Humming to Hit
May 4, 2011 9:46 AM   Subscribe

Songwriting - I have a little tune stuck in my head, say two bars or so. What do I do with it?

With the proliferation of cheap recording devices and cell phones that do everything, I've started trying to record the little ditties that get stuck in my head every so often. Problem is, I don't know where to go from there. How do you go from humming a line over and over to fleshed out work of music?

I play the guitar, and I can take what is in my head and play it on the guitar. I have a miniscule amount of music theory (as in, might be able to figure out what key I'm humming in given enough time). Where do I go from here?
posted by backseatpilot to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If your recording device can handle multi-tracking I would suggest starting by repeating the tune a whole bunch on one track, then listening and plunking/humming along until another impulse hits you (i.e. a vocal melody, another guitar line, some percussive backing etc.) and then layer that idea over the original tune.

Continue building in this fashion and you will have the beginnings of a song which will very likely lead to an "a-ha!" about where the song should go next, if anywhere. I have tons of these little sketches hanging around; some of them take off immediately and some never go beyond the first thought.

If you're looking to get into a DAW (digital audio workstation) I've heard Audacity is pretty decent (and free), and if you're on a Mac there's always Garageband which is fairly intuitive.

Have fun!
posted by knilstad at 10:15 AM on May 4, 2011

Best answer: 1) Record the bit you have just to make sure you don't lose it.
2) Get some chord changes for that bit. You can play and know theory so this will be a snap.
3) Start saying random syllables with the bit. Use random association to find phrases with meaning out of them. (Starting with random syllables will help you with harmonic rhythm and keep you from writing well-intentioned but jarring poetry.)

Now you have some concept of what the song will be about, or at least a starting point for lyrics. (Note: you may ask yourself "where the heck did that theme come from?" Don't worry about it, creativity is weird stuff.) Next, the hard part.

4) Hum something completely different.
5) See if you can transition from that bit to the first one.
5a) Do you like it? If not, go back to #3.
6) Apply steps 2-3 to step 5

I often get hung up here because it can be tough to get that matchup. The trick is to not sweat it too much -- you're learning to write songs (plural) not song (singular) so just go with anything that comes close.

7) Does it feel like a complete song? Plenty of songs get by with just an A/B structure, but usually there's a "bridge" strucure of type C. (ABABCAB is a pretty basic song structure).
7a) If it doesn't feel complete, go back to #4 except keeping in mind the first TWO bits you've already got.

Obviously songs can be much more complicated and be as freeform as you want etc, but when you're just starting out structure is your friend!

Last word of advice: do not be a perfectionist. Follow Ze Frank's advice and just let the ideas out as imperfectly as you can stomach. It's much better to have a completed thing that you wish were a little different than a perfect thing that's never done. The next song will be better.
posted by rouftop at 10:18 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely try what knilstad and rouftop suggest - just play the melody you have written over and over again, and noodle on your guitar, or hum a counter melody to your original melody. You might want to try repeating the melody back to back (i.e. without breaks), as well as repeating the melody with a 2-4 measure break between so you have room to sing an "answer" melody (think call and response).

In songwriting class we had an assignment that was basically this idea, but for rewriting an existing song: break the song up into a few smaller 4 measure chunks, play that chunk over and over, and experiment with that 4 measures, in the following ways:

* vary the length of each note in the phrase - hold the 1st note in the phrase super long, and sing the other notes so they fit into the rest of the 4 measures. The next time you sing, try holding the 2nd note longer than it normally is played. And so on.
* vary the time signature - if the melody you hummed is in 4/4 time, try to see if you can hum it in 3/4 time.
* vary the shape of the melody - if the melody goes up and then down, try singing a melody that goes down then up.
* vary the loudness

Once you have played the melody 20 different times in 20 different ways, move on to the next section of melody. Repeat.

Also, echoing rouftop - don't let perfectionism get in the way of finishing a song - just get the song written. If you want to change it you can, there's no rule that says a song is ever finished.

Also, record the process of writing! I have about 10 recordings of each song I've written in the last few years, each at a different place in the writing process. It's really fascinating to hear how the songs evolve. Sometimes the "final" version of the song doesn't have the original melody in it.
posted by baxter_ilion at 11:09 AM on May 4, 2011

Not to derail, but what if you do not play an instrument/know music theory or know how to play an instrument but not how to compose music? Do you just have to find someone who does or lose the idea forever?
posted by lovelygirl at 4:10 PM on May 4, 2011

well you can record the idea (I'm assumingi you can sing) into any kind of recorder.

Go to YouTube and search for your favorite songs and analyze what they're doing: what is the A section? what is the B section? is there a bridge?

And copy the structure.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:14 PM on May 4, 2011

the way you respond to that melody is an important part of your identity as an artist. discover your own sensibilities.

for me, it's often trying an idea for a chord+voicing, saying, "that's ok. but it doesn't sound quite right..." and repeating until i find something i'm happy with.
posted by victory_laser at 8:47 PM on May 4, 2011

Learning how to write music has really helped me progress from earworm to structured pieces. I only notate roughly, to sketch out and fix passages but it's been a huge help.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:57 AM on May 5, 2011

My M.O. is to just sit down with a guitar, play the part, and then try to find 'the next chord.' I'll try 'em all. A lot of times, the 'right' next chord suggests the following chord all on its own. Repeat. Now you have a chorus or verse or bridge or whatever. Decide which it is, and do the whole thing over again from a level up.
posted by troywestfield at 9:39 AM on May 5, 2011

lovelygirl - music theory is just one way of describing and communicating sounds that we find meaningful. you can still create these sounds without knowing theory - some of the greatest musicians and song writers never knew music theory, but they knew how to produce sounds that they (and others) found beautiful, or powerful.

The only place not having background in music theory holds you back is if you want an "efficient" way of communicating complex musical ideas to others (provided they too know music theory/notation) But you can effectively communicate your music to others by humming it or singing it... or playing a recording of it.

I would definitely recommend getting a recorder of some sort, though. It unburdens your memory from having to remember a melody, and it allows you to write multiple parts.
posted by baxter_ilion at 10:16 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, this is great. I use Audacity and I've started putting my little phrases into there, so I'll try variations on those and see what I come up with!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:58 AM on May 6, 2011

I don't know anything about chord progressions or what have you, but I've started to notice song structure more. Basic structures (esp ABABCB) are actually becoming a pet peeve, unless the chorus and bridge are really that good. But I'm under the impression that a lot of popular songs now rely too much on a catchy chorus, and just beat it into the ground ("Don't bore us, get to the chorus").

I love it when a song has an intro completely unrelated to a song. Or pre-verses and pre-choruses. A multi-part bridge. A coda that's not just the chorus over and over. And verses that don't just last 16 measures. A song that teases and builds up, bobs and weaves. Not instant gratification.

So break down songs you've even heard a million times, observe measures, tempo, changes in time signature (like going from 4/4 to 3/4). It can be kind of eye-opening. Oh, and of course, you could start a band, or at least go through song ideas with other musicians who can help you develop them.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:53 PM on May 6, 2011

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