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Beginner’s Guide To Songwriting – Part 3

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner’s Guide To Songwriting.
Beginner’s Guide To Songwriting – Part 2

This is the third tutorial in a series focused on showing complete beginners how to write a simple song. This series will focus predominantly on the process of writing a song, rather than the specific software and hardware techniques, skills and applications you might need in the recording, mixing, and mastering of that song.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in February of 2010.

If you missed them, you can catch the previous tutorials here:

Flickr Image by plecojan


Before getting to Part 3 of this series, let's review what we learned in Parts 1 and 2:

  • Music is organized sound.
  • In order to understand what makes a 'good pop song' in the context of this tutorial, we must understand the language of music.
  • To begin to understand the language of music, we must learn to listen critically. And remember, critical listening doesn't mean taking the fun out of music!
  • As we listen to music, we can begin to identify the constituent parts of a song: melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, and form.
  • Deconstructing a song is a great way to begin to understand the mechanics of songwriting.
  • Starting with simple songs, we can deconstruct and reconstruct songs to practice the art of song arrangement.

Flickr image by ~EvidencE~

Deconstruction Continued

In our last tutorial, we took a good look at what it means to deconstruct a song, using the familiar "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Hopefully you've taken some time to listen to and deconstruct some of your favorite tunes, identifying the various components that comprise its overall formula.

Let's look at a few pop tunes now to see how we might begin to deconstruct them.

Owl City - Fireflies

The tune "Fireflies" by Owl City has been near the top of the Billboard charts for the past 4 months. The tune has a lot of crisp production values, interesting vocals and a strong melody. Let's listen to it and take some notes as we deconstruct it.

Owl City - Fireflies

The tune opens with a typical intro, that mirrors the chord progression used for the opening verse. Then we move into the first verse, which is immediately followed by a muted chorus. Then we go to another verse, followed by a full chorus. Next we have a slightly modified verse (with some additional backing vocals), another regular verse, followed by two full choruses and an outro that is similiar to the first muted chorus.

In formulaic terms, we can assign letter values to each of the various sections - A for verse, B for chorus.

  • A (verse modified as an intro, with no vocals)
  • A (verse)
  • B' (modified chorus - we use the apostrophe here to denote that this is a modified version of the principle chorus)
  • A (verse)
  • B (full chorus - note that we have the full, regular chorus here, so no modifier)
  • A' (modified verse - now with a slightly altered melody and backing vocals)
  • A (verse - back to our primary verse)
  • B (chorus)
  • B (chorus)
  • B' (chorus modified as an outro)

Listen, again, to the song to see if you agree or disagree with the formula I've come up with above.

One of the great things about discovering form and formula of pop music is that it usually helps to inform you as to the lyrical, harmonic and melodic patterns of the song. Note that while the verses may have different lyrics, their vocal melody is generally the same - except when we modify it with the apostrophe. In these cases, we have a different lyric and a different melody. Why, you might ask, do we not use a 'C' to denote an entirely new section here? Because the lyric and melody are still playing over the exact same chord progression that is used in the verse - thus, we really just have a modified verse, rather than a new section such as a bridge.

Likewise, with the chorus, we almost always have the same melody and a similiar lyric line - except when modified with an apostrophe. In that case, the lyrics, melody, or arrangement is significantly different from the full chorus, so we denote it with a modifier.

Taylor Swift - You Belong With Me

Taylor Swift has had a metoric rise on the Pop and Country charts this year, and her tune "You Belong With Me" has has been on the Billboard Top 100 for 33 weeks. Let's deconstruct this tune as we did before.

Taylor Swift - You Belong With Me

Let's take a look at the formula of this tune, noting the differences between this tune and the last.

  • A (verse modified as an intro, with no vocals)
  • A (verse)
  • A (verse)
  • B (bridge - here we have a unique section that isn't the same as verse or chorus, but rather acts as a bridge between the two)
  • C (chorus - note here that while the chord progression is identical to the verse, we are distinctly in the chorus section, so it gets its own letter, rather than a modifier)
  • A (verse)
  • A (verse)
  • B (bridge)
  • C (chorus)
  • C (chorus)
  • C' (chorus modified - instrumental with no lyrics
  • B (bridge)
  • C' (chorus modified - muted lyrics)
  • C (chorus)
  • C (chorus>

At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, one of the most potent and effective tools for writing a pop song is to write a GREAT sounding chorus and to repeat it over and over again. Note that this tune has Taylor singing the chorus six (6) times! Even so, the song doesn't end up feeling terribly repetitive because the bridge and verse break up the musical monotony. In addition, the lyrics take us on a sort of journey, telling a story over the course of the song. Formulaic songwriting? Certainly. Highly effective (read: nearly 'pop-perfect') songwriting? Absolutely.

A Brief Look At Chord Progressions

Before jumping to the topic of chord progressions, I'd like to point you to another fantastic tutorial by Ryan Leach - An Introduction To Cadences. Cadences are part of harmonic progression, and understanding how and why they work, and when to use them, can be an excellent starting point for writing your own music.

Writing a chord progression isn't as hard as it may sound. You can use a progression as simple as "Louis, Louis" - which is a 1-4-5-4 progression, or something more complex. When I first started out writing songs, I sat down at the keyboard, figured out the chords used in one of my favorite songs, and sung new lyrics and melodies over the top. This is a GREAT way to begin exporing songwriting.

There are plenty of resources on the web regarding pop chord progressions, but I wanted to point you to two amazing YouTube compilations that illustrate the simplicity of writing pop chords.

Axis of Awesome - 4 Chords

Norwegian Recycling - How 6 Songs Collide

What is the lesson to be learned in these videos? Simply this: even the greatest pop songwriters of our time use similar ideas from time to time. These chord progressions, while incredibly common, simply provide a jumping off point for writing a unique song through melodic, rhythmic and lyrical ingenuity.

I encourage you to experiment with these and other chord progressions from your favorite songs. Write your own lyrics, but feel free to use the form and the chords as you like - remember this is practice!

A Note About Artistic Merit

I realize that I've probably alienated more than a few readers here with my musical selections. Surely there are some of you out there who question the artistic merit of these two artists, and perhaps even pop music in general. Please keep in mind that this series isn't about opinions - it isn't about whether or not you like a certain artist or style of music. It is about seeing the process and formula behind pop songwriting. To that end, these two artists have made it to the top of the ladder in the US, and thus they deserve to be studied. You don't have to like it, but the better you understand how they got there, the easier it will be for you to do the same.

Final Notes And Suggestions

We've taken a fairly good look at pop songwriting - from listening to deconstruction to anlysis, as well as offered a few tips on experimentation. The most important thing to remember about songwriting is that there are no 'set rules'. Yes - it is possible, however unlikely, to become a hit musical sensation without a lick of music theory or knowledge. However - the more you know and understand about music theory, about rhythm, form, lyrics, chord progressions - the easier it will be for you to achieve your musical goals. If that is writing pop music - you're in luck, because pop music formulas work! This should be painfully obvious after listening to the above examples. Even if you're trying to break out of the genre, knowing the tried-and-true methods makes it easier to avoid them intentionally.

So sit down at your keyboard or guitar, deconstruct a few tunes, then reconstruct them using your own rhythms, lyrics, melodies, or even chord progressions. I'd love to hear your results - so if you come up with a new tune based on analysis and deconstruction of an existing tune - let us know!

I hope that you've enjoyed this series of tutorials. If you feel I've left something out - please let us know in the comments. I'd be happy to further refine this series - to focus on individual sections more. Whatever you want is what we at AudioTuts want to provide. Thanks for reading and keep listening!

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