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Introduction to Songwriting

What is a Song?

· A song is a story set to music.
· A strong song has a simple, catchy melody, great lyrics, and well-plotted chord progressions
· Two or three main themes are all that is needed in a song
· The trick to writing great lyrics is to write what you know AND what the listener can relate to. It is also wise to carefully choose the words used

Song Structure

While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creativity, in order to write professionally for a commercial market, certain rules are commonly followed. Songwriting structures can be amended to accommodate writer preference and song duration, e.g. a 12” mix of a song will have a longer audio space to fill, and therefore sections may be repeated more often than in the Radio Edit.

*The Radio Edit is between 3 minutes and 3min30s.

Typical song structures include:

*Some people choose to call the Pre-Chorus a Bridge, and the Bridge a Middle 8. When collaborating with a co-writer, make sure you clarify terminology used!

What is the Chorus? What does it do?

· It is the catchiest part of the song
· It often includes the song title
· It may repeat one or two simple lyrics
· It is the part the listener remembers.
· It rarely changes, if at all.*
· It is usually around 8 bars long

We should aim to keep the chorus simple. This is the part of the song listeners easily recognise and like to sing along to. ‘Bad’ songwriting includes making a chorus too complicated in melody, pitch, or lyrical content for the listener to participate.

Think about some songs you know with catchy, simple choruses. What is similar about them? How many melodies do they use in the chorus? How many lines of lyrics do they have? Do they repeat the melody and/or lyrical content at all?

*On the last repeat of a song, the chord progression in the chorus may be altered slightly to take the song to the outro, or a single lyric may be modified. Backing vocal lyrics may also be altered, and in terms of production, different instruments omitted or added as the song progresses etc.

What is the Verse? What does it do?

· It pushes the story along
· The lyrics change in each verse, and the verses give details about the overall topic
· The verse has the second most memorable melody in the song
· While the lyrics change, they have to fit the same melody as in the previous verse

Certain types of music don’t always follow these rules, .e.g dance/house music tracks, ambient music etc. A good house track may have a catchy hook that serves as a chorus, and little else by way of lyrical content. Some songs may have verse lyrics, and nothing other than syllabic sounds as a chorus hook.

For example, the most memorable sections of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’, and Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)’ are the hooks ‘la la la’ and ‘la da dee, la doo dow’.

In one of my own songs, ‘Waiting’, I chose to insert the title motif in each verse instead of using it in the Chorus:

“I feel like a mannequin
All dressed up in my underwear
WAITING for you, aching for you
Breaking for you, and you’re never there.”
’Waiting’ – Queen Tantrum

Chorus Examples

The chorus in ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga repeats the same lines twice, with no change to the melody. The song title is mentioned twice.

“Can’t read my, can’t read my
No, he can’t read my POKER FACE
She’s got to love nobody
“Can’t read my, can’t read my
No, he can’t read my POKER FACE
She’s got to love nobody…”
’Poker Face’ – Lady Gaga

The chorus in ‘Help’ by the Beatles repeats the song title at the beginning of the first and third line, and again at the end of Line 4. Lines 1, 2 & 3 rhyme and the motif in Line 4 ties the lyrical content of the Chorus up.

“HELP me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round
HELP me get my feet back on the ground
Won’t you please, please HELP me?”
’Help’ – The Beatles

The chorus in ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean repeats the song title once, but each line rhymes.

“Bye, bye, Miss AMERICAN PIE
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singing: This’ll be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die…”
’American Pie’ – Don McLean

Writing Lyrics

· The trick to writing great lyrics is to write what you know AND what the listener can relate to. It is also wise to carefully choose the words used.
· Lyrics (the words) can take a linear direction through the composition from beginning to end, or they can focus on a central thought
· Lyrics can be written poetically or in a conversational style. Grammatical rules of language need not apply when writing to music, especially when the importance of rhyme takes priority over grammatical correctness

So far, we have focused on the structural side of writing popular music. We will pay attention to choosing chords and melodies for our songs in Part 2.

Copyright © Emma L. M. Sweeney 2010. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except as follows: You may repost this article on your website or blog, providing the articles and author are not depicted in a negative manner, and you have linked back to this original page. Originally posted on my WordPress blogs and

Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.
The Beatles – ‘Help’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
The Beatles – ‘Help’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.
Don McLean – ‘American Pie’ lyrics are the property and copyright of their owners.
Don McLean – ‘American Pie’ lyrics provided for educational purposes only.

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