Neel Modi

Neel is a songwriter, producer, and musician. In his home studio, he writes and records his own songs, collaborations, and produces for local singer-songwriters. You can check out his musical forays at his blog.

Writer's block sitting at piano

How I get past songwriter’s block

Sometimes, the hardest part of the songwriting process is getting started. Once I’ve got an idea, I can hash out lyrics and music fairly easily. Getting past songwriter’s block usually involves coming up with a title and a hook to the song (Thank you, Nashville). More often than not, I’ll get blocked by wanting to come up with a metaphor for expressing an idea or emotion, but can’t land on the right one.

I’m a much stronger musician and composer than a lyricist. I can come up with grooves, interesting chord progressions and beats, and never attach a lyric to any of them. But I like to consider the “whole song,” so I opt to do the hard part first: some or most of the lyrics, then the music. I’ll be writing about getting past songwriter’s block in lyrical terms.

Where do my song ideas come from?

I’ve always espoused the notion that you can write a song about anything; I once wrote a song about a car accident taken from the point of the view of the brake pads of the car. It’s the development of a song that counts, drawing from your own life experiences and emotions to truly make the idea yours.

Inspiration comes from within. Ideally, we are constantly experiencing new things, seeing new things, and reading about new things. The trick to being “inspired” is to be mindful of these experiences, and finding the nuggets to turn them into songs.

Often, it’s helpful to write down in concrete terms what the idea is about. For example, I had a visceral reaction following the horrific bus attack in India in 2012, where a young woman was raped and killed, and her male friend was also violently assaulted on a bus in New Delhi. I jotted down some notes to keep me focused:

“This song is about the senselessness of the bus attack in New Dehli, and the irony of the violent reactions of the masses in India calling for capital punishment.”

Later on, I read news articles about the incident, and was moved by a quote from the deceased victim’s father who asked the media, “Don’t call her a rape victim. Please call her a brave daughter.

“This song is also about the ripple effect of victimization and the grief her family, friends and community experienced. It’s also about the fact that this young woman and her friend did nothing wrong, and their bravery shows the way forward in India.”

The idea became the song Brave Daughters. Read more

The Perfection of the Perfect Fifth

The question of the perfect fifth has been simmering in my mind for some time now. It started when we started investigating chord substitutions on Song Talk Radio in 2016. For that show, I looked at the Circle of Fifths as a great tool for making chord choices when writing a song. The Circle of Fifths describes tonal and chord centre relationships within the 12-note equal temperment scale we use in Western music. The most common cadence in songwriting or composing is a V – I (e.g. G-major to C-major in the key of C-major).

People, especially musicians, say that music is a universal language. This part of the question came to me when my older brother decided to learn how to play guitar, never having studied music in the past. He asked me if the scales we use and notes we use are based in anything scientifically true. So, think back to your math and science classes, we’re about to nerd out…

It’s all about the ratios

Let’s start with the most basic of tonal relationships: the octave. The octave to any note, as we know, is the same note name, either higher or lower. We can represent a note visually by a single frequency (nerd alert: this is a basic representation of a fundamental frequency, ignoring the harmonics that make up most sounds):

And its octave above is a note that is twice the frequency (purple line):

Notice how the black line (base octave) completes one cycle for every two cycles of the purple line (octave above) – a ratio of 1:2. The cycles intersect frequently and in a clear, simple pattern. This is why two notes, an octave apart, sound the most harmonious and pleasing. Regardless of the specific tuning standard (the vast majority of us use the A4=440 Hz standard), or what your base note is, this relative relationship holds true. Read more

image showing the circle of 5ths

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

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electric guitar, headphones, and notebook on the floor with the caption 7 ways to bring variety to your songs

7 ways to bring variety to your collection of songs

When writing a collection of songs, whether for a album release or in general, we sometimes end up playing it safe and resorting to tried and true motifs and ideas for every song.

For myself, when I become a fan of an artist or band, I like to hear a variety of songs. Sometimes the differences are obvious, like a ballad vs. a rockin’ out song. And sometimes, the variety comes in more subtle ways – ways that only looking closer reveals. Your audience will know something feels different and unique, but only the more discerning listeners will know the how and the why.

More than likely, you’re already doing some of these “7 ways” – they are by no means truly unique ideas, as my examples of popular songs will show. Some of them may not work for you, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, looking at these will spur on some more ideas. So let’s get into it.

One: Play with the structure

The typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is a go-to for many songwriters. But you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles for excellent examples of structural inventiveness. In I Feel Fine, for example, the title occurs at the end of each verse. Then there’s a “B” section that almost sounds like a bridge, until it repeats later, and then maybe you can call it the chorus. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? It’s all catchy, the title is clear, and the changes are frequent, regular, and interesting. They did something similar with A Hard Day’s Night, and we argued about it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

When you play around with structure, the parts of the songs sometimes defy conventional nomenclature. Call it a bridge or a chorus, it doesn’t matter; it’s merely semantics. Sometimes it’s more effective to use terms like “A section”, “B section”, and “tag.”

Sometimes the narrative you establish can inspire an unconventional structure. For my song, Depend on Me, I established a narrative with three distinct parts: the easy going afternoon drive, a car accident, and the aftermath. This structure inspired me to begin the song with a simple verse chorus, verse chorus, then a bridge (for the accident) and a completely new section for the aftermath. Read more

Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

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What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

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