Why Write a Song? (Good Question – Glad you Asked.)
As musicians, we’ve all been there. We’re sitting in our most comfortable position – i.e. with our instrument or microphone of choice in front of us – and this summer’s latest top hit starts blaring through our radio. (Again.) We instantly recognise the repetitive, punchy melody that every teenager or karaoke wannabe can belt flawlessly, leaving us drumming our musical fingers against the table in envy, wishing we could collect those royalties. For many people starting out in the world of music, playing an instrument can seem like quite enough of a challenge and the thought of writing for that instrument as well can be daunting. Don’t let it be! I can’t tell you how to smugly collect those millions in royalties just yet, but I can offer you some tips on how to kickstart your new favourite hobby as a contemporary songwriter. Writing a song, like any form of writing, is a highly personal journey. Songs, in all their three-minute glory, can make us dance; they can make us cry; they can make us groan that we hate this chorus, but then sing it anyway. They can relentlessly churn through our brains when we’re trying to concentrate. If you can annoy somebody that much with your song, then you’re probably doing something right. My own compositions tend to linger somewhere between the singer/songwriter and musical theatre genre, and my personal method of writing is one of thousands. Find a technique that works for you – take as much or as little from this blog as you need.
By the Way – Don’t worry if you are not comfortable performing your own songs. Although it can be extremely handy to play and sing your new hit, it is not an essential. I personally only sing my song myself if I can’t convince anybody else to sing it for me. And, having several fantastic singers as colleagues, this is rarely a problem. As composers, we are frequently required to collaborate and often end up behind the scenes, grinding our teeth as the spotlight falls on the singer. Don’t let this put you off. What you might not know is that most of your favourite pop artists do not write their own songs. In fact, most of Radio 1’s hits are written by the same guy. His name is Max Martin, and he is the genius that makes all us hopeful composers incredibly jealous.
The Three Essentials
If you start delving into the details of songwriting, you could arguably claim it takes dozens of components. My advice though is to think of them as three essentials: you need a chord progression (sometimes called harmony by music geeks); you need a melody (a fancy word for tune) and you need lyrics (a fancy word for words.) You really can write these in any order; it’s a very personal choice. Some people find themselves meshing all three elements together as they go; others rigidly stick to an order and wouldn’t dream of wavering from it. Personally, lyrics are last for me, but I know many people who won’t strum a single chord before they have produced a beautiful, poetic page of words. Do what you want. If you can nail the music but struggle with the words, then you may want to team up with a lyricist. The main thing to remember here is that the three essentials need to match. Don’t write a beautiful ballad with minor chords and soaring strings and make the lyrics about cheese. I mean, you can if you want, but you might not get your message across.
Luckily, you can’t copyright a chord progression, which means there are literally thousands of combinations out there you can swipe. A good place to start is to find four chords to work with, and then look at adding variety in different sections of your song. If you’re new to this, there is no shame in using the good old fashioned ‘four chord song.’ Have a go at using C-G-Am and F. About 80% of pop songs do, after all. There is also nothing wrong with stealing the chords from another song, although I would always encourage you to tweak them a little. Choose chords in a key that you understand (I wouldn’t recommend writing in B major unless your theory is pretty solid.) If you only want to use white notes, stick to: C, Dm, Em, F, G, and Am. Try different combinations and see what you like. If you’re a little more advanced, find room for sus chords and 7 chords to shake things up a bit. I often add a sus4 to my fourth chord, then resolve it back to the major. (If you want to learn more about sus chords, check out my piano hacks on Vocademy’s Facebook page.) Think about how you want to play your chords: are they bouncy? How many beats do you want each one to last for? If you’re going for an Adele-style ballad, have a go at some arpeggios (a word that sounds like a type of spaghetti but actually means ‘broken chords.’) Starting on a major or minor chord can often set the tone for the whole piece, so choose carefully.
This is your tune, and usually what you or your trusted vocalist will sing. A lot of people argue that melody is the most important element. Your melody needs to be memorable – if it’s an upbeat song then it might just drive your listeners mad, in which case: job well done. If you’re going for something more serious, you might want something more chilling or beautiful. I often find that my melodies come by accident; I play my chord progressions on loop until the neighbours plead with me to stop and just tell myself to sing: anything. If I like what I come up with, I record it on my phone immediately. However, if you’re suffering from a bit of writer’s block, here are four great starting techniques to use if you’re new to writing melodies.
Join the Dots: this is great if you’re new to music. Using four chords, assign each chord a ‘milestone’ note, choosing a note from the triad. If you’re stuck, just use the first note in the chord. So, using C, G, Am and F, you might just choose the NOTES C, G, A and F. Sing these notes over your chords and then try to join the milestones up with more notes: find your way from chord to chord. If you end up changing your milestones, that is totally fine: it can just be a good way to kickstart your tune.
Extending melodies: Write a very short version of a melody, sometimes just a few notes. Then repeat it, but with a ‘tail’ or ‘extension’ on the end: a longer version. Play/sing them one after the other. This also works the other way around. (Long melody first, then shorter version.)
Question and Answer: Imagine that the first phrase of your melody is a question, and then try to use similar notes to musically answer that question.
Same tune, different chords: my personal favourite, and something I use constantly. Keep your memorable melody and try to play it over a different chord. This works particularly well over relative minors. It creates two ‘versions’ of the tune, which can often be mistaken for two tunes. Have a go at writing a melody over a C major chord. Then play exactly the same thing over A minor. Should sound pretty awesome.
I’m often happy to chain myself to a piano until I have bashed out a decent chord progression and warbled my way through an adequate melody, but lyrics for me take time. As a songwriter, you have two new best friends: a notebook and a voice recorder. Carry them everywhere; pretend they are adorable puppies. Any time you have an idea WRITE IT DOWN. If your hands are otherwise occupied, sing it or say it into your phone’s voice recorder. (You’ll get some dodgy looks, but you’ll get used to that.) It can often help to choose a theme to your song early on, and I would always recommend ‘splurging.’ This simply means writing down as many words or phrases linked to your theme as possible. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll actually use. Another thing I like to do is create ‘ghost lyrics.’ I make myself sing the melody and just sing whatever comes to mind so I can get to the end of the song. Most of it belongs at the bottom of the recycling bin, but sometimes something comes from it. As some general advice, your chorus should portray the main message you want to get out there, in simple and memorable terms. Your verses are for detail and backstory, and your bridge is for an alternative view or a sudden revelation. Ta dah: lyrics.
Now Go and Do It
Write everything down, believe in yourself and have the confidence to play your work in progress to both musical and non-musical friends for feedback. Collaborate or work along; stand in the spotlight as a one-man show or sit in the audience as your friend takes the stage, pretending you have no idea who wrote the song – you’ll get some honest comments if you do that! Whatever works for you, do it. You never know, you might write next year’s biggest hit!
Piano Tutor Tura x