Writing new material on demand, and how it works for me

It’s a funny thing. I wrote a new song for a vicar in West Brom and I can’t get over how much fun it was to hear it sung.

The song was tough to get done, but it was easier than free composition in many ways because I was working to a specific brief and those limitations gave rise to a more ordered creative process for me.

For a start, it was important that the song should be easily learned and sung. The range of the melody needed to be relatively narrow and the shape of it fairly simple.

Beyond that, there are some tricks and turns you can employ to make things easier on the singers. Repetition and clear scansion are effective tools in any rap artist’s portfolio of skills, and with good reason. If a listener can find a pattern they will pick up the flow of the lyric more easily.

When I had some time as a student, I sat down a few years back and read Poetics of Music by Igor Stravinsky. Actually, I read an English translation of his lectures at an American university, delivered in French. Aside from how impressed I was at this, what will never leave me is how he says limits drive creativity. If you sit down with a blank sheet, you can write anything. You are therefore more likely to write nothing as you wait for inspiration. If you have clear limits, you have a defined space in which to work and will therefore become more interested in working within that space. That’s the theory.

So once you have a simple melody that employs repetition and lyrics that scan clearly, you can be more than halfway to your hit song, right?

Wrong, actually. At least for me. It always sounds like I tried way too hard if I do it that way around. The better stuff seems to come out of a musical feel or sequence – a chord pattern or melodic device which gives me the starting point. From that I can graft lyrics onto a prototype melody, changing both until they fit more naturally with the flow of the words, and this seems to produce better results.

That such an approach works shouldn’t be a surprise to me, having done some study of music and having seen how it was originally notated for singing psalms in Latin. The words were written with simple marks above the syllables to indicate the direction of the melody, while the rhythm of the singing was dictated by the normal speech patterns of the words. It’s much simpler to sing songs which work with the lyrics than it is to sing them where the stresses in the lyrics and music don’t match.

It was pleasing and helpful to find that what I consider a more organic approach worked better for me. It’s nice to see something where the formulae for success aren’t written in tablets of stone.

Most importantly, it means I don’t rely on rules to write a good tune, but messing with it until it drops right. While I will never be on a par with the greats, and I see many more worthy wordsmiths and musicians among my peers, I can at least sit comfortably in my own skin knowing I’m doing things the way it works for me. Hurrah for a free hand to be a bit creative!

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