Aleks Sever’s 10 Top Tips for Composing Your Own Music

Croatian-born guitarist and composer Aleks Sever is a virtuoso rock, funk, jazz and hip-hop player who grew up in Germany. Her latest album, Extravagant, was released in November. Here, she shares 10 tips for composing better songs.

Aleks Sever

Interview Joe Supple

1. Improvise
Improvising feels like the best way to start. Trying a lot of different patterns, grooves, tempos, and exploring with no judgement. Playing different phrases, licks and styles with no expectations or self-criticism. Self-judgement will block the creative process by creating pressure. Staying out of your head and avoiding editing your ideas too soon are the keys when starting to write. The freer and more fearless you are about sounding bad, the faster you’ll find that special phrase, groove or melody that opens up the path to the song. It can be a small moment or a single note or a pattern that makes it clear where you’re going.

2. Focus on rhythm
A strong rhythm part seems to be one of the most important elements. Working and reacting to a drum loop can help define the rhythm part. Play around the back beat, upbeats and explore the spaces. Try playing in different tempos and keys. Some keys on the guitar, for instance, feel more natural than others, which can make a big difference in how the groove feels. For example, using keys with some open strings can help the creative flow more than those with a lot of barre chords. The core rhythm part will determine the whole character of the song, so it should feel confident and relaxed.

It can be whole chord voicings, or simpler three-note shapes, or even a bassline/chord rhythm combination. Sometimes, using unique combinations – such as modal, jazz-based chord voicings, played over a funk-style drum and bass groove, or a blues progression over a funk/rock groove – can sound more unique. These ideas can be an effective way of filling out the sections for the rest of the song, while keeping the feel natural and organic.

Aleks Sever
3. Create an arrangement
After finding the groove and some section ideas for the song, write out an arrangement. It will be your road map. Seeing the song written out on paper helps the focus, and the best structure becomes clearer. For example, melodies usually have a verse, B-section and chorus, and the solos also have a structure, with a beginning, middle (development) and ending (climax). You can also use a bridge section as a breakdown or transition. With a road map, it’s more obvious where the tension has to build and release, and where the song should peak in intensity. An arrangement can help avoid becoming scattered, and keeps your thinking organised.

4. Listen
Listening to other musicians and instruments is an important part of the process. It can be a great method to find rhythm patterns, chords and melody ideas. I get a lot of melody ideas from horn players, for example, for phrasing, space between notes and the different intervals they play. I listen to drums for basic groove ideas, and bass for both melody and rhythm ideas. Keyboard players are a great source for ideas, because they combine interesting chords with rhythms. R&B singers and hip-hop artists can also be inspiring. I love the intensity. Rap artists, for example, can have an interesting way of phrasing rhythms, by putting the emphasis on odd beats, stretching the phrases out, etc. You can get a lot of cool songwriting ideas by opening yourself up to other musicians.

Aleks Sever
5. Use effects and explore different sounds
Experimenting with different sounds using effects such as pitch change, compression, different kinds of delays and reverb settings, etc, can inspire a lot of ideas. Each effects pedal has its own character, and some are magical in the way they can make a part stand out in a track. There’s so many possibilities, because each effect gives the music a different feeling, and can enhance each part to make the whole song richer and more powerful. If you like the sound you’re making, it’s more motivating, and can start off new writing approaches – just from one particular effect.

6. Work on more songs at the same time
Working on two or three songs at the same time feels easier. The process is lighter. Creativity can be blocked very fast by obsessing over one detail, so before that happens with a song you can switch to another one and keep going. Also, your mood might not be right for the song that you are writing at that moment, and it’s good to have a couple of other options that you might feel more inspired to work on. Taking breaks and not getting impatient seems sometimes to be the hardest part about composing. It’s a process to find a balance. Knowing when to obsess and when to let go and come back to it with a fresh approach keeps it fun and lets it breathe.

7. Develop new practice routines
Try establishing warm-up and practice routines that you do every day: arpeggios, scales, runs, licks, chord progressions. Also, always learning new practice routines, adding to them or changing things up makes you aware of new writing options. You develop new tools that are useful in the creative process.

Aleks Sever
8. Make a statement
Have a strong vision when you write. What is the song about? Expressing raw emotions and knowing the message behind the song opens up the writing process. Thinking in terms of a story rather than licks, and trying to find the uniqueness in each song seems to build the music in a truthful way.

9. Push your limits
Trying to become a better player every time you’re composing music is inspiring. Being experimental and exploring new elements to your playing feels challenging, but keeps the music alive. Avoid staying in your comfort zone and getting lazy. Instead, always reaching for something exciting and new will open up doors. Seeing each song as a new possibility to grow as a musician takes the weight off the writing and puts the focus more on yourself, which pushes you more.

10. Commit
Commit to finishing a song, no matter what. Having a goal and not letting go is the essence of discipline. It’s a learning process and completing it until the end, whether it’s a ‘bad’ song or a ‘good’ song, is important. Often, a ‘failure’ leads to breaking old habits and trying new things, which leads to success when you’re working on the next song.

Aleks Sever’s new album ‘Extravagant’ is available now:


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