The Elusive Art of Songwriting

Songwriting is one of those elusive and difficult talents that I’ve been trying to hone for a long time. Good songwriters are few and far between and good ones should be celebrated.

Lennon and McCartney, Paul Anka, Burt Bacharach, David Foster, Bryan Adams, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Lionel Ritchie, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Neil Peart, and so many more. Modern-era master songwriters, composers, and arrangers need to be celebrated. I am thoroughly fascinated by their brilliance, skill, and talent. One of my personal favourites is Gord Downie, the genius late singer and lyricist from one of Canada’s most stellar rock bands ever, The Tragically Hip. I aspire to attain a fraction of their superlative musical contributions.

I don’t have formal musical training. Most of the musical knowledge and skill I have, has been gleaned from part-time lessons and self-study. I’ve read lots of books relating to music over the years and continue to do so, often in support of the articles I write for this blog. Many famous rock stars don’t have formal training and don’t read music either. My passion for music hopefully makes up for my lack of formal training.

My secret weapon (well, I guess it’s not so secret anymore) is the book entitled The Incredible Scale Finder, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2001. Specifically, page 7 of this book, which contains a chart which shows you all the chords that fit naturally into all Major and Minor Keys. It’s a valuable resource that I use to help me write songs logically. I treat these as suggestions, not as hard and fast rules. In general, they follow the rule that a major chord consists of the Major in the first, degree, minor in the second and third, Major in the fourth and fifth, a minor in the sixth, and a diminished in the seventh.

For our purposes, lets stick to a song in G Major, using a very typical I-IV-V pattern. In the key of G, that would mean building a song around the very familiar G, C, D pattern. OK, it’s been done before – A LOT – but who cares? In music, we have a total of 12 notes to play with so it’s hard (almost impossible) to be totally original. Just be careful to not make your creation sound too much like other familiar songs – George Harrison and Radiohead are two very famous examples of famous recording artists being sued for copyright infringement in songwriting. In both cases, I really don’t understand the verdicts that were handed down to them.

The I-IV-V pattern in the key of G means we are writing our song based on the chords of G, C, and D. Ok, fine, those chords sound great together – as bared out by hundreds of songs before. But the typical pop, rock, or country song is 3 to 4 minutes long. Repeating the same three chords for that long would get kind of boring, so we have to break things up a little. That’s where a book like Songwriting for Dummies, becomes a very valuable resource to help you create better songs. This is where concepts such as a bridge and pre-chorus will be your friend and will help make you song stand out and sound more original.

What are the other chords in the key of G? Am, Bm are the second and third degrees respectively, as mentioned above. E minor is the sixth and F# diminished is the seventh. How do we use this knowledge to our advantage? Music is all about recognizable, identifiable, and repeatable patterns to make sense and work well together. So, let’s beak it down into sections.

INTRO: Just like in the movies, your song is like a series of scenes. Let’s call our Intro the establishing shot. We can do something like G-C-D, G-C-D, Am, Bm, and Em hold for four beats. Oh, yeah, time signature is critical too. Let’s keep it simple and work with a 4/4 time signature, one of the more common.

Maybe I have a bias for older music, but trust me, today’s songwriters have hardly cracked the code. These concepts still hold true today.

VERSES: Let’s do a repeating pattern of G-C-D-C, G-C-D hold, repeated 4 times, for example.

PRE-CHORUS: This is the bit of the song that helps establish the chorus and gives us separation from the verses. Let’s do something like Am – C – G, two times, and hold four beats.

CHORUS:  This is where we try to hook the listener into remembering our song. Maybe that’s where the term “Hook” comes from. The Hook is what you remember, and what you repeat to yourself when the song is over. The earworm/song virus that infects your innermost thoughts. The uber successful pop band from the seventies, ABBA, were the masters at this. They could write a post-doctoral thesis on hooking unsuspecting listeners into an almost trans-like devotion to a song. Mama Mia! could these guys write a pop song! Let’s keep it simple and just go back to the same chords as our verses for the chorus, i.e. G-C-D.

THIRD AND FOURTH (optional) VERSE: We need to flesh things out a bit and build on what the first and second verses talked about, before being rudely interrupted by the pre-chorus and chorus. There’s a reason for that: we want the chorus to repeat at least three times in our song. Remember, we are trying to hook the listener. Have a listen to the ABBA song I mentioned before, and you’ll see what I mean.

THE BRIDGE: Oh, the bridge. The bridge extends the song, fleshes it out, and gives it room to breathe. The master of the clever bridge: Bryan Adams. Listen to the song Run to You, about two thirds of the way through the song is an incredible bridge, punctuated by his shouting OHH!!!, which helps establish the outro and gives the listener a momentary break from the rest of the song that builds up to this crescendo. The bridge is only a series of three chords repeated twice but done so effectively. It fits perfectly with the song and sounds amazing.

That song has a super strong intro of about 8 bars, that really helps establish the general feel of the song and is part of the hook of that song. It has a great 8 bar pre chorus, appearing after two sets of verses, and a very strong chorus. After the first chorus, you hear a bit of guitar that harkens back to the intro (again, emphasizing the hook). You then hear verse three and verse four, which like verse two, has him singing at least a fifth higher than the previous verse, giving it contrast to the verse before. Another strong pre-chorus (different but similar to the first pre-chorus), and then the chorus. After the second chorus, a bit of a guitar solo (if you can call it that. It’s more like a couple of arpeggiated chords, but super effective in this case). And then, at the 2:35 mark (about 2/3 of the way through, as I mentioned before) 4 bars of a three-chord riff that just knocks it out of the park, into the outro, which is just Bryan repeating “he’s gonna run to you.” Simple but brilliant.

Some great pops songs may be simple but writing them is anything but easy. This is no way a criticism of Mr. Adams. I think he’s brilliant. A great songwriter, a great musician, and a very good singer. And he’s from my home and native land, Canada. The guy is like a scientist when it comes to songwriting.

The bridge is where things can get pretty tricky. How do we write a catchy bridge that doesn’t distract from the rest of the song? Honestly, I’m still working on that. For our purposes, let’s keep it simple and do Bm-Em-G, hold four beats, or something like that.

THE OUTRO: Oftentimes, just repeating the chorus or a particular significant verse in the song you just heard, it’s what helps you remember the song. Another one of my countrymen, Burton Cummings, in the iconic song by The Guess Who, American Woman, was brilliant with this concept when he sang, “I’m no good for you, You’re no good for me, Gonna look you right in the eye, And tell ya what I’m gonna do,….” Etc. That is an outro for the ages.

The Doors were masters at the catchy outro: LA Woman, Love Her Madly, and Touch Me, are but just three examples of some of their amazing songs, featuring incredible outros.

Check out You’re A God by the pop band, Vertical Horizon, for an excellent example of perfect pop song writing, with great examples of pre-choruses leading to very catchy choruses, and a bridge leading straight to a (very ho-hum) guitar solo, and a brilliant and catchy outro.

Living On a Prayer, by pop rock superstars, Bon Jovi, is yet another very strong example of a great song seamlessly combining all of these elements together. Finally, Let it Be, by The Beatles is one of the finest examples of brilliant songwrting that combines all of these elements together.

Other masters of songwriting are Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. If you’re serious about learning this craft, listen to songs from way before your time, as well as masters of your current circumstances. Current musical performers that feature brilliant songwriting are Billie Eilish, Bruno Mars, Adele, Macklemore, Post Malone, Timbaland, and Maroon 5.

Listen to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and The Rolling Stones, as well as today’s song writing masters. Learn from the past, as well as form the present to secure your future as a songwriter.

For our outro, we can simply repeat a few of the verses, which, if you listen carefully to a lot of what are considered great songs, is a very common practice. In Van Halen’s Running With the Devil, the second and third verses are identical.

Tin Man by America for example, just repeats the same verse three times. Don’t get me wrong, I love that song. The bass is phenomenal and it’s a great smooth rock song, but the songwriting is what I would consider pretty lazy. And the song referenced above, Your a God, repeats the first verse as its third verse, which is also quite a common practice in popular music.

My advice is to just listen to a lot of music. Listen to all kinds of music. Listen intentionally. Listen deeply and pay attention to all of the nuances. Read and learn from the masters. As mentioned previously, Songwrting for Dummies, Wile Publishing, 2010, is a great book on the topic. It is a thesis on songwriting. An absolute gem of a book. I recommend it 100%.

Above all, have fun, while you learn, practice, and do.

To read another article in this series on songwriting, please click on the link below:

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