A Systematic Approach To Song Writing

This lesson is an attempt to provide a structured method of song writing.

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There are many different methods that can be used when writing a song. Some people develop a hook and build the song around it, some may write lyrics then compose the music around it, others may write a chord progression then write lyrics around it..etc. The ultimate goal is to put it all together to create a song with a harmonically pleasant chord progression, a melody line that fits the progression, meaningful lyrics, appropriate lead fills and solos and an arrangement of various instrumental voicing which compliments the overall song. It may seem like a daunting task to some, but it's not as difficult as it may seem if you take a systematic approach. There is no right or wrong way to approach song writing, but for many people, the big stumbling block isWhere do I start? This is where my lesson comes in. While it is not by far the only or best way to approach song writing, I have found over the years that it works very well for me. I'm just sharing my methods as it maybe helpful to others. My method involves breaking things down into five steps or phases. The development of a chord progression and basic song structure. The development of lyrics. The development of a vocal melody/harmony lines. The development of lead fills and solos. The development of additional instrumental arrangements. 1. The development of a chord progression and basic song structure This is the initial foundation on any song. This is where a good understanding of music theory is very helpful. A solid understanding of intervallic relationships makes building chord progressions fairly easy. As we all know, certain chords resolve well into others. They just seem to just fit and sound good together. Knowing what the chords are in a given key is much more efficient when building a progression, rather than hunting and pecking or playing random chords until you stumble upon something that sounds good. For example, in the key of A Major, the intervallic relationship or triads would be;
I    ii      iii       IV       V       vi         vii*
A    Bm    C#m/Dbm     D        E     F#/Gbm    G#m/Abdim
Here's another example of the intervallic relationship in the key of D Natural Minor;
i      ii*     III     iv     v     VI        VII
Dm    Edim      F      Gm    Am    A#/Bb       C
Using this, you can build the basic structure of the song. You can develop a verse progression, a chorus progression, a bridge progression, a pre-chorus progressionetc. This becomes the foundation of your song. It doesn't matter if the song is rhythm based, riff based or arpeggio based, it's still developed around the progression. One of the benefits of developing the song around intervallic relationships is that you can transpose it into any key to adjust for the vocal range of the singer, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Now that you have a progression and basic structure of the song, you can decide on what time signature and tempo you want it played in. Will it be an up-beat song, something dark melodic and driving, a smooth jazzy swing, a slow ballad.something in between? It's really up to you. At this point, a well-written progression and structure should sound pretty good just on it's own. The chord progression should flow well, create and release tension and create a mood or feeling which will be used to develop a theme for the next step or phase, the development of lyrics. 2. The development of lyrics Lyrics without music is really just a poem. Writing lyrics without musical context has traditionally given me the hardest time, and in a sense, it has lead me into this systematic method of song writing. Now that you have a basic mood and feeling created by the chord progression and basic song structure, you need to develop a theme for your lyrics. Certain rules of thumb apply, but like any rule, it can be broken. It only makes sense that if a song is written in a major key and has a bright, up beat rhythm, you would think of a lyrical theme that matches or at least complements the feel of the progression. A lyrical theme that was dark and melodic probably would create a sense of harmonic tension if written over a bright sounding progression. But then again, that maybe the something you want to do on purpose. In the end, it's actually up to you. 3. The development of a vocal melody/harmony lines The vocal melody/harmony lines, like the lyrical theme, should fit the basic mood and feeling of the chord progression. One thing to take into consideration is the syllabic count or timing within the lyrics. There's usually a natural sense of flow in music and having odd lyrical syllable timing in relationship to the underlying beat or rhythm can disrupt that sense of flow. 4. The development of lead fills and solos Once you get to the point of having a chord progression and the basic song structure, the lyrics and lyrical melody line down, you can start working on adding in the lead fills and solos. I usually do this after laying down the vocal tracks as it lets you hear where the gaps or breaks are within the singing. What you want to avoid is masking or playing over the singing. Lead fills normally sound better when they're played in the gapsthose parts of the song in between the lyrical lines. You can play directly over the lyrics, but those are usually in unison pitch and timing wise with the singingbut I don't consider those fills.I consider that more part of the instrumental arrangements. 5. The development of additional instrumental arrangements This is the final step or phase. This is the point where you would add in any additional instrumental arrangements to add depth and dynamics to the song. Adding strings, organs, horns.etc. can really build up parts of the song and make it sound full. That wall of sound leading up to breaks or during the chorus can bring out the dynamics of the song. Well, that's it in a nutshell. I hope this was helpful. I've included a link if you're interested in listening to some of my songs that I've written using this method. Myspace . If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me.

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    purple666
    Its swings and round-abouts when it comes to my writing, i normally find a set of chords and hum a melody line to it just to push it along more often than not a line of lyric will slot itself into my mind as i hum with a natural kinda feel to it. I have books full of lyrics from years ago that still cry out to be used even if its just the odd line. Other times i will have been kicking some chords around for weeks with nothing jumping off the page then for some strange reason a line of lyric will find its way into my head next thing i'm reaching for the note pad and guitar. This happened to me in July i spent 2 weeks on vacation in Devon i took my guitar along and found a haunting set of chords i tagged it "Genesis" after the name of the cottage we where staying in, nothing came of it but i carried on kicking it around then one night in Nov i woke with those chords and half a set of words in my head. Good to compare notes on how others work.
    unclebuck5
    Good article. I'm sure that this approach may not work for everyone, but if your reading the article, you must need guidance. This seems like a good, systematic approach to writing.
    eSdaze
    Good article, personally I prefer the spontaneous approach more as well, emotions and lyrics is what drives creativity and a good song imo. But it all depends on the person, Nick Cave once told in an interview that he just goes to 'work' in his office and sits behind his desk till he gets a song done. But that removes alot of the emotion imo.
    RawkHawkRockin
    bfmv_rits wrote: I have a doubt...often ..it happens that I work on a chord structure ..and the next day when I check it out again..I can actually tell which songs I have been influenced by...regarding the tempo..the chords etc...Is that a bad thing?? I mean....it happens so unconsciously at times that u start humming a melody only to realize that its a particular song u heard ages ago ...How much influence is enough? How will I make music if everything I write or play sounds like something thats alreay been done! arrgh!!!
    I have the same "problem". It happens to me A LOT, don't feel bad, I think it's natural. If you think of it, the song I wrote sounds like a mix of Dream On and green day's 21 guns. After some time I realised the chorus to my song is the same chord progression as a song of a well known song I like, but in a kind of different way and rythm If you write something that sounds A LOT like a song you already know, don't develop on it, however if you think that it KIND OF sounds like something else but it's still your own original twist, "keep it" and do not feel bad, as it's called "Influence", it's not always a bad thing and you may see it happening on rock stars, too.
    bfmv_rits
    I have a doubt...often ..it happens that I work on a chord structure ..and the next day when I check it out again..I can actually tell which songs I have been influenced by...regarding the tempo..the chords etc...Is that a bad thing?? I mean....it happens so unconsciously at times that u start humming a melody only to realize that its a particular song u heard ages ago ...How much influence is enough? How will I make music if everything I write or play sounds like something thats alreay been done! arrgh!!!
    Afterhours
    J C wrote: Good article, however I personally think you're placing too much structure upon the song before you begin. Going in with a pre-conceived idea that there will be solo breaks and the like will make them appear, whether they fit the song properly or not. I prefer to start with an idea and let it expand. Normally when writing I use a program like Reason or Guitar Pro to write multiple parts over one section, and then develop the parts I like as the song progresses. That way the song evolves in relation to the original idea, rather than a pre-defined outline. It'll sound wanky, but I like to write for the song rather than myself, if you get what I mean. The best songs I've written are all completed in this organic type of fashion.
    Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you about not developing pre-conceived ideas about a song. These steps are not absolute....I should have stated that the fills and solos should be included if appropriate for the song. In my 3rd track, "After All".....there are no solos or fills added. You're correct...it really depends on the song. I use Sonar's Cakewalk and record tracks of multiple parts.....the lesson was provided a process to develop complete songs. In the past, I've written songs by just messing around with ideas, but what I would end up with....is a note book full of riffs, partial songs, and bits and pieces of material. I'm sure we all have many of those laying around. I've found that this method helped to produce completed songs. Anyway, I think we're on the same page here.....
    J C
    Good article, however I personally think you're placing too much structure upon the song before you begin. Going in with a pre-conceived idea that there will be solo breaks and the like will make them appear, whether they fit the song properly or not. I prefer to start with an idea and let it expand. Normally when writing I use a program like Reason or Guitar Pro to write multiple parts over one section, and then develop the parts I like as the song progresses. That way the song evolves in relation to the original idea, rather than a pre-defined outline. It'll sound wanky, but I like to write for the song rather than myself, if you get what I mean. The best songs I've written are all completed in this organic type of fashion.
    Lord_Vhailor
    Interesting article, but didn't work on me. For me, songwriting is what starts at some random point. Really. I usually come up with an idea of lyrics/melody/riffs during my classes, then write it down or try to remember and reproduce it at home, or either come up with an idea while random noodling with my guitar. It's pretty random for me, but that's the way it's... emotional. I've got lots of uncompleted lyrics or riffs/licks, which seems to be uncomfortable, but I can't just sit down and come up with a song developped that way. Each one came to life in some odd way. And it's best to try to compose with your bandmates, for example. Sometimes a touch from beyond is needed and can do some good.
    zakske
    This, I feel, is a great lesson . I like how you concentrate on the melody, structure and instrumentation more than on the lyrics, as most people do (which isn't necessarily a bad thing off course, I just dislike it that sometimes songs seem to lack in complexity because of a different focus from the start, while there's great potency in them).
    BlouPontak
    Mmm. This is very close to the approach I use. I usually only start with an idea of what the song is about (I find lyrics to be INSANELY important in songs) and then decide on the feel of the chords.
    Let It Be0o0
    Great lesson, wrote up a few little bits with this but usually it just comes to me from doing random shit just like the guy above does lol
    Norphin
    Definitely interesting. I'll try it and see what comes up. My method usually involves first figuring what kind of song and the larger details, then writing the riff, etc. with the rest of the instrumentals at the same time as the lyrics so I can more easily modify them. Though sometimes I do one faster than the other and I just try to fit them together.
    svh02
    good article but i would like to go deeper in the " The development of a vocal melody" thas what gets me done ....i dont know how to pick a key (thinkin in the vocal range) or if i should use my guitar for writing the vocal melody...some advise would be nice
    flezem
    Nice lesson! This is really how it works. Only thing if have to say anything else: use your sharps and flats well in the lesson. I know a F# 'sounds' the same as a Gb, but i'd just put a F# there. And I would replace the A#/Bb with just a Bb. Nice one tho
    ZzakK
    My band recently tried writing our first song, but we got killed after doing it ALL except getting a lyric order down. Our riff was pretty good but our singer has a kinda high pitched voice so we had to kinda punk it up a bit to make it fit but it didn't work. Might considering doing it this way instead, see if it comes together better. Thanks
    Afterhours
    svh02 wrote: good article but i would like to go deeper in the " The development of a vocal melody" thas what gets me done ....i dont know how to pick a key (thinkin in the vocal range) or if i should use my guitar for writing the vocal melody...some advise would be nice
    svh02, Thanks for the feedback. The vocal melody line has two major elements.....pitch and timing. I'm sure you have no problem humming along to a lyrical melody line of a song you're familiar with. One of the things that I do is to listen to a recorded track of the music(the progression)and "hear" different melody lines in my head. Listen to the music, does that melody line flow well? Does it fit the feeling of the music?.....if not, change it.....modify it. As for picking a key, most of the time, the vocals should be in the same key and scale as the music....unless you want have the vocals to be in a scale mode, such as Lydian,Mixolydian, Aeolian...etc. If the key is beyond the vocal range of the singer.....just transpose it to another key. I hope that was helpful.