Every musician aspires to write an unforgettable tune. Momentous hits have the potential change the direction of a genre (think of what Smells Like Teen Spirit did for the rock genre), or even spark social movements. The prospect of songwriting can be intimidating for beginners. Whether it’s your first attempt at songwriting, or you’re experienced and looking to refresh your knowledge of the basics, the following summary will provide the tools you need to get started.
Elements of a Song
Before you begin writing, it helps to be familiar with the key technical elements of a song.
The measure, or bar, refers to a segment of time, which is denoted by the number of beats in a fixed duration. Many popular songs are 32 bars long, containing four 8-bar sections.
The time signature represents the number of beats in a measure, and the note value assigned to one beat (i.e. whole, half, or quarter note). It’s usually expressed as two numbers stacked on top of one another (e.g. 34 , read as “three-four time”). Most hit songs today are written in 3/4 or 4/4 time.
More experienced musicians may opt to use an unconventional time signature to create a unique sound. Latch by Disclosure, for instance, is played in 6/8 time. Other artists add musical variety by switching time signatures mid-song, like the Beatles did leading up to the chorus of We Can Work it Out.
The harmony, or chord progression, is the series of musical chords that act as the building blocks for your song. It helps to write the harmony first, prior to working on a melody (your song’s main musical sequence).
When developing a harmony, consider the overwhelming mood or feeling you’d like to evoke. It’s common for sad songs to be written in a minor key, whereas happy or upbeat songs are written in a major key. There are exceptions, such as Van Morrison’s Moondance, which was written in a minor key but has an overall positive tone.
The melody is what makes your song recognizable. When you hear the melody of a popular song isolated from vocals or rhythm you should immediately be able to identify it. Gotye’s smash hit Somebody That I Used to Know is a great example of a song with a spectacularly catchy melody (played on a xylophone, no less).
A captivating melody is crucial if you want your song to be a hit. It’s easiest to write the harmony first, and then craft a melody using notes that correspond to the chord progression. For instance, over a C chord, use c, e, or g as the melody note. Try different combinations until you find one that works.
The tempo is the speed of your song. Meaningful songs require a slower tempo, so that the singer has time to articulate the words. On the other hand, faster tempos call for simple lyrics, because in this case, the listener is drawn to the beat rather than the words.
The rhythm is the pattern of beats that the words are sung to. Similar to the tempo, the type of song you’re writing should inform your choice of rhythm. In rhythmic music, like rap, the phonetics of a lyric matter more than the meaning of the words—the most important thing is that the vocalist remains in sync with the beat. In a ballad, however, careful expression of the words takes precedence.
Structure of a Song
Once you’ve settled on a harmony, melody, tempo, and rhythm, you’re ready to move on to arranging the song’s structure.
Typically, songs begin with a verse, followed by a chorus. Each verse follows the same melody, but has different lyrics. The duration of a verse is usually 8 bars.
Sometimes songwriters use what’s called a pre-chorus to create a smooth transition from the verse to the chorus. The pre-chorus often introduces a new harmonic pattern, which makes the original harmony sound fresh when it reappears in the chorus.
The chorus is the most important component of your song, as it tends to be the most memorable (remember: memorable songs are more likely to be hits!). The chorus should have a different melody than the verses. While ideally it’s best to avoid repetition in verses, the choruses of hit songs are often quite repetitive.
It’s this repetitiveness that allows a lyric or riff to get stuck in your head. With this in mind, sometimes instead of a chorus, songwriters will include what is known as a refrain. A refrain consists of a single phrase repeated over and over, heard, for example, in You Shook Me All Night Long by ACDC.
The bridge is used to transition between the verses and chorus, or between two choruses played in different keys. Its purpose is to hold the listener’s attention by adding musical variety.
Repetition is a critical component of hit songs, but too much can be boring. Including a bridge ensures your listeners don’t tire of the song halfway through. Usually a change of key is used to create a distinct sounding bridge, which normally lasts for 8 bars.
Below is an example of a structure commonly used in hit rock/pop songs:
The hook is the most important part of your song, often contained within the chorus. It takes the form of a phrase, riff, or musical passage, and is designed to capture the listener’s attention. A good hook will play in your head long after you finish listening to a song, regardless of whether you loved it or hated it.
There are three common types of hooks:
- Rhythm Hook: a beat/rhythm combination upon which the rest of the song is built (e.g. the riff in Stevie Wonder’s Superstition).
- Background Instrumental Hook: usually found in the chorus, a background instrumental hook is subtle, but effective, like the organ bit in the chorus of Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone.
- Intro Hook: an infectious melody established at the beginning of a song, like the whistling that opens Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5.
There’s a common misconception that musical appeal lies in the melody, rhythm, and so forth, while lyrics don’t play an important role in launching a tune to the top of the charts. Just throw in some words that fit the melody and move on, right?
In truth, lyrics have the power to make or break a hit. Consider, for instance, the lyrics to John Lennon’s Imagine:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
Skimming the above, it’s clear why Imagine was one of the most-performed songs of the 20th century. Yes, the melody is catchy, but it’s hard to picture that song leaving the musical and social legacy that it did without Lennon’s brilliantly simple, yet powerful lyrics.
Writing lyrics is tricky. One poor word choice can throw off the rhythm of your entire chorus or verse. Anecdotes about artists writing lyrics to a smash hit during a 15-minute subway ride are usually the product of a combination of luck, and years of experience. Normally the process takes more work; you won’t get it right the first time, but that’s okay. As with any skill, perseverance is rewarded.
Hints and Tips:
- Jot down words and phrases that pique your interest throughout the day and try setting them to the melody
- Use near rhymes instead of true rhymes if the words don’t quite fit (e.g. rhyme “wishing” with “searching”)
- Listen to the lyrics of your favourite tunes for inspiration
- Use a rhyming dictionary
There you have it—all the information you need to write the next chart topper. Happy songwriting!