How To

How to Write a Song: The Basics

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Music Gateway Team

19.3.2014

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This is the first in our series of blogs on ‘How to Write a Song’. In this series, we’ll cover how to write lyrics, music & melody, musical arrangement, and writing techniques. As it’s such a large topic, and there are so many things to consider, we thought we’d start with the basics, and briefly go through all of the things you need to think about when writing your hit song!

Music & Melody

If the rhythm is the bones of a song, the music and melody is the meat, so here’s what you need to be thinking about when writing for this.

– The Hook.

You’ve probably heard of this term before and all it really is, is a short musical phrase that repeats at key times and becomes a recurring theme. It can be a vocal or piano for example and is usually something simple and catchy that will get stuck in the listeners head.

– Rhythm.

Rhythm and melody are like space-time, they’re not separate things; you can’t have one without the other. Be aware of the rhythm in your melodies, a simple change in rhythm can completely alter the mood and meaning of a line.

– The Key.

This is important because it tells you which notes you can play without sounding ‘dissonant’ (unpleasant). You can learn to bend and break these rules when you get into jazz territory.

– Harmony.

Simply put, this is the relationship between two simultaneous melodies. A harmony can change the musical meaning of a melody in a subtle, yet effective way and is a great songwriting technique.

–  Use your ears.

There’s a great rule here, ‘if it sounds good, it’s good’. Mess about with rhythm and melodies until you find something that you like. Jamming is a great way of feeling out melodies that appeal to you.

Lyrics

Lyrics are often the main focus of songs. They are the part of the song that you remember the best, and they tend to get stuck in your head. There are more than a few reasons for this, so let’s have a look at them:

– Rhyming is a very musical technique and is great for memorable lyrics.

– Writing lyrics that mean something is a great way to write memorable lyrics. The more meaningful and emotional they are (this can be anything from sad to funny to angry) the more it has a chance of staying with a listener.

– Words can display mood. Even a single word has the power to create emotions, and choosing your words to fit the mood of your song will help glue everything together and create a song with a strong impact.

– What part of the song are you writing? Verse, chorus, bridge? Different sections have different purposes and your lyrics can reflect whether you’re telling a story in the verse, or singing the emotional theme in the chorus.

Arrangement

Arrangement is the structure of your songs in terms of:

Intro / Verse / Bridge / Chorus / Middle 8 / Outro

The function of these should be more or less self-evident. There can be some confusion about the bridge and the middle 8 but we’ll explain it in more detail now. The bridge is a transition between the verse and the chorus, hence the term ‘bridge’. The middle 8 is (usually) eight bars in the middle of the song (and tends to be after the second chorus and before the final choruses) which breaks away from the vibe of the verse and chorus.

The traditional Pop structure is as follows:

(Intro)

Verse

Chorus

Verse

Chorus

Middle 8

Chorus

Chorus

(Outro)

This is a very common structure, which can be found on most radio versions of songs. Radio likes to play songs that are between 2mins 40sec and 3mins 40sec.

The importance of the arrangement is to plan the emotional impact of the song. Where does the tension build? Where is the energy? Where is the tension released?

Understanding why this structure works and writing songs that fit it is a great way of developing your skills as a songwriter, even if writing pop doesn’t interest you! Once you’ve learnt the rules you’ll be in a much better position to bend and break them along with a whole new invaluable songwriting skill set.

Techniques

There are a huge amount of techniques that you can apply to writing songs, so many in fact that I couldn’t possibly fit them all in here. Don’t worry though, there will be a future Music Gateway blogs on song writing techniques, so keep your eyes peeled for that. For now, I’ll cover some of the more interesting and useful ones to help get you started.

– Starting point.

How you start a song can influence how you finish one, do you start with a melody, the lyrics, the rhythm, or the chords? If you’re writing songs and you always start in the same place, try starting with the thing you normally add in last and see where it takes you. More often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

– Music theory.

This is less of a technique per se, but without a doubt it is useful for coming up with ideas. Do you normally write in a minor key? Try a Phrygian mode instead! How about modulating down in the middle 8 or using a different time signature. Anything to keep it interesting and get those creative juices flowing.

– Keep a notepad or dictaphone on you at all times. I did this while I was at Music College and I can attest to my best melodies being written early in the morning when I don’t want to get out of bed. Having a Dictaphone and notepad by my bed and with me throughout the day meant that I got to keep a lot of my favourite ideas.

– Finding a balance between repetition and change. These two elements are really important in keeping interest in a track. Too much repetition and a melody / idea can become boring and too familiar. Too much change and a listener can get lost in a track and not be able to hear the ‘music’ in it. A good balance between the two captivates a listener and keeps them listening to every note.

– Set yourself little challenges or tasks. This can be very useful for pushing yourself to become a better songwriter. It’s a myth that you can only write when inspiration strikes. Treat it like a profession and something that you want to be professional in. One thing you could try is writing down a page full of words and then writing a song using only those words. Try a 30 day challenge and write one song a day. By the end of the day consider the song finished, whether you are ‘done’ with it or not. At the end of the challenge, you can finish tracks or scavenge the best material. It encourages self-discipline and I guarantee it will make you a better writer.

– Listen to the songs you love. Listening is as much a part of writing music as writing itself. There is no ‘original’ material, everyone has a favourite artist they listen to and this is where you can get your ideas from. Just use them in different ways that work for you.

There are loads of other things you can do while learning to write. The best way to learn how to do it is through trial and error (although there’s no such thing as a wrong song).

Keep writing, writing & writing and aim to write every day. Try writing at different times of the day, whether that is the middle of the night or in the morning. Have a big cup of coffee – write something. After the gym – write something. After a few drinks – write something.

 “Write drunk; edit sober.” – Ernest Hemingway

It takes time to learn the craft so be patient, keep at it and listen to your instincts because they are more often than not, right.

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