Home Forums Progress Review Songwriting in small units of 4

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    • #38027
      superblonde
      Keymaster

      I’ve gotten better at songwriting although I still notice I have a limitation which I will call the ‘4-measure pattern’ which I can’t easily break out of. Blues is in measures of 4 and these 4 units repeat with slight variation in a call-and-response then a turnaround, for a total of 12 bars. In rock and pop, the section of a song is often 16 bars, also made from phrases of 4. A song might have the overall form ABAB (verse, chorus, verse, chorus) and each of those sections has smaller internal units of 4 (aba’b’). Sarah’s Riff courses explain that most often the classic riffs have a form which can be broken down into smaller units too, like a riff that is played over a verse, will often have an abab’ form or aba’b smaller unit, and since rock is usually 4/4 then the unit is often 4 measures as well. Sarah demonstrates this so well in her course it was like a lightbulb for me, like “duh, why didn’t I see that before?”.

      When I write a song I seem to write something from my imagination that is 4 measures long. What to do in the next 4 measures? Well, repeat the first 4 measures with a slight twist, and the next 4 and so on, ultimately making the same type of groove in every section: aba’b’ or abab’. It seems really hard to break out of this pattern.

      This form goes back to the oldest classical. The music theory books I have been trying to study call this the 4 + 4 form to make a song phrase of 8 measures which is the call (classical calls it the antecedent) and to follow that with another 4 + 4 = 8 measure phrase as the response (classical calls it the consequent). All of this together creates a song section of ( (4 + 4) + (4 + 4) ) = (8 + 8) = 16 measures. The 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 is a melody or a riff that almost always goes a + b + a’ + b’. In classical, they say, (4+4)=8 makes a phrase, and (8+8)=16 makes a period (a period similar to writing a sentence in a language), and two of these periods put together 16+16=32 to form… who knows what, classical texts don’t really seem to ever explain it that far. Diagrammed here http://openmusictheory.com/period.html

      Songwriting in small units of 4

      I sent my latest song to be critiqued by a local pro jazz musician who offered to check out my next song a long time ago and the feedback was not very good. He said it sounded repetitive, that it hammered on the same chords too much, that the change from verse to chorus is “finally some relief” because the sound finally changes to something different. I think he is trying to explain that he does not like the ‘4 unit pattern’ style. He suggested that I analyze Autumn Leaves. Jazz is definitely not rock. It doesn’t groove. I think I have found out why. Jazz doesn’t like to use this 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 construction method. The Jazz sound is what I believe is called through-composed (a technical term from classical). The song or the melody in an entire section of Verse or Chorus just keeps flowing and varying and doesn’t repeat like the unit ” a ” later followed by ” a’ “. Although he didn’t explain it this way, he just said my song was not interesting (aka it was boring to him, I guess) or that it should be improved to be more interesting.

      Breaking out of the ‘4 measure box’ seems difficult because the sound is everywhere in Rock and metal and especially Blues.

      There is a new MOOC on coursera right now offered by Berklee called Arranging for Songwriters. So far it is 100% teaching on a 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 song form. No wonder it is so hard to escape this music pattern of 4.

      So I wonder when you guys write songs, are you conscious of how riffs or licks are almost always fit to a unit of 4 ? Ever purposely try to break out of this box to write something that sounds more unique and different?

      I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! ♯ ♮ ♭ ø ° Δ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
      And on the Seventh Day, Mustaine said: ∇ ⨯ E = - ∂B / ∂t ; and there was Thrash; and it had a ♭3; and it was good.

    • #38033
      superblonde
      Keymaster

      Aha! I’m going thru some of the Berklee MOOC song course material which is taught by multiple instructors there. They often start with or focus on lyrics as “the song.” Then they are continually talking about lines. Without ever explaining what a line is. “When I write a line, then I find the rhythm of the line.” Always on and on about lines and length of lines. Yet never defining or showing what a line is. Well in Berklee land, a line seems to be always 4 measures, or for a really slow song it will be 8 measures. Wonder why all current music sounds the same? Berklee teaches everything in units of 4. Who wrote the rule that everything in music is in units of 4, eh Berklee? Their song examples often repeat the same lyrics too, which I’ll show with famous blues lyrics.

      i asked her for water / she gave me gasoline
      i asked her for water / prefer a sip of wine

      So basically phrase formula like this:

      
      a b
      a b' 
      

      Thats the formula of boring mainstream music. Dont do it! lol

      I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! ♯ ♮ ♭ ø ° Δ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
      And on the Seventh Day, Mustaine said: ∇ ⨯ E = - ∂B / ∂t ; and there was Thrash; and it had a ♭3; and it was good.

    • #38039
      Igglepud
      Participant

      Things seem to resolve naturally when in four measures. I just played around on the guitar, and it doesn’t feel “right” to play only three measures. I tried in 4/4 and 3/4 with the same result. With only three bars it never feels resolved. Same results with chord progressions and melodic, one-note-at-a-time lines.

      MY ROCK IS FIERCE!!!

    • #38041
      rightonthemark
      Participant

      check out Long Cool Woman or Back in the USSR.
      while both songs lean toward the groups of four they also throw in some variation that isn’t.
      in long cool woman they occasionally throw in an extra measure to give pause before singing starts again.
      in back in the ussr they do a two measure build up to bring it back into the next verse.
      at least the two makes it even. adding just one measure drove me crazy when i was learning long cool woman for a band. and if i remember each verse is a bit different too.
      in the harder rock realm check out Outshined from soundgarden.
      the main riff is 7/4 time.
      check out song structures of some of your personal favorites.
      then try writing a song using one of those songs as your base structure.

      rock and roll ain't pretty; that's why they picked us to play it.

    • #38043
      bdickens
      Participant

      There are a lot of techniques to break the “tyrany of four” worth experimenting with.

      Odd time signatures.

      Change time signatures.

      Add a 1, 2 or 3 measure “tag” at the end of a verse or chorus.

      Odd length intro, bridge or chorus.

      Use the same 4x repeat, but construct a 3 (or 5 or 6) measure phrase.

      Lengthen a section by half (ie, 1 1/2 verse.

      I have used all of these techniques at some time or another, sometimes in combination. Often quite by accident, as I tend to write in a very “stream of consciousness” way.

      One reason the “tyrany of four” is so prevalent is that it is natural. We gravitate towards even, symmetrical patterns. They just “feel right.”

      Byron Dickens

    • #38048
      superblonde
      Keymaster

      I havent wrapped my head around different time signatures yet. Doug’s Hawk song in week 37 or so of the course is originally in 7/14 time (or something strange) because of the riff, it’s a good one to check out. “Cant Fall In Love”

      I like the idea of using odd-length or different-length sections but previously it’s gotten me too confused when writing, lol. Probably because I am writing drum patterns and bass too, I’m getting better at it slowly.

      The very simple step forward I am working on now is purposely trying to make my chord progressions longer, and then also have more song sections with differing chords (prechorus and alt. chorus). Rather than have a chord progression that almost always ends up being 4 bars, even if it has alternate endings (within the | : repeats : | ), it feels like a box which needs to be escaped. The song I am working on now has a chord progression of 8 measure length, which might not seem like such a big deal, but it took effort to avoid my typical 4-measure pattern. It also sounded strange at first. After a couple weeks working on it, now I’m more used to the sound.

      Just as an example. My song’s chords go like this, for the verse.

      
      | 6- | 3- | 4  | 1 2- | 
      | 1  | 5  | 5  | 1    |
      

      A super simple song in the 4-measure pattern would go like,

      
      | 1 | 4 | 1 | 5 | 
      | 1 | 4 | 6 5 | 1 |
      

      I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! ♯ ♮ ♭ ø ° Δ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
      And on the Seventh Day, Mustaine said: ∇ ⨯ E = - ∂B / ∂t ; and there was Thrash; and it had a ♭3; and it was good.

    • #38056
      Igglepud
      Participant

      Even when I change time signatures, I still fall into four measure patterns. Outshined does this even with its 7/4. There is no escape.

      MY ROCK IS FIERCE!!!

    • #38057
      Igglepud
      Participant

      @Superblonde

      8÷2=4

      MY ROCK IS FIERCE!!!

    • #38075
      superblonde
      Keymaster

      The difference is if the first 4 bars does or does not end with a cadence then followed by repeating the 1st bar. In the diagram the cadence is marked with HC. Also is the 1st bar different than the 5th bar. Seems like a very basic difference but music theory literally calls it “the basic phrase” and anything outside that pattern is no longer a basic phrase (I think, it is very hard to nail these things down, since theory books never explain). There’s a fundamental difference in how it sounds. 4+4 sounds totally pop, and annoying to me, like they say in fiction writing or poetry, “don’t beat your readers over the head with a repetitive message.” So in my example of 8 bars, it is not audibly divisible by 2 as easily, into 4+4, because there is no cadence at the 4th bar only at the 8th bar. Does that make sense?

      I was pondering this recently and came up with this analogy:

      . Pop is like writing in simple sentences. Everything is short. That is simple. It is basic. Everyone can understand it. It is probably easier to remember. Writing simply can be good. Writing in short sentences may be easier. Look how annoying it gets to read though. It would be annoying to listen to. Listening to 4 minutes of this would suck.

      . Avoiding the 4-measure pattern for a longer chord progression is like writing in compound sentences where the musical phrase can be longer and more complex, also allowing for subtle meaning, if there are lots of phrases added before the period of the sentence completes the idea (and even then it can have more phrases inside).

      I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! ♯ ♮ ♭ ø ° Δ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
      And on the Seventh Day, Mustaine said: ∇ ⨯ E = - ∂B / ∂t ; and there was Thrash; and it had a ♭3; and it was good.

    • #38077
      superblonde
      Keymaster

      There is one simple time signature change I want to try in my next song and that is to add a single measure of 2/4 (I think that is what I mean). Like an extra half bar at the end of a verse going into a chorus. So the length in 4/4 time would be 8.5 bars or 8 bars of 4/4 plus one bar of 2/4. This is something I think we hear often in good hard rock which sounds much cooler since it breaks out of the 4-measure pattern, but metronomes and drum practice loops don’t ever do this, so it is not part of typical practice. But with Guitar Pro it is dead easy to add in, as long as I know how to write it.

      I'm an intermediate student of Metal Method. I play seitannic heavy metal. All Kale Seitan! ♯ ♮ ♭ ø ° Δ ♩ ♪ ♫ ♬
      And on the Seventh Day, Mustaine said: ∇ ⨯ E = - ∂B / ∂t ; and there was Thrash; and it had a ♭3; and it was good.

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