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I have been writing melodies for my original lyrics since 2008 and have written quite a few songs in that time. But the more songs I write, the more difficult it becomes to write melodies that don't sound like one of my other songs.

Sometimes I don't even realize I copied my own melody until a friend says - "I like the lyrics but the melody sounds a lot like your song .....". Then I go back and listen to the older song and I see that they were correct.

My issue is that I write on guitar and seem to be stuck with the tired old - tried and true, popular chord progressions (ie. I, V, IV - or some variation) and the melodies seem to manifest withing predictable parameters within those "standard" progressions.

I have thought about trying to write in alternate tunings on guitar or writing on piano instead of guitar.

What are some effective devices I might use to get myself to "think outside the box" so to speak and become more diverse with my compositions? I could conceivably use several at once so any and all ideas are welcome.

I am sure many songwriters and composers might appreciate some ideas about how to approach their composing from a different angle that might inspire some unique new music.

  • Do you typically write the lyrics first, or the melody? – Basstickler Feb 24 '15 at 21:18
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    "Force" creativity? – manejar Feb 24 '15 at 23:14
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    @manejar Good Point. That's not what I meant but thanks for pointing out my poor choice of words. Your willingness to point out this flaw in the wording inspired me to edit the question. I think you will agree it's better now. Better reflects what I actually meant to say. Thanks again. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 1:22
  • @Basstickler I typically start with a concept and a few lines in mind - usually a lyrical hook. As I start to write verses and chorus - the melody comes to me as I am writing and so I usually write both at same time. There have been a few occasions where I stumbled upon a chord progression that suggested certain lyrics. So a few of my songs started with the melody (or at least the chord progression which defines the parameters of the melody). – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 1:26
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    @mey Some great content in the answers here. Worth a read. Your Hubby does not need to - he has not been tainted yet by the rules. Let him continue to express his creativity in the absence of knowing what he is "supposed" to be doing. He is a good example of what I tried to say in an answer to Mr. Boy on if new song writers should stick to the rules. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 16:33

21 Answers 21

17

TLDR; Listen to new music, play in new keys, try to emulate other styles/genres, choose new chord progressions and approach your writing from a different perspective, ie, which instrument you write on, both for accompaniment and melody.


What you are experiencing is entirely normal. As humans we have managed to survive and evolve due to our recognition of patterns and creating habits that will ensure our safety and health. Our brain is basically wired to recognize and work with patterns. Part of the way we learn to play music is through pattern recognition. You seem to understand this to some extent or another but I find it important to mention that it is not only normal but natural. Now onto breaking habits/finding new ways to creatively express your musical self!

One way patterns are formed is through the music we listen to. Every genre has certain characteristics that define it. So when we listen to one genre more than others, those characteristics tend to find a home in our musical minds. The tendencies of different genres can be those of melodic choice, harmonic choice, rhythmic choice, etc. One way to pull yourself out of relatively repetitive composition choices is to expose yourself to new music. Most people don't really listen to just one genre but often have one or two that are the most prevalent in their library. The idea would be to listen to those genres less (for a time) and to listen to some new music for you, allowing you to focus your ears on different characteristics and tendencies. I've always enjoyed Jazz but Smooth Jazz always seemed so cheesy to me that I never appreciated it. I started listening to the Smooth Jazz station in my area and started to enjoy a lot of it (and not just because of the slap bass and lead bass). A while later, I listened back on a track that I had been writing and realized that the melody was much different than my usual style and that it was rather reminiscent of Smooth Jazz. I wasn't trying to write a song within that genre but my extended exposure allowed it to seep into my brain and influence my melodic choices.

When listening to the different music, try to focus on all the aspects of what makes that genre work. How do the drums and bass work with the melody? How do the harmonies support that melody. A great exercise is to try to rebuild a song or imitate it. You can even do this from a pseudo-parody standpoint. Imitate the music that you don't really enjoy and try to make fun of it. You won't be able to put together a good parody of a genre if you don't fully understand its structure, which very much includes the melody. A lot of Frank Zappa's music was parody based. He was pretty much making fun of all the DooWop/RnB of his time and actually ended up writing better (IMO) songs than most of what the artists he was making fun of were. He did an entire album making fun of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Lots of modern music tends to focus less on melody. A lot of Rock music will kind of hover on one note and use different pitches more to express what the lyrics are saying. Essentially this music would not be considered melodic in nature. Classical and Jazz tend to put most of the focus on a melody and everything else just supports that melody. So listening to melodically driven music will help a lot.

Chord progressions are another thing that tend to be fairly standardized within genres and that leads to my next point. The chords that are chosen will often lead someone in a melodic direction because of genre tendencies. If you play a blues progression a lot, you're probably going to write a bluesy melody. So one way to break compositional tendencies within yourself is to try new chord progressions. Certain chord progressions, specifically non-diatonic progressions, basically demand notes that would not usually occur, or provide the landscape for different notes to fit. I would try messing around with some Modal Mixture/Borrowing to start. If that is something you already do, try to make it more drastic, such as every other chord being borrowed. This may not yield your favorite music but it will likely force you to sing/play different melodic notes, opening up your vocabulary. You can also try modulations but place them differently than you may otherwise, such as a mid-verse modulation, so that half of a verse is in one key and the other half is in another. That could potentially make a repeat melody sound less like the other song.

The types of chords you use will also impact this. If you use strictly triads, then your consonant notes are a bit different than if you are using Maj/Min 7 chords and the landscape changes even more if you are adding extensions and alterations to your chords, where nearly any of the chord tones and extensions can have a consonant feel to them.

Similarly, chord voicings can impact which notes sound/feel more consonant. By varying the types of chords you use and the voicings of any chords that you choose, you will be pulling the music in another direction, opening up new melodic choices. One thing that is very commonly considered on piano/keyboard that seems to be less of a consideration on guitar is that the top note of your chord voicings tend to poke out as a melody and many try to write their keyboard parts to have the top note follow the melody or sit below it. This can be applied to any chordal instrument, so simply changing your voicings may bring new melodies in itself.

Approaching your music from another angle is always helpful as well, like you mention in the question. Starting with a fully written chord progression, one that is written without considering what the melody will be, may help your process. You mention using another instrument to write with and that will likely be helpful because the usual tendencies you may have on a guitar would not directly translate to a keyboard. But one important thing to try is writing the melody itself on the instrument. Our voices tend to be best at executing familiar patterns, as our voice is something we use all the time; it is innate to us. It tends to be rather difficult to sing brand new ideas, such as certain notes that are less consonant or certain melodic passages, so we end up not singing them. By writing a melody on your guitar, you can access the consistency of an instrument you understand well but not fall into the vocal tendencies. Different instruments will give you different rhythmic patterns and melodic patterns.

You can also try a relatively random approach. Randomly pick a handful of notes and find a way to create a melody out of them, even if they seem to have no harmonic relationship or tonal center. This is more of an exercise to expand your palette, so you might not get ideas that you want to turn into a song, but you never know.

Your choice of key is also very important in this conversation. As I mentioned before, the voice has tendencies and places of comfort that can be somewhat hard to break. Lots of songwriters end up writing most of their tunes in just a handful of keys, often dictated by the instrument they write on. Guitars tend to write in "sharp" keys (keys with sharps in the key signature), such as E, A, G, D. Guitarists tend not to write in Eb very much because it is harder on that instrument and you can't get that satisfying low tonic. So our voices tend to sing best or feel best in certain ranges and some people may choose to write in certain keys for how they fit into their vocal range. By writing in new keys, you will either need to stretch your voice to have your melodic concepts be able to take flight within that key, or you need take a different approach. Basically if you are in a different key and you want to sing in your comfortable range, you will be forced to make different melodic choices, such as which chord tones you tend to choose, how you move between notes, etc.

You can also try picking different notes as your "climax". People tend to hit certain notes very strongly and use those to create the climax of the piece. By choosing a different note than usual, you will change the character of your climax.

And I have now written another wall of text answer... The important thing to remember here is that you have tendencies in your writing for a reason, be it the brain's natural response, or the music that you choose to listen to. Changing how you write and what you listen to will definitely change what you write. You can try any number of things but you should be able to find ways to force yourself into a new direction when you find yourself stuck in certain patterns by either exposing yourself to different influences, or by forcing yourself to write a melody with different notes than usual. Don't stick yourself in a spot where every song you write has to be perfect and something you want to perform; give yourself some exercises and practice your writing, just like you would practice your playing.

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    Wow! I hope every song writer or composer who happens upon this question - will take the time to read your dissertation. Long but well worth the read! You introduced some new ideas - such as "a mid-verse modulation" and expanded on some ideas already presented to better explain the why behind them. You are so right on about so many things. I have tried different keys - but never really understood why that seemed to influence the melody. The voice tendencies will get in a comfort zone in familiar keys - move to a key not normally used - and voice is forced out of comfort zone! Great job. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 4:47
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    I shared a link to this answer on my Facebook Timeline. Good stuff! – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 4:49
  • If folks will take time to read, you should get more up-votes. More up votes means more reads and even more up-votes. Good idea to hook them with the TL;DR. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 4:55
  • I'm glad it is of benefit to you. I just got writing and didn't realize how long it was until I got to the end. Not sure if I put enough emphasis on this point but it can help your writing so much if you have ways to practice the writing. Most people just try to write the best song they can all the time. By setting certain parameters and not being attached to the song, you can really get out of your comfort zone. So you basically choose something that you want to improve and come up with a game plan for how that might work, then write something under those guidelines. – Basstickler Feb 26 '15 at 14:00
  • You must have a spy cam in my home studio. Yes whenever I start putting energy into writing a song, I am trying to make it the best song I have ever written (otherwise - why bother). But perhaps to become a better songwriter, I need to just "practice" occasionally - like I do on guitar. If all I play on my guitar is the same songs I have already learned - I will never get better. My guitar skills improve when I engage in dedicated (often boring) "practice". Perhaps the same concept applies to composing music. You did say that in your answer - just as valuable as all the other gems. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 16:28
17

Listen, listen, listen to lots of new kinds of music. Regularly. Not just your style or your favorites. Don't just listen. Marinate. Challenge yourself. It'll be tough initially, and it may not hold your attention, but the exercise does pay off. You'll start to hear things "out of the box" that you didn't before and you'll have fresher perspectives on your compositions.

Practically, this might mean:

  1. Trying out a new "stations" on your Pandora/Spotify/Rdio, pick a genre and go deep
  2. Tuning into your college radio station
  3. Asking one of your friends with different musical leanings to share.
  4. Take a free online course @ Berklee
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    Plus one for listen to new kinds of music. I think we are all influenced to a large extent by what we listen to. If I keep listening to the same kind of music, my writing will stay the same. But seems likely that if I intentionally listen to things I might not otherwise gravitate towards, I might start hearing some new ideas that I can apply to my music. YouTube is also a good source of finding new music. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 1:40
  • Instead of just listening, playing such music might be helpful as well. – CodesInChaos Feb 27 '15 at 15:15
  • @CodesInChaoas Hey, that's why we have all been in party bands and had to learn the damn Macarena, right? :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 27 '15 at 21:55
8

You know what used to work for me? Take the chords off a popular song and write to those.

Or take the rhythm of a melody and see how it works with other chords - maybe in another mode.

You know the Mickey Mouse March?

Dam-dadam, dam-dadam, dam-dadam-dadam?

Nice, now find an interesting sequence of chords.

In minor, even.

Now try to come up (in your head, keep your hands in your pockets please) with a melody that has the same rhythm of the Mickey Mouse melody and lays nicely atop of those chords (as in: new notes, same rhythm).

Et voila', you basically got yourself instant Laibach :P

Or you know, write a counterpoint to a melody. Or an inversion (you ever heard the Corelli variations by Rachmaninov? The most famous variation is an inversion and it's of a completely different character).

EDIT: Oh, and if you are more of a lyrics guy, try this: write some really really sad lyrics using an upbeat, major mode song as a ghost melody, so that they fit the melody.

If you are into death metal "dig - my grave! dig - my grave! kill me 'n dig my grave!" fits the Mickey Mouse March perfectly.

Good, now try the above methods to put new chords and a new melody under that.

Satisfaction guaranteed.

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    You've just made my day, but actually it's not far from how I compose my pieces. – András Hummer Feb 24 '15 at 19:18
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    Thanks for the ideas. You know you can edit your answer and add these other thoughts for posterity. BTW - I write, Country, Soft Rock, Folk or Pop. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 24 '15 at 19:18
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    @AndrásHummer I swear to God I was dead serious. I actually tried to set murderous lyrics to the Duck Tales theme and then halve the BPM and rewrite it all in minor mode once. Then again the two or three good things I've written, the really good ones, I've written them by drinking a beer, getting my guitar, repeating something I've felt to be profoundly true like a mantra (you know, "yesterday all my troubles were so far away"), strumming a basic chord sequence and letting the magic happen. Sometimes it works. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 24 '15 at 19:25
  • Stop believin' must have been born a somewhat similar way (Journey's Don't stop believin', put into minor). – András Hummer Feb 24 '15 at 19:42
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    Plus one for trying in different modes. I composed two new songs in Phrygian and one in dorian,. – mey Feb 26 '15 at 9:57
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I'm reminded of how the sci-fi author, Lois McMaster Bujold, keeps her books moving along: "What's the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist now?"

You, of course, don't want to write the worst thing, but you do want something that will a) give you a hook to work with, and b) keep the song hopping, and that means a very similar way of working. The side effect is that your songs will lose the sameness.

By this, I mean, take your melody, and figure out at each point what creates the greatest tension. An unexpected high note, maybe? A dropped beat? Starting the next phrase early, or maybe delaying it past what would be expected? An unexpected resolution to a dissonance, or perhaps a delayed resolution? Maybe a dissonant note hangs on much longer than expected. Often enough, the prosody of your lyrics will suggest what might work best.

Once you have that, your accompaniment will, naturally enough, have to reflect these sources of tension. Sometimes it might even instigate them, depending on how the ideas come to you.

Often enough, the method you use will be to stop, and say to yourself something like: "This is rather obvious... This note instead, maybe? No... This one? Aha!"

You'll find yourself having a fair number of "Aha!" moments.

Now, this is really a matter of craftsmanship, but, at a certain level, craftsmanship is indistinguishable from inspiration. If you look for areas to heighten the tension of your songs, those areas will tend to differ from song to song, because, in otherwise similar tunes, what suits and heightens the lyrics in one song could very well be "out of sync" with the lyrics of the other.

  • Thanks. Do you think this trial and error process should be a tweaking of what originally comes to mind for the melody? In other words, after I have something that fits the prosody and mood of the lyrics that could work, start tinkering around with some of the notes to see if I can create something unexpected - but that still works for the song? – Rockin Cowboy Feb 24 '15 at 20:18
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    There's no fixed way of doing it, really. I tend to do it automatically now, but I have gone back and tweaked as well. I do tend to add at least a small irregularity to my initial idea (in your case, roughly equivalent to the first line of the song, or even the intro), because these initial irregularities have repercussions and suggest how the following materials should work. – user16935 Feb 24 '15 at 20:24
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    That's not to say that I disagree with @Some Dude On The Interwebs at all - a lot of my work uses old chorale tunes, but they are starting points. You can make even rearranged good tunes humdrum if you don't look for the places where you can give the piece a good kick in the pants. – user16935 Feb 24 '15 at 20:30
  • @Patrx2 actually I gave you +1 for the Bujold quote (which I thought was Ray Carver's but whatever) and for "craftmanship ~~ inspiration". And lyrics do often suggest things, and this approach is very much valid. Thanks for a great answer! – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 25 '15 at 7:39
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    @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs, she may have swiped it: writers do that with good ideas. :D – user16935 Feb 25 '15 at 15:42
7

Use a random number generator to come up with new chord progressions.

If you play guitar, put your fingers at random spots on the fretboard and see what happens.

If you play piano, put your fingers on random keys and see what happens.

Listen to your favorite song backwards.

Listen to your least favorite song backwards.

Write out the sheet music for one of your songs and turn it 180 degrees, or flip it over vertically.

Give yourself a constraint. Write a song using an unfamiliar piece of software or an instrument you don't know how to play. Write a chiptune. Limit yourself to only black keys. Limit yourself to only white keys but your song has to be in a key other than C or A minor. Or it has to be in a bizarre time signature like 11/16 (except every seventh measure is in 3/4).

Take a walk in the forest and listen to the nothing.

  • 1
    Are you really just trying to say - try something strange, weird or unorthodox (and could add "roll the dice and use the number for the next chord and flip a coin - head's it's major, tails it's minor")? I might have to try playing my least favorite song backwards - but how can I do that? I think I get your point. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 4:50
  • The random number generator (aka "roll a dice") is definitely interesting. Upvoted! – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 25 '15 at 7:32
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    @RockinCowboy You got the gist of it. As far as how to play a song backwards, load it into your audio editor of choice and reverse the sound. :) – fluffy Feb 25 '15 at 20:58
  • I'll have to try that. Never knew I could play a song backwards. Will that work in Audacity? – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 4:19
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    My hubby has particularly followed the " random playing" advice to a good effect. – mey Feb 26 '15 at 9:47
6

I am surprised this hasn't been a response yet... STOP

Put your instrument down and take a break. Go for a walk and collect yourself. How a musician spends his time away from his instrument is equally as important as how he does with it in front of him.

Sometimes you can listen to too much music. A couple days without playing or listening to music can be good for your head. Doing is regularly can revitalize your creativity and give you that jolt you knew you had inside of you all along.

Playing music should be alchemy - finding the proper mixture that can turn copper into gold takes ages to get right.

4
  1. By restricting yourself.
  2. Taking inspiration from new sources.

For instance,

  1. You can try to write a song that has a particular structure.
  2. You can try writing in a style that is new for you.

If you have a fledgling song idea that needs to be fleshed out, you can try to emulate a specific artist or use specific genre conventions. You can do this for the same seed and different artists, and see what works.

  • Interesting points. Could you tell us how restricting oneself can lead to a more varying melody, as some people might find it counter - intuitive? – mey Feb 26 '15 at 9:52
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    Not more varying melody, necessarily. But more creativity. Restricting yourself gives you an artificial writing partner: the restrictions. By this I mean that you have something giving you feedback, like another person would. It will also lead you to work harder to express things; you cannot rely on your typical fall-back tricks and tools. For instance, if you usually start acoustic and then go electric to build up, restricting yourself to acoustic will mean you need to find a creative way to build up a song. – capybaralet Feb 27 '15 at 0:19
  • I disagree. Placing yourself in a cage only makes you blinder. There is so much to do with music why restrict yourself? – SovereignSun Jan 20 '17 at 8:20
4

Whenever a neat (and hopefully original) melody pops into my head, I quickly record it (no matter how sloppily), just to get it down. I keep a "library" of these melodies, and when writing, I refer to them and use whichever ones seem to go with the song.

Oftentimes (when composing on the guitar, that is), I will take whichever scale/key I'm working in, and record my improvising in it for a minimum of five minutes. Usually I will be able to pick something out of that five minute recording to use as at least an idea for a good melody.

Other ideas include changing the key, adding a random sharp/flat, or changing the tempo/rhythm. The guitar is pretty versatile (especially electric), so there are also a lot of "tricks" you could try to vary up your melodies, such as tapping, hammer-ons, harmonics, whammy bar stuff, and the list could go on.

One more idea I use concerning chord progressions. Usually my chords end up being rather standard ones: major, minor, major 7ths, etc. Once I have that idea formed, I may change one or two of those chords to maybe a minor 7th or a diminished or a 6th.

Play with everything. Something will come to you eventually. Overall, don't "force" the creativity; let it flow!

4
  • Find a collaborator. Even if it's just temporary. They will have a different perspective.
  • Work in a different genre.
  • Listen to really different music from what you're used to (such as music from the Middle East, folk music from Bulgaria or Finland, Indian music - stuff that doesn't use the 12-tone scale or 4/4 rythms)
3

Analyze what you do.

Write it down. What tempos are you used to? What rhythmic patterns do you use the most? Do you tend to repeat the same intervals?

Take those melodies that made you feel repetitive. Why are they similar?

You will find out exactly what your clichés are. They probably come from your influences. These similar lines come out of you musical mind naturally as you improvise melodies. You obey that musical instincts as a set of rules. This is key.

What you can do:

  1. Once you find out your rules, break them. Do you use a lot of ascending 3rds? Try a descending 6th for a change. Do you use a short-short-long rhythmic pattern too much? Try long-long-short-long-short.
  2. Don't just improvise. Write your material. Think of the melody as an entity not entirely dependent of your musical vocabulary.
  3. Music can always use some math. Particularly when you sing, you can make great use of simple scales and arpeggio study to achieve distinct vocal melodies. That's because singing in small intervals and few notes is so common. Internalize those scales by practicing. With that and some ear training, you will, eventually, internalize more interesting interval, with bigger leaps and a sense of harmony.

Just remember to let your ears be the judge.

3

You mentioned you are tired of the same old chord progressions in your post. Those chord progressions are tools to create direction, so that's why they are used so much. If you want to write pop, country, etc that will relate to everyday listeners, listen to how these chord progressions work in other songs. The key is the melody and lyrics. I believe you will not get away from the common progressions unless you are going for some other style. That is a lot to discover in the same old chords and it could be a hook that is really catchy. Now this is my assumption if you are writing commercial music.

Writing on a different instrument like you mentioned has helped me a lot. I got really good ideas and hooks, but they still follow a I IV V or many other common progressions. It is fun for me to try to put something different over the common progressions then what sounds cliche. Melodies are limitless but you are limited in chord progressions in my opinion.

  • The problem with same chord progressions is that the chords suggests the melody. There are only a few melody notes that sound right with certain chords. If you sing happy birthday but play the wrong chords at the wrong time or the chords in the wrong key - it will sound wrong. So same chord progressions leads to same melody. There are some good ideas about changing up the chords in some of the other answers. You might want to read them for ideas for your own music. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 4:52
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    Use this link and see how creative people have been with progressions. There only so many progressions out there with various melodies. hooktheory.com/theorytab/common-chord-progressions – r lo Feb 26 '15 at 13:09
  • And how many songs are out there that use standard chord progressions? Happy Birthday uses the same chord I IV V like the blues, do they sound similar? Sounds like you have to do more research on your own to be convinced. – r lo Feb 26 '15 at 14:27
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    Thanks for the link. I will try to become more open to the idea that I can write fresh new melodies over the same chord progressions that I always use. Guess there are many different ways to shake things up. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 26 '15 at 16:20
  • @rlo: not all megahits are strictly I–V–vi–IV: tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/b/britney_spears/… – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 27 '15 at 7:01
3
  • The rhythm of the instrument and lyrics is as important as the melody, try unusual patterns
  • Listen to less familiar music / genres / timings more regularly
  • You cannot schedule creativity, let it come in its own time
  • Restrict yourself (e.g. no standard major or minor chords / loose 2 strings)
  • Try different gear / effects / instruments
  • Don't write music for an audience, write it for yourself, be unconventional
1
  1. try avoiding using the tonic (if you're writing a melody in the key of G, stay off of the note G as much as possible
  2. try using non-standard chord shapes/inversions (if you're instrument is a
    guitar, capo higher than normal - 6th or 9th fret)
  3. avoid standard chord progressions (I-IV-V, I-iii-IV-V, etc...)
  4. get lots of rest
  5. stay up until you're exhausted
  6. read something that fascinates you
  7. go to a museum or gallery
  8. exercise
  9. cook
  10. volunteer
  11. journal
  12. do a puzzle/sodoku
  13. play a board game or an RPG
  14. listen to music you've never heard before
  15. turn off your "No" voice

good luck!

  • Honestly - I must take issue with suggestions such as "cook". Having a healthy lifestyle and diverse interests is certainly crucial to any intellectual activity, but you might as well have said "eat carrots". – Some Dude On The Interwebs Feb 25 '15 at 7:32
  • This answer would be well improved with a bit of an explanation. Without that, there is no real reason to believe the suggestions have any real value, as many of them don't have to do with the music itself. – Basstickler Feb 25 '15 at 13:39
  • creativity anywhere serves creativity everywhere. – Rob Button Feb 25 '15 at 19:39
  • Interesting. Sometimes inspiration from non musical areas could help. – mey Feb 26 '15 at 9:50
  • Rob I disagree. Why try to avoid when the root of a key is a possible way to change things. Why not start with the root and not wait a whole bar to switch to another chord why not do it just a fourth later or a dotted fourth later? I smetimes start in the root before the first bar and then hold it for a 4th something and hit some other strange chord afterwards. I could play A# and then hit F# and make it sound! – SovereignSun Jan 20 '17 at 8:16
1

I encountered a similar situation as you. It's hard to "think outside the box" when you are "in the box" trying to compose music at that very specific moment. What I mean is that the best music ideas/tunes come when you are not trying to force yourself to come up with a composition idea. They key thing is here is that you need to have the ability to quickly jot down your idea (and save it). So when time comes to actually compose your music, you can immediately go back to the tune and not be stuck in a rut. An analogy would be like a car designer, who doesn't just immediately come up with a good final design in one session, but draws various sketches to see what's good and what's not. I think perhaps you can take a similar approach.

Another way of going outside your box is by drawing inspirations/ideas elsewhere, even if these come from other musical sources. Franzt Liszt (a virtuoso Romantic period composer) drew inspirations for his Hungarian Rhapsodies series from Hungarian Folk Themes. Beethoven created his 6th Symphony from inspirations during his hikes in countryside of Vienna. These are older examples, but I think you will get my point.

Lastly, I agree very much with @piofusco's answer, in that sometimes you just gotta stop, take a break, and take it easy doing other things, which might lead to my previous point about getting inspirations.

1

First thing you need to understand is that composing is a very hard thing, while making up silly tunes with regularly used chord progressions is in no good composer's interest. Second thing is never frame yourself by just one or two instruments, one time signature and two-three key signatures, think wider, work your head! And third - any composer is an inventor. I recommend every composer to sing, hum, speak melodies, experiment a lot.

The way I do it:

Sometimes I have an idea about what I want to play or sing. Sometimes I have no idea and just sing or play. I create various melodies on instrument or in my head or by singing. Often I go out of a 4/4 time signature though it's my favorite. Often I try to make some really strange melodies that start with a short lick, then triplets, then dotted notes out of time signature and often out of key signature too and sometimes I just have one note 3-5 bars long. I like to use every possible way available. Most people have a verse 4 bars long suppose we have a tempo of 120. Why not add another bar or subtract one or even do two lines of lyrics then have a 2/4 or a 5/4 bar then start another line or go for chorus. I often do strange things that allow me to create different songs every time. I just experiment. Has somebody done something like this? How good and beautiful is it? Why not try it?

I try starting a song with vocals, bass, drums, guitar, keyboard, effects, sax, violin, flute - any instrument i can imagine. I start with different note duration, different rhythms, effects like sea, sea gulls, wind, church bells, aircraft lift-off, car engine starting, forest, hammers whatever. I can start say in Cm 4/4 then on the third bar change the signature to 7/4 go to C and by the 10th bar end up in F# in a 15/8 time signature with a decreased tempo if I want. I could change bass or guitar lines whenever I want, however I want. I know the rules but to hell with them, any great music band I've known did anything they wanted and it worked in most cases. You could always start a new. Listen to Yes, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Queen, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Deep Purple look at how they do music.

Try not to be afraid of making up an odd melody or rhythm and don't think that if you think it's bad then everyone else will too - no, probably you'll be the only person not liking it.

Try an absolutely new chord progression and make a song. Try Gm C Dm/Bb A F Fm Ab and back to Gm. Try playing an C Csus2, Csus4 - 4 bars long. Try everything!

I have a piece where I play D in bass on piano in left hand for almost 16 bars in 100 tempo in Dm and over that D in my right hand I first play A,C,F and then go to G,B,D. All this is delayed and chorused!

I often do strange things on keyboard. One day I was playing in a band when we were playing a C7+9 chord and I hit a cluster in the 3-rd octave on piano just palm down and it sounded so terrific we decided to leave that. One day I remember our drummer from my previous band was kicking the bass drum one eighth after the start of a bar and it was so interesting. Just simple things sometimes add up to the whole piece.

Another good thing to try is to switch your head and hands off, close your eyes, shut your ears and play and record all that you play. This way you have no clue what you get in result... It may be fun, because you end up with something unnaturally chaotic and demonic or something absobloodylutely unimaginably crazy material.

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Put the guitar down for a start. Use a piano if you like, try to start from a melody or a rhythm rather than a chord sequence. Next, write a bass line that fits. Maybe a counter-melody for another instrument. Don't worry about the chord sequence yet. Maybe don't worry about it at all. Not every song has to include a rhythm guitar strumming along.

Also, write LOTS of songs. One every day. And FINISH one every day. It won't be perfect, but wrap it up and write out a lead sheet/record a rough demo - whichever way you work. You can come back and re-use ideas later of course. But get used to wrapping a song up in one session. When you've done 100, one will be good!

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I'm late to the party and I'm not sure why this popped up in the queue today, but I thought I would share a bit about my creative process. Once, I saw a show featuring Billy Joel, and his songwriting process starts with the chords, and he finds melody and lyrics that express what the music is trying to say. Since I saw that, that has generally been my creative process. I start on the guitar by finding a chord progression that inspires me. Then I try to find a melody by singing nonsense. For me, this is a way for my subconscious to write the lyrics -- much more emotional (I hope) than letting my over-analytical brain write a topical poem.

Now, it seems from your original post that you start with the lyrics. I have had ideas in the past, and written songs from lyrics first. That meant I was singing the melody before the chords were formed. So what that did was...let me interject here by saying that every songwriter has a favorite phrase, or hook, or transition, or what have you. For me, starting with the lyrics meant I was singing what was familiar and comfortable and most favored, and forming the chords around it. If I wrote every song like that, I would almost expect the songs to start sounding similar to each other.

So my advice, if you care to hear it:

  1. Write in a minor key instead of major (I love writing in minor keys, you have twice as many chords to choose from!).
  2. Write an instrumental on the instrument of your choice. Stretch yourself in finding a melody without hanging it on words.
  3. Try writing in different orders: chords first, lyrics first, or melody first. Mixing up the old pattern can break walls that have contained you so far.
  4. And of course, listen to other songwriters to see where they broke rules to make the song interesting (See: The Beatles and unexpected chords). You might try a creative genius in a genre you never listen to (if you're a fan of the Beatles, listen to Nirvana; if you're a fan of grunge, listen to Billy Joel; etc.).

Sorry it's so long, but since there is no one right way to write a song, experimentation is what we should all practice!

  • Thanks for your input and addition to the conversation. It's never too late to add helpful information as these posts live forever and could show up on Google Search ten years later to help someone searching for answers to the same question. I have written a couple of songs by finding lyrics to match a chord progression. And you are right - those songs did not tend to follow well worn melodic paths in my mind. FYI you can select how your feed on SE provides content when you log in. Default may be newest questions first but I think an option is "most recent activity". – Rockin Cowboy May 9 '18 at 16:59
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Typical Hints or the Effective Writing of Melodies:

  • Realise that melodies are often just small rhytmical idea with slight variations or elaborations on the main theme. Choose a theme and make this theme part of the whole structure of the song. (See Ravels Bolero to see how one rhythm can be elaborated on with great effect.)
  • Know your chord progressions. This includes passing 6/4 and Cadential 6/4.
  • Secondary chord usage is often the sign of a good melody.
  • Use the seventh chords and know how they resolves.
  • Know your cadences
  • Keep the cadences that end on the tonic for the end of your melody. The tonic is unique in the way it indicates finality. You dont want that in the middle of a piece.
  • Think about the form or structure of the piece. Is this a song with 2 main verses then maybe this should be written in binary form. Do I have a modulation to a relative key? Maybe this song should be in Tertiary form then.

Hope that helps!

  • I disagree. This exactly pattern for composing will build up walls around a person. You need to have full freedom, no walls, no rules, no borders! The more advantages of your freedom in composing you use the less like others shall you be! – SovereignSun Jan 20 '17 at 8:12
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Like they said - write a piece for different kind of event. Suppose you mostly write "gangsta", then:

  • Write a wedding song (or a new-baby song);
  • Do a description of the sunrise, and how it made you feel;
  • A lullabye

Or, if country love-songs have been your style:

  • How about a boast (a la Jumpin' Jack Flash);
  • Maybe a bunch of sexy puns and double-entendres?
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One thing I have heard that makes a lot of sense to me is; record absolutely everything you do. You never know when the muse will appear. Capture the moment on tape. And listen to it. You will discover things that you missed while you were concentrating on playing.

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Your profile: "My main goal as a player and composer is to create something that you weren't expecting but love and have to listen over and over again to take in as it is something you haven't quite heard before." This is just the trap you're caught in for writing similar things, but on the other hand it is the reason that listeners love your music. open the doors and step out: play Bela Bartok or Stravinsky. Listen to something like this:

you may download the midi files of the allegro Barbaro of Bela Bartok or Firebird of Stravinsky and an analyze it: http://www.midiworld.com/bartok.htm

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