Advice on finishing songs and developing themes

RenePedersen

New Member
Hi composer,

I'm looking for some advice on composition in terms of coming up with sections and ideas for motifs and themes. I have now been composing music for about 4 months and feel quite confident in music theory with my 10+ years of playing multiple instruments and in bands but writing your own music is obviously different...

My issue is that I seem to be able to come up with melodies but fail to turn them into full songs based on a chord progression, but I always end up completely empty for what should happen next and my orchestration ends up sounding too simple as well (I think).

To give you a better idea of how I write, I'll give you some details below:

1. I play around on my midi keyboard trying to find something that I like, there is usually not any emotion or story behind what I come up with, unless I'm trying to write a fan score or something to a picture of a character etc. It just choose what sounds good to me and then use modulation to put emotion into the music.

2. When I have found a melody and harmony that I like, I then start trying to come up with how the song should start and the intro is usually not hard to get going for me, but I try not to fall into the trap of always starting with piano + drone because it's not interesting all the time...

3. So I have now a rough idea of how the intro should sound and I record the instruments I see would fit there.

4. I have now finish the intro and perhaps put my theme in it as well and this where I start shutting down in terms of what to do next, I don't hear the rest of my song in my head and I end up playing around and not committing to anything in the end.

5. I really enjoyed the theme I came up with and there might be great music in it but I lose my will to continue writing the song and either shut down Cubase or open another song that I have made that I was able to do more with and to remind me what I should be able to achieve but hasn't...

So this is my writing process, I really wish I could transform my ideas into full pieces, but I think my expectations and perfectionism gets in the way of doing that.

I tend to spend more time watching others compose in hope that I can pick up on a workflow that will improve my own and watching other composers write their pieces motivates me to sit down and try again and again and again, but I never seem to get the hang of it for some reason...

I know writing music doesn't just take a few months to learn but I think it's more likely to write not very good songs in the beginning rather than not being able to write anything, or maybe that's a wrong way of looking at it? Because I look at others and try to study songs to pick up on arrangement patterns and analyse, but once I sit down and do my own I have no clue where it is going...

As a last note I will share my first released Epic Orchestral song that I DID manage to finish, so you have an idea of my skill level and have something to refer to:

Listen to Kingdom Come (Epic Orchestral) by Rene Pedersen on #SoundCloud

Thank you for reading! I would like to know if you can relate and what you would suggest/advice to get out of this annoying loophole. :)
 

MauroPantin

We'll cross that bridge when we burn it
This was my biggest roadblock at the time. You need to practice development and structure. Apart from the basics (modulate a step up), there is a plethora of stuff you can do.

You can change the chords and place the melody in a new context. There is a book called Hollywood Harmony by Frank Lehman that shows some of these ideas, it analyzes harmony under a new system that is different than tonal harmony and I highly recommend it since it opens up an entirely new palette that drives you away from the usual I-V-vi-V and its variations.

You can also change the time signature and play around with that. Or you can vary the phrase slightly and/or add flourishes. These are the usual quick and dirty tips just about anybody can give.

But the most useful thing for me was studying counterpoint. Being able to write an effective counterline or develop the line I have further is the most valuable tool I have, and one that allows you to get away from the same tricks everybody else is using. It is a hard road, but it works.

In your piece, there are 3 different sections, and individually they stand on their own but there is no connecting tissue between them. Having a counterpoint line would help with that, as well as some richer harmonic language like using a secondary dominant in triadic form as a simple way to connect the sections (just as a quick example, there's a lot of ways to do it).

There are a lot of resources out there for counterpoint. I used a course by the great Peter Alexander on it, I think it is still available. Also the Mike Verta masterclasses on the subjects (development and counterpoint). Finally, a great place to study amazing counterpoint and resourceful development is in the Beethoven piano sonatas. The guy could squeeze incredible value out of a single motif. I reckon if you study the twists and turns of just one of those you'll already learn more devices than the average composer has out there.
 
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RenePedersen

New Member
This was my biggest roadblock at the time. You need to practice development and structure. Apart from the basics (modulate a step up), there is a plethora of stuff you can do.

You can change the chords and place the melody in a new context. There is a book called Hollywood Harmony by Frank Lehman that shows some of these ideas, it analyzes harmony under a new system that is different than tonal harmony and I highly recommend it since it opens up an entirely new palette that drives you away from the usual I-V-vi-V and its variations.

You can also change the time signature and play around with that. Or you can vary the phrase slightly and/or add flourishes. These are the usual quick and dirty tips just about anybody can give.

But the most useful thing for me was studying counterpoint. Being able to write an effective counterline or develop the line I have further is the most valuable tool I have, and one that allows you to get away from the same tricks everybody else is using. It is a hard road, but it works.

In your piece, there are 3 different sections, and individually they stand on their own but there is no connecting tissue between them. Having a counterpoint line would help with that, as well as some richer harmonic language like using a secondary dominant in triadic form as a simple way to connect the sections (just as a quick example, there's a lot of ways to do it).

There are a lot of resources out there for counterpoint. I used a course by the great Peter Alexander on it, I think it is still available. Also the Mike Verta masterclasses on the subjects (development and counterpoint). Finally, a great place to study amazing counterpoint and resourceful development is in the Beethoven piano sonatas. The guy could squeeze incredible value out of a single motif. I reckon if you study the twists and turns of just one of those you'll already learn more devices than the average composer has out there.
Thank you very much for your advice and breaking down my track letting me know what can improve! I'll look into counterpoint and start playing around with it. I'm familiar with what it means to have a counter melody but I think for that specific track I didn't use it for some reason, not sure why but now after hearing the track again, I do realise that there a lots of room for something behind the melody.
 

andylowemusic

New Member
I'd recommend listening to a load of classical music to get inspired! Compared with most pop/rock stuff you tend to hear lots more new ideas coming in all the time. But like Mauro said, you need something to tie all the new ideas together.

Another idea would be to take a few notes of the first melody and then use them in a different way: invert them, reverse them, stretch them out or contract them. See what happens!
 

youngpokie

Active Member
3. So I have now a rough idea of how the intro should sound and I record the instruments I see would fit there.
I believe this is the point where you run into a problem in your flow. By step 3, your compositional process has given you 1 theme (I discount the intro) and now you're mentally closing one creative mindset (composing) and opening another (orchestration, or more likely at this point, arrangement).

The new mindset means you now listen to the same few bars over and over again in a loop, you get boxed into that single theme, and because arranging is a different creative stream (imagining sound vs imagining melody) your compositional mind shuts down and at some point it's impossible to break out of this loop. So you get bored or frustrated or both.

My suggestion would be to remain in the compositional mindset, on any instrument(s) you play, until you have at least two themes in your Step 2. Once you have the two you like, then transpose the second theme into the dominant key of your first theme, which you can do in less than a minute. And then use fragments of either of the theme to come up with intro and coda. And only after that, proceed to arranging.

There was a thread here recently with a similar topic, I commented there too, but this is probably a more condensed version. You're obviously capable of coming up with melodies, judging by the piece you posted; so I don't think you'll have any problem with coming up with multiple melodies in Step 2, (other than the ingrained habit). Good luck!!
 
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RenePedersen

New Member
I believe this is the point where you run into a problem in your flow. By step 3, your compositional process has given you 1 theme (I discount the intro) and now you're mentally closing one creative mindset (composing) and opening another (orchestration, or more likely at this point, arrangement).

The new mindset means you now listen to the same few bars over and over again in a loop, you get boxed into that single theme, and because arranging is a different creative stream (imagining sound vs imagining melody) your compositional mind shuts down and at some point it's impossible to break out of this loop. So you get bored or frustrated or both.

My suggestion would be to remain in the compositional mindset, on any instrument(s) you play, until you have at least two themes in your Step 2. Once you have the two you like, then transpose the second theme into the dominant key of your first theme, which you can do in less than a minute. And then use fragments of either of the theme to come up with intro and coda. And only after that, proceed to arranging.

There was a thread here recently with a similar topic, I commented there too, but this is probably a more condensed version. You're obviously capable of coming up with melodies, judging by the piece you posted; so I don't think you'll have any problem with coming up with multiple melodies in Step 2, (other than the ingrained habit). Good luck!!
Thank you for your comment, nice to see some people still take their time to respond to my post!

So you would say try come up with more before recording things into the DAW? I remember hearing somewhere that you can't base an entire song on just 1 idea or motif or it will get repetitive, I don't know if that's right or wrong, might be different depending on how experienced you are... Could you go a bit more into detail about how you would put this into action and also if you could find that old thread that you left a similar comment on I would appreciate that :)
 

RobbertZH

Member
My issue is that I seem to be able to come up with melodies but fail to turn them into full songs based on a chord progression, but I always end up completely empty for what should happen next and my orchestration ends up sounding too simple as well (I think).
The song parts should differ enough so that you can clearly differentiate between the song sections, but should have enough similarities to make the song a whole.
You can vary harmony, rhythm, pitch range of the melody, contour of the melody, arrangement, energy of the sections, etc, etc.
But vary only a few of these, so that there is enough similarity between the sections so that your song is still perceived as a whole.

To make better melodies, I am currently studying the course "MEMORABLE MELODIES THROUGH MOTIVIC MASTERY" from ScoreClub. Varying with similarity is an important concept (explained and demonstrated with music examples) in this course:

https://scoreclub.net/the-courses/
 
Everyone's process is different, but I agree with youngpokie that you are shifting into the specifics, in this case orchestration, way too early. Steps 3-5 are familiar to most of us. Slogging your way to the finish is the tough part really. It is common to sit there for days or weeks at an impasse. I think people who tend to do well are those that just keep at it long after the initial novelty has evaporated.

One thing to possible consider is starting from the big picture and then move in. Tell a story, paint a picture, illustrate a character...write one paragraph in words to describe the scene. Don't write a note until the big picture is done. For example:

1: Klondike enters the forest..
2. Klondike gets shot by an arrow..
3. Klondike wakes up in a mystical village..
4. Klondike falls in love..
5. Klondike saves the village and become king

There is the structure of what you are trying to express. Then try to illustrate Klondike, in other words create a Klondike theme. That is your common thread. Think of generalities for each section: Enters the forest "try low brass, slow tempo", shot w/an arrow "use percussion", mystical village "tremolo strings". falls in love "woodwind solo", becomes king "grand tutti".. Again, no specifics here, only big picture ideas.

Big picture overview-> specifics. For me anyway too many specifics too early just bogs the whole thing down or locks it into a direction I can't salvage.
 
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RenePedersen

New Member
Everyone's process is different, but I agree with youngpokie that you are shifting into the specifics, in this case orchestration, way too early. Steps 3-5 are familiar to most of us. Slogging your way to the finish is the tough part really. It is common to sit there for days or weeks at an impasse. I think people who tend to do well are those that just keep at it long after the initial novelty has evaporated.

One thing to possible consider is starting from the big picture and then move in. Tell a story, paint a picture, illustrate a character...write one paragraph in words to describe the scene. Don't write a note until the big picture is done. For example:

1: Klondike enters the forest..
2. Klondike gets shot by an arrow..
3. Klondike wakes up in a mystical village..
4. Klondike falls in love..
5. Klondike saves the village and become king

There is the structure of what you are trying to express. Then try to illustrate Klondike, in other words create a Klondike theme. That is your common thread. Think of generalities for each section: Enters the forest "try low brass, slow tempo", shot w/an arrow "use percussion", mystical village "tremolo strings". falls in love "woodwind solo", becomes king "grand tutti".. Again, no specifics here, only big picture ideas.

Big picture overview-> specifics. For me anyway too many specifics too early just bogs the whole thing down or locks it into a direction I can't salvage.
Really helpful steps to try, thanks for taking your time to respond.
 
It is worth mentioning the importance of having something to say. If you have deadlines and are "working on the clock" you have to find that, but many of us compose for our own enjoyment mostly.

I tend to spew out an absurd amount of material and sometimes, like now, that seems even more so, but sometimes I just don't have anything to say. Ever heard a break up song?? That's someone with something rather powerful to say.. Sometimes the best music comes from an axe to grind, a life event, an insight, or maybe just a moment.

Probably the biggest big picture question is "What am I saying?". For me if the cupboard is bare its time to shift gears and engage in life a bit more. Its really hard to express anything well when there is no idea of a topic. That topic can be loss, love, joy, or simply beauty or ugliness, but it does have to be something.

I've said this before, but I do wonder if the notes are actually quite secondary. It is what those notes convey, the notes are just the vehicle. A single note can carry volumes or it can be just a sound. We tend to get too hung up on the sound and miss seeing that medium as a means to an end.