Carole King, one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, started with a piano melody. As the song took shape, she added layers, eventually adding lyrics — first with her then-husband Gerry Goffin and eventually on her own. Tapestry, her seminal 1971 solo album, remained on the Billboard charts for six years, top in record sales until a little album titled Thriller toppled her reign.
Although many great songwriters came before King and many will follow, there seems to be no set way to write a song. Some writers start with a beat, others a melody, still others hear a hook or obsess over a lyric that arrives unceremoniously while the songwriter takes a shower. The songwriting process seems to be a bit of a zen undertaking: all roads are one road. Writing a hit song, however, is a road much less traveled. Even seasoned songwriters are never sure if their work will produce a hit or miss. Guy Chambers, the current British hit-maker for acts like Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams, averages one hit song for every 47 he pens.
The good news for workaday folks interested in writing their own songs is that a decent song, or even a fantastic song, doesn’t need to be a hit. Inversely, scoring a hit doesn’t mean the song is that great. Perhaps some of the best songwriting happens in bedrooms, in train stations and on the job, performed on porches, neighborhood corners and tiny spaces with makeshift instruments.
In general, humans need to make music, and there are a few basic songwriting tools: knowing the parts of a song, structure, chord progressions, lyrics and melody. If remembering all the basics proves too much, stick with the songwriting standby: “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
Generally, songs consist of intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. The intro grabs the listener’s attention for the song’s story, which unfolds in the verses. Verses often rhyme (although they don’t have to) and create a rhythmic pattern for the listener. The chorus is — as evidenced by the songwriting standby — arguably the most important part of the song. A chorus should be sing-a-long-able, catchy, memorable and convey the main message of the song. Often, the great karaoke fails occur because we think we know a song, but we actually only remember the chorus — that’s how powerful it is. The bridge provides the song’s contrast and the outro leads the listener to a sense of closure, perhaps with subtle melodic changes or repetition.
With intro and outro as bookends, a writer can toy with the structure of the verses, chorus and bridge — or if there is even a need for a chorus or bridge (“Amazing Grace” has neither, and it has done all right as a song even though no one knows much past the first verse.) The chord progressions inspire a “feel” for the song that contributes to the melody, which carries the lyrics. Understanding simple structures helps new or blocked songwriters get their ideas moving. But remember: much like the Pirate’s Code, these aren’t rules, really, more like guidelines. Many songs include a pre-chorus, a short lead-in to the chorus like in “My Girl” when they sing “I guess you’d say … ” or in Katy Perry’s hit “Firework,” when she sings “You just gotta ignite/the light/and let/it shine … ” Songs may also contain refrains, variations on verses, choruses and melodies, providing, somewhere, a “hook,” or the catchiest part of the song (often the chorus or somewhere in the chorus — Adele’s “hello from the other side” in her crazy big hit “Hello.”)
Happy writing. For inspiration, check out the handy Songwriting 101 chart above or get to know some of the latest greatest singer-songwriters showcased in our Club Jaeb series.