How can you write a song?

Posted on May 6, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    Some have asked me before how I write my songs. Do I write the lyrics first? Do I start with the music? It has always varied. But maybe to give some insight and to inspire anyone whose fancy is tickled, I've decided to post this song writing project that I came up with a couple years ago.  When I first started teaching basic music theory, I found the necessity for some kind of a goal in mind for the students to have. There was an end product that they were missing with learning all the stuff. So, I thought to myself, "Why not have them write a song over the course of the class?" And after sitting down and meticulously writing down what I felt to be the best way to explain a way to write a song, this is what I came up with.

    So, have lots of fun writing your own songs.  Take into consideration though that this is not the one and only way to compose a song.  I chose to go in the order that you see here because it fit well with the order I followed in teaching the various components of music.  You may go in any order you like.

-Daniel Mollé


How can you write a song?

    By the last day of music theory class, each student shall have prepared at least one song in the format of a "lead sheet."  A lead sheet typically uses one staff with a treble clef, a key signature, time signature, tempo indication, a notated melody – sometimes with lyrics – and chord symbols where desired to indicate the harmonies.  The lead sheet provides the performer with an idea of what the composer desires in the melody and harmonies, maybe even a specific style.  However, exactly how the performer plays those harmonies along with the melody, and even the melody itself, are up to the performer's creativity.

Example: "I'll See You Again" © 2008 Daniel Mollé


1. Lyrics: Come up with some lyrics and write them down; first write them on a separate piece of blank paper and then onto lined music paper. (Make sure to leave room at the beginning of the first staff system for the clef, key signature and time signature; leave room at the beginning of all the remaining systems for the clef and key signature)  The song can follow any form you like; for example: Intro, Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Ending.  It is o.k. for now if each individual system is filled to the end with text.  For example: the Verse doesn't have to start on a new system when there is still some room left by the time the Intro is finished.

2. Time:  Decide what Meter and Tempo you would like for your song and place an appropriate time signature onto the first staff as in the example above.  Leave room between the clef and the time signature though for the key signature that will come in between the two.  Recite through your lyrics in the Meter that you will use and mark off in the lyrics where the measures will be separated.  Take into consideration any gaps of time between lyrics and designate these with empty measures.  Also consider if you want "pick-ups" at particular points in the music or text.  It's not a problem for now if a measure doesn't necessarily finish right at the end of a system and it finishes instead in the next system.  A single barline ( | ) separates individual measures and a double barline ( || ) separates a section's end from the next section's beginning.  A section is, for example, the Intro, Verse, etc..

3. Melody:   Now, come up with a melody to fit with your lyrics and decide what key signature fits to your melody best, based upon whether your melody exhibits the major or minor mode.  Place then that key signature between the clef and the time signature.  If you have an Intro and/ or an Ending, or any part without lyrics, then come up with a melody for that as well.  Since you have written your lyrics onto the music staff already, mark off with footnotes where these non lyrical parts will take place and notate these parts after where the lyrics end.  Simply with note heads, – no rhythmic value yet – write out the individual pitches of the melody above each syllable (if 2 or more pitches appear over one syllable, – this is called a Melisma – then connect those pitches with one slur).  If any lyrics are sung for longer than will fit in a measure, then notate the given pitch at the end of the measure being left and in the new measure and connect them with a tie.  Continue this if the note continues over several measures.

4. Harmony:  Based upon your melody, come up with harmonies and label them with chord symbols directly above the notes; each chord symbol should come directly above the note at which it is first played.  Make sure the harmonic tones in your melody are fully represented by their given chord symbols.  Non harmonic tones should not be part of the chord symbol.

5. Rhythmic Values:   Finally, decide upon rhythmic values for each note in your song.  Take into consideration what Meter your time signature conveys and whether there are any pitches carried over one or more barlines.  This will cause you now to have to erase and reconstruct many of your words with more than one syllable.  In words that have more than 1 syllable, each individual syllable must be separated by a dash from the next syllable.  For example: the words, "rhythmic value" will become "rhyth-mic val-ue."  The syllable only at the end of a word – as well as single syllable words – affected by melisma or simply held out for longer than the span of their written appearance receive an underscore spanning to wherever that syllable or one syllable word is no longer intoned.  For example: "I really love to sing!" may become "I real- - - - ly______ love______ to sing!_____ ".  A punctuation mark does not come after the underscore, but rather directly at the end of its respective word.

6. The Final Product:  Now, on a fresh sheet of staff lined paper, notate everything in your song again, but in the order you would like it to be.  First, write the clef, the key signature and the time signature just like in step 1.  Count the measures in each section of your song and try now to notate each section of your song clearly onto separate systems.  For example:  If your Intro has 4 measures, then try to fit it even numbered as 4 measures onto one system or as 2 measures onto the first system and 2 measures onto the second system.  (Be sure to use the entire horizontal space in each system and leave no blank space on the ends!)  This way, your first Verse will start nicely on a new system without turning up at the end of the same system in which the Intro ended.  Continue to do this with all further sections of your song.  Then you can finally notate everything so that it looks beautiful:-)

© 2009 Daniel Mollé

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