“What Kind Of Music Should I Write?”
I recently had a student talk to me about how he wanted to play in a band, and he wanted some advice regarding what kind of music he should start writing. I’d heard that question many times before, and if you know any eager musicians, you’ve probably heard it as well.
In my experience, I’ve found that people often ask this question for 2 reasons:
They already know what music they would love to write, but don’t believe they’re capable of doing it, so they seek an alternative.
They’re inexperienced, don’t know how to get started writing a song and are overwhelmed with the possibilities.
In the case of my student, it was both. He told me that his gut instinct was to write in a genre that he didn’t like as much, because he had an inflated vision of how difficult it would be to create the music he truly wanted to create. I had a good talk with him, got him to see things more empowering, and wanted to expand on the advice I gave him and share it with you here.
Focus On The Sounds You Enjoy, Rather Than The Genre They Belong To
Instead of asking what music you should write, ask yourself “if I could form the most amazing band in the world, what would they sound like?” The purpose is to start focusing on the sounds you enjoy in music, rather than limiting yourself to stereotypical guidelines adhering to specific genres of music. At the end of the day, each song is YOUR sandbox – you can build the castle however you like.
Here are some things you can consider:
Are the guitars distorted, or clean? Acoustic?
Is there lead guitar involved? Is it elaborate, or simple melodies?
Are there drums? Is the drummer just grooving along, or is he playing all over the kit?
What’s the tempo? Is it primarily fast, slow or mid-paced? Does it change from song to song, or within the same song?
Does your music sound happy? Sad? Angry and aggressive? Whimsical?
Are there a lot of instruments going on at once playing different things at once that complement each other, or is the band stripped down to only a few instruments?
Do you sample other sounds to create an atmosphere in your music? (i.e. birds chirping, machines clanking, rain, fire, etc.)
High singing? Low singing? Screaming?
These are just examples of questions you can ask. Remember, the point is to focus on what sounds you like hearing and to start brainstorming how you can tie those sounds together. It’s okay to fuse genres together – many of my favourite bands do, and as a result create some very unique sounds that might not have been discovered otherwise!
What if you had a clean guitar strumming a sad chord progression, accompanied with acoustic blues soloing, polyrhythmic drumming and backed by a horn section? Do those all relate to the same genre? No. Can they still be combined? You bet!
Take It One Genre At A Time
I understand that this sounds contradictory to what I you just read. At the end of the day, sometimes you just want to write a full song and get that experience. Sometimes you look at your description of your dream band and overwhelm yourself with how much is involved in creating that sound.
In this case, get familiar with each element bit by bit. For example, if you know that your dream band has distorted rhythm guitar playing rock riffs, you can get familiar with that element by writing a full rock song in the vain of bands like Foo Fighters and 3 Doors Down, or AC/DC if you’re leaning more towards classic rock. Give an honest effort, but don’t worry about writing the best song ever. No one is forcing you to perform it for 5000 people, and you can always refine this song later.
My own writing started off this way. I knew I wanted to combine many different types of metal, so I started getting familiar with one and then gradually added a few more until I created the sound I have today. I’m still refining it, and you’ll be doing the same over the course of your songwriting career.
On a side note, if you’re an experienced songwriter and are stuck in a rut, challenging yourself to write to a specific genre you’re unfamiliar with is a great way to break out of that rut.
It’s Not (Always) About Skill Level
While there are a few cases where you’ll need a certain level of musical skill and knowledge to play in a particular style (such as jazz), don’t let your current skill level on guitar stop you from trying to play the music you want to play, because you’ll be selling yourself short. There’s always a way to simplify things so that you can pull it off with the skills you have – even if you wanted to play shred metal, you can write songs where you focus on slower soloing with expressive phrasing, while you practice your speed and technique in the meantime.
The final thing for you to keep in mind is to write music that is honest with what you want to sound like, rather than trying to fit some pre-set label. If you do that and still fall into that label, it’s not a bad thing because your music is still honest. The point is, your songs are YOUR creations, and there are no rules other than the ones you set for yourself.
About The Author:
Ryan Mueller is a guitar teacher who regularly helps people fulfill their musical potential, and find their own sound through his guitar lessons in Etobicoke.