Actually, we are only going to scratch the surface. You can spend your whole life improving your song writing ability, but you can also write a million songs with only two chords. The important thing is to get started.
Starting With Chords
In this lesson, we are going to focus on writing songs using chords as the driving tool. It should be pointed out that this is only one approach to song writing. It is possible to write songs a whole variety of ways. In a sense, there really are no rules. But most of the music that we hear is based on what’s called functional harmony. Chords often provide the backbone, from which vocals, melodies, solos and the rest are based upon.
Also, by focusing on chords, you can learn a bit more about chords and how they fit together.
A Bit Of Chord Theory
In the lesson on major scales, we learnt that by knowing the notes of the major scale, you are able to determine the notes in a given key. For example, the C major scale contains the following notes:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
Therefor, the key of C major is made of the same notes. Chords work in much the same way. If we know the notes of a certain key, we can determine which chords fit in that key as well. We can then use these chords to compose songs, because we know that they work together.
All we need is a formula:
That’s all you need to remember. Say it to yourself over and over until you know it inside out.
So what do we do with it? There are seven notes in the major scale. There are seven chord types in the above list. Each chord type is assigned to the seven notes of the major scale, in order. That explanation makes it seem more complicated than it is. Have a look at the following:
The above chart should make the formula and its application to a key quite simple.
Here is another example. The notes in the key of G are as follows:
G – A – B – C – D – E – F#
Therefor, the chords in the key of G are:
G Major – A minor – B – minor – C Major – D major – E minor – F# diminished
G – Am – Bm – C – D – Em – F#dim
The 1st chord in the key of G is G Major, the 2nd chord is A minor, the 3rd chord B minor and so on.
Roman numerals are the standard way of referring to chords that belong in a key. For example:
I = G
ii = Am
iii = Bm
IV = C
V = D
vi = Em
vii = F#o
The ‘o’ is the label used for diminished chords. Also, we use upper case for major chords and lower case for minor chords (including diminished).
Let’s do another example. The notes in the key of A are:
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#
Therefor, the chords in the key of A are:
I = A
ii = Bm
iii = C#m
IV = D
V = E
vi = F#m
vii = G#o
Pretty simple right? What we are doing is using the chord-type formula with the major scale to figure out the chords in any given key. A good exercise is to play through the chords in a key one at a time. You will hear that there is a certain flow from one chord to the other. Each chord leads to the next one.
Listen to a recording of each chord in the key of A being played on the guitar, one at a time (A – Bm – C#m etc.)
You can do this with any key – simply know the notes of the major scale, apply the chord types to each note and you have a list of chords in that key.
Using The Chords:
Ok, so you know in theory how to find seven chords that will work well together in any given key. What do you do next? The best way to get a feel for how well each of these chords work together is to play chord progressions using the chords in a given key. Let’s take the key of C for example. Here are the chords:
C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim
A great thing to do is come up with 4-bar chord progressions using the chords in the key that you are using (in this case C major). In reality, this could be 8-bar, or 16-bar chord progressions. But let’s stick to 4 bars for now. To get started, just pick chords at random. You can even use the same chord more than once. It’s amazing how easily they all fit together:
These are only a few examples, but you should be able to hear how easy it is to compose chord progressions using a bit of chord theory. It’s amazing how easy it is for ideas to come to life with chords. Just writing out those seemingly random chord progressions got my song-writing juices flowing. It really is easy to get started.
We use form to give songs a sense of order, familiarity and structure. Without form, the process of writing a song can be too open-ended. Form doesn’t just exist in music. Most movies, TV shows and radio shows follow more or less, a popular form structure. Although each movie that we watch is unique, we know roughly what to expect with each one (introduction, development of plot, climax, etc).
There are many different song formats, from very simple to very complex, but over time, certain song forms have risen to become almost standard in popular song-writing.
In today’s lesson, we are going to look at a standard pop-song structure. It goes like this:
Most people are familiar with the above sections (verse, chorus, etc). Here’s a short summary of each of the sections:
Verse – The verse is the section where we normally hear the melody for the first time. If there are lyrics, the verse is where the story is often told. The lyrics to each verse are usually different and while the melody usually stays the same, it can vary slightly.
Chorus – The chorus is the main section of the song. This is the section that everyone sings along to. Choruses usually have fewer lyrics than verses and stay the same from one chorus to another.
Bridge – The bridge is a section that is designed to add something new to the song and create tension that will be resolved with the final choruses of the song.
Just like everything else that we have learnt in this series of lessons, the best way to learn is to do. What I’m going to do now is write out a song, using what we’ve learnt so far. You can and should follow this process and come up with your own songs.
I’m going to compose a song (just chords for now) using the chords in the key of C:
C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bo
Keep in mind that we are really only scratching the surface here. Composition is something that people devote their lives to and you never stop learning about. There are a lot of tools, some based in theory, some totally abstract, that can come into play when writing songs. But the purpose of this lesson is show that with a bit of theory and experimentation, it’s really not hard to get started. While the focus of this song writing exercise is to explore basic chord theory, a few ‘song writing tips’ are included, when they are relevant.
Song Writing Tip:
Music sounds good when organized in multiples of four (four bars, eight bars, sixteen bars etc). It is really another way of expressing form. We are comfortable with groups of four bars. It is in a way like form within a form. In this song, each main section will go for eight bars long.
Here is the verse – an 8-bar section that uses the chords in the key of C. For this section, I am going to stick to one chord per bar:
This is what it sounds like (I’ll spice it up a bit later):
Here is my chorus. It uses similar chords, but there are now two chords per bar (mostly), meaning each chord goes for a shorter amount of time.
Song Writing Tip:
Changing the length of chord durations is a great way to maintain continuity but add variation. Creating more chord changes adds intensity, which can be a great way to add a bit of momentum when going from a verse to a chorus. Of course, using similar chords means that although there is a change, there is a sense of familiarity and form (there’s that word again!).
Here is my bridge. My main aim here is to make it contrast the other sections so as to create tension in the song. That’s why it’s called a bridge – it effectively ‘bridges’ two familiar sections together, while being a unique section itself. It usually comes in towards the end of the song, is noticeably different than the other sections and is usually followed by the final chorus.
Let’s listen to how it all sounds when put together. Before I do that, I want to add a 4-bar intro, which will be made up of the first four chords of the verse. Like this:
So just to recap, my song-form will look like this:
Here is what it sounds like when put together. I’m spicing up the chords by changing the strumming rhythm. The ‘song’ won’t really sound that exciting, as it’s just a chord progression. Still, you should hear how the chords fit together and how the sections come together to create a sense of structure.
And there it is. Like I said before, we have only really scratched the surface and have only focused on chords, but starting with chords is a very common and effective way to write songs. Often, chord progressions are established first and then the melody and any other points of interest are added in later. Although exploring melodic composition is beyond the scope of this lesson, melodies are often composed simply through experimentation, maybe inspired by lyrics or rhythms. I’m generalising massively here, but the point I am trying to get across is that once you have come up with a chord progression, it’s often a good idea to put the theory away and simply go with whatever comes to mind when writing a melody.
We have learnt basic song-writing by learning about chords in a key and song-form. There are obviously a million variations and different approaches that we could explore, but just like most things, the main goal is to get started. Song writing is an art (not a science) and everyone approaches it differently. Perhaps you put all the chords together before working on the melody (as we did in this lesson). Perhaps you compose the chords and melody to the chorus before working on the chords to the verse? Perhaps you start with a melody and then try to fit chords over the top.
We have explored a set of rules, but rules are meant only as a starting point, or guideline. By learning rules to do with form for example, you can listen to other songs and observe variations. Perhaps you hear a song where the verse has eight bars, but the chorus has only four. You could try doing that too. Or perhaps there is another section in between the verse and chorus (pre-chorus anyone?). You could compose a song with this extra section as well.
You get the point. You don’t need much to get started, so get started. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can get your ‘bad songs’ out of the way and move onto your million-dollar hits!
Next lesson is the last one of the series. We are going to have a bit of fun with some blues guitar.