Do you want to keep developing as a musician? Get inspired!
If you're trying to compose music, write lyrics or otherwise create, I think your greatest enemy is stagnation. There is nothing worse than starting to play punk, ska or metal in your twenties and playing it the same way over and over without a shred of innovation. How do you avoid that? Expose yourself to new stimuli all the time. And get inspired.
Listen and discover...
I know quite a few people who listen to music rather casually, often in the background, or who only listen to their favourite radio station. They wait to see what they will be offered on a silver platter. I don't mean to disparage or insult anyone, but this is not the way to go. Rock'n'roll is supposed to be past its prime. To be honest, when I was seventeen, I had the same opinion. Yet, if you start to explore contemporary music just a little, you will soon discover that good-quality rock'n'roll has never died out. Moreover, in this age of streaming services, unknown artists are much easier to find. Spotify, for example, will recommend similar and perhaps completely unknown music based on what you're listening to. I believe that streaming services are one of the best things that have happened in the music world in the last decade. Check out the link to what is surely one of the best and most original bands of our time. In my opinion, Australia is simply in the lead right now. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard probably won't appeal to everyone, but try to give them a chance.
What makes your favourite song your favourite?
I think this is a crucial point. Knowing you like something is one thing, but can you say why? Is it the lyrics? Do you enjoy the mood changes in the song? Does it change the dynamics? Do you not really care about that, you just enjoy dancing to it? I'd like to start with Radiohead's songwriting techniques. I only really like a few of their songs, but those which I like I adore. The most interesting element in Radiohead's songwriting is probably their ability to switch moods, even within a single part of a song (verse, chorus, or bridge).
I would also like to talk about Nirvana. I have to mention them here if only because some people think that absolutely anyone could compose such (supposedly primitive) music. The opposite is true. Nirvana was a band of "riffers" playing a grunge offshoot of punk rock that hit the right place at the right time. If you ignore the riffs and examine them closely, you'll find that Cobain really did play mostly basic power chords on the guitar, it's just that his vocal lines weren't exactly classic. In fact, he was filling those dense but somewhat dry triplets with a melodic vocal line that seemed to add full chords to the songs. Credit goes to Novoselic and Grohl as well; one forgets how well they were able to serve it all up.
Next, I definitely have to mention Deftones—a fantastic band with a fantastic lead singer.
Tool shouldn't be forgotten either. Their skill lies mostly in riffs often played in "odd beats." Of course, they're not the only ones, a lot of artists do that. I'll try to illustrate, what I mean. I think everybody knows the 4/4 bar—one, two, three, four—and we have a complete bar. What about 3/8, though? We divide each beat in half. That is, one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and. That gives us the eight parts, but one bar has only three beats, hence: one-and-two/ one-and-two... etc.
If you really want to understand something, isolate it
That might sound a bit creepy, but the point is that if you just play bass, drums, keys or anything else from your favourite track, you might discover new things which will help you better understand the playing technique of your favourite musicians. It has worked quite well for me and it's definitely worth a try. I've attached a few examples below.
Alice in Chains—Down In a Hole (vocals)
Iggy and the Stooges—Search and Destroy (guitar)
Nirvana—About a Girl (bass guitar)
Green Day—American Idiot (drums)
Okay, I know what you're gonna say: "But this one and that one had no clue about music theory either..." I'd like to stop you right there. In all likelihood, you're not the next musical genius, and you don't even live in the easiest of times when it comes to rock music. The electric guitar has been around for quite a few decades now, and thus all the basic rock styles have probably been invented. To think that you're going to make it now with three-chord songs about love, booze and drugs, is simply comical. It never hurts to know at least the basics of fretboard orientation, scales, chords, harmonies, intervals, etc.
You can find anything you can think of on the internet. However, I'm more in favour of in-person lessons. If you can find a teacher that suits you, there's nothing better. The YouTuber you're learning from is unlikely to notice any mistakes you're making early on.
Finally, I would add that music theory does not make you a good composer. It often happens that people who overdo it with theory and technique never compose anything good. They're only good enough for the "world guitar wanking championships." That's probably the only thing I'd watch out for. If I've forgotten anything, feel free to write to me in the comments.
If you have found an error or typo in the article, please let us know by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.