My kids love to read a book called Pajama Time. It’s a silly children’s book that my wife bought from a souvenir shop in the San Diego mountains. The first time we read this goodnight story, I noticed a certain rhythm to the phrases on each page. It was written in a structure that felt more like a song than a typical kid's storybook. After a few bedtimes of just reading the book, I thought to myself: “This must be a song.” I went online and searched for the children’s song called “Pajama Time.” To my surprise (and disappointment), I couldn't find any such song. This is where being a musician really came in handy. I decided I would just write the song myself! After a few hours locked in my studio, I emerged with a very fun 90s hip-hop style children’s song—a future classic, rightfully entitled “Pajama Time.” The song became an instant hit with my biggest fans, and it is now the top request every night. Yes, it's true: I rap to my children on most evenings.
This antidote perfectly describes why songwriting as a skill is not reserved for the aloof, artsy introspective type, no more than it is for the “talented” and “gifted” few. Songwriting is something that anyone can take part in no matter where they are in their musical journey. It is a way of looking at the world internally and externally and expressing that perspective with lyrics, chords, melody, and rhythm. Victor Hugo once said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” A songwriter hears the cries of the world and responds with empathy. A songwriter can give a voice to the voiceless. They can put poetry to melody, creating harmony out of dissonance, and bringing hope, light, or understanding to the most complex issues. Whether a song is about a worldwide event, a political stance, a personal struggle, or a bedtime routine for children, it is still a song. And there are songs for everyone and everything.
Words are often the first piece we think of when attempting to write a song. However, because at this stage there are no chords or structure, the freedom can often be a detriment. For myself, I've found it easier to start with harmony, then add melody, and then lyrics, but I have met many writers who have a different process with extremely successful results. To each their own. We must understand that lyrics are not just poetry set to music. Lyrics must be able to fit into a song structure. This means we’re telling a story in form. A typical song form will include two verses, three choruses, and a bridge. The verses will tell the story, the chorus will summarize the story, and the bridge will often resolve the story. These are not rules to live by—but if you're just starting out on your songwriting journey, these guidelines may help trigger some ideas.
Exercise: Write a list of song titles. Think of cool words, phrases, or ideas that might appear on a playlist or on the back of an album cover. Write them all down in your notebook until your brain is empty. Then go back and circle a handful that stand out above the rest. Spend five minutes free-writing on each of the circled titles. Pursue whichever one generates the most inspiration.
Once you have an idea, try to craft your story across a traditional song form. One important note is that a chorus, often referred to as a hook, is the catchiest part of a song. Sometimes this is the best place to start. Remember, lyrics and melodies can find you anywhere you are, so record your ideas with your phone often and label them well.
(Disclaimer: There are many different traditional song forms. For our purposes, we will not be discussing these in this article. Check out this article for more info on song forms.)
Defined as a combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect, Harmony is the foundation on which Melody sits. With that broad definition, Harmony can include chord progressions, guitar riffs, short melodic figures, samples, and much more.
With chord progressions, it helps to know the rules before breaking them. Nearly all western instruments are broken down into half steps. On the guitar, this means moving up or down the neck one fret at a time. On the piano, it means moving to left or right one key at a time. The formula for building a major scale in any key is Whole Step (two half steps), Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step. Chords are then built by taking each of these notes and stacking them on top of each other, going every other note of any scale.
I know, I know. “What the heck does that mean?” So let’s say you’ve never played an instrument and you’re sitting at the piano. The middle key is a white key, and it is the letter C. If you follow the formula above, you will get C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. This is easy in this key because there are no sharps or flats, meaning no black keys. If you stack these notes into triads (three-note chords), then you will wind up with the following chords:
- C Major (C/E/G)
- D Minor (D/F/A)
- E Minor (E/G/B)
- F Major (F/A/C)
- G Major (G/B/D)
- A Minor (A/C/E)
- B Diminished (B/D/F)
These chords all belong to one family and will sound good together in any combination.
Exercise: Let’s create a chord progression! Decide on a harmonic rhythm (number of chords per measure), and then let’s decide on which chords to use. In the beginning, it’s easy to just say, “I don’t know,” but the beauty is that you don’t have to know. You can’t go wrong. C Major to D Minor? Excellent! D Minor to G Major? Still excellent! If you are a beginner and wish to really hear your chords fully, try this awesome app called Tonally, which allows you to hear chord progressions in different keys.
Let's not forget about the almighty riff! A riff is a short idea in a song that is repeated over and over, and it is typically a recognizable part of the song above and beyond the lyrics or melody. Some examples of famous riffs would include “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, or “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne. A great riff can easily be the backbone of an entire song!
Exercise: Write your own classic riff following these three simple rules…
- Keep it short and simple enough that you can repeat the idea exactly the same way over and over again.
- Give it a distinct memorable rhythm.
- Use a combination of long and short notes
Defined as a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying, Melody sits on top of the Harmony. Melody is what we most often get stuck in our head, and therefore it is important to make the distinction between “random” and “sequential” groupings of notes. Melody is a combination of notes and rhythms that fit over a particular set of chords or tonality. Melody cannot, by definition, be random. This is where our lyrics are put to song. So how do we get started?
Exercise: Let’s stay in the key of C and use the notes we outlined above, which are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. If we play these notes one at a time and look for patterns, we will quickly begin to discover Melody. The simplest of all melodies might fall into your hands almost immediately. E, D, C, D, EEE is “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Remember to keep it simple, and if you created a chord progression earlier, try to sing what you have over the chords to see if it fits. Make any necessary adjustments.
Rhythm is the glue that hold everything together. What does "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" sound like without the rhythm? Try it. Try singing this song without the rhythm. It’s unrecognizable. Lyrics need melody, and melody needs rhythm. If you are rapping, and there is no moving melody, then all you have to rely on is rhythm, making it that much more important. Chord progressions need a rhythmic pattern. Riffs need a rhythmic pattern. Every idea that we add to our song needs to have a clear, identifiable rhythm.
Exercise: Create a few sets of rhythmic patterns by combining simple rhythms, such as quarter and eighth notes. Before touching an instrument, try clapping these rhythms. If you are not yet aware of what these terms mean, then just feel this internally. Clap a pattern, and try to duplicate it. Then make it longer, and try to duplicate that. Once you have a pattern you love, record it on your phone, and go on to the next. After you have a few done, start applying these to your song. You can apply these rhythms to chord progressions or melodies.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is: “You don’t have to be great to start, but you do have to start to be great.” This little gem comes from Zig Ziglar. It can be applied to almost anything, but it certainly applies to songwriting. In my years of teaching, I’ve found the thing that prevents people from writing more than anything else is their own fear of not being good enough. This is a common fear we all share together. The sooner we face this, the better off we will be. In the beginning, you have to remember that you do not have anything to compare what you’re doing. There is no bad or good. There is nothing. And when you write your first lyrics or your first chord progression, it actually is the best thing you’ve ever written. What’s even more exciting is that it will only get better and better. Only when you’ve written a generous amount can you begin to be an authority on your own material.
Another note: Listen! Listen often, and listen actively to as much music as possible. Listen to the types of songs you want to write, and let them inspire you. This is research. If you sit and let music wash over you, it will translate to your head, hands, and most importantly, your heart.