As songwriters and composers we are always looking to better our music. Constantly we will run through songs hundreds of times to get it as close to perfect as possible. Many of us musicians even go as far as believing that it is impossible to write a song to perfection and that no matter how hard you try your music is never completed. Even if we can’t make music perfect we can further our knowledge and get on the verge of perfection. Songwriting Tips and Tricks is a new series of articles that OctaveBox will be posting in order to assist aspiring songwriters and composers in their music ventures. These songwriting articles will go in depth explaining these techniques and how to apply them to your music and compositions.
Our first step in the exploration of songwriting is octaves. Octaves are probably one of the most overlooked, yet most powerful tool a songwriter could use in composing his/her music. Not only can octaves set the tone of a piece of music; it can produce the feeling of power, drive music and make it whole.
It is easy to see the power of octaves in classical music. Take Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for example. The beginning of the piece starts simply with a bassoon. This is done mostly in single octaves. The notes that sound are in the middle octaves. This produces a tranquil, mild-mannered feeling that is neither too deep or demands attention. Later in the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky uses the full range of octaves. This produces a powerful, full sound that makes a big impact on the listener.
Techniques like this have been used for centuries. These techniques have even gone as far as assigning certain octaves for different characters, most notably in operas. As a basic example, the bass would be used to portray the villain, the tenor would be the male hero, the alto will be a female villain and the soprano will be the damsel in distress.
Octave Textures for Songwriting
Here are some possible textures that can be applied to songwriting b the use of octaves:
- Bass only: deep & powerful
- Tenor only: tranquil, heroic, upbeat
- Alto only: peaceful, slightly driving
- Soprano only: demanding, distressed
- Bass and Tenor: powerful
- Bass and Soprano: distant conflict
- Tenor and Soprano: strong and heroic
After experimenting with these combinations try out some other possibilities. Get a feel for how they suit you and your music. Songwriting takes time; it’s an art. Don’t get frustrated if you keep changing your mind in favor of a different octave combination. That is part of the songwriting process.
Filling in Octaves
Another technique is filing in the octaves. This is often the most powerful and “filling” way to write a song. Often a song might feel empty or “lacking”. This is most likely because you are missing song octaves. An easy and effective way to fill in octaves is by using a keyboard instrument. The keyboard is one the most versatile instruments and can add a lot to your song or composition.
A great example in popular music is when Huey Lewis and the News teamed up with Tower of Power. With the power, drive and emotion that this amazing brass section brought to his music, it’s no wonder that Lewis’ songs turned into hits overnight. And all they did was fill in the octaves.
Octaves in Popular Music
Before introducing the advantage of octaves it is good to note that there is a notable problem with octaves in popular music today: it is lacking. There are very few artist who fully grasp the concept of octaves in music and those who have are taking it as far as they can. Others seem only to incorporate it on their hit songs – or maybe that’s why it is a hit song? However most seem to neglect it, especially amateur and aspiring musicians and artists.
For example let’s take a typical 3-piece power trio rock band. We have a guitar, a bass, drums and one of these 3 is a vocalist (most likely a baritone). This is a pretty good set up. You have the guitar playing the melody, countermelody and rhythm. The bass guitar is filling in the bass or playing the countermelody. And the vocalist is singing the melody. On the right we have provided a diagram of the range on each instrument.
Between the guitar and the bass there is a wide range of octaves. Some of the notes on the bass overlap that of the guitar, which is fine. The guitar can go higher if needed and the bass can go lower when needed. But here is where the problem lies: the guitar overlaps all of the vocal range.
Overlapping Octaves is a Problem
Typically when you overlap the rhythm section (guitar & bass in our example) with the vocals it tends to either a: “muddy” up the song; or b: take emphasis away from the melody. Granted this isn’t always the case but it is something to pay attention for.
There are several things that you can do in order to remedy this problem and all it takes is some finesse:
The easy solution is to follow the generic guidelines of each instrument:
- Bass in the lower octaves.
- Guitar in the lower octaves.
- Vocals in the higher octaves.
Get creative and try a few other techniques including:
- Bass in the lower octaves.
- Guitar in the high octaves (playing “texture”).
- Vocals in the mid to high octaves.
Here’s another songwriting solution:
- Bass in the high octaves.
- Guitar in the high octaves.
- Vocals in the mid octaves.
These are just some examples. No one solution is better than another. Some may work better for the feeling that you are after. It doesn’t even have to be the same all the way through the song. In fact, it may be better to try several different octave solutions throughout a song. Experiment with it and see what fits the your song best.