Updated: May 2, 2022
What is it that makes a song? How can you go beyond the notes and the lines to something deeper? How can you put pieces of music together that will move someone, to give them new feelings; to shake someone into woke-dome, to shift their reality and make them question everything they've ever heard until they heard...your song.
A wise man once told me that music is a simple thing, just notes over chords. You never have to wait until you've "mastered music" to write your own song. You can write your own song today. Performing it may be another story, but we'll cover that too in time. The most important thing about song writing is getting started. In music we have to pick a focal point called the root. The root is the home note, and is called such because that is how it makes us feel. Every note in our song will likely focus around the root, or the home note.
Once we've picked our home note, we've gotta move. Most songs don't simply play the same note over and over again, as that would be a pretty lousy song. There is no Tension. A great musician knows how to use the light and shadow of the notes to create TENSION. But the concept is fairly simple music theory.
We can't talk about great songwriting without examples. One of my favorite songs from Austin, TX named "One Chord Song" by the artist Stoney LaRue only has one chord in it (trust me on this), but it still has many notes making up the melody. The root of "One Chord Song" is D, and the song is in D Major, meaning it's using the Major Scale to make the melody. There's very little Tension in this song, it's a very joyful song, as songs in a Major Key often are. Certain chords sound good together, and this is the concept of playing within a key.
But that's all boring. What you want to know is... How do I make people feel something when listening to my music? How can I put my own spin on a classic formula for making a great song? How do I create something truly unique, something memorable?
The key is simple story telling, but not just lyrically. Great songs convey emotion, set tone, or create vibes. A well written song can literally change the way you are feeling. It could shift you into a happier mood, or a more melancholy one. It could be a horrifying tale about someone waking up to their reality, only to realize they are part of a magnificent machine. Listen to "Welcome To the Machine" by Pink Floyd, a song that largely uses just 2 chords, C and Em, to astounding affect.
Even a beginner can likely put 2 chords together. Surely you have what it takes to do this, with a little practice. Without going into too much of the music theory weeds here, we have to decide what type of song we want to make. Happy, sad, indifferent, scared, relaxed, brooding...just what the heck are you trying to say here anyway? How are you feeling? Musicians have to be in touch with
their emotions young grasshoppers, this is where a song becomes art.
It would be possible to play a rendition of "Happy Birthday" that makes someone weep. Or if you listen to Marilyn Monroe sing it the way she did for John F. Kennedy, we notice..hmm...hmmm...let's just say we can convey different emotions with the same lyrics by making changes to the performance. Being in the moment, and aware of your emotions will help with great song writing, and great story telling.
Of course great story telling is very subjective, but to me the most important aspect is honesty. Great songs are always honest, even when they lie. They inspire us to make changes, both within ourselves and our world.
Take the song "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson as an example. This is a song about a man coming to grips with the fact that he can make profound changes to his world, and that he can be his own worst enemy. It's clear the song is very personal, and a message to all of us that change starts from within.
Maybe your experience is one of falling in love. "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison is great because of the pure emotion he expresses in this song. His riffing and improvisation, along with a very catchy hook (sing it with me now Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-ti-da), MAKE the song what it is.
It's a very simple song with only 3 chords, basically G, C, D. But it conveys so much emotion that we can't help but feel like we're in love right along with Van Morrison.
Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" is another great love song, but one of a different kind, self love and self respect. This song is slightly more complicated, basically 5 chords: Am;C;D;Em;G, but it's great story telling. It still centers around a root, moves us by going through a chord progression, then comes home. It also sends a message to any potential love interests of Beyonce, that they are not irreplaceable, and that she should not be trifled with. Classic Power song.
"Bae" is also clearly writing a song based on her own emotions. Are you seeing the pattern here? Write based on personal experience lyrically and you can't go wrong. I personally think the most important aspect of lyrics, besides honesty, is the hook's staying power. This is a hard thing to put into words, but is your hook a hell yes? Is it that sticky icky ooooh weeee? Does it give you chills up your spine? Does it speak to you?
Think of "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith. Think of "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin. "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon. The hooks of these songs focus on emotion, they want us to feel something. To connect. They musically "paint" their world so when listening to these songs, we feel a part of their world.
I'll mention I've written songs in many different ways. Sometimes with pen and paper, sometimes on the computer with a DAW like Ableton or Pro Tools, or sometimes just on the instrument itself. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes the melody comes first, and you need to piece a chord progression until it sounds just right. Sometimes with practice, it may all come to you in your head in one piece (again trust me on this). Don't put too much pressure on yourself to do something great, just let it come, and it will.
My final piece of advice on writing great songs is to write more often. You have to be willing to completely re-work or abandon a song. This is easier said than done as songs, like any creations, can become almost like children. You come to love your creations, but the path to greatness is never easy, and was never meant to be. Write. Rewrite. Make Mistakes. Start again. Re-Mix. Re-think. It's good for you. You have to be willing to write songs in every key, convey many different emotions, and set many different tones and vibes. Think of yourself as a mad scientist here. Practice is the path to growth. The perfect song is out there young grasshoppers, put pen to paper and go find it.