Ask Damian Erskine: Harmony and Composing

Q: How do you approach writing a harmony once a melody has been composed? And how do you make sure the harmonic progression works in the way you like it? I assume it’s not just trial and error!

A: Admittedly, I’m a newbie when it comes to real composition and yes, it had largely been trial and error. Half of my compositions have started out as chordal passages and the other half started as grooves. It’s hardest for me when the song is born out of a groove, as nothing is really dictating the harmony just yet.

If I already have a chordal passage, then it becomes a little simpler as the chordal melody tends to reveal the primary melody or motif. I will typically put that into my looper and just simply play along, keeping my ears open for interesting interactions that bear repeating, etc.. My biggest obstacle is that I don’t play piano and do all of my writing on the bass so it can be hard to really hear how a piano or guitar playing different (better) voicings will effect the way to the melody interacts with the harmony.

My basic methodology is this.. – Try and find a simple yet musical melody (as my friend Steve Jenkins wrote to me once, “Think more Soul Train and less Coltrane, especially for melodies!” Great mantra when writing (unless you’re of course going for Coltrane!)

– I try and shy away from Harmonic movement that is too static or repetitive, so I’ll often try and find other chords that fit the melody for a change of pace at one or more points in the song. This can often lead to interesting and ear catching harmonic interactions.

For example: if you have a G-/Bbchord with a D in the melody, and that chord/melody repeats every four bars in the bridge for example… try changing one of the G-/Bb’s to an F13… or an EbMajor7…. or E-7… you get the idea. – The most important thing I believe is to not be TOO critical until you’ve really heard the piece in context (with a band!). Some things that appear lame or too predictable really come to life in the hands of some good players (and when I’m actually playing BASS and not listening to a loop of myself playing the chords, melody, etc..). And conversely, something I thought was going to be just SO hip seems lifeless and falls flat.. I will have a session at my house and record it so I can go back and really sit and listen to the tune as a whole. Then and only then, do I feel like I have a grip on what is working and what is not. This is when I go back to the paper and tweak things.

For example:

– Something seem to predictable? I’ll just experiment endlessly with alternate chords or voicings to try and find a more interesting chord that suits the melody and the overall progression.

– Something seem to clustered or busy? Trim the fat.. simplify your bass line. When writing your melody, did you over notate in an attempt to get the player to phrase things a certain way? Simplify the line and let the player play! – Does it work technically but just not come to life when played? Try and take the tune and play it in as many styles as you can muster! Take a burning tune and try it as a ballad, try something with a latin flavor, jazz it up, pop it down, country-fi it!! You never know where experimentation may lead you. In fact, it’s when we experiment that we usually find something that really resonates within us personally and that’s when the good stuff comes out!

Really, it is all a matter of personal expression and that also means that everyone’s process will be slightly (or greatly) different. For me, it is a bit hunt-and-peck. I have also never even attempted to write seriously until the past year or so, so I am very new to it. I’ve always been a sideman.

The trick for me, it to learn to listen objectively! Why can I so clearly hear what needs to happen when on a session recording someone else’s music and not my own? because my ego is in the way of my ears, and THAT has been the real process for me. Getting out of my own way and letting the music dictate what needs to happen!

I’m not entirely sure if I’ve even answered your question, but I hope this was helpful in some way!

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Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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