It’s very satisfying to be an independent artist. Artists can pursue their own path without any unwanted influences and publish it on their own terms. The independent artist is on a fairly level playing field with major recording artists. The rise of Post Malone is a great example of how an artist can produce their music and post it on SoundCloud for little to no money. After posting “White Iverson” on SoundCloud in 2015, he quickly got over 1 million plays. Post Malone made the beat in his bedroom. Now he is signed with Republic Records and has broken Spotify streaming records.

The record label business is also changing dramatically. The labels are signing new acts at a shocking rate. Rolling Stone estimated that the majors were signing 2 acts every day (Read more here). It could be argued that the labels couldn’t possibly support the growth of that many new artists but the reality is the artists need to have something unique to offer.

This is good news for independent artists. Why? Not necessarily because the majors are signing 20% more artists than they did in 2014. Rather, it’s the availability of more diverse musical acts who develop on their own first! This is the level playing field from which great music can be heard and artists (independent and signed alike) have to develop their own voice and style.

The major difference today, versus just 10 years ago, is independent artists can get digitally “exposed” to very large audiences. The other major difference is the plethora of great music available to the listener!

If you like exploring new music, please check out Soul Pigeon.

Think of your favorite song and I promise you it has some dissonance.  Dissonance is a somewhat “off-putting” feeling or sound that you experience in a song.   The only way dissonance works is that it resolves to something non-dissonant.  Music is just like life, it just simply can’t be all smooth and perfect.

There is nothing better than tension in a song.  Properly paired with words, a dissonant tension can really grab you and make you feel connected with the song. 

Here are some examples of dissonance in a few songs.

  • Neil Youngs “Old Man”. The tune starts off this the dissonance before resolving to the D (I chord).
  • The Doors “Not to Touch the Earth”. Each verse is dissonant. Listen to the first 45 seconds of the song before the dissonance resolves into the refrain
  • Soul Pigeons “From the Mountain”. The main riff of our song has a flat 7th note as it descends and resolves back to the riff

CLICK HERE to hear a playlist of these songs

The most common places to use dissonances is in a bridge or musical transition into a lead. For example, a V7 chord is a chord that naturally wants to resolve to the I chord. By substituting a diminished chord for the V7 you instantly create a very displeasing tension that begs resolution.   

I would wager that every one of your favorite songs are using V7 chords that resolve to the 1 chord! 

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There are some truly brilliant songwriters out there who are coming up with amazing songs using the most basic chords out there.

Musically, I like to hear something fresh and not the same three chords (I, IV, V).   There are a few songwriters that really deliver.  Paul Simon would be one songwriter that comes to mind.  Paul seems to write amazing songs that have a real breath of musical expression well past the basic three chords! Songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Still Crazy After All These Years.

Then there are plenty of examples of songs with only three chords that take a fresh approach to those basic chords. Using Paul Simon again as an example listen to the song Cecilia. That song only has the three basic chords in G (G, C, and D) but it sounds innovative.

So do the chords make the song? Absolutely not!! Technically a musical works copyright to a song only covers the words and the melody line. The chord structure is not copyrighted. Why is that? Because it’s simply not necessary and, more importantly, it’s not possible. In any given musical key there are only 7 chords. If chord progressions were able to be copyrighted we would only have 1 or 2 songs from the 50’s and 60’s rock and roll era!!! Nearly every rock and roll song uses a I, IV, V or I, vi, IV, V progression.

Lastly consider jazz as a musical form. Many jazz artists take a classic melody and change the chord structure behind the music. One perfect example is John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. This amazing version is considered a legal cover of the original song written by Rogers and Hammerstein.

So there you have it, chords mean absolutely nothing to the basic composition except musical accompaniment. Chords do, however, make it far more interesting! Take a listen to Shoe Commercial by Soul Pigeon for an example of a basic three chord progression but with added voicings to the chords.

There is nothing better than stringing some words together that just somehow fit perfectly and having an entire song burst forth.   Maybe is something you hear in a conversation or an idea that springs from a book; wherever the inspiration sometimes the words just start flowing.

When that happens for me I turn to a note taking application called Evernote.   Evernote allows me to quickly capture words on my phone.  I can even dictate them so I can get things written down quickly. The other thing I love about Evernote is I can search my past ideas quickly.

When inspiration hits I follow these two primary principles

  • Speed
    • I attempt to get as many words flowing as fast as possible.   I will use “non words” to keep things moving.  I don’t edit or even think about what is coming out.  I push myself to write as quickly as I possibly can
  • No format or style
    • I purposely stay away from any conventions of form or rhyming structure.   The goal is just to let the words flow so I forgive myself any “mistakes” of not rhyming or using to many syllables in a stanza.   Instead I just relax and let my mind babble.

When I first got the inspiration for the song “Time Dies“, I was just enamored with the concept of time dying versus time flying.  Everyone says “Time Flies” but in reality time does actually die.  It never comes back.   So I just starting writing words as fast as I could about it.   Nearly everything I wrote down that first time made it to the song. The entire song came together in about 10 minutes.

Of course no song comes to life without awesome musicians adding their nuances and interpretations to the song. BillyRock, The Scorpion, and Benjo Low are simply the best. Great musicians make the song!!!

Listen to Time Dies on Spotify by clicking here

I’m always playing around with different chords. Whether it’s chord substitutions, inversions, or voicings I get inspired by the sound they create. Here are a few of my favorites

Voicing

I love 7/9 chords. I end up using them everywhere. If you don’t know 7/9 chords they are super easy and, properly used, can give a ton of character to the chord. You can make the 7 or the 9 of the chord sharp or flat depending on the key or the progression to the next chord.

Here is a guitar version

C79Chord-Gtr

And here is a piano version

C79chord-Piano

I used 7/9 chords all the time.  The song “From the Mountain” uses them everywhere!!!

Inversions

Taking a simple 7/9 chord and inverting the chord is a transformation that adds complexity, depth and tension.    Once you start to invert the chord you can also start to consider dropping one of the voicings.   I will generally try to drop the root and play the third inversion.   So instead of the chord starting on the 1 or root of the chord, I start on the 5 of the chord.   With a C chord that would mean inverting to have the G note in the bottom of the chord

Here is the C7/9 with 3rd inversion

C79chord-piano-3rd inversion

Substitutions

Lastly, I will try chord substitutions throughout a new song for inspiration.   A chord substitution simply uses one note that is in the key of the song and playing a chord from a different key that also has that same note

Let say we are in the key of G and playing a G major chord.  The melody line is centered on the B note.

CMaj 1st inversion

While the melody note is still on B, you can substitute the B major chord for a dramatic change.

BMay 1st inversion

Then you can quickly invert the B chord to the 3rd inversion to add tension

BMay 3rd inversion

This chord will very nicely resolve to E minor or even E major to completely change the key of the song.   I like to use chord substitutions in the bridge of a song.   Check out an example of this on the song “Februarys Moon” at 1:30.  I go from a B minor chord to an E major (instead of E minor).

Writing a song is not like following a well marked trail, there are literally hundreds of ways you can go. However, the western musical scale only has twelve notes and the majority of songs have only a few chords. But that framework has produced millions of songs.

A songwriter gets a hint of a musical or lyrical idea and takes it somewhere. Being a songwriter I have often sought after information that would help me in my endeavors. I have found four methods for writing songs

Pure inspiration: This is the luckiest and easiest method. The words and music come at the same time. Generally the songwriter hears the song in her mind and grabs an instrument. The entire song comes fast and furious. It feels like it was given to you.

Words first: The idea for lyrical content is there and a poem is written. The cadence and meter of the lyric drive how the music must follow. Often times the song writer has to modify the lyrics in the chorus or bridge to help make sense of how the music matches.

Music first: The songwriter has a great musical idea and a general framework of the song. Then the words come. Many songwriters write lyrics or phrases that they will reference in times like this. The songwriter searches for a lyric that matches the mood or vibe of the song.

Potpourri: Lastly the writer might have a hook or chorus complete with word and music but needs the rest of the song. During the songwriting process they have to mine the feeling of what is already written to write the other parts of the song. I essentially built the song “From the Mountain” using this method.

There you have it. These are the most common methods I have found for writing songs.