Ask Stationary Waves

Dear Stationary Waves,
I've recently started trying my hand at songwriting, and I'm finding the stuff I write tends to be influenced by the music I'm listening to most at the time. Is that true of pretty much everyone, or am I just lacking in originality?
- Sully
Dear Sully,

It's hard to avoid this sort of thing, because the music we listen to informs our perspective on how to write a song in the first place. You listen to the songs you like for a reason; it stands to reason that when you try to write a "good song," you will attempt to write something with all the same qualities as the songs you personally enjoy. This is only natural and reasonable. Having said that, there are a few tricks that can help you break out of the mold a little bit, and take your compositions in unexpected directions.

One thing I like to do is force myself to make all the "wrong" choices. If I've been listening to a lot of blues, for example, then my mind will automatically start gravitating toward a I-IV chord change. I can break out of that by starting on a I chord and then moving to either the vi chord or even a bV chord. So, for example, if I'm playing in the key of A, I'll write the first bit of melody and then make sure that I absolutely avoid moving to a Bmin or a D chord. Instead, I'll try an Fmin or - and this will give you a very surprising key change - an Ebmaj. Neither of those chord changes align well with blues, so it gives me a totally non-blues feel.

Another option is to move the next piece of the melody by a half-step. If you're playing in the key of C, and you find yourself singing a G note, your mind will automatically want to go to either an F note or an A. The key to this second idea is to resist this urge. Try singing an F# or an Ab while choosing a chord that enables such a melodic choice. It'll help you break out of the box a little, and lead you to a new creative space. It will do so by creating dissonances that you will be forced to resolve. This kind of tension, when properly resolved is the key to writing complex and elegant melodies that extend beyond the more customary and simplistic melodies to which you may already be accustomed.

Third idea: When I'm really struggling to break out of my ruts, I turn to classical music, listening to it for a while and trying to pick out some interesting cadences. Take, for example, the main theme for Peter in "Peter and the Wolf." (Listen to this link, the theme starts 18 seconds into it.) It starts on an Eb and plays through the main theme (for the character of Peter). Then, the second time it plays through the theme, it starts at F# (3 half-steps above). It "sounds like the same melody" but because of the way it's harmonically shifted, it creates a pleasant variation without diverging so far from the original phrase as to change the feel of the song. In other words, the two phrases played back-to-back sound more like a repeated phrase than two separate phrases.

Steve Vai wrote an entire song around this principle. It's called "Answers," and it just keeps shifting the melody up 3 half steps every time it plays through it. Have a listen:

You can use this same principle during your writing. Just start by writing what comes naturally, and when you get "stuck" or feel like you're writing something that sounds too much like your influences, then shift the melody up 3 half steps and play it a second time - see how that sounds. It doesn't have to be that particular idea, of course. There are many such examples in classical music from which to draw inspiration. Or maybe you want to use the same idea, but instead of shifting up to the major III chord, you shift down to the major VI.

Finally, Peter Gabriel has said that he often writes songs by starting with a rhythm. You can use this approach to break away from your influences by finding a rhythm that sounds strikingly different from the rest of the music you ordinarily listen to. Rather than beginning with, say, a rock-based drum beat, you can find a Latin beat, or an Indian beat. If you prefer something less exotic, you can look to hip-hop beats or country beats to try to force your creative process into a new direction.

One rather interesting example of this sort of thing is a video I saw in which Toto drummer Joe Porcaro describes how he developed his signature drum beat from the legendary hit "Rosanna." While the beat is highly unique and complex, when he breaks the various pieces out into their source material, we find that no one part of the core drum beat is all that unusual:

But, perhaps all you need is to start with a rhythm in a time signature you don't typically work with. It doesn't have to be an odd meter, it can be something very straight, but different from what you're used to hearing, such as 6/8.

Well, those are some ideas to help you break out of a creative songwriting rut. Give them a try, and let us know how it goes for you. Good luck,

- Stationary Waves