Songwriting: Playing what you hear in your head

written by Metro Music Makers instructor Mark Grundhoefer

It can be the most frustrating experience. You’re driving your car and a melody pops in your head. You sing it over and over all the way home. You run inside and grab your instrument and start to search the for the notes. You fumble and can’t get it right. Soon you give up and just like that, you’ve forgotten the melody. The struggle keeps a lot of creative musicians from ever sharing their ideas with the world. I want to give you some tips for transferring your music from your head to your instrument. 

1) Record everything!
You’re most likely reading this on a device with that capability. Most people’s phones are filled with pictures of dogs, food and selfies, but not mine. All my phone’s memory is taken up with voice memos. Hundreds of them. I’ve had to sneak away from dinner just to get to a quiet space to sing a melody or riff into my phone. That way the idea will never be forgotten. Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night with the “Satisfaction” riff in his head. He had to get out of bed, grab a guitar, work it out and then find his portable cassette recorder before drifting back to sleep. At the very least, just grab your phone and sing!

2) Learn by ear.
Maybe you’ve been playing guitar longer than you can remember. Some people started playing piano at age three. Regardless, you’ve had another instrument with you your entire life, and no matter how much you practice guitar, piano, saxophone, you’ll never know those as well as your own voice. Try singing a melody and then playing it on your instrument. That can be tough to do. Now try playing a melody on your instrument and then repeat it with your voice. Much easier.

If you’re a guitarist, you want to be able to play what you hear with as much ease as you would singing it. The best way to learn is to sing what you’re playing in unison. Try running a scale on your guitar, like the minor pentatonic. Now try singing it in simultaneously  with your playing. With practice you’ll learn to sing along and before you know it you could even improvise a guitar solo while singing, a la George Benson. 

3) A little theory goes a long way.
You’ve probably come up with a melody that will adhere to the most basic rules of modern music: a diatonic key signature. If I come up with a melody and I decide I want it to be in the key of C major, then I can stop hunting for what notes will work. In the key of C major, the notes I’m probably looking for are CDEFGAB. It’s doubtful that a G# or a D# are going to find their way into my made-up melody. That doesn’t mean you can’t write outside the key, but at least you have a starting point for reference and can highlight the most used notes with familiar patterns and scales you’ve already learned. 

4) Learn other artists songs and riffs — by ear!
There’s no better way to practice transferring what you’re hearing to your instrument than by ditching the YouTube instructional videos and picking out the riffs and chords on your own. 

5) Work with your teacher.
All of the ideas presented above take time and practice to become natural. But don’t do it alone, at least not yet. Songwriting is an intimate experience and rarely works in a group. But let your teacher help you develop the skills necessary to go off on your own and create. Plus, it’s nice to play some of your ideas for other people! 

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