Even experienced songwriters and seasoned musicians listen to music without knowing exactly what is they’re listening to sometimes. Elements of a song, like sections and instrumentation, often seamlessly blend together making the music difficult to pinpoint and decipher, and that’s not such a bad thing. Good songwriters want their listeners to become immersed in the auditory experience they’ve curated. But if you’re interested in becoming a successful songwriter, you’ll have to learn about what goes into a song and how to put it all together.
Just a few decades ago, popular songs mostly featured some version of drums, bass, keys, guitars, and vocals. These days, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cheap access to computers has meant quick and easy access to powerful recording technology for songwriters of every background and skill level. Instrumentation options and production techniques that used to take weeks and cost thousands of dollars can now be performed in an instant for next to nothing—if you have the right equipment.
Access to music editing software and powerful effects like reverb and delay can give songwriters a virtual endless list of options when it comes to creating or editing the layers of a song. Pair that with a list of thousands of synthesized sound options and you’ll start to see that as songwriters we now have too many choices when it comes to what sort of instrumentation we want to put in our songs. Want to write a pop song with an acoustic guitar and vocals? How about some hand drum percussion to accompany your track? Maybe a synthesized arpeggio with a tape delay would sound interesting during the choruses? How about a nice string section in the background? When you begin to incorporate production technology into your songwriting, you might find that all these elements of a song can get overwhelming. I find that it helps to group instrumentation into 4 categories: Percussion, Low End, Chords and Melody.
Chords are the first area I focus on when I write new music. In case you don’t already know, chords feature two or more different tones played simultaneously. Different chords played together in succession are called chord progressions. The type of chords you choose and how you play them together will shape your song more than anything else. And when I say “chords”, don’t just picture a guy strumming a full chord on the guitar. It sometimes makes sense to play an entire chord on guitar or piano, but it’s often better to hint or reference chords with a riff or baseline. Whether your chords are right up front or a little more subdued, they contain the genetic makeup of your song, so choose wisely, they’re one of the more important elements of a song. If you’re looking for ways to add more creativity to your song, consider using extended chords and different chord voicings. A simple choice to play a G6 instead of a G major could add a completely new and complex character to the music you’re writing.
The low end serves as the foundation of your song. It’s responsible for establishing chords (usually by playing the root, but not always), and it helps the percussion section keep time. While a bass guitar used to be a song’s low end section, us songwriters now have a myriad of options at our fingertips. Smart composers and songwriters know when to make their bass lines simple and transparent and when to make them winding and complex. A simple chord progression can be transformed into something catchy, emotional, and substantive with a smart bass line. The low end is one of those things that listeners won’t notice right away, but is nonetheless one of the most important elements of a song.
The percussion section of a song is responsible for keeping time, holding tension, and adding a physical element to the music. A driving beat can turn an otherwise boring song into a captivating sonic experience for the listener. In popular music, percussion sections usually consist of some variation of a drum set (snare, hi-hat, toms, bass drum, and cymbals), but anything that makes a percussive sound can be used in a percussion section. A sweeping trend in EDM (electronic dance music) right now is the use of sampled pre-recorded material to create layers of percussion. Again, a major question a songwriter now faces is how to narrow down the thousands of instrumentation choices available into a few usable ideas.
The melody section of popular music is the song’s leading role; the part of the song that people remember. Your song won’t go anywhere without a good melody, even if the rest of the sections are great. Think about it: when you remember your favorite songs, what comes to mind? It’s probably the melody line sung during the chorus. Well-known popular songs like the Happy Birthday song and Jingle Bells are so popular that literally anyone can sing them. This is because they feature a simple, catchy melody that’s easy to remember.
Melodies are human and relatable, and they don’t always have to be sung by a human voice. Melodies, hooks, and riffs are vehicles for songwriters to present engaging musical ideas that weave in and out of the song. In popular music, chords, low end instruments, and percussion are almost always present, but the lead melody isn’t. This is because every melody tells some sort of story. As a songwriter, the type of story you’re telling doesn’t matter as long as you present it in a thoughtful, honest way. It’s a good idea not to rush the melody-writing process, so take your time, try out lots of ideas, and you’ll start to see what sticks and what doesn’t. Things like good phrasing and interesting syncopation can help make melodies more memorable elements of a song, and creating music that’s memorable should be the goal of any good songwriter. What good does a story do if the listener forgets it the minute it’s done being told? Melodies have the power to haunt, thrill, and seduce the listener.
There is some popular music that doesn’t feature a vocalist, but not much. The band Explosions In The Sky is a good example of a well-known band that’s found success in making music without words. Overall though, music lovers generally lean toward listening to music based around some sort of lyrical content. Even highly-produced dance songs usually feature a vocalist. The role of a song’s lyrics is to create a narrative, showcase moods, and to add context to music. Smart songwriters are able to harness the creative and poetic power of lyricism to add depth, complexity, and meaning to their songs. Foster The People’s 2011 breakout hit “Pumped Up Kicks” features catchy, upbeat sounding music paired with cryptic lyrics that tell a chilling story from the viewpoint of a high school shooter. Carefree sounding songs don’t always have to feature carefree-themed lyrics.
Like any other art form, successful songs are rooted in tension, drama, and humanity. When Jeff Tweedy of Wilco sings, “Our love is all of God’s money”, he manages to sum up the grandest and most complex human quality into 6 simple words. Lyrics can amaze, devastate, and relate. Take them seriously.
Lyric writing can be hard for some songwriters, and it’s certainly not for everyone. Like anything else, a talent for writing powerful lyrics comes after lots of thoughtful and dedicated practice. If you’re trying to get better at writing lyrics, I recommend trying to write something every day. Write about your experiences, thoughts, and observations and work toward trying to incorporate your ideas into lyrics.
A song’s form serves a sort of sonic road map for the listener. It provides a way for the music to be predictable, structured, and cohesive. Most popular music features some version of a verse/chorus/verse/chorus form, but not always. Widely-loved bands like Caribou, of Montreal, and Animal Collective have ushered in a new musical era of form experimentation into popular music in recent years. The form is one of the most important elements of a song.
Some songs are better suited to start with a chorus or verse, but others benefit greatly from a musical intro. Musical intros set the stage for what the listener is about to hear. They introduce melodies, instrumentation, and a mood. The musical introduction of Etta James’ masterpiece “At Last” is the perfect example of a section that presents a wonderful mood that captivates the listener immediately. Intros can introduce melodies and themes used later in a song, but they can also serve as standalone elements of a song with unique musical or lyrical content.
Verses usually consist of subdued musical material that’s purpose is telling a story and building to a chorus. Verses are great at holding tension, presenting lyrical content, and providing momentum within a song. Yes, they usually take a backseat to the loud and unrestrained chorus sections, but verses are hugely important. “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles features incredible verse sections that are filled with drama, momentum, and developed characters. It’s a song where the verses are actually much more important than the choruses.
A song’s chorus is a memorable statement that sums up its character. While verses are sections that hold and build tension, it’s the chorus’ job to release tension in a powerful, memorable way. Choruses are usually louder, simpler, and more exciting than verses. They almost always feature melodies that are higher than the verse section. This is the time of the song where songwriters get to take their gloves off and say something big and important through their music. Choruses are the most memorable elements of a song.
When you want to connect verses and choruses with new material, it’s time to add in a bridge. Bridges keep music interesting by presenting new musical and lyrical content in the middle of a song. This is a section that keeps a song interesting by adding new chord progressions and perhaps a thicker plot to the music. Not every song needs it, but a thoughtfully-placed bridge has the ability to refresh the listener’s palette. If you struggle to write songs that aren’t repetitive and boring, adding an interesting bridge to your music might be the trick to break up the verse/chorus monotony.
An ending is a chance to wrap things up, move things into a conclusive direction and leave the listener with something profound. Endings can reference previous material covered in the song, or they can serve as completely new destinations for the music to end up in. Songs that cover a great deal of emotional and instrumental ground can usually benefit with some sort of an ending. Endings don’t have to be long are drawn out, but they certainly can be. “Daydreaming”, the new song by Radiohead, features a gorgeous ending that masterfully wraps up the song in a subtle and profound way. Endings have the power to conclude a song on a note of consonance or dissonance. Like many successful stories, the mood you present in a song’s beginning can be wildly altered by its ending.
Tips For Writing a Successful Song
There is no universal formula for writing a good song, but there are rules and ideas that can help you along the way. For instance, taking plenty of unrushed time to experiment with writing chord progressions and melodies is the only way you’ll be able to write a compelling song. When you sit down to write something, try to have a recording device available so you can remember the ideas you create. Adopting a patient, open minded attitude about the songwriting process can help you curate an environment that’s suitable for creativity.
I also find that listening to new music is helpful during the songwriting process. Like all other artists, songwriters often find themselves getting stuck in a pattern of doing the same things over and over again when they write new music. Try to be mindful of this and make moves to break out of these patterns. Paying special attention to the elements of a song is important, but finding ways to showcase your creativity is paramount.