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Song Writing - Song Writing Primer

Published September 11th, 2003. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

This lesson has been revised and published in THE INFINITE GUITAR. Info >>>


Step by step song writing guide - This lesson is going to walk you through the basics of song writing. One thing you have to remember: writing a song is more of an art than a science. There is no one correct way to write music, all composers use different methods and various combinations of those methods to come up with the finished product. In order to study composition, you will also have to study some theory. A good understanding of music theory is not completely necessary to write good music but it is essential to analyze well written music and to conceptualize various compositional techniques. A word of advice: if you have little experience writing songs and/or you don't have some basic theory under your belt, this lesson is gonna take you a while to get through. Take your time, there is no need to rush. If you have some writing experience and/or some theory knowledge, the first half of this lesson will give you a chance to review before moving on to some advanced ideas in the second half.


Working With Triads

First we will need to learn how to compose in one key. Later on I'll explain a completely different method of composition, one based on a method of complete harmonic freedom, but first let's work within the perimeters of one major scale. Take a look at the two octave C major scale below. If you are not yet familiar with the C major scale, take this opportunity to become so.

 
The chicken or the egg, a short history of monophony - Which came first, scales or chords? I'm not a music historian so I'm guessing, but I think that a few hundred years ago, probably in Europe, guys used to sit around and sing melodies from the major scale in unison. I bet they got real bored of doing this and to make the whole thing a little more fun, someone decided to experiment. One guy probably said to another guy; "Hey, this is lame, instead of me and you singing the same exact thing in unison, let's try singing different notes!" His friend then replied; "Okay, when you sing the first note of the scale C, I'll sing the third note E." After trying that for a while they got another guy to sing the fifth note G, and three part harmony was born. You see, when you stack the first, third and fifth note in the C major scale on top of each other, you get a chord, a C chord. Since this chord is built on the first note of the major scale we can call it the "one" (I) chord. Check out the example below.
 
A family of diatonic chords - We can do the same thing for all the notes of the major scale. Let's do the same thing for the second note, D in the C major scale. We'll just stack every other note on top of each other and we'll get a D minor chord. Since this chord is built on the second note of the major scale it gets named the "two" (ii) chord:
 
The whole diatonic chord family - If we do the same thing for each note of the C major scale, we will get seven chords, one for each note of the scale. These chords are called triads because they only contain three notes ("tri" as in triangle or tripod):
 

 

The numbering system - These chords need to be numbered so we can analyze written music and so we can communicate our musical ideas. There may be some argument on how to notate the numbers for each chord but nobody will argue the order or harmonic quality of the chords; The "one" chord in the key of C major is a C major chord no matter how you notate the number 1. This is how the numbers usually get notated:

Large case Roman numeral (I, IV, V) refer to major quality chords while small case Roman numerals (ii, iii, vi) refer to minor quality chords. Small case Roman numerals followed by the small circle (viio) stand for diminished quality chords.


Expanding to other keys - The order of the diatonic chords from the major scale will never change, even if the key does. The first chord (I) will always be major. Take a look at the chart below and notice how although the chord names change from key to key, the harmonic order does not.
Diatonic Triads in the Harmonized Major Scale
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
Key: C
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
Key: G
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
Key: D
D
E
F#
G
A
B
C#
Key: A
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
G#
Key: E
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
D#
maj
min
min
maj
maj
min
dim

The previous graph only shows the first five keys in the circle of fifths, I would suggest that you write out all the keys and practice different diatonic chord progressions in each of them. Some common chord progression you may want to try out:

I
vi
IV
V
I
vi
ii
V
I
iii
IV
V
I
iii
vi
IV
I
V
vi
iii
IV
I
IV
V
I
ii
iii
IV

 

Speaking the language of musicians - Remembering the order is important so that you can communicate with other musicians. Rather than telling the guys in the band that the changes for the new tune you wrote are; C major, A minor, F major and G major, it is a lot simpler just to say; "Play a one - six - four - five in C."

Voicings - It makes no difference how we stack the three notes. C E and G stacked in any order and doubled as many times as the person voicing the chord pleases will not change the fact that it is still a C chord, the "I" chord in the key of C. Play every C major chord voicing you know and you'll see what I mean, each one is made up of only C, E, and G notes. Check out the example below, each chord below is a C chord:
 
Analysis 1: OK, time to get you going on harmonic analysis. Try to figure out what the chords are below. We are looking for both the chord name (above) and the Roman numeral below. Check your answers at the bottom of the lesson.

Writing a tune - Sorry it took so long. Finally I'm going to talk about the actual writing process. First of all, what exactly is a song? A song basically consists of two main components; chords and notes. You may prefer to think of them as harmony and melody. Sometimes the melody is sung using lyrics, other times it is played on a musical instrument. The idea is really rather simple. You either have to find a chord for your melody note or a melody note for your chord. Let's say we're going to write a song in the key of C and our melody note is a C note. What chord do we chose as its partner? The important thing to remember is this: the melody note should be included in the chord somewhere. The trick here is to find the chord or chords that contain a C note, our melody note. Look at the example below:
 
 
These three chords are the only ones that contain a C note (in red) so they are (for now) our only choices. Our melody note, C is the root of a C major chord, the 3rd of an A minor chord and the 5th of a F major chord. Try to sing the C note and play each of the chords. Although you may prefer one over the others, you should find that all three chords are all pretty good matches.

Melodic Analysis - I need to have you do a different type of analysis, melodic analysis. In the last exercise we tried to determine what chords we were looking at. In this exercise we will try to determine what chord tone the melody note is. The rules for triads are as follows:

triad
chord tone
major 1 3 5
minor 1 b3 5
dim 1 b3 b5

 

 
Analysis 2: Try to figure out what chord tone each melody note is. Check your answers at the bottom of the lesson.
 

Getting started - Writing a song is just a series of decisions, choosing the right chord for each note of your melody is the objective. Let's try it out on a super simple melody. The melody below is as simple as they come, a descending C major scale.
 
 

Let's try to pick some chords for our melody. As I said earlier, this is more of an art than a science so there are no real rules that you have to worry about breaking but there are a few guidelines that you might want to keep in mind: Try to think of the diatonic chord family as a neighborhood.

Mr. Roger's Diatonic Neighborhood
I
Think of this chord as home, you may want to start and end here
ii
A transit chord, like the park. You may stroll through here on your way somewhere else but you probably don't want to sleep here.
iii
Another transit chord, the 7/11. Pass through on your way to better things
IV
Strong tonality, this is the bank. You may want to go back home after here especially if you just withdrew a bunch of cash. You also may go somewhere else.
V
This is the super market. You just bought ice-cream and a fish so you want to get home. If you went to the bank before coming here, you really might want to be heading home.
vi
Grandma's house. You could actually hang around here for a while. You may even want to make this your new home.
viio
Your local criminal's house. If you pass by here after the bank and super market you'll shoot home like a rocket.

I've written out all the possible chord choices above each melody note. The Roman numerals are also written below the staff. Try each chord and try to come up with a chord progression that you like. I would also suggest that you sing the melody note while you try out each of the three chords choices.

 

 
Harmonization 1- I've written a pretty standard chord progression for the same melody. This chord progression is similar to the one *Pachelbel used for "Pachelbel's Canon" written about three hundred years ago. Remember, there is no correct or incorrect here, what ever pleases your ear is the right choice.
 
 
*Pachelbel was this German Cat who made his debut in the late 1600s. He used to hang around with Bach's father, Ambrosius who asked him to teach one of his sons, Johann Christoph how to write and play music. Johann Chritoph would later teach his younger brother Johann Sebastian (the famous Bach) music. It's funny how the whole thing fits together.

Song writing time: You should be ready to compose your own song now. Granted, a simple diatonic song but never the less a song. There are a ton of songs written within the exact same parameters that have sold millions. "Stand by me" (I - vi - IV - V), "Let It Be" (I -V - vi - IV - I - V - IV - I), just to name a few. I usually come up with the first few melody notes and then find the chords that please my ears. Work a measure or two at a time. I find that using this method, the song seems to write its self. Go on, get out some staff paper and get to work. After you get the hang of it, I'll move on to some more complex compositional techniques. Take a day, week, however much time you need. Bookmark this page and come back when you're ready....

Expanding Harmony by Using 7th Chords
The introduction of the dominant 7th chord - What we've learned so far is the method that musicians starting using hundreds of years ago. We still compose music the same way today. We have learned to stretch harmony a bit but the basic idea is the same. At first the composers of that period where mostly limited to either roots, thirds or fifths as their melody notes but, as with all art, things began to change. Probably Bach and some other cats around that period (the Baroque period) started to include 7th chords in their harmonizations. They mostly made the V chord into V7 chord and left the other chords as triads. I would guess that what happened is this: since the V chord and viio chord both resolve to the I chord so strongly, the viio chord often followed the V chord before resolving to the I chord. Play it and you'll see.
 
 
Take a good look at the G and B diminished triad above and you will realize that the B diminished triad looks a lot like a G7 chord without a root:
The G7 chord probably started to replacing the G and Bdim chord progression. They sort of got combined.

Expanding Harmony - As the years went by, musicians started taking Bach's lead and expanding harmony by using seventh chords. Let's build seventh chords to replace our triads. All we have to do is go a step further than we did earlier, in addition to the first, third and fifth notes of the scale, we'll also include the seventh note in the chord:
 
If we do the same things for all the notes in the C major scale we will get the following 7th chords:
 

Let's examine the harmonized 7th chords in the major scales. While the I, IV and V chords were all simple major chords when we harmonized the scale in triads, when we harmonize the scale in 7th chords we find that the I and IV chords are maj7th chords while the V chord becomes a dominant 7th chord. The viio chord becomes a min7b5 chord.
 
Diatonic 7th chords in the Harmonized Major Scale
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
Key: C
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
Key: G
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
Key: D
D
E
F#
G
A
B
C#
Key: A
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
G#
Key: E
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
D#
maj7
min7
min7
maj7
7
min7
min7b5

Choices - Creating a series of 7th chords simply gave them one more choice for their melody note. Besides the root, 3rd and 5th, they got to use the 7th of the chord as a melody note. Instead of three chord choices per melody note, they got four. Previously we only had the choice of three chords for our C melody note, now we also get the addition of the Dmin7 chord:
 

Melodic Analysis - Let's try the melodic analysis thing again. This time we'll be checking our melody note against the diatonic 7th chords. Here are the rules:

7th chord
chord tone
maj7 1 3 5 7
min7 1 b3 5 b7
min7b5 1 b3 b5 b7
7 1 3 5 b7

 

 
Analysis 3: Try to figure out what chord tone each melody note is. I've included a few of the answers already: for our first chord, the melody note is a C which is the b7th (minor7th) of the Dmin7 chord. Try it yourself, answers at the end of the lesson.
 
Harmonization 2 - Using 7th chords will give you a very adult sound. Sometimes the addition of just one 7th chord in a sea of triads will do wonders for one of your compositions. As far as melody notes go, roots, 3rds and 5th are very strong tonally. Generally using a 7th as a melody note will give you more of an ambiguous sound but sometimes ambiguity works very well. Check out the example below. Again, try to sing the melody while you play the chords. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, I took some liberties with the V chords. Think about it a little and you'll figure out what I did.
 

Song writing time - I would suggest that you take a some time here and write some simple songs using the methods we've studied. Here are the basic guidelines:
1. Write your melody from the major scale.
2. Chose your chords from the same harmonized major scale.
3. Make sure your melody note can be found in the chord somewhere (1, 3, 5 or 7).
4. Try to have some fun.

Momentary Key Changes Using Secondary Dominant Chords
Secondary Dominant Chords - You can place a dominant chord in front of most of the diatonic chords in the key you're working in. It just creates a momentary key change. The secondary dominant chord is just the V chord of one of the diatonic chords in question. The only diatonic chords that do not have secondary dominants are the I and viio chord. The reasons are simple: the I chord already has its own dominant chord, the V chord of the key you are in, and the viio chord being neither major or minor does not have a key (never heard of the key of B diminished have you?) so it doesn't get its own V chord. When I first started studying theory I found it difficult to locate the secondary dominants so I did it this way: I just thought of the fifth string root of the diatonic chord and then mentally located the note on the same fret on the sixth string. That note is the root of the secondary dominant chord. Ex: the ii chord is Dmin, D is on the fifth string fifth fret, the fifth fret note on the sixth string is A so A7 is the V/ii chord.
 
Try to become familiar with the chart below:
 
Diatonic Triads, 7th Chords and Secondary Dominant Chords in the Key of C
Diatonic Chords
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
C
Dmin
Emin
F
G
Amin
Bdim
Cmaj7
Dmin7
Emin7
Fmaj7
G7
Amin7
Bmin7b5
Secondary Dominant Chords
-
V/ii
V/iii
V/IV
V/V
V/vi
-
-
A7
B7
C7
D7
E7
-

 

Harmonization 3 - I took our song and reharmonized it using secondary dominant chords where the melody permits.
 

 

Jazz - Secondary dominants are used in just about all styles of music, from the Baroque period to Blues and Jazz. Jazz musicians also tend to stick, not only the V, but both the ii and V before the the chord being led up to. For example, in the previous harmonization you might put a Bmin7 before the E7 chord and a Gmin7 before the C7.
 
The Star Spangled Banner - Just being patriotic here. Check out how secondary dominant chords are used in the American anthem. This is actually the song the professor at my local community college used to explain secondary dominant chords. This actually a good song for simple analysis, all the melody notes are chord tones.
 
 
Key of G Test - See if you can fill in the appropriate chords in the graph below. Answers at the bottom:
 
Diatonic Triads, 7th Chords and Secondary Dominant Chords in the Key of G
Diatonic Chords
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
G
?
?
?
?
?
?
Gmaj7
?
?
?
?
?
?
Secondary Dominant Chords
-
V/ii
V/iii
V/IV
V/V
V/vi
-
-
?
?
?
?
?
-

Song writing time - If you are ready, see if you can come up with a simple song using the tricks we've learned so far. Don't worry, this page will be right here waiting for you.......

Borrowed chords
Borrowing from the minor scale - To expand our chord choices, we can borrow from the diatonic chords of the minor scale. First we will have to figure out the diatonic chords of the minor scale. To save you the work, I did it for you. Before you go on, make sure you understand what I did. Make yourself familiar with the chart below. Take special notice of the III, VI and VII chord.
 
Diatonic Triads in the Harmonized C Natural Minor Scale
i
iio
III
iv
v
VI
VII
Key: Cmin
C
D
Eb
F
G
Ab
Bb
min
dim
maj
min
min
maj
maj

 

If this is getting difficult to understand read this explanation very slowly: the III, VI and VII chord in the chart above all have flats as names. The iii, vi and viio chords from the major scale are all built on natural pitches and because of this, when we export the three chords from the C minor scale to C major we have to notate them with flats: the iii chord in C major is Emin while the III chord in C minor is Ebmaj thus notated bIII. The i chord does not get borrowed as it would simply change the key to its minor counterpart. The most common borrowed chords are the bIII, iv, bVI and bVII chords.
 
Diatonic Chords
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
C
Dmin
Emin
F
G
Amin
Bdim
Cmaj7
Dmin7
Emin7
Fmaj7
G7
Amin7
Bmin7b5
Secondary Dominant Chords
-
V/ii
V/iii
V/IV
V/V
V/vi
-
-
A7
B7
C7
D7
E7
-
Borrowed Chords
-
iio
bIII
iv
v
bVI
bVII
-
Ddim
Eb
Fmin
Gmin
AB
Bb

 

Try making up some chord progressions using some of the borrowed chords. The following chord progressions are just a few that I came up with for you to try out. The borrowed chords in red:

I
vi
iii
ii
iv
I
I
V
ii
vi
bVII
IV
I
I
vi
IV
bVI
bVII
I

 

Harmonization 4 - Once again I took our song and reharmonized it using secondary dominant and Borrowed chords. I took the liberty of flating the e note in the third measure so I could use the borrowed Ab chord. When you are writing, feel free to change the melody as needed.
 

Song writing time again - Take some time and see what kind of song you can come up with. Take your time......

Complete Harmonic Freedom
There is another method of composition, one completely without rules of any sort. Complete harmonic freedom. The concept is simple: use any chord you want. It starts the same way, decide on a melody note and find a chord for it. Your melody note also does not have to be limited by a scale. This might seem simple but it is not. You will have to know a lot of chord voicings to make this method successful for you. Up to this point we limited ourselves to roots, 3rds, 5ths and 7ths as our melody notes but now we will dispose of those restrictions. As you will see the choices we have now become limitless. Let's take the same melody note as before, a C and try to come up with as many chords as we can:
 
C melody note as the: chord choices
root C, Cmin, Cdim, Csus, Cmin7, Cmaj7, C7, C7sus, Cmin7b5, etc..
3 AB, Abmaj7, A7, etc..
b3 Amin, Amin7, Amin7b5, etc..
5 F, Fmin, Fsus, Fmin7, Fmaj7, F7, etc..
b5 F#min7b5, F#7b5, etc..
#5 E7#5, Emaj7#5, etc..
7 Dbmaj7, Dbmin/maj7, etc..
b7 Dmin7, D7, Dmin7b5, etc..
9 Bbmaj9, Bbadd9, Bbmin9, Bbminadd9, Bb9, etc..
b9 B7b9, etc..
#9 A7#9, etc..
4 (11) Gsus, G7sus, G9sus, Gmin11, G(b9)sus, etc..
#11 F#maj7#11, F#7#11, etc..
6 (13) Eb6, Eb69, Ebmin6,Ebmin69, Eb13, Ebmaj13, Eb13b9, Eb13#9, etc..

Points to remember - The important thing to remember when using this method is that the melody note should be included in the chord voicing somewhere. Let's say that you decide that you want your C melody note to get matched up with a F#maj chord, technically this is fine because the C note can be analyzed as a #11th but if you don't include it in your chord somewhere it will sound plain wrong. Therefore rather than choosing a F#maj7 you will be a lot better off picking a F#maj7#11. When I use this method of composition (which is most of the time) I voice the chord with the melody note on top (on the first or second string). I have my favorites, For melody notes I tend to go with 7ths and #11ths for major chords and 9ths and 11ths for minor chords, #9ths and #5th for dominant chords but I don't limit myself to these choices. In the example below check out how I use four mostly unrelated chords to place under our C melody note. Sing the note and play the chords:

 

 

Harmonization 4 - Let's go back to our previous simple descending C major scale melody and I'll give you a few examples of some of the chord changes I might come up with. Using this method will render the Roman numeral system obsolete.
Who to check out - If you are interested in checking out some great composers who use this technique, buy yourself any of the Miles Davis CDs featuring Wayne Shorter. Wayne Shorter in my opinion is one of the greatest modern day composers. You should also check out the solo stuff he released and any of the Weather Report CDs. Also pick up yourself some Mike Stern, John Scofield Herbie Hancock and especially Chris Juergensen's new CD, "Prospects" (just kidding)!

Test Answers
Analysis 1: C Amin Emin F G C
I vi iii IV V I
Analysis 2: 1 5 5 b3 3 b3 b3 3 5 5
Analysis 3: b7 1 b7 b5 7 1 b3 b7 b7 3
 
Diatonic Triads, 7th Chords and Secondary Dominant Chords in the Key of G
Diatonic Chords
I
ii
iii
IV
V
vi
viio
G
Amin
Bmin
C
D
Emin
F#dim
Gmaj7
Amin7
Bmin7
Cmaj7
D7
Emin7
F#min7b5
Secondary Dominant Chords
-
V/ii
V/iii
V/IV
V/V
V/vi
-
-
E7
F#7
G7
A7
B7
-
 

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