. Fill out the production with a little fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Play the main guitar part on a telecaster.

 

Classic rock: Use blues-based chord progressions - I, IV, V, VIIb, or mixolydian (use the V chord of the scale as the tonal center, i.e., D-C-G, "Dead or Alive," "Sweet Home Alabama," etc.)

 

Jazz: I really don't know much about jazz, but a lot of jazz standards use a ii-V chord movement and cycle through different key signatures by using the V of the new key to lead into the new I. Lots of Maj7, Min7, diminished, and half-diminished chords help give that jazzy sound.

 

This reply really is the blind leading the blind, so some of you folks who actually know music theory should chime in and correct my mistakes. :)

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Write the song first then figure out what to call it.

 

If you want to write good country music, be a story teller. Give us a flawed character that we want to pull for anyway. It helps to know the story before you start writing the song. That way you know what you're working towards.

 

70s and 80s rock usually starts with a guitar riff. Don't try and get to deep with the lyrical subject matter. It should be about having fun.

 

Jazz, I have no idea where to start except saying you should probably try and use some jazz chords.

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The basic premise feels a bit too far reaching. By that I mean, how can one possibly devote their time and research to a wide array of genres? Here's what I propose...

 

What do you love that is within your means? You might love Bach, but if you're just picking out your first guitar chords, you know... maybe your time would best be spent on pre and post Bob Dylan folk rock. Or punk rock, or blues or 60's pop... whatever makes you happy and you have a inclination toward. And even just a hint of aptitude at.

 

Then focus on THAT! night and day. Buy CDs of the roots of that particular genre and listen. Spot how later examples of the genre have developed. Focus your energy in a little spot and make headway. Then, as it behooves you, widen your focus outward. But first, pinpoint focus.

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I'm pretty new to music, started learning guitar a couple years ago as an older adult, have had a few sporadic lessons, and have no singing or music experience or instruction prior to that.


Do you have any tips for me on how to write in certain styles? I've written songs of various types but I still struggle at times with coming up with a genre that I predesignate. Sometimes I can do it, depending on the genre also, but other times I can't identify the characteristics of the genre that make it sound as it does, and so can't capture those traits in my own writing either.


Are there easily identifiable or easy to describe traits for certain genres that you could give me tips on? For example genres like country (say in the style of Waylon Jennings etc.), rock (preferably older rock like 79s 80s etc), or something jazzy/bluesy/swingy like Bessie Smith or the song The Way You Look Tonight? What makes each style identifiable as that style? What elements make say a Waylon Jennings song or other country have the sound that it does, and make it sound country?


It's weird but I've listened to so much country for so many years, yet it's one style (at least the type of country that I listen to) that I can't seem to write myself. You'd think that genre would be very ingrained in me, but ....


Often though I do have luck by listening to a lot of a certain style in a short time period, or by trying to just hear the style in my head, but other times I just don't succeed with those techniques. Any tips? I hope my question is clear, it was kind of hard for me to articulate what I want to say.

Maybe your artistic self doesn't really want to be like everyone else...

 

When I write a song, I'm generally writing that song, rather than trying to pound the proverbial square peg in the round hole of a specific genre. I let the song go where it wants to go to a large extent, particularly in the early stages, although I sometimes will consciously shape things -- but, for me, my connection with inspiration can be fleeting and easy to lose. For that reason I usually try to fill out as much of the song as my inspiration holds up for and then let my intellect take up the slack. (Even so, I still separate writing from editing. Nothing kills writing like an editor sitting over your shoulder. Even though I'm my own editor, I don't let 'him' get into the game until the inspiration has been wrung dry.)

 

I also have a long immersion in country, as well as folk (as well as tours through punk, post-punk, funk, downtempo and club music, I'm rather restless. It's a rare decade in which I haven't shifted my stylistic focus once or twice. But, by and large, the writing doesn't really change all that much. Even when I was writing dance oriented stuff, there was typically a regular old song underneath the beat layers and repeating riffs.

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"Write the song first then figure out what to call it." Thanks. I have no problem doing that, that's what I do, but I'd also like to be able to choose a genre/style and be able to write in it at will as well. I don't think I have an issue lyrically, I think the problem might be more of a melodic issue, and beyond that maybe rhythm, etc.

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Thanks everyone. The focus idea is interesting. I guess by nature, I tend to like to try different things rather than focus on one. But maybe it's good to give that a try, since I haven't taken that approach. My usual approach is I write whatever comes out. Other times, but less frequently, I do take the approach of wanting to write a certain type of song and make a concerted effort to do so, and it does tend to work out much of the time. Never with the type of country song I'm thinking of though. I've listened to that music so much and for so long, I'm not sure how much more I could do so and have it have any different effect. Maybe the key is trying to learn to play that style, or any style I want to write in, better and see if that helps with the writing. I think that may be part of the issue, there's still so much fairly basic stuff I can't play yet. And maybe certain styles are just not meant for me to write in, sort of like what Blue2blue said. I could see that, if it's not something that fits my writing personality or whatever.

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Well, I'm pretty green myself when it comes to music composition (which I think is the essence of your question), but I can pass along the few simple observations I have collected during my brief experience.


Country: Stick to the tried and true chords - I, IV, V, and maybe a little vi. Lots of IV-I and V-I cadences. Vocal melody sticks pretty close to chord tones, especially the first, third, and fifth notes of the key scale. Sing with a twang. Fill out the production with a little fiddle and pedal steel guitar. Play the main guitar part on a telecaster.


Classic rock: Use blues-based chord progressions - I, IV, V, VIIb, or mixolydian (use the V chord of the scale as the tonal center, i.e., D-C-G, "Dead or Alive," "Sweet Home Alabama," etc.)


Jazz: I really don't know much about jazz, but a lot of jazz standards use a ii-V chord movement and cycle through different key signatures by using the V of the new key to lead into the new I. Lots of Maj7, Min7, diminished, and half-diminished chords help give that jazzy sound.


This reply really is the blind leading the blind, so some of you folks who actually know music theory should chime in and correct my mistakes.
:)

I'm way behind you as far as theory but I get the gist of it, thank you!

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My advise. Carry along a smartphone or portable recorder that you can just humm and sing whatever hits you at any particular moment. Sitting down and saying "OK I am going to write this now" can be inhibiting at times.

Do you sing in the shower? Have a notepad available at all times so when a theme may come to you or say you have a basic idea, jot down phrases that that just pop up. I think that for some striving for a certain genre

in the process may lead to constraints. I am sure many here may disagree, but I feel if you leave yourself open and let this music come to you without you trying to find it may be a freeing experience.

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My advise. Carry along a smartphone or portable recorder that you can just humm and sing whatever hits you at any particular moment. Sitting down and saying "OK I am going to write this now" can be inhibiting at times.

Do you sing in the shower? Have a notepad available at all times so when a theme may come to you or say you have a basic idea, jot down phrases that that just pop up. I think that for some striving for a certain genre

in the process may lead to constraints. I am sure many here may disagree, but I feel if you leave yourself open and let this music come to you without you trying to find it may be a freeing experience.

 

 

Thanks Mahuska. I do have a little voice recorder that I use and also use Garageband to record if I'm on or near my computer when an idea comes out. Unless I'm in bed almost asleep (and sometimes even then) I'll do everything I can to record/get down the music in my head before I lose it. I don't think I really have trouble writing, just writing in a desired genre.

 

As I think more about this whole question though, I'm realizing maybe this isn't even so much a songwriting issue as an understanding music issue. It's like I know country when I hear it, I know disco when I hear it, I know gospel, etc. but can I identify what makes each style sound like that particular style? Sometimes yes, other times no. I think at the heart of this issue for me is identifying those musical elements that makes something sound like it does, if that makes any sense. The whole issue does tie into writing for me, but I think it's something bigger than that.

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I think the best way to learn how to write songs is to learn how other songs were written. If you want to write a country song, learn how to play a bunch of different country songs and pay attention to what those songwriters did. When you then try to write your own songs, don't be so concerned with originality at first. The more you write, the more you'll come up with your own voice, but in the beginning it's mostly about learning how to write. I'd even suggest "borrowing heavily" from a few of those songs early on.. maybe take the same chord progression but try to alter the melody a bit, or maybe transpose that progression to another key and shuffle up the rhythm. Then once you get the hang of it, you'll be more comfortable with writing in that genre and then you can stretch out to more original sounding songs.

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I think the best way to learn how to write songs is to learn how other songs were written. If you want to write a country song, learn how to play a bunch of different country songs and pay attention to what those songwriters did. When you then try to write your own songs, don't be so concerned with originality at first. The more you write, the more you'll come up with your own voice, but in the beginning it's mostly about learning how to write. I'd even suggest "borrowing heavily" from a few of those songs early on.. maybe take the same chord progression but try to alter the melody a bit, or maybe transpose that progression to another key and shuffle up the rhythm. Then once you get the hang of it, you'll be more comfortable with writing in that genre and then you can stretch out to more original sounding songs.

 

 

Thanks, good advice.

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Everybody steals? Can't go wrong from grabbing stuff from other Artist's. Somehow you will make it your own along this journey.

Thank you. I think you're right, it's a good way to learn. I'll look at it as borrowing... :)

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You say you have a problem doing country. Well, they say it's "three chords and the truth" for a reason: it's very simple. A lot of the elements that make a song sound country are really the instrumentation: picked guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, a twangy sounding singer. Most songs can be "countrified" in this way. So you probably know more than you think you do...you just don't have access to the tools to make it sound so.

 

But I think Happy Chord's advice is solid...the best way to figure out a certain style is to learn actual songs in that style. Then when you want to write your own, your fingers will know where to go. Though I don't think it's necessary to intentionally try and write in a certain style, because the more songs you learn, the more those influences will creep their way in anyway.

 

Also thinking in terms of "genre" is only helpful if you're goal is to be a professional songwriter. But if you're doing this for to please yourself, it's probably the quickest way to try and sound like everyone else. Just learn as much as you can, forget it all, and write. :)

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Just a side note. There was a spell I did Karaoke back in the late 90's. Country Music seemed to be what this particular audience preferred. I was picking Al Green tunes, U2 James Taylor, INXs etc.

Sometimes I got the Steak and Lobster first prize, sometimes not. But what is really funny about all of this is we had Country Singers from the Pacific Northwest and not real Southern Singers adding their

"Twang" What I get from Country Music these days is the most important element is a very upfront compressed Vocal Performance. The typical steel guitar sure. But what is cool is they are

putting out this stuff with a strong in yer face Vox and of coarse a beaten down themes but i am digging Brad Paisley, Kurt Urban, Jamey Johnson, and though still a Rocker always was into Willie and Cash

 

Just have fun. There has been some good input here so far so just go for it

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You say you have a problem doing country. Well, they say it's "three chords and the truth" for a reason: it's very simple. A lot of the elements that make a song sound country are really the instrumentation: picked guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, a twangy sounding singer. Most songs can be "countrified" in this way. So you probably know more than you think you do...you just don't have access to the tools to make it sound so.


But I think Happy Chord's advice is solid...the best way to figure out a certain style is to learn actual songs in that style. Then when you want to write your own, your fingers will know where to go. Though I don't think it's necessary to intentionally try and write in a certain style, because the more songs you learn, the more those influences will creep their way in anyway.


Also thinking in terms of "genre" is only helpful if you're goal is to be a professional songwriter. But if you're doing this for to please yourself, it's probably the quickest way to try and sound like everyone else. Just learn as much as you can, forget it all, and write.
:)

 

Thanks Kurdy, I've had that same thought regarding country. Often if I sit down to try to come up with a countryish song, the first thing I think is I wish I had a pedal steel guitar playing in the background to set the mood/tone for my writing. But aren't there also some common elements to the melodies too? If you strip away all those other instruments and embellishments from a country song, would it still sound country? I think probably so, no? So I think even without those tools, I should be able to write a country sounding song, don't you think?

 

As to your other point, I am doing it to please myself, but it pleases me to write in different genres, so that's one of the things I'm trying to do. I don't think my genre songs sound like other people's, I think they still have my style and touch, just in a particular genre. I'd like to be able to do the same for other genres I'm interested in too in addition to the ones I've already done.

 

And of course I wouldn't mind being a professional songwriter, as in selling a song (would any songwriter mind that? maybe some would I guess), I'd be ecstatic just to hear a band play one of my songs, but I'm doing all this because I feel the drive for it and enjoy it and want to do it because I enjoy it. And even if writing were out of the picture, I'd still really like to understand the elements that make each genre sound as it does, so it's a matter of interest for me either way. I think that is largely what's at the root of this question and this desire, understanding what makes something country, punk, jazz, disco, etc. and then the second half of that is then being able to create that myself. It seems you can just hear a melody sung with no instrumentation and still get a feel for genre. (Or am I wrong there?) It makes me very interested in how that works, how to create a melody that sounds countryish, punkish, etc. Sometimes I can just tell by instinct or osmosis or whatever or by analysis, but there are other times when that just hasn't worked for me.

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Just a side note. There was a spell I did Karaoke back in the late 90's. Country Music seemed to be what this particular audience preferred. I was picking Al Green tunes, U2 James Taylor, INXs etc.

Sometimes I got the Steak and Lobster first prize, sometimes not. But what is really funny about all of this is we had Country Singers from the Pacific Northwest and not real Southern Singers adding their

"Twang" What I get from Country Music these days is the most important element is a very upfront compressed Vocal Performance. The typical steel guitar sure. But what is cool is they are

putting out this stuff with a strong in yer face Vox and of coarse a beaten down themes but i am digging Brad Paisley, Kurt Urban, Jamey Johnson, and though still a Rocker always was into Willie and Cash


Just have fun. There has been some good input here so far so just go for it

 

Yup, love Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. As for the newer country singers, I do like Jamey Johnson, but overall I still like the older stuff: Haggard, Coe, Jennings, Kristofferson, etc.

 

I hate to say I have no idea what an upfront compressed vocal performance is, I wasn't kidding about being inexperienced. ;)

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[video=youtube;9SIjU8KE4MM]

 

Learn to play this song on just an acoustic guitar, and it will still sound country. I'm not sure I can put my finger on all the reasons why, but here are a few that I can pick out:

 

- Someone said it earlier -- three chords and the truth. I chord, IV chord, back to I, then V, back to I. That's all there is to it.

 

- Alternating bass double-strum rhythm. Pick the root note (1) of the chord, strum the rest of the chord down and back up, then pick the 5th note of the chord, strum the rest of the chord down and back up. If you can walk the bass line between chords, that adds to the 'country' sound, but it isn't absolutely necessary.

 

- When the chord changes to the IV or V and then back to the I, the vocal melody follows the root notes of those changes.

 

- The story line is a straight forward hard luck tale (the truth part of three chords and the truth).

 

As several folks have pointed out, the definition of country music has expanded over the years to include a lot of stuff that is basically pop music with a slightly countrified arrangement (e.g., Taylor Swift, Keith Urban). Don't forget, Johnny Cash was considered a rockabilly artist early in his career, and many country purists refused to accept Waylon Jennings as a country artist back in the mid 70s. But if you dig down in such music, you'll find some of the same elements that make Merle Haggard's classic a "country" song.

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Learn to play this song on just an acoustic guitar, and it will still sound country. I'm not sure I can put my finger on all the reasons why, but here are a few that I can pick out:


- Someone said it earlier -- three chords and the truth. I chord, IV chord, back to I, then V, back to I. That's all there is to it.


- Alternating bass double-strum rhythm. Pick the root note (1) of the chord, strum the rest of the chord down and back up, then pick the 5th note of the chord, strum the rest of the chord down and back up. If you can walk the bass line between chords, that adds to the 'country' sound, but it isn't absolutely necessary.


- When the chord changes to the IV or V and then back to the I, the vocal melody follows the root notes of those changes.


- The story line is a straight forward hard luck tale (the truth part of three chords and the truth).


As several folks have pointed out, the definition of country music has expanded over the years to include a lot of stuff that is basically pop music with a slightly countrified arrangement (e.g., Taylor Swift, Keith Urban). Don't forget, Johnny Cash was considered a rockabilly artist early in his career, and many country purists refused to accept Waylon Jennings as a country artist back in the mid 70s. But if you dig down in such music, you'll find some of the same elements that make Merle Haggard's classic a "country" song.

 

 

Yeah I specifically cited Waylon originally to distinguish that I'm not talking about that new pop sounding country. I can see the resemblance between Waylon and Haggard but I don't see much resemblance between the country I like and a lot of the new country that sounds to me like pop only.

 

Thanks for picking out some of those elements in the Haggard song, all good things to think about.

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Thanks Kurdy, I've had that same thought regarding country. Often if I sit down to try to come up with a countryish song, the first thing I think is I wish I had a pedal steel guitar playing in the background to set the mood/tone for my writing.
But aren't there also some common elements to the melodies too? If you strip away all those other instruments and embellishments from a country song, would it still sound country? I think probably so, no? So I think even without those tools, I should be able to write a country sounding song, don't you think?

 

 

 

Get an old hymnal and learn a bunch of those tunes.

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