A Different Approach to Writing Music

A Copy of a Copy?

A friend once told me that all interesting music has already been written and no new ideas exist anymore.

…that everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.

But I told him that many unknown ways of writing music are yet to be found and explored.

And that actually, we don’t even need to go there. Because music theory as we know it today is enough to offer uncommon ways to approach our music compositions.

A Simple Formula

Popular music tends to follow simple formulas, and one of them is 1.) choosing key signature and 2.) for the most part, sticking to it.

Music Notation tells us that songs are either in a Major or a Minor Key.

The Major and the Minor Keys are, of course, associated by default, with the Major and the Minor scales.

So, in other words, Western music notation is biased, by design, towards the Major and the Minor scales.

The Circle of Fifths? The same thing.

So, in short, most forms of popular music are usually governed by two things:

  1. They rely on the Major / Minor scale;
  2. They remain in the same Key Signature (and when going outside of it, the change is always very predictable);

What alternatives can music theory offer to us?

Music Modes

The Major and the Minor scales actually have hidden secrets within them: their Modes (also known as the Greek Modes).

Instead of using the same old I-V-vi-IV chord progression, if we start emphasizing certain other chords, we can unlock those modes, and, with them, whole new musical universes with their own unique feelings.

The modes for the Major / Minor scales are:

  • Ionian (the same as the Major scale)
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian (the same as the Minor scale)
  • Locrian

And please note: the modes aren’t just some irrelevant theoretical curiosity!

Some artists have built their entire careers around certain modes:

Two well-known guitar virtuosos are synonymous with the Lydian mode; other with the Dorian mode; and some others that hate donuts, with the Harmonic Minor and Phrygian Major mode.

Hold on, what’s Phrygian Major?

I’m glad you’re asked:

Phrygian Major is a mode of the Harmonic Minor scale.

The modes of the Melodic Minor scale are:

  • Melodic Minor,
  • Dorian b2,
  • Lydian Augmented,
  • Lydian Dominant,
  • Mixolydian b6,
  • Locrian #2,
  • Altered;

And the modes of the Harmonic Minor scale are:

  • Harmonic Minor,
  • Locrian 6,
  • Ionian #5,
  • Dorian #4,
  • Phrygian Major,
  • Lydian #2,
  • Ultralocrian;

(keep reading to hear some of these modes in action)

Anyway… pretty crazy how many opportunities we throw away by just focusing on writing stuff that feels intuitive, right?

So maybe, we should spend some time exploring what’s not-so-intuitive, so that, in time, our intuition expands and grows and becomes all-encompassing! 🙂

Okay, but wait, there’s more!

Key Signatures are a Human Construct

By exploring the music modes, we deconstruct half of the formula, but we can go even further.

My suggestion:

Instead of using a Key Signature as a tonal anchor, start flowing freely between Key Signatures as you will.

There are two approaches to this concept, that I know of:

Approach #1 – Hijacking a Common Chord Progression

In normal circumstances, if you were in the key of C minor, you could create a simple chord progression such as this:

Cm – Gm – Fm – Ab

It’s very tempting to use the C Minor scale (or Aeolian mode, same thing) to play over this chord progression.

But now, I want to introduce you to a new way of thinking about this.

Each chord in the progression presents you with an opportunity to change the scale/mode you’re playing.

So you can start with the Cm chord playing C Aeolian as you would, but then you could…

  • Cm – C Aeolian
  • Gm – G Melodic Minor
  • Fm – F Aeolian
  • Ab – Ab Ionian

Four completely different scales for just one simple chord progression. Amazing how little regard for Key Signatures this approach would have, huh?

If you want to listen to an extreme example of this approach, read my analysis of the participation of Nicholas Llerandi in the 2013 Mayones Duncan Solo Contest.

Approach #2 – Creating an Uncommon Chord Progression

Another approach to creating chord progressions is this:

Choosing mode X, and then proceed to find mode Yin a completely unrelated Key Signature.

We only have to concern ourselves with one question: does the second mode share any common notes with the first mode?

As an example, these two modes aren’t related at all, but they have five notes in common!

  • C Aeolian: C D Eb F G Ab Bb
  • C# Lydian Dominant: C# D# F G G# A# B

So you can create a repeating chord progression between the Cm and C#7 chords and play over them with the C Aeolian and C# Lydian Dominant modes respectively, using the shared notes as connecting points.

This is exactly what I do in the video below.

Watch All this in Practice:

In trying to prove my friend wrong, I want to popularize different ways of approaching music writing. The video below is my attempt to do so, and I’d like you to watch it and tell me what you think 🙂

Thank you so much! Talk to you later.