You may have heard of vision boards. They’re a way of visualizing your goals, putting them up on the wall in a graphical form, to remind yourself of what you are striving to achieve. Here are some links:
People make these things because they are inspiring and empowering and help us to maintain focus on the things we care about most and that we really want to make happen. It keeps us from being buried in the clutter and distraction of our daily lives and gives us a reason to keep on keeping on. They can clarify your thoughts about what you really want out of life and what you want to achieve, or alternatively serve as a comforting reminder of the things you really love. Here is an example of a vision board (I would credit the creator, but I couldn’t get her wordpress.com blog to open – I tried, Christinaville – sorry)
There is no right or wrong way to go about creating a vision board and they are very personal things, open to highly individual interpretation. They are really only meant to have meaning and significance to the person that creates them.
Some time ago, I happened across an article somewhere (wish I could remember where) that said that one technique for writing songs is to start with a song you like and use it as inspiration, either for its form, mood, chord structure, melody, contour, harmonic content, arrangement, instrumentation, beats, lyric subject matter, or whatever. The idea is that if you have a song in mind and can’t quite give it form in your imagination, start with another song you like that seems to match it and let that form a model for the song you are writing. That doesn’t mean to slavishly copy every aspect of the song or to copy the thing outright like a plagiarist; it means use that song as a catalyst for your own. This technique is called “shadowing” the song, if I recall correctly.
I’ve started using a similar technique to vision boards, but they’re audible and musical. These shadow sheets are just ordinary word processing documents that keep a link for the song (on YouTube, for example), plus some tablature (if it is available), the filename for any MIDI files that exist on the web for the song, a breakdown of which instruments are on the track and how it was made, some analysis of the song’s arrangement (verse, chorus, bridge structure), the number of beats per minute the song moves at and any other pictures, musical fragments or sound samples that might set the tone for the song you are writing.
Lately, I have been starting with the lyrics, so matching a set of lyrics to a song I like is pretty straight forward. Having done that, I Google for the song on one of the many video networks. I also look for any available MIDI files (which are usually terrible, but often give you the structure and chord sequence), and tablature (especially tablature that opens in Power Tab or Guitar Pro 6, which tend to be quite good), the lyrics of the song and anything else I can find out about the song’s history or song writing.
Sometimes you can happen upon a breakdown of the track on a video, as I did today. In this video, the song’s individual parts are soloed, then added to the mix, one by one. That kind of insight is invaluable. Steve Levine did some excellent analysis in his radio series “The Record Producers”, but as they are BBC property, they are not readily accessible on the web, except when they have just been broadcast and can be replayed on iPlayer.
I make a low resolution MP3 recording of the track in Audacity (a free audio editing programme), just to run it through MixMeister BPM Analyzer (an application that is free to download) to get the tempo of the track. I then throw these temporary MP3 files away.
Once I have all these resources and an analysis of which instruments were used on the track, as well as any obvious production effects or sound effects, I have a single document that can drive my own composition forward. I have the lyrics, and something that makes me feel good when I listen to it, to aim my own song toward. My songs almost never come out being anything like the song that I shadowed, but if you have the shadow sheet in front of you, I’m sure you could see the inspiration for various elements. Sometimes the only thing that sounds similar is the actual timbre of the snare drum, for example (there is an utterly amazing variety of snare and kick drum sounds possible and it still astonishes me how much these sounds influence the overall finished track).
So there you have it. Shadow sheets can guide your song writing and provide a handy, one-stop reference for inspiring structures, arrangements, sounds, instrumentation, beats, tempo, and so on. At any time, I can load up the MIDI file in Cubase and mess with it. I can go back to YouTube and listen to the inspiration song over and over again. I can figure out how to do stupid guitar tricks from the tablature. It’s all grist for the song writing mill that prevents you having to start from nothing. Like a blank canvas, there is nothing quite so intimidating, to a musician, as silent, dead air.
Like vision boards, shadow sheets simply get the party started. It’s not the only way to write a song, or even the best way, but it’s a good way and it works for me. It also helps when envisioning an entire album. For those who are more kinaesthetic, putting inspiring pictures and colours into the shadow sheet also helps, I find. Today, I clipped in a picture of a vintage Eventide Instant Phaser, for a bit of retro fun. Those images are findable on the web and as these are for personal educational use only, I don’t think anybody’s copyright is being seriously compromised.
Shadow sheets are a great way to break the song writing ice and keep your mood buoyant, while you struggle with the craft of putting your own original stamp onto some audible, musical creation. Give them a try.