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Songwriting: The Basics

Tue Oct 8, 2013, 12:00 AM


Songwriting: The Basics

Because there is no way to submit audio files to deviantArt, songwriting and composing are art forms that are somewhat left out on dA. However, since there is a category for songs and lyrics, the art of creating songs has not been completely overlooked. In this article, I will cover the basics of songwriting, such as the elements of a song, hooks, and song structure, as well as share my own writing process. I’ve also included a feature of my favourite musical pieces on dA.

Elements of a Song

According to most books about songwriting, a song is made up of three things: the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm. If we are talking about popular genres, such as rock, pop, or country, I also like to include the lyrics as part of the elements.

If we consider a pop song (or a song in another non-instrumental genre), the melody would be what the person is singing. When you are humming along, you are singing the melody. The harmony, then, is the basic chords underneath, or what the instruments are playing; the rhythm is what you are tapping along to; the lyrics, of course, are the words you are singing. Each of these elements is essential in creating a song (unless it is instrumental, in which case the lyrics are omitted).

These elements are more or less important depending on the genre: in pop, the melody must be strong so people can easily sing along; in R&B, songs are often written based on rhythm; in folk, the intricate guitar riffs of the harmony could make or break a song. This is why it is difficult to teach songwriting: because the writing process not only differs from one person to another, but also from one genre to another.

The Hook

The hook of a song is its most memorable part; it is often the musical phrase that people will have stuck in their head. Because of this, it is also its most important part; the hook is often written first.

The hook is usually either a melody, a lyric, or most often, both. The lyric is normally also the title of the song. If the story, message, and tone could be summed up into one musical phrase, that would be the hook. So when writing a song, when you first have the idea, it is useful to write the hook first so that you can go back to it if you get stuck. It can be just a lyric, if you don’t know the melody yet. This lyric is often the beginning, or end, of the chorus, but we’ll come back to that later.

Song Structure

The structure of a typical “popular” song is as follows:

  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Bridge
  • Chorus

However, this structure is not set in stone. Sometimes, the bridge is replaced by a third verse or an instrumental solo. In many songs, there is also a pre-chorus to help lead into the chorus. Other genres use different structures; in musical theatre, for example, the structure of a song is usually Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse.

Different parts of a song are usually defined by letters, just like rhyme schemes in poetry. I won’t go into too much depth, but if we take the popular song above as an example, the structure could be defined as ABABCB, and the musical theatre song as AABA.

Writing a Song

Anyone can write a song; you don’t necessarily need musical training. If you have a good ear and a pad of paper, you can write a song, too. However, it does help if you play an instrument, especially something like the piano, guitar, ukulele, or bass: anything you can play chords or a riff on. If you don’t play an instrument, ignore what I say about chords and go straight to the melody.

As I’ve said before, every songwriter does it differently. This just happens to be my way of doing it.

Begin with a hook or title. They can be found everywhere, in the newspaper, in conversations. Make it is memorable and avoid clichés.

Verse

I've heard songwriters say to always start with the chorus, but I find that when I do, I get stuck and can't figure out a good verse. We'll start with the verse. If you have an instrument, find a pattern of three or four chords you like; it can be as simple or complicated as you want. Play it several times. Once you are comfortable, hum a melody that goes along with the chords. Try out different things until you find one that you like. If you don't have an instrument, it's more complicated. Melodies are everywhere; sometimes, you don't even realize you're humming an invented tune in the street.

Now, for the lyrics. Go back to your hook or title and think about what you want to say. Songs are relatively short, so every lyric should mean something. If you have a bit of a theme or extended metaphor going on (writing a letter, the ocean, or outer-space, for example), build up a list of different words that relate to it. If you're stuck on one line, look through a rhyming dictionary for words that rhyme with your last word.

The verses must hold up the chorus; if the song is a building, the verses are its foundation, while the chorus is its central tower. The melody in the verse can be fairly simple; it must contrast with that in the chorus, without clashing.

Chorus

Writing the chorus is probably the easiest thing to do. Just let the melody of the verse guide you into the chorus. It has to be catchy, and if it gets stuck in your head, consider it a good thing. Make sure the lyrics summarize what you're trying to say, so it's easy to go back to after the second verse (unless you want to write new lyrics for the second chorus). Try changing the chords in the chorus to make it more interesting. Again, go back to the title. Then again, the subject of your song may change when you are writing it, so if it starts going in a different direction, follow it.

The chorus must be recognizable; if you can’t tell when the chorus begins, it is not a strong enough chorus or the verses are too similar to it.

When you finish the chorus, write the second verse the same way you wrote the first. It's easier this time, because you already have the melody (which you can change in places to make it more memorable).

Bridge

The bridge is the one part of the song where you can go crazy and do something completely different from the half-song you already have. Change the key; write from a different perspective; change up the rhythm. Again, write this the same way you wrote the verse and chorus: start with chords, add a melody, and write the lyrics. For the lyrics, look at your topic from a different perspective. If your song is about blaming someone, you could consider why it's partly your fault, for example.

Finishing Touches

Almost done! Think about how you want your song to end. Repeat the chorus twice? Repeat it infinitely until it fades out? Add one last half-verse? There are many ways to do it. Play through your song and see if anything is missing. Maybe it needs a pre-chorus if the leap from verse to chorus is too abrupt.

Now leave it alone. Go away, watch TV, read a book. Let the song rest. Several hours or a day later, go back to it and play it through again. See if there's anything you want to change. Decide if you like it or not. Just like anything else, songwriting takes practice, but if you keep it up, you might even develop your own method!

Additional Tips

  • Try original rhymes, instead of always going back to things like "you" and "do".
  • Choose strange chords that aren't necessarily in the key you're writing. They can make for an interesting melody.
  • If you're stuck on the verse, make a list. Then use that list as your lyrics. It's the way many songwriters, and writers, for that matter, get rid of writer's block.
  • Carry a notebook or a voice recorder around with you in case snips of a melody or lyrics come to you during the day (most phones work fine for this).
  • If you really don't like your song, don't freak out. If you can't fix it, leave it. Go write one that you do like.
  • Be inspired by others' songs. Imitating someone isn't plagiarism.
  • Write often. Practice makes perfect!

Feature

As I’ve said before, there are not very many songwriters and composers on dA. However, there are still quite a few talented deviants who’ve figured out a way to post their songs! Here are some of my favourites (The pictures are just previews, click on them to listen):

<da:thumb id="366120781"/>  <da:thumb id="303657157"/>

Rag DollRag Doll
The seams are ripping
the buttons are worn
I am still holding on
To this toy that's torn
It's always there
And it listens to me
When I tell it stories
Of what I can be
I will never let it go
It rests somewhere only I know
I'll reach out to it and hold it close
To remind me of the things I never had
Those things I want the most
Pathetic as it is
It still remains dear
It takes me far away
Far from here
Always with me
Wherever I go
We are heading somewhere
A place we call home
Altered "reality"
There's everything for me
Love, warmth, a family
Things I'll never see
I will never let it go
It rests somewhere only I know
I'll reach out to it and hold it close
To remind me of the things I never had
Those things I want the most...

There's only meI can’t blame you for everything
That goes wrong in my life
But somehow I always do
Maybe it’s because
Every thought I ever have
Starts and ends with you
You missed all my firsts
And all my seconds
I don’t even know if you’re still living
You don’t know how that is
I hate myself
For still caring
I hate myself
For not being daring
You probably could have done it
Everything
I can’t work up the courage to do
You would have taken the plunge
There’s only me holding onto you
Everything
I can’t say
You would have said
Nothing would have stopped you
Until you found me dead
I need to stop remembering
Because then I’ll fall apart
Now knowing
I can’t feel my heart beat
Because I gave you that part
Of me
My arms wrapped myself
Like I used to hug you
My tear drops falling faster
You would have laughed at me too
That night
The last one
Forever on my mind
I didn’t even know
We were out of time
Everything
I can’t work up the courage to do
You

If you are a songwriter, feel free to share your writing process in the comments! I’d love to hear about it.

If you are interested in songwriting and would like to learn more, I highly recommend reading Writing Music for Hit Songs by Jai Josefs. It is a little out of date, but is still the best book on songwriting I’ve read. It even includes some basic music theory that is extremely helpful.





An article explaining the basics of songwriting for %projecteducate's Community Week.
Add a Comment:
 
:iconxxlyrics-for-lifexx:
xXLyrics-for-LifeXx Featured By Owner Jun 27, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I can't just write a song whenever I want lol. Usually a random tune or something will just pop into my head and never leave. I then write a song. If I try to come up with something when I want to, I will often forget it. So when a good melody or something pops into my head, I wait a few days before actually starting the song, just in case I don't forget it. I can't tell you how many times I have started a song right away after coming up with something good, and then I wake up the next day and forget it. -_- That's why whenever I write a song for a school project or something, I usually don't remember it XD

Also, intros and outros are good to have in songs too.
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2015  Student Writer
Very true, about the intros and outros! You need to get yourself a portable voice recorder, my friend! So useful for remember those elusive melodies. ;) I do agree that often the best songs are written spontaneously, but I also believe that it's important to train your brain to be creative instead of simply waiting for inspiration to come.
Reply
:iconxxlyrics-for-lifexx:
xXLyrics-for-LifeXx Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I'm seriously working on that XD. I also discovered that I'll start lyrics with a rhythm and then get a melody and harmony for it as I go on. XD life is wierd
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2015  Student Writer
Very, very true. ;)
Reply
:iconrespirrave:
respirrave Featured By Owner Oct 19, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
The "additional tips" are absolutely perfect. Song savers, even, haha! Thank you so much for featuring my song! :)
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 20, 2013  Student Writer
You're very welcome! :D
Reply
:iconiridescentstardust:
IridescentStardust Featured By Owner Oct 10, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is fantastic
and I love you
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2013  Student Writer
Aww, thank you. :heart:
Reply
:iconbamboo-warrior:
Bamboo-Warrior Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Neat and organized read!

When I try to write songs, I sometimes would just play on my guitar and note anything that sounds nice. Now when I do so, I try to imagine the songs in my head or envision (how I would like something to sound) before actually playing. This includes hearing the harmonies and the melody, as well as the tempo. Simply playing your instrument can be helpful to start, but sometimes it can limit you to what you already know, rather than trying to attain that sound you had in your head, becoming a better writer in the process because you might have to look at your style and see where you can improve. This way you can make a song that you may not have thought you could write (but you did)
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 10, 2013  Student Writer
Thank you! It's important to try different songwriting techniques at every point in your life, I think, because that's how you learn new things about the craft and about yourself. :)
Reply
:iconsun-lily:
sun-lily Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Hobbyist
Heart Great Article!
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Student Writer
Thank you!
Reply
:iconsun-lily:
sun-lily Featured By Owner Oct 10, 2013  Hobbyist
No problem :) I'm interested in song writing so this was very helpful.
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 10, 2013  Student Writer
That's so great! :D Good luck!
Reply
:iconsun-lily:
sun-lily Featured By Owner Oct 10, 2013  Hobbyist
Thanks!
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 11, 2013  Student Writer
You're welcome!
Reply
:iconlintu47:
Lintu47 Featured By Owner Oct 9, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
    :heart:
Reply
:iconshadowreprise:
ShadowReprise Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student General Artist
Really nice article! Thanks a lot for the feature as well! :D
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
Thank you, and you're welcome! ;)
Reply
:icondreamforecast:
DreamForecast Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student General Artist
This is a great guide!  And thank you so much for the feature! :love:
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
You're very welcome!
Reply
:iconhypermagical:
hypermagical Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013
Fancy! :la:
Reply
:iconsasha-raskolnikova:
Sasha-Raskolnikova Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Hello, Danielle. :) You've touched a very interesting matter. And as you already said, there's not enough attention paid on it here on dA.

Anyway, I must admit I feel like a songwriter. Although I haven't written any full song by myself yet, nevertheless I create new tunes, write lyrics and play with rhythm all the time. I'm connected with music tightly thanks to choirs I sing in and I can play the piano as well, so it helps me in learning new songs and makes me create different arrangements of them. I wish I had some more time for writing my own songs - in general I can't afford it because of my difficult and time-consuming studies. :( But, I hope that I manage to write at least one full song and perform it live one day. :)

Many thanks again for your journal! :heart:
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
Thank you! I wish you luck in your songwriting endeavours! If you stick to it long enough, I'm sure you'll write a full song someday. (Depending on what you consider a full song, because songs could technically be any length you want. Besides, a good songwriter isn't defined by the amount of songs he/she writes, but by their quality.) :) Thanks again!
Reply
:iconsasha-raskolnikova:
Sasha-Raskolnikova Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I meant full song as the lyrics with music arrangement. I wrote alternative text for the song that many people know and I have a track to set so now I just have to record the singing track and cover should be complete (I know it's not an example of pure songwriting but still another step forward :)).
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
Ah, I see. :)
Reply
:iconjane-beata:
jane-beata Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
:clap: Great work :)
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
Thank you!
Reply
:iconxxskykidxx:
XxSkyKidxX Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Oooh, this could be good
Reply
:iconguineveretogwen:
GuinevereToGwen Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Writer
Thanks. :)
Reply
:iconxxskykidxx:
XxSkyKidxX Featured By Owner Oct 8, 2013  Student Digital Artist
No prob!
Reply
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