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Songwriting basics
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Songwriting basics

Here we will cover some of the basics of writing songs.

A song needs to do three basic things to impress a listener. I call it the songwriting triangle. A song needs to draw the listener in with an interesting lyric. A song needs to be "catchy", as a song must please the ear rather than just reading it like a poem. Lastly a song needs to have good sound structure. Below I will explain some of the basics of good structure and some common songwriting terms. If you have all three sides as strong as possible from the songwriting triangle, you will give your song it’s best chance at success. If you have a weak side of the triangle or more, generally your song does not have a very good chance at pleasing listeners. It is suggested that you always continue improving your writing in those three areas. Study songs and look at those three areas within songs that are successful. Now, lets go over some basic songwriting terms and structure fundamentals.

A song is composed of several items. A stanza is similar to a paragraph in a book. A stanza is a section of grouped lines. Usually a song will have multiple verses and a chorus. A verse is a stanza, or two of lines that give the details of the song. The chorus is a section of lines that generally contain the catchiest part of the song. Usually the chorus contains a songs hook. A hook is a phrase of words or music that catches the listeners ear and if the listener remembers anything of the song, it’s usually that part. The hook is often the title of the song and is similar to a slogan for a company. In most cases, a song contains a chorus that is the same or has only very small changes to it’s content each time it’s repeated. Some songs have no chorus, but most do. A song format of AAA would mean three verses with no chorus for instance. Some songs use a bridge as well. A bridge is usually of different length than a verse and usually has different music accompaniment. A bridge usually will "sum up" a songs message, or flash forward or backwards in time or often give a different perspective or surprise twist to a song.

Here we’ve mentioned "usually" and "generally" and words like that because there are no rules in songwriting. There are guidelines or principals though that we will continue discussing here. Below I will go into some detail of rhyming in songs. Again, I will say that songs do not have to rhyme, but I will also say that the vast majority of successful songs do rhyme and would strongly suggest you consider using this wonderful tool to aid your songs. Take caution though because cliché’, boring, predictable rhymes can ruin any song. Often a new writer gets so tied up in rhyming that the rhymes force the song to use words that sound like the words were picked simply because they rhymed, not because they helped the song. Don’t get discouraged. Like anything, writing good songs takes practice and some effort. A rhyme works best when it seems like it was an accident that words rhymed, and the lyrics are so fresh that the rhyming isn’t even noticed, the song just has that "effect" of all fitting together somehow and rhymes were a part of that. Rhymes should not be in the way; they should be like the icing on the cake that made it taste better.

Rhyme patterns are simply the pattern of rhymes within a stanza. The rhyme pattern in each verse should match other following verses in the song, but this pattern does not have to be the same in the chorus or bridge and is usually best to be different than the verses. Songs do not have to rhyme, but the vast majority of successful songs do rhyme. Rhymes are generally categorized as "perfect" or "near." A perfect rhyme is not the best rhyme; the name just refers to the way it is. For instance, the two words "mind" and "find" are considered perfect rhymes. The consonants following the rhymed vowel (in this case I) are the same. The two words "find" and "line" are considered "near rhymes because the consonants after the rhymed vowel are different. (The E in both words is silent)

Rhyme patterns in songs are referred to in several common formats. This is simply a way of looking at the particular rhyming pattern. Usually rhymes come at the end of the line, but not always. Let’s look at several popular rhyme schemes below. I will use 4 line stanzas, which is a popular stanza length, but don’t get caught up in 4 line rhymes all the time.

This is called a, the very first line

I am the second in the stanza this time

The third goes here in this song of mine

This stanza ends with another silly rhyme

Let’s imagine that stanza above is our 1st verse of your song. This verses rhyme scheme (pattern of rhyming) would be AAAA. The reason it would be AAAA is that each line ended with a word that rhymed in following lines. (Line/time/mine/rhyme) The A refers to the 1st rhymed line. An X would be used if the line did not rhyme to any other line. Often each line does not rhyme to every other line in a stanza, but maybe to just one or two others. The 2nd rhymed word would then be B. For instance, see the stanza below:

This is called A, which here is the first line

Line two is now B, as it’s not the same

Three matches one, because they both rhyme

Four matches 2, and ends this silly game

This format is considered the ABAB rhyme scheme. A is representing the 1st rhymed line (line which rhymes to rhyme in line 3) and B represents the second rhymed line. In a stanza there are sometimes more sets of rhymes that would be referred to as C, D, etc. So, if you look above, you see again that ABAB means that the 1st and 3rd line rhyme to each other and the 2nd and 4th line rhyme to each other. If the format were AABB, then the 1st two lines would rhyme and the 3rd and 4th line would rhyme. Consider now the stanza below that has lines that do not rhyme.

This time is different; I’m now an X

The second is now A, and this is new

Line 3 matches nothing, just like the 1st

Line 4 rhymes nicely, but just with line 2

In this stanza, just lines 2 and 4 rhyme. Lines 1 and 3 do not rhyme to any other line. This format would be considered xAxA. The X represents a line that does not rhyme, and again, the A represents the 1st line rhymed. The important thing is that once you decide on your rhyme scheme, or pattern, is to keep it the same in following verses. Again, the chorus need not match the verse, but verses need to match each other. So, if you use an AABB format in verse 1, use that same format in verse 2 and verse 3 etc. If you use a different format for each verse you throw the listener off completely and make your song hard to follow. So using a format of AABB in verse one and a format of ABAB in verse two is not advised at all. The reason you can use a different format in a chorus or bridge as compared to the verses is that they are completely different sections of a song with different purposes. Usually the music is different for those different sections as well. Having a different rhyme scheme further illustrates to the listener that this is a different section of the song.

Inner line rhymes are also used in songs. An inner line rhyme is two or more rhymes in the same line of lyrics. An inner line rhyme accelerates the time between rhymes and is a useful effect in songwriting. Writing songs with inner line rhymes is a little tough because since the rhymes are closer together they are noticed more easily. Your rhymes need to be very good and not "cliché" or "predictable" because they will be noticed more than normal being close together. Below is an example of an inner line rhyme.

I wrote this for you, this little song

It’s not very strong, and it’s not very long.

In that silly section of lyrics you noticed the word "song" in line 1 and that it was rhymed in line 2 twice. "Strong" and "long rhymed to line 1 "song" and also to each other which caused a near rhyme. You can use an inner line rhyme with or without rhyming to other lines. For example, look at the change below:

I wrote this for you, and placed it here

It’s a couple of lines, to explain these rhymes

In that example above, the rhymes are only in line 2 and are considered an inner line rhyme because the rhymes occur in the same line. ("Lines" rhymed to "rhymes")

A song’s lines within verses will need to match the music. The repetition of patterns in stressed and unstressed words within lines are referred to as a song’s meter. Now we will discuss meter and how that will affect your writing. Lines in one verse will need to match lines length in following verses. Have you ever wrote a song, and had to squeeze in words real fast and later decide that it just didn’t sound right? That’s because your lyrics did not match the music. One of way of matching is to hum the melody where the line goes and count the syllables. The best way is to count the stresses in that line. For instance, read the lines below:

This song is silly

But serves a purpose for us

It shows song stresses

And I guess that’s enough

Song meter is not an exact science. It is a theory to a degree. Just as many poems can be scanned differently, so can lyrics. In the above stanza, I had the following words stressed that I will show in capital letters below:

This SONG is SILLY

But serves a PURPOSE for US

It SHOWS song STRESSES

And I GUESS that’s ENOUGH

Stressed words, are the "important" words that are focused on and "stressed" within the line. Take the 1st line you see above that reads "This song is silly." The two most important words in that line are song and silly. Say that line a few times and notice how you "stress" those two words when you say them.

This stanza has 2 stresses in each line. One way to find stresses is to quickly look for words that have the meaning in the line. For instance, the word "this" and "is" don’t have a lot of importance in line 1. They are not stressed words in the line. The line would have 3 stresses if the line read "This song called meter is quite silly." The words "song" "meter" and "silly" would all be stressed. Say the line out loud and notice how those words are stressed. With this verse, we have established the verse's meter, the pattern of stressed words within the lines. With that pattern established, following verses would need to match the pattern of 2 stresses per line in each of it’s 4 lines. They could not, for instance, have 2 stresses in line 1, 3 in line 2, 2 in line 3, and 4 stresses in line 4. The songs meter would be off considerably and would sound silly with the music. For more information, search the Internet for meter and also purchase some of the songwriting books available. When you take away everything but the stressed words of a line, you end up with the basics of the message of that line. For instance, line 1: song – silly. Knowing those two important words, we have a good idea about what the line is trying to say to us. Many times you’ll notice that stressed words appear in the "down beat" of the rhythm. Tap your foot while you say those lines. Tap your foot the 1st time, when you say the word "song" and then the next time when you say "silly." Continue that same tempo as you say the rest of the lines. You will also find many chords fall on stressed words in a song. That is a good thing to happen, as this new chord highlights a word, and the words that you would want highlighted are the important words in your lyric which are also the "stressed words. When a singer holds a note and lets it soar at times, you’ll notice that the notes will be stressed words as well. There is no reason for a singer to hold a word and highlight it if it’s not a stressed word. Imagine a line that said, "I wish I was in Toledo." The stressed words are "wish" "was" and "Toledo." You wouldn’t hold the note on the word "in" and not "Toledo." If you held "in," you would be highlighting the wrong word.

Songwriting basics again are these three things:

1. A song should have an interesting lyric that draws a listener in.

2. A song needs to be "catchy" and draw the listener in by that as well. (Catchy tune, melody, chord patterns, musical parts etc.)

3. A song should have proper structure.

All those items cannot be covered in this short article. This article is simply meant to give an overview of them. At this point, dive into studies of your own and search out books and study materials from several sources to begin continually improving your craft. Treat songwriting as just that, a "craft." Make sure you have all the tools available to you as you work at your craft, and learn to use each more and more as the years go by. It would seem romantic to figure that all lyrics are simply wrote in 5 minutes and with little effort or time spent on them. The reality is that many are not. The reality also is that when inspiration hits quickly and a song is written quickly and ends up a successful song that it is often due to the study and knowledge acquired long before that particular song was written.

Dave Byers

Dave is the founder of "writingsongs.com and the Christian Songwriters Organization. He has been writing songs since 1979. His book "Songwriting fundamentals" is available by clicking here

 

 

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