Songwriting In Any Style. Part 1

If you liked my theory lessons, you'll really love these.

Ultimate Guitar
For these lessons I assume you have a basic understanding of music theory. If you don't, try out my lessons "pure theory." Vocabulary: Music: Organized sound Composition: Work of music Song: Composition involving vocals (notice the relationship between the words "song" and "sing") Tempo: Speed of music Rhythm: Area of music analysis and composition relating to time and it's interactions with other elements such as volume Pulse: Repetitive rhythmic volume change (ex: 4 quarter notes, the loudest are the 2nd and 4th, you can hear and feel that "pulse" as if it were a heartbeat) Accent: Note played loud/hard Legato: Smooth, each note flowing into the next Staccato: Each note played distinctively from the rest Beat: Repetitive description of rhythm, pulse, volume, dynamics, and/or theme through use of instruments that don't create "notes" (such as a drum set or other percussion) Melody/Tune: Most easily described as a phrase or collection of musical notes played in succession Harmony: Analysis/composition concerning chords Chord: 3 or more notes played at the same time Chord Progression: Series of chords Counterpoint: Analysis/composition concerning the interactions of different melodies heard simultaneously Polyphonic composition: "Many voices;" composition resulting from counterpoint Homophonic composition: "Same sound;" composition resulting from harmony Monophonic composition: "One sound;" composition resulting from 1 voice (instrument) Voice leading: Arrangement of "voices" and their interactions Voices: Different entities used to create sound in composition (saxophone, violin, vocals, etc.) There are many ways in which one can go about composing, but I'm going to offer a simple step by step process for now: Step 1: Inspiration Step 2: Purpose Step 3: Theme Step 4: Development Step 5: Structure Step 6: Review Inspiration: A lot of people go out of their way to be inspired; they often don't understand that the very reason one should make music is because they are inspired, not the other way around. If you have no inspiration, don't try to write music, because it won't be an HONEST sound, it'll be a sound you forced. Don't go travelling around the world for inspiration for music making. Instead, travel around the world just for the sake of doing it, just because it'll be fun and you want to do it and you want to make discoveries about yourself and the world around you. Then, once you're done travelling, you'll want to write music that expresses your feelings about the experience. If you're not inspired, you don't have writer's block...The real problem is that you aren't living a very fulfilling life. And if you aren't inspired, why do you want to write music so badly anyway? Purpose: Make sure you understand why you're making this music and what you want the music to do. Example: "I'm writing this song because I want to communicate the emptiness I feel from my lover leaving me and I want the music to sound isolated and hollow." Just like inspiration, don't go looking for purpose. If you don't have a purpose for making music, don't make music! There's just no purpose without...Purpose...And be HONEST with yourself. If your real purpose is to write a catchy hit that'll make you a lot of money, don't hide that from yourself. If that truly is your goal, there's a certain way of going about it and you aren't going to achieve it if you aren't honest about the goal. Any purpose is valid. "I want to write a silly song about flatulence to make myself laugh." "I want to write that song to make OTHER people laugh." "I want to write a song for my girlfriend on Valentine's Day." "I want to express the feeling of unity and harmony with the universe and all of existence." "I want to explain that acid trip that was just too crazy for words." Theme: The theme is usually the lead melody (vocals, guitar, saxophone, etc.), but in modern music it can be anything from a guitar riff to a funky bassline. In rap music, the theme is often a beat, or a repeated lyrical phrase. The theme should express your inspiration and fulfill your purpose. The theme in The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" is the vocal melody, during the line "Ah, look at all the lonely people." The theme of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" is the catchy guitar riff. Think of the theme as the first part of the song that is actually written...A tune or idea that you can develop and write the whole song based around. This is the part where you may notice true writer's block, and that can be frustrating. The best way to handle it is to just plow right through: KEEP TRYING. You could be working on a dozen themes at once that all sound horrible to you and then weeks later just one of them has grown on you and you have a direction to take it in. Just keep working and keep trying until it works. Development: This is the part where you experiment with the theme. See what works, what doesn't work, what fulfills your purpose, what expresses your inspiration, what's too much, what's too little, etc. Try playing your theme backwards! Try writing another theme that disagrees with the first (like in The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the verse and chorus sound like almost opposite worlds). Try adding lots of variations to your theme (If your theme is the melody C, D, E, try playing C, D, F for one of the measures for a feeling of suspense or tension, then relieve that by playing the original melody again). Experiment, and don't through any ideas out until you've started working on the structure. Structure: Figure out how everything works rhythmically, and when exactly you should use the variations you came up with in your development. Make sure you understand how the theme works rhythmically in each measure; understand the pulse, time signature, etc. Also take into consideration the larger structure of the overall composition (for example, the pop song structure of intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro). You may discover during this step that you've only written material for a chunk of the song (say, the verse) and that you need to start this process all over to write other chunks (say, the chorus). This can be avoided in songs that are very melodic and very well-developed; in the development stage you could have written the lead melody for the entire song, leading smoothly from verse to chorus and so on, but this isn't possible all the time because sometimes your purpose or inspiration require you to write opposing themes for each section of the song. This step is where your individual style starts to shine through. Review: Think carefully about your purpose and inspiration and mess around with your song. A minimalist composer may get to this step and realize that the rhythm section to the song has too many variations, and that the theme isn't properly expressed because it's muddied up by all the crazy things the voices around it are doing. A metalhead, on the other hand, may decide that the beat wasn't loud enough, or that there should be some insane shredding over the breakdown. Ultimately, it all depends on the inspiration, purpose, and style.

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice article, but I don't think the inspiration-thing works that way for everyone. A lot of artists just work on it, even if they're not inspired, there's always a chance something beautiful will come out of it. For some it is a job.
    Kylianvb, the point I was trying to make with inspiration/purpose is that even if you're purpose is that you need to write a jingle for a commercial, your inspiration is the commercial. Or if you're writing the score to a movie, the movie is your inspiration. There's always inspiration somewhere, even if it isn't deep or emotional; I don't think anybody should force themselves to write music without already having an idea of "why." JB95, powerchords are not technically "chords," but its an area of debate somewhat among musicians.
    Imagine inspiration and purpose as one entity, I guess I kind of screwed up by separating them. Point is, if you don't have a reason to make music (ANY reason, be it emotional, intellectual, financial, or anything), don't sit around trying for nothing. That's really not the important stuff, from "Theme" onward is what really matters. In following lessons I plan to be much more hands-on; I'll discuss how harmony, counterpoint, exotic scales, different grooves, and other elements factor into songwriting.
    Paraffinity, I think you'd like the rest of the article, give it a try.
    I have to read it more carefully sometime, but with a quick glance this seems pretty cool. Maybe it's not perfect, but it has a valid point and it's somehow inspiring, at least to me. Good job anyway.
    For me, inspiration come often with one catchy phrase. Then I try to figure out a riff which could fit in it, and then I work out the lyrics while playing the melody forward and backward. It's just my way to find inspiration
    great article.... i think lack of great bands now come from first two points..... in London, it is very hard to look for a band members cause literaly everybody just wants eiter 1. just jam or 2. play like their favourite band (there are very few exceptions)..... there is NO PURPOSE for them, its just something they like doin but dont have anything to say or are forced to play in certain style and it sounds recycled and forced
    @gateway01, if you have no inspiration or purpose for music making, you should probably be doing more with yourself, no offense :/ I don't ever go on roadtrips, get high, or fall in love for inspiration, I do those things because they fill my life with interest, and then songs, paintings, stories, poems, etc. happen to come as byproducts of those adventures. There's nothing wrong with you if you're content not being adventurous, I just don't think you'll make for a great songwriter if that's the case. I mean if you're reading this lesson in the first place you must have some trouble songwriting, and I think we just diagnosed the problem. That's just my view on the subject and if you don't agree don't let my words get you down, if you fullheartedly disagree then just forget everything I say.
    "Best" is subjective. I'm not giving lessons on how to write hit singles, I'm trying to give lessons on how to express yourself and feel satisfied doing so.
    Overall, very good. I also have to disagree with the inspiration bit - I've written both ways, and what I'm writing now (with forced inspiration) is easily the best I've ever written.
    Chord: 3 or more notes played at the same time
    It can't be just 2 notes? As in powerchords and variations of them. I'm just wondering. Nice article by the way!
    I think a power chord is technically just an interval. Cool article, disagree with the inspiration part however.
    Part 2 is up now, dealing with melody writing and melodic variation/development. I think you'll all like it much more than this one!
    You make some very interesting points, but I think you are hung up on this idea that one should not compose without a "purpose". What about pure sound, which is emotional but value-free? Say I come up with a little meaningless (but good-sounding) melody while aimlessly fooling around at my instrument, may I not simply ascribe it a meaning post-hoc, sometime later on when I do have an idea to express and find the piece I wrote expresses it well? In this case I would have ignored your advice and written without first having been inspired by some purpose, and yet the result is the same: I have a piece of music which communicates what I set out to communicate. Wherefore, then, the advice at all? Other than that, a very well written lesson, one of the best I've seen on here. Though I disagree with some conclusions, I appreciate the perceptiveness with which those conclusions have been reached. I don't know how old you are, but something in your tone speaks to a peculiar innate wisdom that is quite rare on this site, and especially in some of these lessons.