Tips for writing Songs

In Solfège, Theorie on March 16, 2014 at 6:51 pm
Have you ever stopped for a moment to imagine just how many songs, in total, have been written? Consider… many thousands of years of songwriting, countless millions of songwriters during that period… there must literally have been billions of songs penned. What aspiring songwriters need to do is stop and ask themselves this question: “What can I do to make my songs stand out from all the others?” In this multi-segment feature, we’ll try to go about answering that question.
Types of Songs
Most songs written in the last one hundred years can be loosely grouped into one of several categories; songs written around a chord progression, songs written around a melody, or songs written around a riff.

Songs Written Around a Chord Progression – A favored method of songwriting by musicians like Stevie Wonder, the concept of writing around a chord progression involves initially creating an interesting series of chords, and then basing the vocal melody on that chord progression.

Songs Written Around a Melody – This is probably the most common method of songwriting for pop writers. The composer starts with a vocal melody, and around that melody creates a chord progression and song arrangement.

Songs Written Around a Riff – The emergence of the guitar as a “lead” instrument helped create this method of songwriting. These songs are born out of a guitar (or other type of instrumental) riff, after which a vocal melody (which often mimicks the guitar riff) and chord progression are added. “Sunshine of Your Love” is a perfect example of a riff-based song.

Let’s examine songs written around a chord progression.

Writing Songs Around a Chord Progression
Writing Better Songs

To begin writing songs based on chord progressions, we first need to understand that each key has a series of chords that “belong” to it (referred to as a key’s “diatonic chords”). What follows is an explanation of how to find out which chords belong to which key.

Diatonic Chords in a Major Key

(Don’t know how to play diminished chords? Here are some common diminished chord shapes.)

The above is an example of the chords in the key of C major. We arrived at these chords by beginning with a C major scale, and using the notes from that scale to create a series of chords that belong in the key of C major. If this flies way over your head, don’t get stressed. It is NOT neccessary to fully understand the above in order to write a great song.

Here is what you should try to bring away from the above:

    • in every major key, there are seven different chords. The order of these chords are: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, and diminished. The order is the same for whichever major key you are in.
    • the space between each of these chords is as follows: between chords 1&2: tone, 2&3: tone, 3&4: semitone, 4&5: tone, 5&6: tone, 6&7: tone, 7&1: semitone (now we’re back to where we started).

So, you’ll need to memorize this: tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone, and major minor minor major major minor diminished.

Now you know the order of chords in a major key, let’s figure out the diatonic chords in the key of G major. To get the notes, start with the note G, then follow the tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone rule. If this is tricky for you, start by finding the note G on your sixth string. Count up two frets for a tone, and one fret for a semitone. Hopefully, you come up with the notes G A B C D E F# G.Now, just tack the chord types from our other memorized list above (major minor minor major major minor diminished) onto these note names, in order, and we come up with the chords in the key of G major. They are: Gmajor, Aminor, Bminor, Cmajor, Dmajor, Eminor and F#diminished. Try using these rules to figure out the diatonic chords in a bunch of different keys. With this knowledge, you as a songwriter now have armed yourself with a powerful tool; a means of analyzing other people’s songs, in order to dissect them, and use some of their techniques in your own songwriting. Next, we’ll analyze some great songs to find out what makes them tick.

Analyzing Brown Eyed Girl
Now that we’ve learned what the diatonic chords in a major key are, we can use this information to analyze some popular songs, and try to figure out why they’re so successful.We’ll begin with an easy and very popular tune, Van Morrision’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (get tab from Here are the chords for the intro and first part of the verse, which comprises a large part of the song: Gmaj – Cmaj – Gmaj – Dmaj. By studying the above progression, we’ll can surmise that the song is in the key of G major, and that the progression is I – IV – I – V in that key. These three chords, the I, IV, and V chords (all of which are major), are by far the most widely used of all chords in pop, blues, rock, and country music. Songs like “Twist and Shout”, “La Bamba”, “Wild Thing”, and many others use these three chords almost exclusively. With this in mind, we can conclude that it is not the chord progression that makes “Brown Eyed Girl” so special, as these chords are used constantly in pop music. Rather, it is the melody, the lyrics, and the arrangement (which includes the song’s very famous guitar riff) which make the tune so distinct.

Analyzing Here, There, and Everywhere
Now, let’s look at a slightly more involved chord progression; the first part of the verse to Paul McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” (get tab from from the classic Beatles’ album Revolver: Gmaj – Amin – Bmin – Cmaj. This song also happens to be in the key of G major, which we can establish by analyzing the chords. The above progression, when analyzed numerically, is: I – ii – iii – IV (which then repeats). After this part is repeated, the song continues: F#dim – Bmaj – F#dim – Bmaj – Emin – Amin – Amin – Dmaj. (Don’t know how to play diminished chords? Here are some common diminished chord shapes.)Continuing to analzye in the key of G major, the above progression is vii – III – vii – III – vi – ii – ii – V. There is one pesky detail about this progression, though; in the key of G major, the third (iii) chord should be Bminor, when, in this case, it’s Bmajor. This is our first example of a songwriter’s use of chords that fall outside of the major key that he/she started in. Exactly why the above progression works, and sounds good, is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to note that many songs use chords other than just the seven chords in it’s key. In fact, one of the factors that makes a chord progression sound interesting is it’s use of chords that don’t directly belong to it’s key.

Analyzing Pachelbell’s Canon in D / Basketcase
Lastly, let’s have a look at two songs that have much more in common than you might at first think: Pachelbell’s Canon in D Major. Dmaj – Amaj – Bmin – F#min – Gmaj – Dmaj – Gmaj – Amaj. Green Day’s Basketcase Emaj – Bmaj – C#min – G#min – Amaj – Emaj – Bmaj – BmajAt first, you might think these two tunes couldn’t be more different, right? The chords looks totally different. If you analyze each tune numerically, though, it paints a different picture. Here are the numerical progressions for each, Canon in D major being in the key of D major, and Basketcase being in the key of E major:Canon in D Major

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V


I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – V – V

The two songs are almost identical. Yet, they obviously don’t sound anything alike. This is a great example of how different a chord progression can sound, when you alter the way in which it is played. I suggest doing what Green Day may, or may not have done here; try taking the chord progresssion to the verse, or the chorus of a song you like, fiddle with a couple of the chords, change the key, change the “feel” of the tune, and write a new melody with different lyrics, and see if you can’t come up with a completely new song.

With this article, we’ve just started to scratch the surface of analyzing the art of songwriting. For further study, you might want to read writing songs in minor keys.


Writing in Minor Keys
In the previous feature, we examined the basics of writing songs in major keys, and before you tackle Part II of this feature, it’s advised that you familiarize yourself with that aspect of songwriting.Sometimes, the theme or mood you wish to create with a song doesn’t suit the generally “happy” sounds that a major key tends to provide. In these situations, a minor key is often the best choice for your song. Which isn’t to say that a song written in a minor key has to be “sad”, or that a song written in a major key need be “happy”. There are thousands of songs written in major keys that certainly not uplifting (Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” are two examples), just as there are many tunes written in minor keys that reflect positive, happy feelings (like Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” or Santana’s “Oye Como Va“). Many songwriters will use both major and minor keys within their songs, perhaps choosing a minor key for the verse, and a major key for the chorus, or vice versa. This has a nice effect, as it helps break up the monotony that sometimes results when a song lingers in one key. Often, when switching to a major key from a minor key, writers will choose to go to the Relative Major, which is three semitones up (or, on the guitar, three frets up) from the minor key the song is in. So, for example, if a song is in the key of E minor, the relative major of that key would be G major. Similarly, the Relative Minor of a major key is three semitones (or frets) down from that key; so if a song is in D major, it’s relative minor key would be B minor.We’ve got lots more to discuss, but before we do, we need to learn what chords we can use in a minor key.

Diatonic Chords in a Minor Key
Writing Better Songs: Part II - Writing in Minor Keys
(Don’t know how to play diminished chords? Here are some common diminished chord shapes.) We have a lot more chord choices when writing songs in minor keys than we do if we’re writing in a major key. This is because we compile two scales to create these chord choices; both the (ascending version of the) melodic minor, and the aeolian (natural) minor scale.It is not necessary to know or understand these scales in order to write good songs. What you need to summarize (and memorize) from the above illustration is when writing in a minor key, chords can be found starting on the root (minor), the 2nd (diminished or minor), the b3rd (major or augmented), the 4th (minor or major), the 5th (minor or major), the b6th (major), the 6th (diminished), the b7th (major), and the 7th (diminished) of the key you’re in. So, when writing a song which stays in the key of E minor, we could use some or all of the following chords: Emin, F#dim, F#min, Gmaj, Gaug, Amin, Amaj, Bmin, Bmaj, Cmaj, C#dim, Dmaj, and D#dim.Phew! Lots of stuff to worry and think about. You might want to keep this in mind too: in most “popular” music, diminished and augmented chords really don’t get used a whole lot. So if the above list looks daunting, try sticking to the plain major and minor chords for now.In many traditional harmony books, you’ll see the above series of chords, accompanied by a diagram that illustrates “acceptable” progressions of these series of chords (eg. V chord can go to i, or to bVI, etc). I have chosen not to include such a list, as I find it to be rather restrictive. Try combining various chords from the above illustration of the chords in a minor key, and decide for yourself which sequences you do, and don’t like, and develop your own “rules”.

Next, we’ll analyze some great songs to find out what makes them tick.

Minor Key Signatures
Now that we’ve learned what the diatonic chords in a minor key are, let’s analyze a few songs. Here is a song with a relatively simple chord progression: Black Magic Woman (made famous by Santana): Dmin – Amin – Dmin – Gmin – Dmin – *Amin* – Dmin* OFTEN PLAYED AS AmajAll of the chords (including the Amaj possibility) fit into the key of D minor (which contains the chords Dmin, Edim, Emin, Fmaj, Gmin, Gmaj, Amin, Amaj, Bbmaj, Bdim, Cmaj, and C#dim). If we analyze Black Magic Woman numerically, we come up with i – v – i – iv – i – v(or V) – i. There are just a few simple chords here, but the tune is very effective – a song doesn’t have to contain ten different chords to be great.

Now, let’s look at a slightly more complex song. Most people will recognize the very famous Eagles tune Hotel California. Here are the chords for the intro and verse of the song: Bmin – F#maj – Amaj – Emaj – Gmaj – Dmaj – Emin – F#maj. By studying the above progression, we’ll can surmise that the song is in the key of B minor (which contains the chords Bmin, C#dim, C#min, Dmaj, Daug, Emin, Emaj, F#min, F#maj, Gmaj, G#dim, Amaj, A#dim). Knowing this, we can numerically represent the chord progression of the song as i – v – bVII – IV – bVI – bIII – iv – V in that key. Hotel California is a great illustration of a tune which more fully takes advantage of all the chords available in a minor key. To more fully comprehend minor keys, and how to write songs in minor keys, I highly recommend analyzing dozens more songs, in the same manner as illustrated above, until you get a better idea of what chord movements sound best to you, etc. Try “borrowing” parts of chord progressions from songs you like, and adapting them into your own songs. Your efforts should pay off in no time, and you’ll find yourself writing better and better chord progressions for your original songs. Good luck!from About.Com Guitar


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