Adding New Songwriting Tricks
Over the summer I’ve been making a concerted effort to introduce a new element into my writing. I’ve been fascinated by Philip Glass ever since hearing works like Einstein on the Beach and Music In Similar Motion on a TV documentary in the late 80’s. One of his distinctive approaches is his use of additive structures. Like playing a 5 note repeating phrase then adding a 6 note phrase – like this.
Adapting an approach like this to a pop music isn’t easy. But I remembered when I first picked up the minor 4 chord (iv) from studying the Beatles I just kept trying to fit it into every song I wrote till it became just another option along with all the other chords I know.
Additive pieces tend to be linear which doesn’t make for good pop songs So for these two songs I tried to apply the concept in slightly different ways.
On Different I had one chord sequence
A F Fm C#m
that runs throughout the entire piece. The additive element was to slowly overlay a note at a time so that initially you can’t tell what the sequence is, allowing your brain to fit in the missing notes (wrongly) so that when you hear the next sequence you’re tricked into thinking it’s a new sequence
the notes are as follow
main riff (guitar and bass) A F F C#
wake up sleepy head C# C C C #
counting part A A Ab G#
some of the missing notes are filled in by the melody.
I did a similar thing with the rhythm on the counting section. By pulling out the drums and accenting every third beat you think you’re hearing a time signature/tempo change but you’re not.
For Fresh Meat I started out with chords that change with the addition of another note. So the guitar opens with a G5 chord (G D) but when the bass plays an Eb underneath the chord becomes an Ebmaj7 (Eb – G – Bb – D). Next a F5 chord becomes a Dm7 with a D underpinning it. As the sequence repeats (Her brother spends the hours…) the bass and guitar reverse roles. The bass plays a G (implying a Gm chord) and the guitar adds an Eb5 (making an Eb/G). This switching roles occurs in the same way in the chorus.
The most encouraging thing happened writing the bridge where I spontaneously played around with the timing of the D/F#, G, Gmaj7/B, Cmaj7 progression. Without planning I naturally added two beats to each repeat. So the first line (an ivory tower..) lasts 3 bars, the second (a cold mausoleum…) lasts 3 and 1/2 and the third (a place to look down from…) 4 bars.
Different was inspired by A Friend Like Henry a book about an autistic boy, who asked his mum, “who is ‘different’. Is it me or you?”. Waking parents up in the middle of the night with the offer of counting the stars also appears in the book. I decided to do the counting in the middle because I know someone who is autistic who loves Knee Play 5 from Einstein On The Beach which consists, in part, of people counting. Autistic people can struggle to cope because of sensory overload so I decided to reflect that by having 4 different drum loops and many overlapping vocals saying slightly different things all happening at the same time.
Fresh Meat was more a stream on conciousness thing. “There goes the wreck of a fine man” was a line I adapted from Stephen King‘s Salem’s Lot and “Sticking two bruised fingers up at the world” came from a magazine article. The original first verse about prostitutes was too cliched and preachy so it became the second verse and I changed out the offending lines with new ones that had the same rhymes or vowel sounds.
You can download free demos of the songs here
If you want to know more about Phillip Glass I’d highly recommend Glass – A Portrait Of Philip In Twelve Parts by Scott Hicks.