Songwriting Tutorial: Snippet Challenge
November 16, 2015
Author: Dave CohenMusicSongwriting
Have lots of unfinished ideas? Learn how to take a short instrumental idea and finish writing your song in one day.
Over the years, I’ve written tons and tons of short musical ideas. I had been putting off turning them into real pieces until now. Inspired by my research on speed composing, I decided to make a challenge out of my problem.
The Snippet Challenge & Simple Instrumental Song Forms
In a nutshell, the challenge is to take a short instrumental idea, write one or two contrasting sections, plug them into a formula, and finish writing your song in one sitting. In the video, I demonstrate how to take the challenge by using some of my original music. Feel free to use my ideas as a starting point - but give me credit if you plan on selling your song!
What is a snippet?
A snippet is a short musical idea; whether it be a germ, cell, motif, chord change, anything unfinished and not very long! It can be as short as two notes with a distinctive rhythm, or a verse without a chorus, or any other unfinished piece of a song. In the video, I share two examples of snippets that I may expand upon for this challenge.
What’s in a snippet?
Many people are afraid of analyzing their music for fear of ruining the spirit of the music. I believe that this fear is entirely unfounded, and we only have to gain by asking ourselves questions about the components of our music. The first component we’ll look at is tempo. We have to decide if the underlying pulse of our piece is slow, medium, or fast. It’s a good idea to have a metronome on hand to figure this out. There’s a very helpful website that allows you to tap the tempo and it will tell you what the metronome marking is! http://www.all8.com/tools/bpm.htm
The second component is length. Now that we know where the pulse is, we can determine how long your idea is. Is it half of a measure? Maybe 6 bars long? Knowing this can give you an idea of how much more material you need to write and how long you’d like the piece to be.
The third component is the tonality. Is it in a major or minor key? Maybe it’s one of the other 5 modes. Maybe you can’t tell and you’ll just have to ask yourself what the mood of the piece is.
The fourth component is the chord progression. What are the chords used in the piece, if any? What chords could be used?
The final component is the rhythm. I find that identifying the rhythm is the most important part, but many find it to be elusive because of a lack of understanding of how to notate rhythms. The more you study quarter, 8th, 16th, and other note values, the easier it will be to create continuity and contrast, as we’ll see in the next part.
The first idea is a dotted 8th (therefore syncopated 16th) chord idea in the key of G. Time signature is 4/4, tempo is 70 bpm, the chords are G D | C D
The second idea is a syncopated 8th idea in the key of A minor. The time signature is 4/4, the tempo is 100 bpm, and the chords are Am x3 E7
Now that we’ve identified what’s in our snippets, let’s talk about where we can take them. To make our lives easier, we’re not going to create a custom form for the piece, we’re going to use 2 tried-and-true formulas. One being a basic ternary form (ABA) and the other being a ternary form with a bridge (ABACBA). I found the following article to be excellent at explaining these and giving examples: http://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/an-introduction-to-form-in-instrumental-music—audio-23381
Basic Ternary Form (ABA)
The basic definition of the word “ternary” is “having three parts. In the case of music, the first and third parts are usually very similar, so we’ll give them both the same letter, A. The second, or middle, part is dubbed B because it contrasts the A section in at least one of its fundamental components. This form has a “rounded-off” quality that gently brings the listener in and out of the piece with an established familiarity. It’s much like an essay that is written with an introduction paragraph, the body of the work, then concludes by saying what has been said in a new light given the information presented.
How does one complete their A section? The way to create unity in a section of music is taking advantage of repetition wherever possible. In the video, I discuss how I’d probably repeat my two bar idea at least once and begin to include subtle variations of melody. (More about variations in a future lesson!)
How does one come up with a contrasting B section? If you’ve identified the components of your A section, you’re more than halfway there. You’ll have to change at least one element to create contrast to the A section. Rhythm is a good place to start; will you keep rhythmic continuity or work entirely against it? Some ideas for rhythmic variation can come from starting with a small piece of the rhythm in the A section and developing it further than it went in the A section. (Development is a more sophisticated version of variation.) If we decide to mess with the harmony, we might first decide to quicken or slow down the harmonic rhythm. I usually recommend starting on a different chord than where you started in the A section, maybe of a different quality (for instance, going to a minor chord if you began on a major chord.)
Ternary Form with a Bridge (ABACBA)
Notice how there are three differing sections in this form. In addition to having the “rounded” characteristic of the simple ternary form, it also has a third section, which contrasts in other fundamental ways to the A and B sections. This third section is usually called a bridge. You only get it once and it’s in the middle of the song to connect the first half to the second half of the song.
Here, the B section has to flow from the A section and the C section later. Make sure that these parts connect well.
As mentioned, the C section is the second contrast of the piece. When writing the C section, it should lead nicely from A and flow smoothly into B. Once again, I urge you to read http://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/an-introduction-to-form-in-instrumental-music—audio-23381 to hear examples of how this is done.
Taking this challenge has been very helpful to me in many ways. It forces one to make musical decisions, no more putting them off for months while waiting for divine inspiration! It allows one to explore harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic variations in a non-judgemental setting. Please share your thoughts in a comment below or on the youtube video.