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Bill Roper's Journal
Forward Engineering: Just Play 
14th-Apr-2008 02:07 pm
At FilkOntario weekend before last, I did a workshop on Forward Engineering a song, the objective of which was to provide some techniques that are useful when you're trying to construct a song. It struck me that the song that I just wrote -- Just Play -- is a pretty good example of applying some of these techniques, so I figured I'd write it up here for anyone who's interested.

I usually write with a guitar in my hands. Other people's mileage may vary, but that's how I go at it. Sometimes, I've just picked up my guitar because I feel like I want to lay hands on it and do some noodling and that's all that happens. Other times, I find I've just gotten mugged by my muse who has decided that it's time for a song.

In this particular case, I wandered into the bedroom to pick up my guitar to do some creative noodling in the wake of working on taxes. As I opened up the guitar case, two words popped up: "Just Play".

Ok, that seemed interesting. What if I made an assault on the subject of playing the guitar? After all, I had a guitar here.

The first step was to sit down and play a few chords. If this was a guitar song, it seemed reasonable to play around in what min0taur refers to as "the people's key of G". G is a fine key for the guitar and it's usually a key that I can sing in, so let's play some basic G riffs.

One common strumming pattern that I use is what I call the two-strum. This probably has a better name, but it's basically a quick two-beat strum with all of the beats going down, strumming at a slightly different angle on the alternating strokes. It's very rhythmic and well-suited to a variety of upbeat songs. I use it on songs like Grandfather's Clock, The Zero-G Polka, and The Sinister Walk. I wanted something upbeat here and the tempo would be reasonable for playing around with.

Now let's grab some chords. G/Em/C/D is one of the classic riffs for the simple reason that it just works, so let's play around with that for a while and see if anything pops out. And I'm going to get bored with that, so let's grab the "favorite toy" from my bag and put a reverse in, so from G/Em/C/D, drop back and play C/D/G/Em. And I want some more interesting parts to play with and, why, look! There's an E7/A7 change that seems compatible. I'm not sure where I'm going to use it yet, but let's throw it into the hopper and see what wants to come out.

While I've been doing this, I've been considering the whole issue of playing the guitar and the lyrical phrase "grab your guitar and just play" has popped up. Ok, that's also looking useful, so it's about time to grab a pen and some paper. The pen I've got at hand, the paper turned out to be the reverse of the lyrics for The Chicken Song that I'd printed out for the Filk Hall of Fame concert at FKO.

Let's try singing at the strum that I'm playing in G. "When your work is a bore and you walk out that door and your mood is a deep shade of black". Change to the Em on the last word. Well, that sort of works and certainly conveys thematically what I'm going for. "Deep shade of black" is an interesting phrase, but a little odd, which might not be bad. Except that you're heading like juggernaut for what looks like the last line of whatever it is that you're writing, which is -- you recall -- "grab your guitar and just play". Ok, out with "black" and in with "gray" and now you've got a rhyme. I may not stick with this rhyme scheme, but let's see what falls out of the construction.

I've got three lines, it appears, with a A/A/B rhyme scheme and reasonably short lines to boot. Ok, I am certainly not going to commit to any more As here, as I'm going to have enough trouble with the Bs. So it's ok to construct a different rhyme for the next triplet.

"And you're hoping to find
Somewhere deep in your mind
A little something better today."

C/C/B. That'll work. Except that I've now used "deep" twice in close proximity. Back up to the third line, scratch out "deep", replace it with "dark". Better.

And we've now finished the first round of G/Em/C/D, so let's look at doing the reverse for the next lines. Back to a C chord and I'm going to need a D/D/B triplet and looking at the chord progression that I'm developing, the whole verse -- because it's becoming apparent to me that what I'm writing is a verse, not a chorus -- is going to consist of four triplets: A/A/B C/C/B D/D/B and E/E/B.

Mental note to self: I'm not really going to commit to that rhyme scheme, because I'm now fairly sure that each verse is going to end on some variant of "grab your guitar and just play". That would require three rhymes for "play" in each verse, which is just not going to happen, no matter how many verses the piece ends up with. So I'm actually going to commit to a rhyme scheme that looks like this:


In the first verse, B and E are identical rhymes. I won't be doing that again. The rhyme scheme is aggressive enough in the second form; the first form would be really tough, especially since I have a hunch I'm about to need some more rhymes for "play" in the chorus.

The entire verse has come out now, the chord progression for the verse has resolved, and it ends on a G, just as it began. We've come full circle, which is not unreasonable for this sort of song. And the entire verse and the chords are down on paper, where they're reasonably safe from being forgotten. A voice recorder is a handy tool and I have one somewhere, but I haven't been able to find it for several years now, so pen and paper are my friends. I find that I'm usually able to reconstruct the melody I was working on from the words and chords, so this trick works for me.

Ah, yes. Melody. Ok, that turns out to be the easy part for me, because given a chord progression I find that there is almost always a melody that seems obvious to me, along with less-obvious variations that I grab hold of when it seems like I'm walking too close to the melody for some other song.

In the workshop, I referred to the bit by Pete Townshend that caused me some amusement when I first heard it on the classic rock station:

"I'm singing this note cause it fits in well with the chords I'm playing."

Well, yes. Of course, you do. That's the whole secret of constructing a melody once you've got a chord progression.

The notes that you're singing are going to be centered around the notes that exist in the chord that you're playing. In the case of a major chord, you've got the I/III/V triad that makes the chord. And you want to move between those notes in some attractive way, so you'll sing other notes from the scale that you're working in that lie between.

You can do other things too. You can sing a seventh note against the chord you're playing to construct a seventh chord between the instrument and the vocal. You can do anything, as long as it sounds good.

Like any other skill, this takes practice. And you will occasionally do things that make you sound like an idiot. "Ok, that was phenomenally the wrong note there. Let's try something else." This is why writing music is best practiced either in solitude or with close friends who understand the problems involved. Hecklers don't help. :)

But back to the song at hand. I have a verse. I need a chorus.

It's become apparent to me that the right way to start the chorus is to repeat the basic message of the song: "Just play". And I'm going to need a new chord progression that will lend itself to a melody that is different from, but compatible with, the melody for the verse. So let's start off by doing something interesting.

Play a D chord and go from G to D for "Just play". That works. Now, I need a new chunk of chord progression to work with. I experiment with several things and find that I can make a quick loop out of C/Am/D for the subsequent lines. But do I really want to do that three times in a row, as I find that I've scrawled down three lines to go against that chord progression?

Well, no. But the third time, I can modulate to C/A7/D7, which drags the melody in a new direction. Cool! We'll go up there.

I left that E7/A7 change lying around up at the beginning of this discussion. And it fits right here. Now I'm in business as I write the melody and lyric to fall behind it:

"So turn on the light
'Cause we're playing all night
In a fine improvisational way."

And it's time to wrap up the chorus, which also wants to end with the same line that the verse ends with. So we'll go back to G, just to remind ourselves what key we're in, then to D, D7, and back to G to end the chorus.

The hardest part of the song is now done. There's a verse, a chorus, and a chord progression and melody to underlie the whole thing. The structure of the song now exists. Now it's time to play through it and make sure I know what it's about.

And it turns out it's about sitting back, playing your guitar, and letting your mind go where it wants to go. In this particular case, it wants to write a song. So after noodling around, the chord progression solidifies, a melody arrives, and you've got a chunk of something going here. This is frequently the way that I write a song -- although less so in the current case we're looking at! -- where I play some chords and find a melody to go with them and it makes me think of something. Crystal Dance is a good example of that approach.

So in the second verse, we get the melody. In the third verse, we get the story that goes with the song.

"She’s just one lonely spark
Left alone in the dark
And she only wants to find some place warm.
And she might have a chance
And she might find romance
In the new place where she’s going to stay."

There's a very short story. And I may go back and revisit her some time, if the mood strikes me, because there's obviously some more story to tell there around those very bare bones. But that's not the song that I'm writing right now. So we're going to finish that one up.

The song's short, three verses plus choruses, so repeating the final chorus is a good way to signal that we're winding things up here. And we can have a bit of fun on the way out by running a brief loop before getting to the last line of the final chorus:

"And grab your guitar
‘Cause we’re going so far
From the place where we are.
Set your eye on a star
And just play."

At this point, the song's done. More or less. It will get bits of trim and polish as I play with it over the next hours, days, and weeks. For example, I revised the very last line above after I originally posted it to LJ, because I was playing it over later that evening and realized that I needed to recapitulate the entire last line at the very end.

"And grab your guitar and just play."

I may make more mods to it later. We'll see.

But that's how I wrote it.

I hope this was interesting to some of you!
15th-Apr-2008 12:42 am (UTC)
Thank you! I've watched and listened to musicians compose (and did not heckle), but I liked "listening" to your inner thought process, too. Very similar to how I write poetry, actually.
15th-Apr-2008 12:52 am (UTC)
Thanks for the write-up. I really enjoy reading about how people apply a process to make use of their creativity.
15th-Apr-2008 02:46 am (UTC)
Very interesting -- thanks!
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