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Songwriting - I’ve got a riff. What do I do with it?

Greetings dear reader,

Over the years as a private instructor at various music schools, I’ve been presented with a variety of curriculums and mission statements. Some were geared around learning songs from well established bands and artists while others would be centered around more traditional methods (sight reading, song transcription, etc.)

All of them incorporated the fundamentals regarding technique, and music theory which of course are the staples of a solid music education. While all of this is unquestionably great and necessary, I always found the creative aspects of music to be lacking in these programs. It seemed the only opportunity for a student to study songwriting was limited to a one week camp in the summer. Because of this, I’ve always tried my best to incorporate more creative exercises to help guide those with a curiosity to explore their own creativity. Not only did I feel that this was a necessary counterbalance to the more structured, traditional methods of these music schools but also to help students discover just how to apply all these theoretical, and technical elements.

The goal? For students to make their OWN music. Not just to strive to be in a cover band. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there isn’t a tremendous amount of merit to be found in learning other people’s songs. On the contrary, it’s a wonderful way to get started on learning your instrument, expand your musical tastes and ultimately, begin to find out where you want to take your musical pursuits. It’s a great way to learn new techniques in a practical way and serves as a constant source of inspiration to head back to the woodshed. In terms of practicality, it is 100% necessary.

The problem with all of this is that if the student is only learning other people’s music, they can over time develop a belief that they’re not able to come up with their own stuff because they never fully explored, and practiced it like they would their chords, scales, and songs. Creativity, though intuitive, can be a skill just like anything else in music and based on my experience, can be incredibly fulfilling in a way that’s unique to the aforementioned.

And so, I thought it might be helpful to take you into one of my private lessons where my student and I discuss music theory as it applies to songwriting.

In the video provided below, the conversation revolves around a very common question that I’ve heard over the years.

“I’ve got this riff idea that I really like but I don’t know what to do with it.”

Inspired by one of her favorite artists, my student wanted to challenge herself to write a piece starting out with a riff as opposed to the traditional chord progressions that she was used to.

As I mentioned before, the main hangup she was wrestling with was that she wasn’t sure what key she was in and thus, didn’t know where to take it.

This is where having a bit of music theory in your back pocket really comes in handy. Analyzing the key signature, scale, as well as the chords associated with it provides a sense of musical context which in turn, allows one to explore and experiment with more confidence. Though I’m a huge advocate of always trusting your instincts as writing music in my opinion, should be a deeply emotional and intuitive process, knowing the basics of diatonic harmony is like a roadmap of sorts. Something to fall back on if you ever get lost.

This lesson has been broken up into 2 parts as we go deep into the inner workings of figuring out what key my students riff is in, what chords are associated, and what specific chords in the key the riff itself outlines. It’s funny. This entire lesson incorporates everything I’ve discussed in this blog now that I think of it. Inspiration from other artists, understanding of music theory, and ultimately, how to incorporate both to express yourself with your own musical voice.

Does this sound like you by the way? Ever come up with a bunch of riffs, melodies, or chord progressions but don’t know what to do with them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Thanks for reading/watching.


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