How to Write Songs

Writing songs is a craft that takes some time to learn. It’s also not a narrowly defined craft. There are as many ways to write songs as there are songwriters. One thing that will always come in handy is a little knowledge of music theory. Read this basic primer and see if you don’t write better songs.

There are 12 notes in music. Seven whole notes (going from A to G,) and five sharps (or flats.) The trick is to remember there are no sharps or flats between B and C, and also between E and F.

After learning that, knowing how to build out the major scale is necessary. What does all this have to do with writing songs? In the end, it will give you easy access to many chords, which can be thought of as colors, for your songs. Because this comes right out of a key, your chords will have connections, i.e., similar notes. They will sound good together.

The major scale is built by counting half-steps (one fret each on guitar, or all notes, including the black keys on the piano.) Use this pattern


and count each from your starting point. So if you start with A, you then count up two half-steps and B is your second note in the scale.

From B you count two again, and since there is no sharp or flat between B and C, our two half-steps takes us to C#, the third note in the scale of A. Next is one step from C# to D, etc. After the final single step, your eighth note will be the same as the first. If not, you’ve probably gotten off track somewhere.

This information allows you to build out any scale (consider it a key signature that you’re going to write in,) and we can get to the more useful progression theory.

Each of the seven different notes in the scale can be said to stand for a particular chord or family of chords. You normally see this written with roman numerals. Here it is in A.

A B C# D E F# G#

Now you simply learn which types of chords go best with each step.

The I chord corresponds to major or major7 chords. You could extend that to more obscure major 9’s or whatever.

The II chord corresponds to a minor or minor 7th chord. Again, this could be drawn out if you’re doing jazz or something.
The III chord goes with a minor chord. The IV chord goes with a major or dominant. The V chord goes with dominant chords best, but also major. The VI chord goes with minor, and the VII chord goes with major or sometimes diminished.

Now to use this in writing a song. Start with a key center, like our example in A. Think of the feel you’re wanting to conveyâÂ?¦in broad terms, like uplifting and happy, or down and sad. Try changing between two chords in the key, for example a Bm7 to the V7, which in the key of A is E7.

Then maybe go to the AâÂ?¦get wild and do a Bm9 instead of the Bm7, and change the E7 to just E, and make the A an Amaj7. That’s jazz folks.

The point is you now have all these colors and tones to use in communicating your feelings. The actual rhythm and beat of the song is up to you. Try a rhythm you’re familiar with. Maybe it will help if you begin to vocalize a melody over the top of your chord changes. Sometimes that will lead you to the next tone and you can quickly find a corresponding chord.

Many genres of music have standard progressions they use, such as the I-IV-V in blues and country and pop. You may find it easy to write “in the pocket” with these types of progressions.

Often when writing rock music I will write all the guitar, and then return to write the vocals. When writing my acoustic material it helps to begin singing and writing the lyrics as I’m building my progressions. The variations and ways songwriters write are numerous.

Several times, for friends, I have put music to their poetry or lyrics. This is a bit trickier and I don’t recommend this method for a novice. Fitting the lyric in, I find I usually have to heavily edit their writings to make it cohesive. And things like melodies for the chorus have to be selected, etc. I warn them it won’t come out just as they wrote it.

Use the key center and get two or three chords sounding good together. Then pull a line out of thin air; hopefully you have a feeling and an idea what you want the song to be about. Sing this melody over your chords and play your progression a few times. Then using another chord from the key center, begin a second progression with two or three more chords. Fit a second stanza of lyrics over those. These should flow into each other unless you specifically want a jarring effect.

You should be able to come up with at least three different progressions for a song. Yes, songs can be just one, or two, or however many you like. Be creative with the arrangement and try things. Vary the repeating of the progression riff. For example, play your verse progression 4 times, and your chorus progression twice.

What happens to your song if you go right into a bridge after the first verse and then after the second you go to the chorus? Try writing songs in this manner, and don’t forget to listen to your favorite artists to see just how they arrange their songs.

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