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The Baptist Death Ray

Let's talk about songwriting

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I don't know if this thread will really catch on or not, but there's a lot of talk in this forum focused on reviewing other people's music and there doesn't seem as much talk about how you go about creating your own. I'm really interested in that... while I'm sort of in the middle of being an author right now I consider myself a musician first, and I've been writing and recording since oh, 1990 or thereabouts... and I like to hear how other people do what I do, because I've never really heard two musicians describe it in quite the same way, though they all *do* tend to have at least one story that starts "well I was fooling around in the studio one day..." smile.gif

So I figured hey, I'll start a thread that talks about "the process" and see if anyone joins in. Please join in. Please. Pleeeeeeeeease... smile.gif

I'll start.

While I don't have a "set in stone" process of songwriting there is a process that 90% of the songs I'm most pleased with share, and *that* process is almost exactly identical. Alas, I've never been able to duplicate it intentionally, but each time I describe a song by saying "the whole thing sort of clicked" this is what happens:

A lot of times it first starts by hearing another song. The song will usually have a piece of it that really grabs me, only to wind up going off in a direction that I think dilutes the really good bit. The piece that grabs me can be either music or lyrics or combination of the two.

I then pick up my guitar and play around with whatever it is that really grabbed me. Usually it's not the specific riff, hook, whatever that does it but the *feeling* it evoked when I heard it. So I'll mess around with the specific sound, change it, try to play it faster or slower, figure out exactly what part of it flipped my switch... in course of that it can wind up sounding very, very, very different from the song that inspired it (though I always associate it with its muse).

A really good example that springs to mind is that one day I was listening to Nirvana's "Bleach" (their album before "Nevermind") and trying to figure out what it was about the song "Negative Creep" that I liked so much. And it turned out to be the refrain: "Daddy's little girl isn't little no more" (this may not be the actual refrain, but that's how I heard it the first time I listened to the song, and that's always stuck with me). And the thing that hit me about that was that it struck me as kind of angry and desperate and sad, since it represented a loss of innocence (again, my perception. I do not speak for Mr. Cobain). So every time I heard that song I felt this kind of desperate energy that went hand in hand with watching (and maybe being responsible for) a girls loss of innocence. So I started playing around with that theme and came up with a song about heroin addiction that I'm very pleased with.

The other piece of it has to do with however I'm reacting to my environment at the time. When I first moved to Richmond (VA) it was sort of a disappointing experience -- I moved there on the recommendation of a good friend, and I was really looking forward to it, because at the time Richmond had the reputation of having a really great underground music scene. Unfortunately, the music scene had sort of died out and only the reputation remained, along with a bunch of really bored freaks (not a perjorative term in this case, as its how I describe myself as well) who were stagnating and indulging in every kind of decadence they could think of. It was not only disappointing but frustrating, because most of them seemed kind of *proud* that it had worked out that way -- as if the music had simply been a vehicle used to enable the next phase, and that the music was now irrelevant. (In fact, I suspect that this was true for a lot of them, since most of the people who had been interested in the music had moved on.)

So one night I was laying in my room listening to music, while one of my roommates was in the room next to me engaging in a very noisy activity that added to the level of frustration, contempt and disappointment with what had originally been perceived as an thriving artistic community, but what had been revealed as the remnants of that community who had gotten into it for little more than drugs and sex.

I was listening to Big Black on my computer (I had a CD-ROM drive before I had a real CD player -- shows you what a hopeless geek I am). I was specifically listening to the song "Kerosene" which seemed very appropriate, since it's a song about feeling frustrated and trapped in the place where you're living. I was listening to the *live* version of the song, though, and in the live version Steve Albini (the lead singer, now in Shellac and a fairly well known indie producer) changed the way he sang the song.

In the studio version the refrain is said in a laid-back, kind of lazy manner:

sit around at home, stare at the walls, stare at the walls, look at each other, look at each other and wait till we die, never anything to do in this town...

It's a neat refrain because it's very arhythmic, sort of droning, which always evoked to me someone who had just given up and accepted that that's how it would always be (but was still a little bitter about it).

In the *live* version, Steve's delivery is a lot more staccatto and direct, and he's screaming:

sit around at home

stare at the walls

look at each other and wait till we die

never anything to do in this town

And my response to it was very different from the live version... it sounded more like a sudden epiphany, as if he'd suddenly realized the fullness of exactly where he was and it enraged him. And then it was the rhythm of the refrain that got to me, sort of swept me up, and then I wrote a song called "Richmond" which became my personal rant against decadence.

(There's a really lousy recording of that song sitting on http://www.artistlaunch.com/baptistdeathray if you're curious. But it's a really, really lousy recording. I'm trying to get my home studio set up enough to re-record it, but I've yet to be able to figure out how to get decent sounding vocals... I may just have to go to a real studio for that, if I ever have money ever again...)

Anyway, both of those examples illustrate the process that has come about when I've felt the most *successful* while songwriting... I get a sound or a rhythm in my head that resonates with something, and from messing around with that I get words. It feels backwards to me, since by and large I've always felt the lyrics in my songs were far more relevant than the music -- I'm not what you might call a virtuoso, and now that I have hand tremors I'm sort of glad that I dig punk rock so much... it's a far more forgiving genre in that regard wink.gif. But my attempts to write lyrics first and then attach music to it have been much less successful, and I usually lose interest in the song, with a few exceptions.

OK, so, anyone else want to chime in? How do you do what you do when you do it?

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: ...because at the time Richmond had the reputation

: of having a really great underground music scene.

???? When was this, pray tell? (There are a couple decent acts now, but *great*? *Scene*?) (Admittedly, however, I'm a transplant, so.)

Anyway, my process. I sit down at a piano and play four measures in the following chord progression:

Cm Abm7 Eb Bb

(No real reason why those four chords; just habit now, though.) And then I repeat them a few times, and then I spend five to ten minutes trying to work myself away from those chords into something unique. Sometimes I do, and I'll go (1) record that little riff on my electric keyboard or (2) enter it in note-by-note into a music composition program or (3) just record it analogally into my voice recorder. (Of course, sometimes I'll play the same improvy thing I've done 30 times prior, and I'll then leave the piano and go play Super Mario Sunshine instead.)

So at any given time I have 40-50 of unused riffs on my computer, and when I decide it's time to write a proper piece, I'll listen to them all and try to find two or three that I can use for the basis of my composition. (Alternatively, sometimes I'll hear a riff and say to myself, "Self, I can do better than that," and then I'll record a new, better riff.) Then, using those snippets of melody as a basis, I'll sit down at the piano and try to improvise some appropriate connecting tissue, or a better accompaniment, or a countermelody, or what have you. I

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: ...because at the time Richmond had the reputation

: of having a really great underground music scene.

???? When was this, pray tell? (There are a couple decent acts now, but *great*? *Scene*?) (Admittedly, however, I'm a transplant, so.)

Well when I was in college (89-93) in Fredericksburg, VA (halfway between Richmond and D.C.) Richmond had the reputation for having a really great local underground scene. And GWAR. smile.gif About a year after I graduated I moved up there and discovered that, alas, it had gone away...

A few years after that it started to come back, I think, but by then I was sort of apathetic.

But back to you...

So you use an acoustic piano for the experimentation and then use an electronic keyboard to store the bits you like? When you try to piece a number of them together is it a drag-and-drop kind of deal like you might do with loops or samples, or is it more of a "here are five pieces I like, I need to figure out how to join them together?"

I'm not terribly familiar with purely musical composition, which has always struck me as being a lot more difficult. Lyrics let you get away with a lot more reptition and sloppiness. smile.gif

When you're composing for hand bells, do you find the piano useful or a hinderance? I know that visually handbell players are usually lined up in succession (from high bells to low bells) so you could think of the piano as 88 handbell players standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but they also do things like having the guy on the far right and the lady on the far left and two people in the middle ringing their bells at the same time, and I'm not sure how that would be emulated by a piano... I suppose they're still chords though.

The other question I have on handbell composition, though, is when that happens do you sit down intending to compose a handbell piece or do you play something and then think "hey, that would sound good on a handbell?" Either way I'm impressed... I think I would have difficulty translating the sound of a piano into the sound of a handbell, so I'm not sure I could imagine whether or not it would work. I know when I use my guitar to try to pick out a bass line I have trouble imagining it, so I wind up breaking out the bass guitar (and spending forever trying to tune it...)

So at any given time I have 40-50 of unused riffs on my computer, and when I decide it's time to write a proper piece, I'll listen to them all and try to find two or three that I can use for the basis of my composition.

I currently have three songs on my computer in various stages of completion. One needs to be completely redone, alas... the other needs decent vocal tracks. And the third needs lyrics. I have the music completely written and recorded and I can't dredge up any lyrics at all for it.*sigh*

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: Well when I was in college (89-93) in Fredericksburg, VA...

At Mary Washington? That's the only college I can think of up there.

: So you use an acoustic piano for the experimentation and

: then use an electronic keyboard to store the bits you like?

Ideally, yes. As I don't have an acoustic piano at my house right now -- I have dibs on two in the Midwest, but I don't want to pay to get them over here -- if I'm experimenting at home rather than at either of the two churches I'm at regularly, I do it on my Casio.

: ...or is it more of a "here are five pieces I like, I need to

: figure out how to join them together?"

Yes. Or sometimes, "Here is one snippet I like; now what can I do with it?"

: I'm not terribly familiar with purely musical composition,

: which has always struck me as being a lot more difficult.

: Lyrics let you get away with a lot more [repetition]...

Oh yes oh yes. I've been working on a number of hymn arrangements for handbells, and it's annoying-to-excruciating to manage three verses that don't all sound the same without the crutch of lyrics -- especially when you try to make sure that every ringer has something to do and thus not write nasty letters to my publisher about how the A5B5 position is soooo boooring. (This is one of my better attempts, although the MIDI file is kinda crappy [esp. the first four bars].) I find writing choral works easier than pure instrumentals because the musical repetition that lyrics allow. (Although, heh, the last choral piece I wrote was called "Hundredfold Alleluia," which, um, well, you can take a stab at reproducing the lyrics.

: When you're composing for hand bells, do you find the piano

: useful or a [hindrance]?

Oh, absolutely useful, especially since, as you imply, a handbell choir is essentially a giant organ. This...

: ...but they also do things like having the guy on the far right and

: the lady on the far left and two people in the middle ringing their

: bells at the same time...

...is not nearly as complex as you think it is; it's just four people finding their individual notes on the grand staff and playing them whenever they come up. The music they read is almost the same as the equivalent piano music would be, other than the middle-C-always-in-the-bass thing and various notations specific to handbells.

: The other question I have on handbell composition, though, is

: when that happens do you sit down intending to compose a

: handbell piece...

Sometimes.

: ...or do you play something and then think "hey, that would

: sound good on a handbell?"

Sometimes. Also sometimes I write something and wonder, "Would this sound good on handbells?" But since I have five-plus octaves of bells at more-or-less my beck-and-call, and since I have an annoying amount of handbell-playing talent, I can often figure this out the answer to this question before putting in too much work. (I also sometimes improv on the handbells to get ideas, although that hasn't been quite as successful in my experience.)

: And the third needs lyrics. I have the music completely

: written and recorded and I can't dredge up any lyrics at

: all for it.*sigh*

If you

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Good idea BDR. There needs to be more of this type of discussion here (i.e. artists discussing the process of actually creating) It's been about five or six years since I've played "seriously" (playing in a band, recording, doing gigs) but I continue to write at home in recreational fashion, putting pieces together for that long-overdue solo album. laugh.gif

The process of writing has changed for me over the years, but these are a few methods/techniques-- from a guitarists perspective-- that help me stoke the creative flame...

-- I use an Akai Headrush, which is a simple phrase sampler/delay. This gives me 11 plus seconds of layered looping or nearly 23 seconds of single phrase looping. I usually layer some subtle ambient/noise stuff for a while until something drops that piques my interest... Nothing too structured. Unlike the granddaddy of loop racks-- the Oberheim Echoplex-- my little Akai box doesn't quantize, so what is looped is often a freeform blob that refuses to keep time. Usually this is good.

-- Then I put the Rickenbacker away, pick up my acoustic and try and comp chords over the loop.

-- Alternate tunings with a capo can make this primitive exchange really exciting. The less comfortable I am with a specific tuning or a key, the better.

-- Inevitably, lyrics and melodies evolve from this chaos and are added to the mix.

-- If what comes out makes my heart beat faster, I record it immediately. I think its so important to document your spontaneity, no matter how ragged or half-baked it may sound. What comes out at those moments is important, even when the music itself may not be. Everything about your little jam may be totally forgetable-- but it's the certain turn of phrase, an inflection or dyanmic that will be the DNA of your next song. If I'm able to pinpoint what it is at a later time, I attempt to build on it again... modify the loop, change key and give it another try.

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Whoa. That's a little more complicated than me. smile.gif

I've never really been able to master the boxes with numbers on it... on the other hand, I'm doing ok with software (I just upgraded Sonar 3 to Sonar 4, and I'm re-opening a number of languishing projects to try and finish them up).

When I want to do something like you describe, I'll take a basic drum loop and put it on one track, record four measures of some guitar thing on a second, and just loop those four measures over and over and over, playing other stuff over it to see what clicks. My music is pretty simple, so it's sort of like using a mortar round to kill termites, but I don't have much of a head for guitar gadgets... they always wind up confusing me.

You mentioned that your process of writing has changed over the years... that made me think about what has changed for me. The biggest is that when I first started writing songs I was fixated with 16-16-8-16-8-16 x3 16, which is:

16 measures intro (no vocals)

16 measures verse

8 measures bridge (no vocals)

16 measures verse

8 measures bridge (vocals optional)

16 measures refrain

16 measures to wrap it all up

repeat 3 times.

When I first started writing songs I was *obsessed* with this formula, as in obsessive-compulsive obsessed. If the song didn't fit that pattern I couldn't bring myself to sing it.

The first song I ever recorded was over six minutes long because of that. It was a punk song. Each 16-measure verse had lyrics like

we live in a broken

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Hey Dale, do you have any recordings of your compositions anywhere? I downloaded your MIDI file but can't play it because I can't find my MIDI sample box (my sound card is nice for recording audio, but it doesn't have any built-in MIDI samples like the soundblasters do).

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I'll have two or three recordings made for me in the next couple months: one for "CH!FtSP!" (by the group that sponsored the competition I won), and either one or two for the pieces GIA is publishing (I'm getting conflicting information about which pieces are going to be published when, so it just depends if there's one in the Summer catalog or two).

In the meantime, let me see if I can manage to find a MIDI-to-analog converter...

Dale

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...and I did.

Three songs, all in MIDI-turned-MP3 piano realizations that are a bit lacking:

"Comrades, Haste! Faster the Steel Press" (which loses the percussion and the melodic deskbell part, so if it feels a bit empty in a couple places, that's probably why)

"Cumulonimbus" (one of the pieces GIA picked up, but this version loses the accents, making my attempt at hemiola somewhat meaningless [so just imagine the eighths going XxxXxx | XxXxXx])

"I Need Thee Every Hour" (I don't like the intro [there's some fermatas in there], and for whatever reason a couple of the bass notes are missing; also, imagine that the piano has a sustain pedal)

Dale

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Um, this is all very interesting, all of a sudden.

I'm in a band, and we kind of write stuff together. Normally we start with a basic song structure written by the lead singer, and then do the following:

I tend to have to play (guitar) over the top of the basic song over and over and over and over again until I find some kind of feel for the thing, or until I feel like shouting. Sometimes I can't find any direction to go in, and we often end up ditching these ones. Other times I play something over the top of the song, and Tom (lead singer) frowns at me. This means it is good, and I should carry on playing it. Sometimes though, I play something and Tom frowns at me, but this time it means that it's bad, and I should stop. It is up to me to tell the difference. Then the bass player and drummer do the same thing, except they take no notice of Tom at all, and just do whatever they like. It is then up to him, or me, to inform them if their contributions are valid or not, and provide alternative suggestions where appropriate (e.g. "play something better!" or "play in the same key!!")

If all this is succesful, we then spend a few weeks playing it at practice. After about two weeks I get bored with the whole song, and say that it's rubbish, that it's either too cheesey, or too dreary, or too dull, or whatever, and we have to do something about it. So we tinker, much to the bassist and drummer's disgust, and once the tinkering has gone too far, we give up.

Every once in a while, a song emerges successfully. The song that this process worked best with is called 'The missouri review' and can be found here: http://www.threadbear.info/threadbear/musi...4aa2acb42abe962

Coltrane: I have a little DD6 pedal with a 6 second loop, and often do a similar thing to you, but obviously with less success. I need one with a bigger memory really. I agree about the whole 'moment' thing - one of my frustrations is losing too many of these moments.

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By the way:

The other big change is that I finally learned how to strum back and forth on my electric guitar.  Awww, there you go laughing again smile.gif but seriously, when I first started playing I could  only strum down.  I  have no idea why, it's sort of like Zoolander not being able to turn left...

smile.gif I might start to tell the band that I'm not an ambi-strummer...

I do find though, that whenever I learn something new, like a new chord or interval or way of making my guitar make noise (by the way, anyone with a loop pedal should try blowing onto their pickups through a drive pedal and looping a second or so - you can make a big horrible wall of noise....), that's when I tend to be the most creative. I guess it's like learning a new word or something.

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Yup. Without question, the best environment for songwriting is the band dynamic... Most of the techniques and tools i've employed over the last few years, have been nothing more than attempts to compensate for this lack. Working with others in the kind of musical intercourse Stu described is usually the quickest way I know to birth real flesh and blood songs (Stu, I'm downloading MO Review now to hear your results) These days, using my loop box, a drum machine and Adobe Audition, I'm able to create, what I think are some pretty exciting fragments/pieces/parts. Unfortunately, fragments is all they really are...

My struggle with the "music career" has been a haunting battle over the years. Searching seriously for another band when you're in your mid-thirties, with the responsibilities of a family, seems semi-delusional to me at the moment.

I played for a living back in the late 80's, got signed to an indie label, toured (our manager was, and still is, close friends with Mike Mills) opened for some national acts... things really looked good. Enter J.C. and a host of prophetic comrades with warnings of damnation for me if i persisted in my "love of the world". (to be an evangelical pursuing a "secular" career in the arts in 1987 was PURE hell, i can assure you... any amens ?) Needless to say, I left it all--literally overnight-- to pursue my true calling... *ahem*...which was to be a preacher. Fast forward to 1997. I'm a burned out and jaded evangelist/worship leader, fed up with the ministry and finally ready to go back to my first love-- music. After a few half-hearted attempts within the Nashville ghetto, i sorta resigned the idea of playing again professionally.

Interested to hear where some of you guys are with this struggle in your art-- the challenge of getting older/having a family/making a legitmate career in music, etc...

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Hey Dale, I finally downloaded those songs. My favorite of the three is definitely "Comrades, Haste! Faster the Steel Press," and not just because the name is so cool. They're all pretty good though. I haven't the faintest idea what a fermata is, so I can't comment on whether or not that's a bad thing.

Stu, I'm going to have to download your stuff now that you've posted a link.

Coltrane, my experience is a little different... I've never found the group dynamic best for songwriting... not the brunt of it, anyway... however, I do think that the group dynamic is best for making the song better. When I was in a band before assuming the Baptist Death Ray nom de plume, I would write something basic that I liked fairly well, and after I'd play it the other two guys would say "hey, it would sound better like this" -- then add something -- and it would. That worked really well for the stuff we did... we'd all practice songs for a day, break for a week, and each of us would experiment with each other's stuff, and come back with suggestions. The suggestions were invariably an improvement over the original, at least in my case.

But trying to come up with something from scratch, the three of us... that was practically impossible. We all had slightly different musical tastes that meshed together pretty well because we used them to influence each other's work, but in a situation where we were just jamming to come up with something it wasn't terribly effective.

These days, now that I'm resigned to solo recording, I really do miss that kind of input from other people, though. The right mix of personalities can really inspire you to do new things.

Of course, the *wrong* mix of personalities will probably convince you to stick to solo work for a while, heh.

Mandolin. Pen. Paper. Guess I'm old-fashioned or something.

Is the pen and paper for writing lyrics or for writing out the sheet music by hand?

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Is the pen and paper for writing lyrics or for writing out the sheet music by hand?

Both. In the latter case, it helps to have those little lines.

Actually, after I've made some sketches I sometimes use a Mac-based notation program called Vivaldi Studio (formerly Opus).

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I'm forcing myself to start writing music (mainly because I'm taking a "writing songs for worship" class). I'm not sure that I really have a process; right now I'm mostly adapting other texts and melodies to different arrangements. I notate out the basic ideas in Finale, then work from there. I'm not into forming concrete structures that I write from - I find that too restricting - but I do at least try to make it sound interesting.

For example, I recently re-worked the text to "Come, Ye Disconsolate" as a new song. It's in an "ABAB" form, and it's sounds like a dissonate Coldplay-meets-Over the Rhine type song. It's nothing I would submit to a publishing company - in fact, it needs quite a bit of refinement - but a good friend of mine who's a fantastic composer like it. That was quite encouraging to me.

Anyways, the next project is for solo instrument and piano. My pianist at church also plays tuba and trombone (he's the same composer friend I mentioned above), and he said a trombone solo would be better than a tuba in a church setting. Time to crack open the orchestra book and remind myself of the trombone slide rules.

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Time to crack open the orchestra book and remind myself of the trombone slide rules.

Rule #1: Don't hit the viola player in the back of the head with the &*(#$*(#$&(@ thing, not unless you want to be wearing it.

There are a lot of trombone solos in orchestral works with religious themes. Not many tuba solos.

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Tuba Solo! Opus Penguin!

Er... sorry. smile.gif

hehehe... actually, my friend is doing a piece for his upcoming recital that involves an elephant walk of sorts... (suddenly the image of Bart Simpson and his pet elephant Stampy comes to mind).

Rule #1: Don't hit the viola player in the back of the head with the &*(#$*(#$&(@ thing, not unless you want to be wearing it.

There are a lot of trombone solos in orchestral works with religious themes. Not many tuba solos.

Yeah, but I don't know if I can figure out how to get the dynamic right. He's a good tuba player (it's his primary instrument), but it's a hard instrument to write a gracious part for at times.

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