For today’s revamped creativity post, I went back and thoroughly reworked this 2011 music post about songwriting. It makes about 400% more sense with much less rambling! YAY!!
As a musician, singer, and composer, I’ve long wished for desktop applications to help me record and even notate the music that I write. (Most of my pieces of music are still in my head, not notated anywhere because I hate hand-notating so much. LOL)
On a whim this week, I began a new search for music-creation and music-notation programs…and I came up with the following five programs, which can help musicians and composers of all types and experience levels. Not only are these programs helpful, but they’re all free!
For Generating Electronic Music on Your Computer
Psycle is music creation software, with less emphasis on recording and more emphasis on making music within the program itself. The open-sourced nature of the program also leaves users free to build plugins for it themselves, so it’s great for the music tinkerer who also loves to code. And, if you need help at any time, it’s got a lively, deeply-established online community built around it…which is also great for showing off your newest creations!
For Recording, Editing, and Converting All Sorts of Sounds
As one of the premier open-source audio recording/editing programs on the Internet these days, Audacity can help you record any kind of audio track, edit all manner of audio file formats, convert old tapes and records into digital form, and even change the pitch or speed of a recording! (Ooh, I might use this to see how certain songs sound in my favorite keys. “Titanium” by David Guetta in C-sharp minor, here I come!)
For Recording/Editing MIDI Sounds
If you can connect your MIDI musical keyboard to your computer, MidiSwing can help you record the music made through that keyboard. It can also help you edit MIDI files, as well as compose music from within the program itself. Best of all: it’s compatible with just about any system that can run Java 2. (I might look into this to record my music on my computer, since I <3 my digital keyboard. 😀 )
For Automatically Notating/Playing Back Music, and Making Sheet Music
A must for anyone who hates hand-notating music as much as I do. MuseScore can not only automatically notate the music that’s played into the program through a MIDI connection, but can play it back, and print out real sheet music, too! (DEFINITELY getting this–I’ve been wanting to get my music on paper for years!)
For Recording/Generating Music and Mixing It Yourself
A complete Java music workstation in one program, Frinika supports MIDI, sequencers, recording, and editing, among many other audio tasks. Pretty much, if you want to record/edit/mix it, Frinika can handle it! (This looks pretty technical, so this is probably for the more advanced music mixers among us, but it’s a great all-in-one program nonetheless.)
More Music Creation Resources
For a much more comprehensive list of free music-creation programs, visit Free Music Creation Software on Squidoo–options for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems are available, as well as more specific kinds of software for various musical and audio purposes.
Learning to play piano, for me, came entwined with the desire to create my own music, which I often began to write while just “playing around” (pardon the pun) on the keyboard. I call this “keyboard musing”…just playing a snatch of a song here, a few bars of a melody or bass line here, until BAM!–there’s a new melody or chord progression, and my brain is off to the musical races!
If you’re a beginner to piano, or if you’re a frustrated composer, I would highly suggest doing a bit of keyboard musing for yourself. There’s a whole lot of wonder and magic still left in music, and this process proves it!
Keyboard Musing, Step 0: Don’t Try to Be Perfect. SERIOUSLY.
I have heard fellow composers often say that they’re stuck on a piece of music, saying that all that they play sounds “trite,” “overused,” “not good enough,” and doesn’t “flow.” For that matter, I’ve thought those same things myself about my own music.
Keyboard musing fixes that. After all, there’s no “right or wrong” way to play around on a keyboard when you’re not going by any sheet music! Before you even get started musing on your keyboard, don’t constrain yourself to what sounds “good,” or what sounds “original.” Just play SOMETHING. Play a few measures of a favorite song for inspiration; poke around playing notes together until you run across something that sounds COOL. Then, allow yourself to go further, exploring deeper into the melody or chord progressions you’re enjoying.
Step 1: Play Along with Recorded Music to Get You Started
This is a trick I use when trying to learn new music, but this is a great way to help you recreate a favorite melody, too. Listen to a favorite song using a CD, MP3, Youtube/Spotify/Pandora, etc., and figure out what note the melody starts on…and your ear should be able to take you on from there. Get the notes right first, then match the rhythms and tempo till you can play it pretty close to the recorded song.
The reason behind doing this? Once you know how to pick out the melody of various songs, then you’ll be better equipped to pick out the melody that’s been bouncing around in your head!
Step 2: Try New Variations on an Old Familiar Melody
Now that you know how to play a favorite melody like it was originally written, try varying it up. Extend that short note out a little longer, or put in a little playful riff here and there–innovate and see what new creation you can make. Allow yourself the freedom to play in a musical sandbox.
I suggest this not to condone plagiarism, but to give your imagination a jumping-off point. Put that favorite melody through some permutations, find new chords to put with it, and eventually you will be inspired to create your own song!
Step 3: Keep Trying if You Come Up with Nothing the First Time
You may not come up with anything on your first keyboard-musing session–but then again, you might come up with something AWESOME! Allow yourself more chances to dig down into your imagination, even if nothing appeared the last time you tried.
Step 4: Listen for Inspiration in Weird Places
Especially if you’re stuck and feel like you have no “inner song,” allow your environment to inspire you. Keep your ears open for beautiful new melodies, neat chord progressions, etc., wherever you go. Sometimes even non-musical sounds like car engine roars, bird chirps, refrigerator hums, crowds of people talking, fan blades, etc. can inspire a new tune. (Don’t look at your screen like that, I’m not crazy! LOL)
When you hear inspiring sounds, try to record them if you can, or at least get to your keyboard as quick as you can. Then, try to replicate the sound you heard with the musical notes in front of you. It might feel a bit stupid at first, but don’t give up on it, even if you have to walk away from your keyboard and try again later!
Keyboard musing is a magical retreat for me, a way I can reconnect with the sheer joy of just playing music for music’s sake. If you’ve never tried music, or if you’ve found yourself stuck for a long time, just give this a shot. You might be surprised what you come up with!
As a piano/vocal songwriter from the age of 12, I’ve written songs about the things I see in life that make me happy or catch my interest. But more often, my songs are about things that bother me; expressing my sadness or frustration in song has been one of the key ways I vented. I am definitely not alone in that, either, since many songwriters use music to talk about important social and political issues. Writing music about problems–confronting our problematic “giants” within the context of a melody–seems to be human nature.
Why Write Songs About Problems? Because It Helps
Songs are a great way to work out problems, as I found out at an early age. I could sing and bang the piano keys about my problems more readily than I could even talk to somebody about what was going on. Through music, I could put it more eloquently…and I found out through performances that other people identified with what I was singing about, even if it was sad.
Within a song, somehow, it seems easier to deliver a message that people will readily listen to. Even if the message is controversial, it seems less so when wrapped in melody and rhyme. And often, such a song can be the instigator of positive change, as it raises awareness about the problem–one such song is Jesus, Friend of Sinners by Casting Crowns, available through the video below:
The “Problem Song” Writing Process
In the act of writing a song about a problem, it forces me to condense my message and really “get to the bottom” of what I’m trying to talk about. It makes me dig around in my conscious and subconscious mind–why does this problem bug me so much? Once I start trying to explain my point of view as if speaking to someone else, I finally find the little nugget of truth hiding underneath the layers of my own thoughts, and that truth becomes the basis of my song. Then I write about how I see that truth, how that truth affects me, and the song begins to emerge.
Self-discovery and expression collide and combine once I finally sit down to the keyboard (either to type or to play). As I write the words, sometimes I find myself adding the melody with it; as I hum the melody, sometimes I find myself adding the words where they best fit. Either way, I am changing the word choice and rhythms to flow better together. This is a highly instinctive process of addition, deletion, and rapid editing until I find the “right” way the song is supposed to work, how it’s supposed to deliver its message.
Once I feel that the song is done “right,” I perform it for myself, in many rehearsals. Generally, the way I know that a song is good enough is if it either raises the hairs on my arms, or it makes me cry. (Yay for built-in quality control!)
The most challenging part of the whole “problem song” process, for me, is the first performance of the song for anybody. I am challenged to deliver my message as if I am a keynote speaker, and in a way, I am. I need to keep their interest, sing clearly, and express the nugget of truth with emotion and description, to help someone else understand how much this means to me. My song should go out to the audience and travel straight from their ears to their hearts, giving them the message in a way that makes them think without being hostile to the idea in my music.
How Can You Confront Your Own Giants with a Song?
I find that writing a bullet list, outline, or even just random notes about things that concern you is a great starting point toward writing your own songs (or poems, if you aren’t musically inclined). Amid the detritus that you will inevitably produce (as everyone does), there will likely be a phrase or sentence you write that will point you in the direction of your own nugget of truth.
From there, try to dig into it, to completely explain that nugget of truth as you see it. Your own poem or song will emerge from your pen or your keyboard–and you just might be surprised at what you’ve come up with!
As a singer-songwriter myself, one would think that I’d thoroughly enjoy listening to others writing and performing their own music as well. But oddly enough, when I listen to other singer-songwriters (like listening to 90% of my boyfriend’s collection of music), I end up feeling a little competitive instead, even though I like the music.
Here’s a small sample of what ends up running through my head:
- “Hmm, how would I have written these lyrics/this chord progression/this melody differently?”
- “Ooh, nifty turn of phrase! I like it!”
- “I think the song could use another verse or two to tell the story…”
- “The use of the minor chord there really heightens the musical tension!”
Singer-songwriter music is definitely not something I can sit and chill out to like he does–I’m too caught up in thinking about it academically rather than experiencing it. To be honest, I used to think I just didn’t “enjoy” this kind of music the way I enjoy faster-paced, musically dense songs.
And yet, my academic appreciation of music is in itself a form of enjoyment. I can’t really turn off my “Music Major Mode” that makes me dissect songs like this, but I can use it to observe how others write songs…which, in turn, can make me a better songwriter. I can study others’ combinations of melody and chord to set a musical mood, or think over how the choice of words in the lyrics tells the story completely and concisely.
This, I think, is extremely important for anyone who writes music–you HAVE to be willing to listen to what other musicians are doing in your chosen genre, and listen critically, observing what they have done and learning from it so you can make your own original music. (This also helps ward off plagiarism–once you’ve heard what other people have done, you can go and do something different with your own music.) Researching and studying how others write music like yours doesn’t have to be boring–in fact, it can be really rewarding and inspiring!
As a composer and songwriter, I had not thought much about how my works have changed over time, until I began to review and play back through my older songs. Then, I realized that my composing style has shifted, not once, but many times throughout my musical life already.
Shifting from Instrumental to Vocal/Instrumental
For instance, I’m just coming out of a weird phase where I haven’t been writing a lot of instrumental music (piano solos). Piano solos used to be all I did–I’d go to the keyboard and produce these six-minute-long wordless poems, full of soaring melodies and cool chord progressions. Nowadays, though, I find myself focusing on lyric and melody together, much more than I used to do. It used to be that I fought to combine words and melodies together into something that didn’t sound trite and stupid…now, I’m interested in my relationship to God and my personal faith journey, and the songs just keep writing themselves in my head.
This Phase Shift is Normal!
I had worried that perhaps I had “lost my touch” for writing piano solos or purely instrumental music. But I’ve talked to a few of my musician friends about how songcraft seems to come and go in phases–sometimes you feel like writing instrumental music, and sometimes vocal music or combined vocal/instrumental. All have agreed so far that it’s almost like a shifting mood thing, rather than an inability to do it anymore.
So if you’re writing music and find yourself writing in a new style of music, or moving away from an old favorite style, don’t worry–allow your music to grow with you as you explore new territory. Don’t trap yourself into one set way of composing, and you might just find a new favorite style!