Songwriting Tips and Tricks
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Ambient / Downtempo Discussion of music similar to Brian Eno, Sigur Rós, FSOL, The Orb, Biosphere.

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Old 23-11-2016, 08:22 PM   #1
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Songwriting Tips and Tricks

I'm looking for some songwriting advice for electronic ambient/post-rock music. I often find myself writing a short part that repeats and I recognize it as a good foundation, but have a hard time building up from there. For example, I might have a four chord progression, with each chord lasting 2 bars. That's 8 bars for the progression. If it loops 4 times before moving into the next part, that's 32 bars of basically the same thing! I'll often add some subtle changes, perhaps a different hihat pattern on the 3rd time around, or start adding some reverse melody parts in. But I can't help feeling bored for others when listening back or showing it to a friend. Perhaps that is just harsh judgment on myself, since I'm happy to listen to repetitive loops in other people's music, but I'd still like to spice it up a bit. Especially when I listen to the subtle details in songs by artists like Imogen Heap or Dntel, I really feel like there's a lot of empty space.

What techniques do you use to fill your space or add some subtle layers and changes under your song foundations? In the past I've used Live's clip follow to randomly generate some glitchy stuff from my melody or drums to layer underneath, and I've also taken field recording and run them through vocoder and other effects to get some interesting background textures. I'd love hear what others are doing and get some new ideas flowing!

You can hear my latest release for reference of music style:

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Old 23-11-2016, 10:29 PM   #2
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

I'm a big fan of chord inversion. Take the top or bottom note and move it an octave down or up so that the top note is now on bottom or the bottom note is now on top. Usually, you get a new chord, but you're still in key so you don't have to touch anything else. Do that and mix it up with your rhythms and you can get quite some mileage out of just 4 or 8 chords.

I've also found I can write 16-chord progressions easily if I repeat two chords a lot. For instance I might write a progression A-B-C-D-A-B-E-F-A-B-G-H-A-B-I-J (the names are arbitrary, not proper music theory chord names). Then you can break some of those chords in half and do major-minor combos, invert some chords, whatever you like really.

I find starting with a scale in mind helps you pick chords (at least your A and B repeaters), but after that there's a million ways to justify going out of scale in music theory. You don't need to know them, you just need to know that whatever you want to do is probably covered. I'd definitely recommend trying some pentatonic scales for electronic music.
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Old 24-11-2016, 12:22 AM   #3
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

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Originally Posted by White Noise View Post
I'm a big fan of chord inversion. Take the top or bottom note and move it an octave down or up so that the top note is now on bottom or the bottom note is now on top. Usually, you get a new chord, but you're still in key so you don't have to touch anything else. Do that and mix it up with your rhythms and you can get quite some mileage out of just 4 or 8 chords.

I've also found I can write 16-chord progressions easily if I repeat two chords a lot. For instance I might write a progression A-B-C-D-A-B-E-F-A-B-G-H-A-B-I-J (the names are arbitrary, not proper music theory chord names). Then you can break some of those chords in half and do major-minor combos, invert some chords, whatever you like really.

I find starting with a scale in mind helps you pick chords (at least your A and B repeaters), but after that there's a million ways to justify going out of scale in music theory. You don't need to know them, you just need to know that whatever you want to do is probably covered. I'd definitely recommend trying some pentatonic scales for electronic music.
These are fantastic songwriting tips! Thanks so much for contributing. I'm definitely going to try out some of these.

Any ideas for filling out seemingly empty spaces? Even with some of those techniques there could still be lots of room for little accouterments that keep things from feeling too bland. Of course post-rock and ambient can definitely be done well without these things, but then I listen to other artists I like that lean more towards the electronic side and I'm just blown away by all of the one off sounds and perfectly placed layers. When I first heard all the instrumental tracks from Imogen Heap's album Ellipse, I lost my mind.



Here's another favourite.


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Old 24-11-2016, 02:29 AM   #4
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

It's an obvious one, but resampling saves the day for me quite a lot.

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Old 29-05-2017, 01:51 AM   #5
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

Hmmm... Well for me... When I feel there's a bit of empty space, I often add in a short sample with a lot of echo delay and reverb. Somewhere towards the back. Can be really subtle. Often a nice sounding vocal. Or a drone/pad towards the back. Or often subtle percussive stuff like cymbals or transients of snares or other percussive things. Usually relatively quiet percussion parts with some delays or reverb. Haha. Good luck!
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Old 30-05-2017, 07:06 PM   #6
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

Something that really helps me is to block out my song before I even do ANYTHING. I'll take ableton locaters and block it out for what I want "okay 16 bars for chorus, "8 bar bridge" blah blah whatever. Then I'll kind of dink around with a melody kind of like you said a good repetitive loop. Then with my building blocks I made before it really lets me see okay I need lots of energy by point x. For me it takes out a lot of guess work out and lack of direction. Sometimes I might rearrange after I have the elements to fill that space, again it's just a building block not a commitment

. Also when trying to "fill space" simple flowy pads can fill it pretty well depending on what you want. Longer attacks, some distortion and frequency modulation can make for cool backing textures. Try not to use the exact same chords that your main lead occupy too. Try setting background noises to a 3rd or 5th in a scale from where you're at and it will occupy more frequency space (AS LONG AS THE 3RD OR THE 5TH SOUND GOOD).

Just some ideas I typically use!

EDIT: Also if your audience seems to be getting bored I think it really depends on who you show it to. Not everyone likes the same thing. Especially a lot of people that listen to more mainstream genres, unlike ambient, want things quick (chorus at 40-1:00 or whatever) because thats what they're used to is this fast paced developing song. But a lot of times that's not what ambient is or needs to be. As hard as it may be, and I know we want people to like our music, but you do you man! I thought musically your song was really great. Had a really solid mixdown as well. Cheers!

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Old 31-05-2017, 03:13 AM   #7
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

^I can listen to a dub techno track that plays the same chord over and over if it is done properly. It really depends on what kind of music you want to make.

I tend to work in 4 bar phrases because I use my Analog 4 so heavily, but I also find noodling the keys a good way to come up with inital riffs and variations. I know its not really useful advice, but once you find that first riff/part/pattern or w/e you just have to try variations and transitions until you are creating longer sections that work together. I do a lot of mirroring and flipping of notes to get variation. Like I will "flip" the notes... So like ABCD then DCBA then ADCB--it has to sound good, of course. But its a way to play with the notes you are working with. Or sometimes I'll play with doubling and tripling. ABAB ABAB AABB AAAB BAAA--again, whatever ends up sounding good. These are all just easy places to start from. None of the letters are meant to represent actual literal notes.

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Old 18-06-2017, 02:02 PM   #8
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Icon8 Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

Don't think anyone said but your song is amazing, don't think you need to worry about your musical style or your level of expertness

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Old 18-06-2017, 03:13 PM   #9
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Re: Songwriting Tips and Tricks

Quote:
Originally Posted by Derpgerpwalrus View Post
Especially a lot of people that listen to more mainstream genres, unlike ambient, want things quick (chorus at 40-1:00 or whatever) because thats what they're used to is this fast paced developing song. But a lot of times that's not what ambient is or needs to be.
I prefer fast paced developing songs but have nothing against 1:30 (or even longer) intros or buildups. I just feel that for the most of the time, intros are just acting as DJ tools. Like basically just modified/weakened parts from the chorus being thrown together.

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