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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.

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 >>