When it comes to writing music, I will occasionally stumble across an idea when I’m just noodling away on the guitar. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. What normally happens is that I begin with an overall feeling or emotion I want to convey & go from there.
Knowing that minor chords sound sad & major chords sound happy is a good starting point, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can find more colours for the palate. Here’s what I mean…
Supposing I want a minor chord “sad” feeling for a piece: well I know that the aeolian mode will be good for expressing a sense of sorrow or loss; the phrygian mode is a good starting point for something a little darker; the harmonic minor scale adds an exotic touch to proceedings – there are all kinds of options for refining exactly what kind of minor/sad mood you want to create & the same is true for conjuring up something with a major chord/happy mood. Take a listen to the examples below to hear what I mean.
If the subject of modes is a closed book to you, then you can find an introduction to it HERE. All modes & scales have their own inherent moods. Here is a list of those that I use most often when writing with a description of how they sound to me:
Aeolian Mode – sad/angry (with a faster tempo)
Dorian Mode – still sad, due to the minor chord at it’s heart. But perhaps a little “sweeter” sounding than the aeolian. Good for jazz & blues riffs.
Phrygian Mode – Very “dark sounding”. The flat 9th in this mode creates real tension. Everything you can do with the aeolian mode is true of this one, but it just sounds a bit more intense.
The Harmonic Minor Scale – essentially just an aeolian mode with a raised 7th note. It somehow sounds a bit “eastern” & exotic.
The Neapolitan Minor Scale – basically a combination of the phrygian mode with the harmonic minor. Even more “snake charmer” sounding than the harmonic minor scale.
The Ionian Mode – sweet and melodic and easy on the ear. Easy to write beautiful music with this one. Perfect for conjuring up images of happy warm summer days.
The Lydian Mode – like the ionian, but that raised 4th note adds a touch of dissonance. It’s a happy scale, but with a slight edge to it.
The Mixolydian Mode – Because it’s based around the notes of a 7th chord, this is ideal for writing anything bluesy.
The Phrygian Dominant Mode – This is what you get if you take a harmonic minor scale and focus on it’s 5th note. A great scale for adding a touch of faux-flamenco to a piece. Sometimes also known as the “Spanish Phrygian” scale for this very reason.
The Lydian Dominant Mode – basically, a mixolydian mode (which sounds bluesy) with a raised 4th note (like the lydian mode). This adds that unsettling “madness” to it which is perfect for adding a touch of insanity to a blues riff. Best example of this mode in action is the Simpsons theme tune.
What’s even better is that you can mix these modes & scales in the same piece of music to combine their effects. Want to write a sad, dark sounding tune with a chorus which dispels this feeling like the sun coming out from behind a cloud? Easy… write your verse in the aeolian or phrygian modes, then go to the ionian mode for the chorus.
The relative sound of each mode is also something to take into account – for example, if you go from the ionian mode into the mixolydian, then the mixolydian will sound somehow “darker” by comparison. However, go to the mixolydian mode from (say) the phrygian or harmonic minor, it will sound comparatively brighter and more “up-beat”. Like an artist choosing colours, the effect of a colour (in this case, a mode or scale) can be influenced immensely by what it is placed next to.
There are other scales & modes that I haven’t mentioned here and they all have their own unique flavours… the whole tone scale; the diminished scale; the enigmatic scale etc etc. However, the ones I have listed are my favourites and represent my choices most of the time.
Once I have the scale/mode chosen I’ll then write a chord progression around it, where all the chords are made up from the notes found in that scale or mode. Then it’s a case of strumming that chord progression into any kind of recorder (I normally use Audacity). Once I have that, I can begin to experiment with melodies.
For me, the best way of doing this is to play about with a software synth in a DAW, where I can drag & drop notes around until I have a melody that speaks to me. I have a few staples that I like to use when coming up with phrasing ideas for the melody, and one such stand-by is known as the “clave rhythm”- just make the main notes in your melody land on the 1 of the bar, the “and” of beat 2, then on the “4”. I find it helps to begin a melody on the “4” of the previous bar as a lead in. Also, now and then, it helps to one or more of these prominent notes, just to allow the melody some space to breathe. See below:
And here are three quite different ideas based on this rhythm… a melodic ballad based on the ionian mode, a chunky rock riff using a mixture of the aeolian mode & harmonic minor scale, and finally a mid-tempo melody based on the dorian mode. As you can hear, this same rhythmic idea can be made to sound quite different depending upon the context in which it is being used.
This is just a starting point though. Sometimes I’ll take a melody & play it backwards or shift it along by half a beat, or chop it up an put it back together in a different order. The point is that it provides a start from which the tune can then evolve.
I know that this all sounds a bit methodical & some people believe that such practices have no place in a creative sphere like music. There are those who believe that any form of artistic expression should not involve any kind of thought process – it should all come from an unfathomable place, somewhere deep inside where the soul (if you believe in such a concept) resides. However, I consider myself to be a craftsman & I take a pride in being able to craft a piece of music from scratch whether I’m feeling inspired or not. Also, once you become fluent in all of this, it isn’t something you truly think about that much… in the same way as when you are fluent in a language, you’re not thinking about spelling & grammar as you speak… you just unconsciously apply the techniques you know in order to express yourself. Well it’s the same with music (or any artisan craft for that matter).
Occasionally, I will get a fully conceived piece in my head and then it’s just a case of nailing it down on the guitar – finding the notes & chords that I heard in my head. But this is far from the norm for me. And I really value being able to come up with something out of nowhere, just by working at it. Once I’ve got a basic “skeleton” for a tune (crafted in the manner described), I often find that it’s THEN that the inspiration will come & I’ll start flowing with ideas for how to develop the tune. Ideas that simply wouldn’t have been there if I’d sat down with a guitar and waited for the muse to call.
As I said… this is what works for me – feel free to do it your own way. Until next time…