from good to great
Congratulations! You have written the melody, harmony and lyrics to your song. You are about half way through the songwriting process.
If you haven’t already done so, record the vocals you have written using your DAW. If you aren’t a great singer you might want to get a friend to sing or use pitch correction on your own vocals.
Constructive self criticism
Analyse your lyrics
Listen to the lyrics of your song and take notes on them. It’s important to be able to reflect on the lyrics you have written and evaluate them. This is hard because the only “correct” choice is the one that fulfils the creative intent. There are some general guidelines however. Great lyrics tend to be:
- Singable – if they aren’t easy to sing they aren’t easy to remember
- Conversational – are the lyrics in normal conversational language? If not why not?
- Believable – write what you know, we can all spot a fake
- Easy to understand – if you have to explain it, think about changing it
Look up the lyrics to one of your favourite songs. You may be shocked by how few words there are and how simple they seem. Reflect on your own lyrics and simplify them if necessary.
Analyse the music
How does the song sound? Is it doing the job you set out to do. If it’s a dance track does it make you want to dance? If it’s a ballad does it evoke the right feelings? It’s most likely that it’s not yet doing the job. Use the song structure canvas to notes on how each section of the song feels and refine your descriptions of how it should feel.
Revisit the music and make your track awesome
The first thing you need to do is check that there’s enough variation between the sections of your song. Use the following techniques to ensure you have melodic and rhythmic contrast between the sections.
Create melodic variation
Review the choices you have made so far
Do all the melodies use root notes? Do they all have the same contour or shape? Are they all using the same kind of motion? Create contrast by making different choices in different sections.
Chord tones vs non-chord tones
Compare your melody to the chords Using notes that are part of the the chords underneath makes for a stable feeling. Using tones that aren’t makes for a significantly different feel. If you use chord tones in the verse try using non chord tones in the pre-chorus or chorus.
Use functional pairs to think about the feel of the melody
Look at the notes you are using in your melody. We can group all twelve notes by their relationship to the current chord or the key of the section. They change the feel of the music in the following ways:
The stable notes A and E sound resolved and like the melody has gone “home.
The Modal notes C# and C make the melody sound major (lighter) or minor (darker).
The Hollow notes don’t tend change the feel much, they are useful as part of a phrase but can sound a bit “vanilla”.
The Unstable notes make it feel like the melody needs to go somewhere else.
The Leading notes make the melody want to resolve to the root or 5th
The Uncanny notes mostly rub really hard against the chords and sound out of key in most cases
Vary the choices you make between song sections.
Functional Pairs example in A Major
Question/Answer and resolutions
Create question and answer phrases. This is where one sequence of notes sounds like a question and the following phrase sounds like an answer.
You can create a question phrase by making it sound unfinished relative to the answer. The question phrase might end on an off beat. The answer phrase will then finish on the beat making it sound more final. If the second phrase finishes higher than the first it tends to feel like and answer. Phrases that finish on the stable “tonic” note of the key tend to feel like answers.
Try this out in your song and listen for examples of this in your favourite songs.
Raise or lower the pitch between sections
This is a very simple and widely used technique to make change between sections. Take the pitch pitch up or down. You will notice that this technique is often used in pop and rock. The chorus usually hits the higher notes in the song.
Create harmonic variation
Switch the order of the chords
A super simple but effective thing to do is change the order of the chords you have already been using. Just try changing the cycle and see what it means for the song.
Use unexpected chords like a spotlight
An “unexpected chord” is one that isn’t in the key of the song. Doing this is often called “chord substitution” or using borrowed chords. There are lots of ways to find them but I don’t want to turn this recipe into a deep lesson in harmony. Try making a major chord in your progression minor or vice versa. It may sound weird or it might sound interesting, you need to decide if it works for your song. Unexpected chords draw the listeners attention. You can use them to underline the most important phrase of your lyric or signal a change between sections of the song.
Add or remove chords
Adding (or removing) a chord early in a section tells us right away that something else is happening. It draws attention so consider adding a chord underneath a key word, message or moment in the song.
Change harmonic rhythm
If we change chords more frequently there’s an injection of energy into the song. We can also slow the rate of change. Hold onto the five (V) chord a little longer or reduce the number of chords. Perhaps the section would be just find with one chord? Consider the rate at which your chords change and how many chords you use in a section. Experiment with it and see what it does for your song.
Use storytelling to guide your choices
Imagine that the notes of the melody are the characters in your story. Harmony tells us about their character traits and actions. Listen to the way different chords change the feel of the notes in the melody. Trust your judgement about what works and what doesn’t.
Pay attention to cadences
We use the term cadence to describe the feeling that a musical phrase has finished. They tell us there’s no more music to do for that section. The cadence typically resolves all the tension that may have been built by other sections of the music. The arrows in the build your own progressions chart represent cadences. Listen out for when they happen. You will note that some feel more finished than others. You can use this to make sections of your song feel like they have come to an end.
Melodic Rhythm Contrast
Does the melody start on or off the beat. Using syncopated off beat patterns in your main melody or chords transforms the feel of the song. Straight notes sound connected and grounded but less exciting. Just enough syncopation makes us want to move with the music. Too much syncopation leaves us lost. Mix and match these between sections to create change.
2. Longer shorter notes
Try out using shorter notes in the verse and longer notes in the chorus. Note what it does to the feel of the section. Notice the difference it makes to the amount of words in the section. If you analyse pop songs you will find that many use longer notes and fewer words in the chorus.
3. Melody placement: before on or after downbeat
You can start your melody in three different places:
- On the first or down beat: this feels very stable and connected but can also feel overly simple and boring for the audience
- After the down beat of the bar: This ads some drama, the moment of silence builds a little tension in the listener which is released when the melody starts on beat two or three
- Before the first beat: this is sometimes called a pickup line or upbeat. The melody or lyric starts before the bar of music leading us into the line.
Use a mixture of these in your song sections. See what difference they make to the composition.
4. Change the length of phrases
Try halving the length of your phrases in the chorus compared to the verse. How about doubling the length of the phrase. Listen to the way that distinguishes the sections from one another.
5. More or less rest space
Give the listener some rest space. You don’t have to have melody or lyrics all the time. Give the listener time. Change the density between sections and see what that does for my composition.
Create your groove
So far we have focused on chords, melody and lyrics. You need to create a groove. In music, a groove is the propulsive rhythmic “feel” or “swing” of the music. It’s often a persistent repeated pattern that underpins the song. In a traditional band it emerges from the interplay of the rhythm section such as drums, bass, guitar or keyboards. Groove is a huge part of what makes songs successful.
Add drums and bass
If you know what to do skip the section below. If you don’t now is a great time to learn or get assistance from someone who does.
Explaining how to create a great drum and bass groove is beyond the scope of this recipe but the below will show you ways to add drums and bass using your DAW.
In Garageband has a built in robot drummer and loops that you can use. These are a great way to get started. You can also learn to program drums yourself using the built in drum kits.
Reaper can also be used to create custom drum tracks. There are free plugins like this one powerdrumkit.com available that will allow you to create drum patterns. There are also lots of free drum loops available for download from the internet. Find something that you like and add it to your track.
A baseline can be added using the builtin bass sounds available in both Reaper and Garageband.
Basslines are often simple musical motifs that are repeated. Add a baseline that is made from the notes in the chords of your song. For example if the current chord is A Major your bassline might play the root note (A), the third note (C#), or the fifth note (E).
Align the rhythm of the bass to the drum pattern you have selected. Once you have constructed a baseline in this way you can add in other notes from the key/scale of your song. Listen actively and trust your judgement on what sounds good.
Syncopation makes space for dancing
Consider adding syncopation. Syncopation is where the pattern of strong and weak beats is disrupted.
If you want people to dance to your song you need to make space for them in the rhythm. When we breakup the exact rhythmic patterns used in music we create that bit of space. The music becomes slightly harder to follow but we feel the need to move to fill the space. Beware however, too much syncopation and the music becomes too hard to to follow. Off the Wall by Michael Jackson is a case study in getting this balance right.
Make a change in the melodic rhythm. It transforms the feel of the song. Look back at the section on how to write lyrics for guidance on how to do this.
Line length and density (number of syllables)
It’s common to have longer lines in the verse. This allows the writer to add more story or more images. But because lyrics imply melodic rhythm longer lines typically mean shorter notes. This is often contrasted with longer notes and shorter lines in the chorus.
Type of repetition
Changing the amount and type of repetition used between sections of your song can help create contrast. If you aren’t using repetition in the chorus ask yourself why. It’s your creative choice but bear in mind that you are asking your listener to take in a lot of information. The chorus is where we teach the listener the main message of the song. Check out other peoples lyrics and you will find that repetition is very frequently used.
The two most common types of repetition used in song are whole phrase and internal repetition.
As you might expect whole phrase repetition repeats the whole statement. Happy by Pharrell Williams repeats the phrase “Because I’m happy” four times in each chorus.
Abstract metaphors vs direct conversational language
“I want you back” is a direct conversational statement. In message in a bottle, Sting uses being a castaway as a metaphor for a lonely life “Just a castaway, An island lost at sea”. Using a mixture of these approaches can help make your songs compelling. As you write more songs you may realise that often songs balance both of these approaches. Metaphors and abstract language enable you to summarise an idea, this often happens in choruses.
Direct and conversational language is often used in the verse to transport us. It helps us experience the story of the song ourselves.
I hope this guide has made writing your song easier and provided some valuable insights. I’d love to hear the songs you have written. Feel free to share links to them in the comments.
About this recipe
I’ve taken three months to analyse how to write songs. I’ve researched, interviewed professional songwriters and experimented. The result is this step-by-step songwriting recipe that I’m sharing with you.
I hope you find it useful and I’d love to hear constructive feedback.
The method is designed to address common challenges that songwriters face. It’s an end-to-end method that covers planning, ideas, writing lyrics and music. If you follow it all the way through you will end up with a song. I can’t promise that the result will be a hit, but it should make creating the song easier.