You may have heard of the phrase, The Circle of 5ths. It’s a useful tool for musicians to understand, and for composers and songwriters to use in their pieces. In Part 1 of this series on Composing and Songwriting, I suggested that you start by limiting your piece to just the chords which are built on the C scale (C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim) and I provided you with a chart so that you could figure out the seven chords in any key. But perhaps you are now feeling that you want to step outside of the key. For example, if you are in the key of C and want to move to an unexpected B-flat major chord, you can use the circle of 5ths to help navigate your way back to the key of C.
I’m going to let my friend Fred Sokolow take it from here because he is the Circle of 5ths master. Start at 5:30 in the video below and continue on to the end if you would like to join him for his jam:
Fred is an crazy good multi-instrumentalist and has created a small vinyl cling decal of the circle of 5ths for $3 which you can purchase here. You can safely stick it to your piano because there’s no adhesive. (Fred also gives private online lessons in banjo, ukulele, guitar, mandolin and dobro if you are so inclined!) If you have a Paypal account would you consider “tipping” Fred to say thanks for today’s instruction here or search for Fred Sokolow on Venmo? Any amount even $1 or $2 would be appreciated! You can receive notice of Fred’s future mini lessons (there are a lot of great ones!) by joining his mailing list: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more jams and free lessons, follow Fred on Facebook.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece. All of what I wrote about in Parts 1 (chords), 2 (melody), and 3 (melody and chords) are relevant to composing classical music, as well as the Circle of 5ths discussion above, as all melodic music is based upon chords. You can also add lyrics to your classical piece, as with an aria or operatic piece. Feel free to ask questions in our comments below, and please tell us how your songs and pieces are coming along! It would be great to emerge from the Covid quarantine with a few original songs or pieces under your belt!
I have a piano student who had always wanted to write songs, but just couldn’t seem to get started. When I asked him what he’d like to write about first, he grimaced, “I can’t do it! I’m so uncomfortable!”
“Great!” I replied. “I’m so uncomfortable. That’s your first line.” And he wrote a wonderful, poignant song called, Uncomfortable. If you want to write a song, start from where you are or what you are feeling, and just jump in.
The first step when considering lyric ideas is to get it all down – out of your head, onto paper or into your recording device or app (the Voice Memos app in iPhones is handy). Writers speak of their messy first draft, and the same applies to songwriters. Don’t censor your impulses, just let the ideas flow spontaneously. When you feel you are done, take a break, for at least a few hours. Do something else to clear the palate of your mind, heart and soul.
Then sit back down with your words, read them aloud, and see what you think. Which lines do you love? Which are not flowing well? Have you said what you need to say, or do you need to dig deeper? Or do you want to lighten up the mood a bit? Make notes on your initial impressions, and then get down to work.
If you have started with your lyrics, you will need to begin singing them into a melody. As I have said in Part 3, sometimes it helps to take a walk or drive while singing your lyrics to activate your creative juices in a less pressured environment.
If you have started with a melody, hum the melody and see if any lyric ideas arise from the rhythm of the notes. When the melody dictates the words they are likely to fit really well; but if lyrics arise with a few too many syllables, you can easily add extra notes to your melody.
When writing a popular song, you have two primary kinds of lyrics to consider. The lyrics for the verse, and the lyrics for the chorus. Generally the verse lyrics tell what the song is about. The chorus contains the hook, which is the part of the song we remember best; the chorus lyrics usually repeat, and consist of shorter phrases sung to a memorable melody. The song Every Breath You Take by The Police starts with two verses, each with 5 lyric lines, the last of which repeat in every verse (I’ll be watching you). The chorus reads:
Oh can’t you see, You belong to me.My poor heart aches, With every step you take.
Every Breath You Take has such simple words! Its chords, melodies and structure are also very simple. And yet it was the biggest hit The Police ever had. I’m not suggesting that you write a song with a view to it being huge hit (that’s never a good way to create art), but I do want you to remember that a song doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be really good.
Many songs also contain a bridge. The bridge serves to elevate the song to greater energy or excitement. Every Breath You Take has a bridge at 1:22 consisting of five lyric lines followed by a 16-bar rhythmic instrumental passage.
Some songs also have an instrumental hook such as the Gary Jules recording of Mad World. In Mad World, the piano hook comes as an introduction that repeats in the choruses. Notice also in Mad World that there are two distinct sections to the verses. When that is the case, we call the first section the A, the second section the B:
A: All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces. Bright and early for the daily races, going nowhere, going nowhere. Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression, no expression. Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow.
B: And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it’s a very very…
Chorus: Mad world. Mad World.
There is no bridge in Mad World, perhaps because the verses are long, and the B-sections feel like a bridge. Notice that there are a lot of repeated lyrics, which can be a great dramatic tool.
Generally, there are two categories of songs; there are songs that tell a story, and songs that paint a picture. Sometimes you might want to write a song that tells a story about something traumatic or something wonderful that has happened to you, or as with the song Raymond by Brett Eldredge, your song can be like a short story. Other times you might just want to paint a picture for your listener such as Paul McCartney’s Junk, or create an impression about something such as what it feels like to be in love, or to be the victim of discrimination, or how to live a better life.
Some examples of songs that tell a story:
Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles
Cats In The Cradle, by Harry Chapin
Runaway Love, by Ludacris and Mary J Blige
Whisky Lullaby, by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
Just My Imagination, by The Temptations
Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman
Raymond, by Brett Eldredge
American Pie, by Don McLean
Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel
Jack and Diane, by John Mellencamp
Some examples of songs that paint a picture, which can include expressing an emotion, giving advice, or making a political statement :
Over The Rainbow, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
Yellow, by Coldplay
Shallow, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Girl On Fire, by Alicia Keys
Thinking Out Loud, by Ed Sheeran
Unanswered Prayers, by Garth Brooks
Running On Empty, by Jackson Browne
Good Riddance, by Green Day
Complicated, by Avril Lavigne
Under The Table, by Fiona Apple
Let’s take a closer look at a song that incorporates all of the song elements I have discussed so far. I first heard Ben Fold’s song The Luckiest while watching one of the best, most positive movies ever made (in my humble opinion), About Time.
There is an introduction at the beginning of the song, with a piano hook, and for the rest of the song Folds is playing simple major and minor chords which he is constantly breaking up into single notes.
In the A-section, Folds paints a picture of a man who makes mistakes, and he also acknowledges that our mistakes are an important part of who we become:
I don’t get many things right the first time. In fact I am told that a lot. Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles, the falls brought me here.
In the B-section of the verse, Folds reveals that he is in a relationship. It is also in the B-sections of The Luckiest that Folds provides the only rhyming lines: day rhyming with face:
And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face. Now I see it everyday. And I know that…
And the second B-section rhymes eyes with recognize necessitating a few extra notes for the extra syllables in the word recognize:
In a wide sea of eyes, see one pair that I recognize. And I know that…
The choruses are simply: I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
After the chorus, Folds plays his piano hook again, then another verse and chorus. After the second chorus he provides a short bridge:
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
Up until now I would unreservedly call The Luckiest a song that paints a picture. But in his third verse Folds tells a story:
Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties, and one day passed away in his sleep. And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away.
In the B-section that follows, the lyrics read: I’m sorry I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong. So although the song contains a short story, the song is not about that story; Folds simply uses it to illustrate his feelings about his own loving relationship. So, The Luckiest is not a story-song.
While most of the lines in The Luckiest don’t rhyme, almost all of the lines in Every Breath You Take do rhyme. So remember that while some rhymes in your song give the song sing-ability and cohesiveness, you don’t have to rhyme all the time if you don’t want to.
Once you have finished the first draft of your song, take another break from it for at least a day or two. Enjoy your time away and trust that you will take a look with fresh eyes when the time is right. Then come back to fine-tune it. The process of editing is often where creative flow breaks down. Editing your song is a daunting task and the failure to face up to it is why many would-be songwriters never finish their songs. Ask yourself if there are any lyrics, chords or melody notes that aren’t quite there yet. Work on it everyday until you feel good about all of it. Don’t let too many days go by without completing your song, as you run the risk of having nothing but half-finished melodies in your repertoire. On the other hand, you also need to be able to intuit when to stop editing and call it done.
Even if you ultimately decide it’s not very good, finish your song. Completing things is a practice of its own, and we only get better and faster at writing, editing and completing our work though consistent practice. The willingness to edit and complete a song makes the difference between a songwriter and a wannabe.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece.
In my next and final post about composing I will expand a little on chords, then will move on to the next musical topic! I hope you have enjoyed analyzing a few good examples of how to put together simple but effective songs. If you are interested in further study, look up some of the songs from the bulleted lists above on Youtube.com and ask yourself questions to deepen your understanding of the writer’s style: What is the structure of the song? Do the verses have a B-section? What are the choruses? Is there a bridge? Does the song tell a story or paint a picture? Are lines repeating? Rhyming? Do some of the verses add extra lyric syllables requiring extra notes?
But don’t analyze too much or for too long. Rather than continually asking what makes a great song, take that time to create one of your own. Remember that your song will be different from anyone else’s because no one has experienced your unique life. You can create something fun or personal that is as beautiful, important and valid as anyone else’s. So get to work!
When scoring a film I am constrained not only by the emotion and action of the scene, but also by its length, which could be anywhere from 5 seconds to a few minutes. Limitations make it so much easier to compose! You might want to set some limitations on your music too. Set an intention to write 2 verses and 1 chorus for your first song, or a short 16-measure theme for your instrumental piece. You might also want to limit yourself to playing in one key. In these videos on composing, the limitation I set was that both my melody notes and chords will be within the key of C. To review the chords in any key, watch Composing – How To Write a Song or Piece, PART 1 and print out the chord chart.
Once you have come up with a short melody you like on the 1-chord (C Major), you can start to expand on the melody. Just work on one short phrase at a time, finding a melody, then the chords to go with it. Or you can start with a short progression of chords, then find a melody you like to go with them.
Keep your piece short and simple. Keep moving forward on your piece even if you aren’t loving it; try to always complete a piece before starting a new one. As with all things, you will get better at composing with time and practice. Don’t expect your first try to be a masterpiece! REALLY, lower your expectations, and enjoy the process of learning without judgement.
If you are drawing a complete blank, take a walk outside, or get in your car and drive, bringing your phone or digital recorder with you. Sometimes when we aren’t so hyper-focused, the creativity flows more easily. While you are driving or walking, think about a memory, an emotion or a story you might like to tell, and start humming melodies. Be sure to record the melodies you have been humming. Later you can listen back and expand on the melodies that interest you.
Thanks for joining me in this composing adventure! Let us know what you are writing in the comments below! With love and music, Gaili
One of the most daunting aspects of writing music is the limitless possibilities for chords, melodies and lyrics. In this post I will give you some strategies for how to begin writing a melody using examples from popular songs and pieces, and by setting some limitations for yourself.
When I was a film composer in the 1990s and 2000s, I would ask the director to describe the emotion of the scene for which I was writing background music. How did s/he want the the audience to feel? Excited? Terrified? In love? Triumphant? Suspicious? Ecstatic? Once I knew the emotion, I searched for a childhood memory of feeling that emotion (childhood memories are the most poignant, but any moment from your history works). Then I started humming melodies, or playing them on the piano with chords, until I found one that seemed to capture the emotion best. (BTW- always record your humming or keyboard noodling – you can use the voice memo app on your smartphone, or invest in a small digital recorder.) If you are writing a song with lyrics, then you may already know what you want to write about. But if you are writing an instrumental piece, decide upon an emotion, or think about a story you want to tell through your music.
For your first tries at composing, write within a scale, (such as the C-scale as suggested in the Part 1video, as well as the Part 2 video below) and start the song on the 1-chord (C Major). Notes within a scale are not all created equal! Watch the video below to learn about the strong and weak notes in a scale:
After watching the Part 2 video, play a C Major chord with your left hand and experiment with notes with your right hand until you find a melody you like. Have fun with this first step and celebrate when you find your first melody line. In Part 3 we will go deeper into setting chords to melody, or melody to chords!