Your experience with songs may be that you have heard songs on radio, YouTube, iTunes, or other media. You have developed preferences in what you like. You may like one style more than others. You may like only one style. You may like all or most styles of music. Now, you want to write a song or songs and maybe you have already given it a try. Maybe your song didn’t turn out like how you wanted it to. Maybe it did, but you’re not sure where to go from here.
Without hearing your song or your song idea, there is no way to evaluate it, so let’s explore songwriting from the ground up. Somewhere in the process, we will hit your level and move up from there. Perhaps there are also some blanks to fill in along the way. If you knew everything there is to know about cars and driving, except for where the brake is and what the brake does, you will run into a “problem” eventually. So it is important to find out what you know and what you don’t know and fill in the blanks of your knowledge.
To listen to a song in its entirety can be overwhelming when you start to analyze it, if you haven’t done that before. There is a lot going on at once and throughout the song. There can be singing of lyrics and the accompaniment. The words and the music are two components, but those have many sub-parts, so to speak. If we back up from what we hear and get a broader view of the song, we’ll see some things we might not have noticed.
STRUCTURE AND FORM of songs is what makes the analysis a little easier. Song structure is very much like structure in poetry but not necessarily the same. The structure of a song is also called the form. In a song you usually have either a verse or a chorus to start the song. Most songs start with a verse but the song “Killing Me Softly” starts with a chorus. Within the chorus is also the title of that song. The title is repeated within the chorus, too. You might listen to the song and count how many times “killing me softly” is repeated. That part, the title and the line of that song is often referred to as the “hook”. It has the hypnotic effect of repetition to anchor itself in your mind after you have heard it a few times. It is common in popular, country, and jazz songs that there will be a hook. We’re not looking for a formula at this point in time.
THE SONG FORM is the way it is put together in verses, choruses, bridges, and other interludes. There might be an instrumental solo or a rap section or a spoken section, but it may have none of those. That brings us to an aspect of music which may be one of the best features of music as an art. That aspect is freedom. How free we get with music can also determine our audience. Who will like the music? We don’t want to necessarily write for one group or one style, or do we? There are no rules in music but there are tendencies and norms. There are styles. In Baroque style writing there are “rules” but they are part of what makes Baroque what it is. To go outside the rules would result in altering the style of Baroque music. It is not a bad thing to know or to learn just as ballet is not a bad thing for a hiphop or jazz dancer to know, however, one may not be essential as a prerequisite to the other. There are commonalities between ballet and other dance. There are also commonalities between Baroque music and modern music. We will investigate these soon.
A song made up of music and lyrics could be viewed as a composite entity, or a composition. Again, when we look at doing the whole thing, it can feel daunting. It doesn’t have to be. If we look at the lyrics, we will see there is a message in them. The message is more often than not having to do with love between two people. Sometimes it is a subject other than love. Sometimes it is about a person, place, or thing, such as a condition, an animal, a situation or about religion. A song is almost always a message of some kind. The message is supposed to be heard by someone. Behind the message there is an intention for the listener to react or respond or feel a certain way, or in several ways. Sometimes the message is intended to make something known or change a person’s mind. Sometimes it is to make someone feel something or to make the listener know how the songwriter feels. Sometimes it is simply to entertain or to be funny. There is always an intention behind the lyrics. What does the lyricist think or feel? It may be in the lyrics or may be implied or inferred.
Lyrics connect to a melody, usually. Otherwise, it is a poem or prose. The melody is where we connect words with music. Within the melody is rhythm, varying tones at differing pitches, and varying duration of sustained tones. The melody can rhythmically resemble the spoken word, or not, depending on the lyricist’s or songwriter’s artist prerogative. There aren’t rules for melodic writing but there are tendencies. Some lines follow scale or modal patterns and may also have larger intervals or skips. Theses may be characteristic of a given style but again, there are no rules, as such. Additionally, there is nothing to stop a writer from experimenting or innovating something new to a style.
If you listen to a modern pop style song, you also here instruments in addition to the voice. The instruments used and the things they play fill out the song and may make it more interesting than if it is done a capella, which is with only the voice. A capella literally means “like a chapel” or as it would be done in a chapel having no musical instruments. Usually there will be a bass, keyboard(s), guitar(s), drums, and other instruments such as wind instruments or strings. This is the accompaniment. It is what is going along with, or accompanying, the voice singing the song.
A song starts with an idea or a concept. Some writers start with a melody and add words to it. Some start with words and “make up a melody” to the words. Some start with a feel or rhythm or a beat using drums or drums and bass. Some songwriters start with chords and then improvise a melody to the chords, not unlike jazz musicians. There is not a right way or a wrong way to write a song from the ground up. It may dependent upon your skill level with lyric writing or with music. You can collaborate with someone if you are a strong lyricist but a weak musician. You also can learn more about music and then go it alone, without needing a partner in your songwriting.
It’s a good idea to look at some song lyrics to see the form and the structure. A verse can be four lines, for example. They usually rhyme at the ends of the lines and in specific patterns. Sometimes they have near-rhymes or no rhymes. No rules. Just write.
You start with where you are and what you know and go from there. You have to be willing and able to learn what you don’t know or work with another person who already knows songwriting. At some point you may want to learn music theory or harmonic technique. There have been hit songs with only one chord. There also have been hit songs with two chords. That isn’t what made them hit songs, but it didn’t stop them from being hit songs. People loved them. Some songs have complex chord progressions with numerous chords and that approach worked for those songs. If you start from where you are, you can build on your knowledge and on your skill level. You might not want to start with trying to write a hit song. Or you may. There should be the objective of having something to say and getting the message across and received with the least resistance. The beauty of a song is what makes it irresistible. Some songs are not so pretty, but therefor can convey other emotions such as anger, fear, doubt, worry, etc.
As long as you are willing to learn as you go, the more you write, the more you will improve. If it’s something you think you can love, start. You don’t have to wait for inspiration, but inspiration helps. Get yourself inspired and go write a song.