Melodies and songs are the key to life. Even as we become better musicians and performers, writing music that makes since can sometimes be harder than it probably should be. Getting stuck on chord progressions or single note passages that just seem to suck can break our hearts as musicians.
For some musicians writing songs come natural. For others it’s something we have to actually learn!
My first experience to writing music was about 25 years ago in a radio shack store.
They had a keyboard set up that recorded tracks individually. My imagination went crazy as I sat there laying track after track as by standers observed. Luckily the store clerk didn’t kick me out because I must have been in there for hours!
When I was done tracking on that primitive keyboard I had a nice beat, a bass line, some keys, and some percussion too. Now keep in mine none of this was quantized.
I pressed the playback button and listened with pleasure as the music played. Music that I had created!
The urge to write good songs
Then the store clerk said “Sir it’s time to leave”, just before he pushed the power button that deleted my song!
But from then on I had decided i wanted to be a producer and write songs. I had eventually purchased myself one of those keyboards and was well on my way to writing melodies and songs.
Fast forward about 15 years and I had written hundreds of melodies and songs. I had written 2 number one billboard hits and almost a dozen top 10 singles nationwide.
I’ve learned that writing good songs starts with keeping it simple and focusing on the chorus first. As you write your verse with the chorus in mind, you’ll find that it just seems to make more since when listening with fresh ears.
Here is something from donaldsonworkshop.com that captures the idea of writing songs in a fun kinda way. It should make plenty of since if you read it carefully.
So you want to write a song, but you don’t know where to start. You listen to the radio, hum along, maybe find bits and pieces of tunes running through your head, but you don’t know much music theory (or any!), and trying to turn your five catchy notes into a whole song (that doesn’t suck) looks hard.
This page is for you!
Incidentally, this guide was written for people who play Clan Lord, a multiplayer Macintosh game in which players can become “bards” and play music they’ve composed in the game. I’ll be referring to some instruments and tools that Clan Lord bards use, but you certainly don’t need to play Clan Lord to find this page useful.
Songs that Don’t Suck
Now, I’m not going to kid you. This guide won’t teach you how to write a masterpiece. You won’t be competing with Mozart by following these rules. You might not even be competing with Coriakin. 🙂 But you’ll be able to write songs that Don’t Suck. And that’s a good place to start! They’ll sound nice. They might be pretty catchy. They’ll probably be good enough to qualify you as a Clan Lord bard quester, if you want to be one. They may even be good enough to qualify you as a bard.
Okay, let’s get started!
Stuff you’ll need
There are a few things you should have handy in order to write songs.
- Ears that work. With apologies to Deaf readers, I just don’t think I can explain how to write a song that sounds good without being able to hear it. Beethoven did it, and you’re welcome to try, but it probably won’t be the most fulfilling hobby you could choose.
- Some way to keep track of what notes you’re putting where. I’m a big fan of Melody Assistant, a shareware program for Mac and Windows that lets you drop notes on a musical staff with your mouse. You can also use mTooth, which lets you either write the notes in its own specialized text notation (the one used by the Clan Lord game) or convert a MIDI 0 file (like that exported by Melody Assistant) to the format it wants. Those are the two methods I’ll be talking about here, but you can use another program if you want, or musical staff paper, or just a sheet of plain paper.
- Some way to listen to your song in progress. Melody Assistant and mTooth both play the songs you’re writing. If you play piano or guitar, you can use that instead. If you have a few very good friends who are expert sight-singers, that’ll work.
A very little music theory: Chords
This is a very practical guide to writing a song that Doesn’t Suck. We’ll take just the tiniest sip of music theory. I’ll be glossing over a lot of details, and skipping most of the technical terminology. If you’re interested in more information, follow the links to other pages.
A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. Some combinations of notes sound especially good together, and have special names. There are all kinds of chords: major, minor, 7, 9, suspended, augmented, diminished… The names depend on the distances, or intervals, between the three notes in the chord. We won’t get into that here, but you can read more about intervals if you like.
To write songs that Don’t Suck, we’ll be working with only the six standard chords in the key of C. (The “key of C” just means we’re using an octave that starts with C, so we don’t need to use any sharps or flats to build our chords. You can read more about scales elsewhere.) Those six chords are
As you can see, three of those chords, I, IV, and V, are “major” chords, and are named using upper-case Roman numerals. Major chords sound solid, happy, and satisfying. A huge number of songs, especially in pop and rock, have been written using only those three chords. In rock music they’re often called “power chords”.
Chord name Other name Notes in the chord I C major C E G ii D minor D F A iii E minor E G B IV F major F A C V G major G B D vi A minor A C E
The other three chords, ii, iii, and vi, are “minor” chords, and are named using lower-case Roman numerals. Minor chords generally sound sad, restless, or dramatic.
If you’d like to know where the notes for each chord came from, or why some some of the chords are called major and others are minor, or why we’re ignoring the chord that starts on B, you can learn more about chords.
Enough theory, get to the song already
There are lots of ways to go about writing a song. You can start with the chords and add a melody, or start with a melody and add chords that harmonize, or write both portions at the same time, or any combination. It’s probably easiest for a new composer to write a song that Doesn’t Suck by starting with the chords, so we’ll do it that way.
Pick a chord progression
First you need a chord progression, which is just a list of the chords your song uses, in order. When we get to writing our melody, we’ll be working in measures. A measure is four beats in our song, and each chord in our progression will cover one measure.
Start and end on C
Since we’re in the key of C, the note C and the chord C major (or I) feel like home while we’re listening to the song. Home is usually a good place to start the song, and it’s almost always the right place to end. So right away, you know you want to start and end your song with the I chord.
Follow the path
All six of those chords above sound pretty good by themselves, but you can’t string them together in just any order. Some of them will sound jarring after others. Luckily, there’s a map to help, based on the one at Steve Mugglin’s site:
The rules to remember here are
- You can jump from I to anywhere else.
- Once you’re away from I, choose arrows to follow until you get back there.
- You can stay in one box as long as you like before moving on.
- If the same chord appears in two places, there’s a “tunnel” connecting those two boxes, so you can go between them.
Organize measures in groups of 4 or 8
Songs that are built around sets of four or eight measures sound good, so you’ll want to pick a chord progression that’s organized in groups of 4 or 8. We’ll call that group a phrase. For example, you could simply pick a sequence of four chords from the map, and repeat them over and over during your song. (It sounds boring now, but adding a melody will liven things up.) Or eight chords. Or make sure that every fourth chord in your progression is the same. Or that chords four and twelve are the same, and eight and sixteen are the same. Or whatever you like, keeping in mind that sets of 4 are good.
Since people are used to listening to songs in phrases of 4 or 8 measures, and the I chord feels like home, it’s good to end your 4- or 8-measure phrase on I. IV and V are good, satisfying chords too (especially V), so they also work well to end a phrase, and help keep it from sounding like it’s the end of the whole song.
Here are a few chord progressions you might want to listen to or use.
- I – I – IV – I
- I – V – I – V
- I – I – IV – IV – I – IV – V – I
- I – vi – IV – V
- I – iii – vi – ii – ii – V – I – V
- I – IV – ii – V – I – ii – V – I
Time for a melody
Now that you have a chord progression, write it out in your music program and listen to it a couple of times. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself humming notes along with it. Congratulations, that’s your melody! If not, don’t worry, there are easy guidelines for writing melodies that Don’t Suck, too.
Work in measures
A measure is four beats in the song. To make things a little more interesting, though, you can work with half-beats. In Melody Assistant, a beat is a quarter note, and a half-beat is an eighth note. In mTooth, a beat is note length 4, and half-beats are note length 2.
The first beat of each measure is the most important. It’s often just a little bit louder, or longer, or otherwise emphasized. The other beats, and anything that happens on the half-beats, are less important.
Organize your melody by picking note lengths that add up to four beats (eight half-beats) for each measure. It’s okay to have an occasional melody note extend from one four-beat measure to the next, or to put emphasis on the half-beats instead of the main beats, but if you do that too often, your song will sound chaotic.
Use notes from your chords
Each chord in your progression matches up with one measure in your song. To make sure that your melody doesn’t clash with your chords, pick notes from the chords for each measure to use in your melody for that measure. You can also use those same notes in another octave. For example, if your first chord is I, or C major, use only the notes C, E, and G in your melody.
Don’t jump around too much
A melody will sound more, well, melodic if it doesn’t jump all over the place. Most of the time, you want to keep the distance from one note to the next to two steps (letter names) or less, for instance from C to E. Using notes in different octaves can help keep your melody from leaping from place to place.
On the other hand, your song will be boring if you always just run up and down the letters (the scale) one at a time. Bigger jumps are like spice: you want some, but not too much.
Repeat things sometimes
To help make your song sound organized, repeat things sometimes, maybe with a little variation. For instance, you might use the same pattern of note lengths several places, or use the same pattern of note pitches with a different chord (if you have C C E G in a measure with a I chord, use F F A C in a measure with a IV chord). A sequence that gets repeated several times in the song is called a theme. It’s especially good if this repetition follows and strengthens the organization in 4- or 8-measure phrases you’ve already got with your chords.
Start and end on C
Like we said above, C feels like home. It’s a good place to start, and an excellent place to end.
Putting it all together
Now you’ve got chords, and you’ve got a melody that goes with them. The next step is to put it all together and see how it fits.
Keep the melody and chords separate
You don’t want your melody line to get mixed in with the chord line, especially if you’re going to be playing them both on one instrument (such as a guitar, gitor, or harp). To help keep them separate, you can move your chords up or down an octave until their notes don’t overlap the melody.
However, sometimes you don’t want to shift the whole chord an octave, or the instrument doesn’t have the range to play it that low or high. In that case, you can shift the octave of just one or two notes of the chord. That’s called an inversion. Inversions make a chord sound less solid, though, so don’t use one for the last chord in your song.
Just like you don’t want your melody to jump around, it’s best if your chords don’t bounce all over the place either. It often sounds good to keep one of the notes the same when you switch chords. For instance, if you’re going from I (CEG) to IV (FAC), you might want to invert one of them so that both chords can use the same C note without sounding completely different in pitch.
All’s well that ends
A good song needs a good ending. You already know that you want to end on C, with the I (C major) chord, which is a big first step. Making the last C note long, or adding more notes (in different octaves) to the ending I chord, will give your song a solid, satisfying ending, too. Other choices might be to repeat the last measure more slowly, to make a dramatic ending by jumping up or down an octave, to fade out, or to extend or repeat the last chord.
A Complete Example
Right, so we’ve had 2000 words of advice. How about a concrete example?
I have the ears, and I have both Melody Assistant and mTooth. I know my menu of six chords, so I’m ready to pick a chord progression. Let’s see… I’ll go with the fourth one in the list up above, I – vi – IV – V. Although I’m keeping each chord for a whole measure, I decided to split them into two half notes instead of one whole note (mostly because mTooth can’t easily write whole notes). On a musical staff, it looks like this:
In mTooth format, it’s[=ceg]8p8[ceg]8p8[\a=ce]8p8[\a=ce]8p8[fa+c]8p8[=fa+c]8p8[=gb+d]8p8[=gb+d]8p8
And it sounds like this:
There’s my phrase. This will be a very short song, so I’ll repeat that phrase twice, and then pick four chords that let me end with I… how about I – IV – V – I. That uses a lot of the same chords as my main phrase, so it’ll sound like it belongs in the song, while still letting me end with a good solid I chord. Notice that my total is now 12 measures, a multiple of 4. It would be even better if I added four more measures to bring it to 16, a multiple of 8, but I don’t want this example to get that long.
Now I need to pick notes for each measure, using note lengths that total eight half-beats (eight eighth notes) and pitches that are found in my chords. I want to keep my melody from jumping around too much, but also give it some interest. Here’s what I came up with for the first four measures:
In mTooth format, just the melody is/c8C=GA/ce=Ap4f8FAGB/D=G
Listen to the melody and chords together:
Notice that sometimes I used notes from octaves other than the ones shown in those chords, for example the C in the first measure. The first beat of each measure is often a long one, and the melody doesn’t jump too chaotically. I also repeated the first measure’s pattern of note lengths in the third measure, and the second measure’s pattern of note pitches in the fourth measure.
For the second time through my I – vi – IV – V chord progression, I’m going to repeat this melody for the first three measures, then change it a little in the last one. Normally I’d do something a little fancier, but in a piece this short I don’t want to wander around too much with lots of variations, because I’m not going to have much time to get back home.
The last four measures are a little trickier. I’m changing the chord progression to I – IV – V – I for the ending, so it’s a little more important to keep some of the other features the same, or it’ll sound like we suddenly jumped into another song. On the other hand, I do want it to sound somewhat different. I’ll do that by keeping pattern of note lengths, but changing the pitches.
Put it all together, and you get
In mTooth format, it’s[gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[/c=af]8f8[/c=af]8FA[/d=bg]8GB [/d=bg]8/D=G [gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[/c=af]8f8[/c=af]8FA[/d=bg]8B/D[d=bg]8BG [gec]8e8 [gec]8G/C [c=af]8/Cc=f[/c=af]8Ap4 [/d=bg]8g8[/d=bg]8BG[gec]8EG [gec]8/c8
The song so far:
The melody and chord lines are pretty well separated here, but I think I’d like to keep them a bit more distinct in measures 3 and 4, 7 and 8. I’ll do that by dropping the chords by an octave. But then in measure 8, I’m going to invert the V chord by moving the bottom note (G) up one octave, to make it sound just a little different from the V chord in measure 4, as well as a little more similar to the I chord that follows it in measure 9. See how the G stays the same from measure 8 to measure 9 now, and the other two notes only move by one?
To make my ending stronger, I’ll lengthen the first notes in the measure, and add some more notes (choosing from C, E, and G in other octaves) to the final chord. After all that, my final song is
[gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[c\af]8=f8[c\af]8=FA[d\bg]8=GB [d\bg]8/D=G [gec]8/c8[=gec]8/C=G[ec\a]8=A/ce[=ec\a]8=Ap4[c\af]8=f8[c\af]8=FA[gd\b]8=B/D[=gd\b]8=BG [gec]8e8 [gec]8G/C [c=af]8/Cc=f[/c=af]8Ap4 [/d=bg]8g8[/d=bg]8BG[gec]8e8 [gec]8g8 [/e=gec\ge]8/c8
The final song:
This isn’t a masterwork, certainly. It could be a bit longer, have a bit more variety perhaps, and not end quite so abruptly. But it Doesn’t Suck.
Now that you can write songs that Don’t Suck, where do you go from here? The short answer is to take some of the rules above, and carefully break them.
Give your chords rhythm too, rather than keeping them constant during a measure.
Change chords during a measure, making sure to choose your melody from the new chord’s notes.
Add dynamics, making some notes or measures louder and others softer.
Take some notes out of your chords, or add in notes in other octaves.
Try more complicated melodic rhythms, such as syncopation or sixteenth notes.
Write in a time signature other than 4/4.
Use 7th chords to move from one chord to another.
Add a bridge: a section of the song that’s distinctly different from the rest, perhaps with a different chord progression or a different melody, but still fits in.
Try fancier chord progressions.
Use different inversions and octaves of a chord to write a sort of melody in your chord line.
Skip the chord line entirely, or use notes from the chords to create a full-fledged second melody in counterpoint with your main melody.
Write in a key other than C.
Use some melody notes that aren’t in that measure’s chord.
Give modulation a try.
Try writing in a minor key.
End on something other than the I chord and the base note of your scale.
And on and on…
As you can see now how the process can work and how easy it can be. Having some music theory under your belt will help a bunch with coming up with a wide variety of melodies. When listening to music on the radio, try to listen for the chord progressions and chord changes. Listen to what each song you hear has in common. How or pre choruses arranged? And How soon does the melody come in. Is a variation of the melody played in any of the verses?
All of this will give you a natural ability to write good songs.
Just keep listening and keep writing!