The Building Blocks Of Good Songs

What are the parts of a song? What makes a good song? Even if you've written a few songs and heard thousands of others, often we gloss over the details which can make our writing so much more effective.

Ultimate Guitar
For this lesson, I'm going to use a song called "One Lovely Day" by Citizen Cope. Citizen Cope is great for this lesson, because he's an example of a songwriter who often follows conventional rules of songwriting, but manages to sound fresh and make really, really good music. So what makes a good song? Today's popular songs follow a repeating verse-chorus structure. Bridge optional. Everyone knows that. The verses change and take a while to remember, the chorus is what you can sing along with by the end of the first listening. "One Lovely Day" follows the format of what our ears expect out of a song. Before the lyrics start, the song opens with a bare acoustic guitar playing through the verse chord progression a couple times -- Am-D-G-E. It's a simple way to warm up the listener's ear and set expectations for what's to follow as instruments and lyrics get layered on. We look for songs to set our expectations, and then to introduce small variations on that theme. Too much variation and the song becomes over stimulating and forgettable. Too little and it seems boring and cliche. Clarence Greenwood's road weary voice comes in: "She won't give in / she won't crack a smile or a grin" The lyric matches up to one pass of the verse chord progression. This is a foundational part of songwriting. It's an effective way to help ourselves build musical ideas and keep track of where we are in the song. To clarify a little more, a single LYRIC can be defined as a pair of rhymed lines which fit over one pass of the verse progression. This song has a four chord verse progression. Most songs in our culture use four chord progressions. It's a simple expectation our culture has cultivated over time. We also like to have four beats per bar and structure our songs in four sections. We seem to be obsessed with four. Predictable structure and rhyming also help come performance time. It's easy to tell every member of a band, "Four trips through the verse progression, four passes through the chorus progression, do that twice and then hang on to the chorus for one more round at the end." Now that we have some definitions and structural expectations, back to "One Lovely Day" and figuring out what makes a good song. The next lyric of the first verse is "She won't give in / but she sure is different" Notice the first half of the lyric - "she won't give in" - is the same as the one before it. This repetition begins to lull us into a sing-songy trance. It's like settling into a comfy chair. Also, for performance purposes, it's easy to remember to say the same thing twice. The next lyric is "Well it's written in red all in her eyes / there's no disguise" And the last lyric of the verse is incomplete: "She lost so much in Tivoli..." He breaks our now firmly set expectation of a rhymed lyric and leaves us hanging before surprising us with the beginning of the chorus, which he chooses to lead in two beats before the end of the verse progression. It sounds really good and it's a good idea for playing with song structure. Before we go on to the chorus, notice that the verse followed the rule of four - four lyrics, four passes through the verse progression, four beats per bar. Lets look at the first lyric of the chorus: "Together we could go / where there ain't no more pain" If you're listening to the song, you can hear that he gets the words "Together we could" out before the downbeat of the chorus so he can sit on the wide open vowel of "go" for two bars. It's dramatic. It's expressive. The next lyric borrow from the previous lyric again: "Together we could fly / where there's time for you and I" He lulls us in by starting yet another lyric with "Together we could" "Together we could walk to the river, stand with the famished / Move to the sound of a band from Atlantis" This is the most words he puts in one place in the song, it seems to add a bit of energy before the refrain, which is: "One lovely day, one lovely day" Thus completing the rule of four once again. Four lyrics to the verse, four lyrics to the chorus. But wait, he breaks this expectation a little bit by repeating the refrain, putting a fifth lyric into the chorus before continuing on. Our ears like these little deviations. Notice they aren't huge. They're tasteful and well placed detours from the usual. The Beatles' song "Yesterday" has a 7-bar verse that messes with us in a similar way. Up to this point, we've essentially built up a little language of songwriting to where I can succinctly tell you what he does with the rest of the song. In a nutshell, he goes through another four lyric verse, and only the first two lyrics of the verse are any different. The third and fourth are the same as the first verse. After that, he goes through the chorus. Same as before. For an encore, to let us savor the hook a little more, he plays the chorus again. And then, as if it's difficult to end the song, he plays the refrain one last time, "One lovely day, one love-ly... day" The ending is almost too croonerish. I think he may have listened to a bit too much Sinatra before going into the studio that day. I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Ryan Cwynar

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