People ask me all the time how I write my songs, where I get my inspiration from and how I get started once I have an idea. This post explains how to write a tango that sizzles of your very own. I’ve used a tango I released on my new album Forbidden Moments as an example. The song is called ‘The Scent of Her Perfume‘ and it is a dramatic and passionate tango that tells the story of a man haunted by the lingering memory of his lost love. His love’s memory is personified as her perfume which lingers tauntingly throughout his apartment.
Have a listen to the final product before we get started:
If you’re anything like me, you love a good tango… and not just the music; the dancing, the passion and all of the delicious imagery that goes with it. So there’s the answer to your first question about where the inspiration for a new song comes from. In fact, it was my evenings spent dancing under the twinkling fairy lights at the Leederville Tango Club on Friday nights that inspired me to write ‘Perfume’.
Once I have my mind set firmly on what sort of song I want to write (in this case a tango), I go hunting for other ideas to keep the inspiration flowing. This is a really important step because it helps form ideas for lyrics and to really think about what style of tango to create.
Here are two videos I found (and loved) on Youtube:
Sting’s classic hit “Roxanne” has been turned into a tango in this spectacular scene from Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’. Notice at the beginning as the scene builds intrigue all you hear is a solo violin with a soft piano accompaniment and it is more than enough to set the scene. That is another thing I love about the tango. You don’t need much to create drama!
I also liked this tango from the movie ‘The Scent of A Woman’. The movie title helped me form the idea of perfume lingering around an apartment and the Moulin Rouge clip above made me think of Paris. Have a look and think about what it reminds you of.
From there I start to visually construct the scene that my song is centred around. I started thinking of everything I associate with Paris; love, romance, satin sheets and art. On the shadow side, heartbreak, small lonely apartments, jealous lovers and dimly lit streets. This step helps me to brainstorm ideas for lyrics; the words I will use and the emotion I am trying to capture.
Then I go hunting for images on Pinterest. I am really visually oriented so when I compose I create a vivid scene in my mind which plays out in full colour and audio in my head. (If you think that’s weird, then you don’t want to be in my head when I’m dreaming about vampires, zombies and dragons!)
Here are some images I loved:
I created my own Pinterest board filled with other tango images I liked. You can see the whole board here. I love using Pinterest for this kind of image brainstorming. Its such a fantastic platform because it is completely image based and the quality and variety of images you can obtain are far better than what you can get by Googling alone.
This kind of brainstorming is really just compounding ideas for lyrics, words, emotions and helps me to solidify that visual scene in my head which I will use to write a song about. If I am not writing about my own experiences, I literally see my imaginary characters play out a make believe scene before me in full colour and audio and I just create the soundtrack behind it.
If you are not visually oriented like I am, brainstorming like this is still a really important step because you can still get a heap of ideas for lyrics. Its not ‘cheating’ either. Drawing on existing creativity is a crucial step in almost any art form.
A tidbit about tango:
Did you know that Tango originated in the late 19th Century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires and also in Uruguay and is mostly improvised? It is like jazz for your feet! It also started out as a male only dance. Doing a bit of research on the history of your topic is also a good idea because it will tell you about the common instruments used and the best composers for the genre – which you can then look up and listen to for more ideas 🙂
By now you should really know your topic. You have a good idea of the style of music, a bit about its history, have listened to a bunch of great example songs and know what ‘scene’ you’re going to be writing about. If this all seems like too much work then well… it really shouldn’t be ‘work’. I love this part of the process. Its all part of writing songs and you learn so much. The only problem I have with this step is deciding on just ONE song to pursue. I usually end up with half a dozen ideas for songs at this point and so I either scribble them down on manuscript paper or make a quick recording on my iPhone so I can revisit the ideas later.
OK, so where to from here? There are many ways to compose a song (and I use most of them) but for this example, we are starting off with lyrics. Using the words gathered from your inspiration hunting, start scribbling down a few sentences you like the sound of. I always try to keep a rhythm to the words as if they would be placed in a song.
Here is a brainstorm page for The Scent of Her Perfume. I write in pencil quite a bit and so apologies for some of the light writing that is hard to read… and yes, my handwriting is on the messy side…
As you can (hopefully) see, I centred the lyrics around the idea of nostalgia and because smell is tied to memory, writing about perfume left lingering long after the wearer has left was perfect.
My thought processes began by describing the perfume itself before moving onto personifying the perfume as the woman who wore it. I felt this gave the lyrics a much more sensual, dramatic, interesting and nostalgic twist. I love how words can be used this way. Have a play around with your lyrics and see if there is a double entendre you can make full use of. This is also what can give a song the ‘Sizzle Factor’.
A little tid-bit about me:
I claim to have a brilliant sense of smell! I’m not sure why I was bestowed with a nose of such superior ability, (and let me tell you, it can be more of a curse than a blessing) but I can smell ketones. When the body is unable to burn glucose it burns fat and this produces a chemical called ketones.
Now, ketones can only be smelled by a select few in the human population (aren’t I lucky) and people with Type 1 Diabetes quite often emit this odour. I first found out about my brilliant super-power when our dog almost died from Addison’s Disease. I was complaining to the vet about our dog’s offensive stench (which noone else could smell) and she explained what it was. So to conclude, if you think you may be suffering from Type 1 Diabetes but you aren’t sure… come and see me. Haha!
Back to the song…
Now its time to start adding some melody… and if you’re wondering why you have to do so much work before you get to the meaty part of creating the melody, I’ll explain. Music is only half of the song (if you are writing for vocals). You need lyrics too and it is often easier writing lyrics first and then putting them to music.
How I like to go about writing a melody is by using the ‘Voice Memos’ feature on my iPhone to record ideas as I play around on my piano. Here is an audio clip of me stuffing around with the tango. I was just having fun here and getting familiar with rhythms. Click the link to hear.
I like to use Avid Software Sibelius v. 7 (extremely awesome music notation software) to keep my songwriting nice and neat. I used to write all of the notes out by hand but now I am too lazy. Sibelius is great because it plays the notes back to you and you can move them around if you want.
Here was one of my drafts. You can see I have only written the first part of the song. I haven’t yet decided on a new melody for the next section (i.e. where the song will move to in order to keep things interesting) and so I’ve dumped down some chords I think might work.
TIP: This soeing written in the key or A minor. I often change the key once I have decided on a melody to ‘optimize it’ for my vocal range OR because I like the quality of another key. Each key has a different mood. D Major is the happiest sounding key for example. G minor seemed to work for this song.
Don’t forget to structure your song. You can do this as you go or to make things even easier for yourself, I recommend planning things first. Its kind of like how you would write an essay. You wouldn’t start without a plan. Its the same thing for songs. Structure gives your song areas you can create repetition (which people need in music) and lays everything out visually so you can see just how much melody you need to create.
ANOTHER TIP: Most songs only have around 16 bars of new melody. The rest of the song is just a repeat of already used melody with new lyrics (and more often than not in today’s commercial radio drivel; meaningless lyrics repeated over and over and over… and over)
For The Scent of Her Perfume, once I had the first part of the song the rest just came quickly. It doesn’t always work out this way. Some songs ‘write themselves’ in a few hours and others I have been chewing over for years. I have a zillion voice memos of song snippets and ideas and folders and folders packed full of manuscript scribble and half finished lyrics.
Sometimes when I have the urge to write but nothing is coming to mind, I go to this ‘resource library’ of scrap and pick through it until I find a bit of scribble or a riff of music I like and I go from there.
Pat Patterson (a songwriting teacher at Berkelee) once said “Feel free to go and write shit…. because its excellent fertilizer for the good stuff”. I love this motto. It’s so true.
I hope you have enjoyed this post on how to write a tango that sizzles. Let me know when you’ve finished writing your own tango so I can hear it! Oh and if you have another way you come up with inspiration to write songs please add your comment below – I’d love to hear from you.
Here’s a vid of me performing The Scent of Her Perfume at my album launch at Kulcha with tango dancers Gerard Aitken and Bridget Ombrasine.