Songwriting Basics

Songwriting and theory go hand-in-hand. But, there is a distinction as music theory is not the same as songwriting forms. Songwriting is such a subject because it helps people to understand the comparison and contrast between composition and theory.

A song needs four basic elements to catch, hold, and impress a listener:

  1. Firstly, a song must have a catchy or provocative melody and harmony.
  2. Secondly, a song should draw the listener in with interesting lyrics.
  3. Thirdly, a song needs to have a strong sound structure, known as forms (there are six common forms).
  4. Lastly, keep the length of the song “radio-friendly’ – the industry prefers songs under 4 minutes.

These three elements ought to be no-brainers, but there is an ever-present temptation to make a piece more complicated for the sake of sophistication. That being said, let’s go over some basic songwriting terms and structure fundamentals.

Most popular music genres use the strophic form or verse-chorus form (verse-chorus-verse). These songs are composed of several parts: chiefly among them is the verse, bridge or pre-chorus, chorus, and/or hook. (It should be noted that the terms hook, chorus, and intro are used interchangeably.) The other parts include the interlude and outro.

The first part of a song, the verse, can be compared to a stanza in a poem. It tells the story. The next part, the bridge, (or pre-chorus) is a tie between the verse and the chorus. It may or may not have lyrics sung over it. The last part is the chorus and/or hook; it is the action lines of the song. The chorus and/or hook are the catch of the song. Typically, the chorus contains the song’s hook (a hook is a phrase of words or music that catches the listener’s ear, and if the listener remembers anything of the song, it’s usually the hook.)

Often the title of the song is named for the hook and in most cases, a song contains a chorus that is the same or has only very small changes to its content each time it is repeated. Usually, a song will have multiple verses and a chorus.

Songs do not have to rhyme, but I will stipulate that the vast majority of hit songs do rhyme and would strongly suggest using this simple, but a brilliant tool to aid in songwriting.

In the year 1999, common characteristics for the big hits were all of them being contemporary up-tempo pop or country; was in 4/4 time, and the average intro was just over 13 seconds; often with a resolution about every 17 to 22 seconds (a resolution is simply the end of a part of a song – in other words, the song’s verses, chorus/hook should be kept about these lengths).

Tempo is a big part of the song and the producer/A&R mantra is to find mid to up-tempo, positive love songs. In 1999, up-tempos comprised a third, or 33% of #1’s, while mid-tempos comprised only 17%.

But ballads accounted for 50%. However, ballads tended to fall off the charts quicker. Conversely, up-tempos spent 49% of the same year at #1, with ballads making up 31%, and mid-tempos comprising the remaining 20%. Even though mid and up-tempos combined accounted for only half of 1999’s chart-toppers, they spent a combined 69% of the year in the top spot.

Moreover, 75% of up-tempos went from a linear melody in the verse to a soaring melody in the chorus. This means the song was arranged with few chord changes and movement but the chorus was soaring with significant motion and chord changes. This structure was particularly prominent in the success of the so-called hair metal ballads of the late 1980s through the mid-1990s.

Of the six customary song forms, the #1 records in 1999 only used three of those forms, with the third form being the most used:

2nd form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrument-Chorus-Etc.

3rd form: Verse-(VerseOpt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrument-Chorus-Out

4th form: Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-Instrumental-(LiftOpt.)-Chorus

Other interesting facts are that five of the six up-tempos and 50% of all #1s were written in 3rd form; 100% of up-tempos were written in first person (I/Me/My); 72% included the second person (You/Your); and 39% used the third person, generally as a device for conflict. Finally, in the tense of these late-nineties hits, 83% of up-tempos were present tense; 27% in the past tense; and 15% in the future tense.

Statistics aside, there is one simple rule-of-thumb acronym for songwriting K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). As mentioned at the beginning of this section, musicians are ever-tempted to complicate their compositions to make them appear more deep and sophisticated. But that practice will nearly make inevitable the hammering of a square peg into a round hole.

Sweet Home Alabama, Smells Like Teen Spirit, U Can’t Touch This, Margaritaville, Cocaine – chances are you are humming the melodies to these songs in your head as you read their titles. So what do these Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nirvana, MC Hammer, Jimmy Buffet, and Eric Clapton songs have in common?

  1. All five songs are anchored by very simple chords.
  2. All five songs have simple, catchy lyrics with strong hooks.
  3. Although they are a bit long for industry standards, they are all under 5 minutes: Sweet Home Alabama – 4:46 Smells Like Teen Spirit – 4:47 U Can’t Touch This – 4:17 Margaritaville – 4:09 Cocaine – 3:30
  4. All five follow the 3rd Form – verse-chorus-verse.
  5. And lastly, all five songs are practically anthems for their genre.

You may be surprised to see that the shortest song here is the one that seems to be the longest – that’s because Cocaine is largely instrumental, with just 104 words and only 10 lines. There are only 57 seconds of vocals and the remaining 2 minutes and 3 seconds are instrumental. Whereas U Can’t Touch This has 569 words and (depending on how you structure the lyrics) over 100 lines; because this song is a rap, the emphasis is on the vocals and the instrumental portions of the song are only the hook.

Each artist built their songs on their strengths: Buffet’s alluring tropical storytelling; Clapton’s musicianship; Nirvana’s antagonism and angst; Hammer’s charisma and high-energy dance; and Skynyrd’s mélange of country and rock. In short, they all were who they were personally and their songwriting was rooted in that authenticity.

So, keep it short, keep it simple, and be true to your style – your songs will be all the better for it.

Most Common and Popular Chord Progressions

Chord progressions serve as the basic outline of a song. Therefore, choosing the right chords and arranging them accordingly will often dictate how a song feels. It will also determine the mood and its listenability. But, it’s difficult to create chord progressions from scratch. Fortunately, there are some common and popular chord progressions to use or to derive inspiration from. For illustrative purposes, we’ll use C Major as an example for seven of the most popular and common chord progressions in songwriting:

  • I – V – vi – IV or C Major, G Major, A minor, and F Major
  • I – IV – V – IV or C Major, F Major, G Major, and F Major
  • ii-7 – V7 – I or D minor 7, G Dominant 7, and C Major 7
  • I – vi – IV – V or C Major, A minor, F Major, and G Major
  • I – bVII – I or C Major, B flat Major, and C Major
  • I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V or C Major, G Major, A minor, E minor, F Major, C Major, F Major, and G Major (this is known as a Canon)
  • I (4x) – IV (2x) – I (2x) – V – IV – I (2x) or C Major, F Major, C Major, G Major, F Major, C Major (this is known as the 12-bar Blues)