Writing Songs FAQ

Jun24

So you want to be a songwriter? If you approach songwriting the same way you approach practicing guitar, it is something you can get better at with a little work. We have too many resources on songwriting to list them all on this page. Be sure to check out our Songwriting Lessons page as well.

Musically, songs consist of chord progressions. This is not a universal truth, but a fairly convenient generalization. The Talking Heads’ song Houses in Motion, for example, consists solely of an Em7 chord, but if you simply sit and strum an Em7, I can pretty much guarantee that what you’re playing will not sound remotely like the song. What makes this particular song work are the various riffs and rhythm patterns (vocal as well as instrumental) that the band members are tossing about – it’s almost like a game of catch. Again, you will always be able to find exceptions to any generalization in music and music theory.

But the generalizations will help you immensely if (a) you know them and (b) you can recognize them. This is where your practice with interval recognition can pay big dividends.

In order to help us out, I’m going to set out a few of our primary and secondary chord charts for the five major keys guitarists tend to play (bonus points for noticing that we’re using the given scale’s minor seventh and the root of the VII chord!):

Primary and secondary chords

You can read more about popular chord progressions in Unearthing The Structure.

How do I come up with good chord progressions for my songs?

What makes a chord transition “good?” Why are some transitions almost automatic, for lack of a better word? Why is C to G pleasant to the ear while C to Eb minor is worse than fingernails on chalk?

You may find this hard to believe, but a lot of the “science” behind harmony is mere convention. As I’ve stated before, the “theory” in music theory is simply the examination of what has gone on before. Therefore, much of what is a “good” chord transition is the result of centuries of familiarity. If you had been raised on some planet where, oh I don’t know, the augmented fourth was considered good form then it would not seem as jarring an interval as it does to most earthlings.

Add to this the notion that our harmonic conditioning undoubtedly springs from singing. Think about it, people had voices long before they had instruments. When our ancestors first began singing together, what made them feel certain notes went well together and some brought down the wrath of the gods? I can imagine two cave people coaching each other … “No, no Thag. If Og sings the root, you must chant the sixth, okay?”

Be that as it may, we have inherited quite a few guidelines as to what chords work well together. The following is a chart taught to first year theory students. And as always, I must implore you to remember that this is not a be all and end all guide. Chord changes that people may have found harsh in the past might now be the “in thing.” Progressions that we perhaps find trite will possible rule the radio tomorrow (it’s an incredibly easy thing to change “stale” into “style”).

Anyway, here goes. In a major key, the general rule of thumb regarding chord progression would be as follows:

Chord progressions

Okay, note yet again that I am ignoring the seventh chord position. Don’t worry. It’s coming up next time.

Now, these charts are all fine and dandy, but I prefer to see things in terms of actual day to day use rather than all the Roman numeral stuff. Let’s look at the keys of C major and G major, shall we?

Chord progressions in C major

Chord progressions in G major

Some of you will no doubt notice two things about these charts: first that they pretty much confirm the things that A-J Charron has written in A Simple Song. Secondly, that these progression charts will also help cut out a lot of the guesswork when you’re trying to figure out a song on your own! You can find more on this topic in the article “A” Before “E” (Except After “C”).

How do I write a chord progression using power chords?

Okay, first let’s look at two things. Power chords, as we know, are simply the root and its fifth. By this definition, they are neither major nor minor. An E power chord (or E5), for example, is E and B. Now the major pentatonic scale is the root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th of the scale. So an E pentatonic scale is E, F#, G#, B and C#. Are you with me so far?

Looking at this scale, I can make out four power chords. Check it out:

E – E and B
F# – F# and C#
B – B and F#
C# – C# and G#

So I could write out a chord progression using combinations of these chords. And depending on the order I use I could come up with very different sounds. Check these out (and remember we’re only using power chords):

  1. E, B, C#, F#, B
  2. E, F#, B, E
  3. C#, F#, B, E
  4. F#, E, B, C#, F#

And these are just a few ideas. Now, if you wanted to you could also throw other chords into the mix. An A power chord would work because it’s just A and E and you already have two thirds of an A major chord in your scale (C# and E). You also have two thirds of the G#m chord (G# and B) so a G# power chord would fit in nicely, too.

Now here’s the fun thing – look at what we’ve “cleared” to use (again, all power chords):

E, F#, G#, A, B, C#

That’s almost the entire E major scale! We could also, depending on what your solo sounds like, try to throw a D power chord (NOT D#!!!!!) since we have two thirds of the D major chord. So now we have the following power chords at our disposal:

E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D

In other words, when we have a solo using the E major pentatonic scale, we can use power chords using any of the notes from this scale, which is the E mixolydian (or A major, if you will).

How will it sound? Well, that really depends on the solo. The trick is to try to match the power chords to the natural resting points in your solo. Even though you can use all these power chords, it’s a good idea to keep the progression pretty simple in order to give the solo ample space and breathing room.

What should I write first – the words or the music?

Always keep in mind that the music has as much to say about the song as the lyrics do. So the music and words should be saying the same thing. If they don’t, people will notice this immediately.

Personally, I tend to start with the music. But not all the time. I usually begin by playing around with chords or individual notes or a bit of both until I stumble on to something that reflects the way I’m feeling. Then I use it as a starting point and work around that.

As I (unfortunately) do not have any formal training, I rely on 18 years of experience to know what should or should not come after. (Again, I refer you to David Hodge’s columns.) But there’s more to it than that. Depending on your style of music, it’s often possible to go in a direction that has nothing to do with what you’ve started with. I write Progressive Rock, so it’s almost expected.

Once I have my starting point, I play it and listen to it and “hear” what it’s telling me. The words eventually come. I never try to force them out. It’s almost as if the song were already written and you were learning it. Or remembering it. Almost.

With some words and some music, you should know soon enough how you want to structure the song. It’s hard to say how I decide this, but I rely, again on the emotions conveyed, and on the complexity of the music. If it carries a lot of weight, I might decide not to put in a chorus and let a more complex musical pattern carry the song at those points. When I do use a chorus I often go with different words each time. I believe this is only due to the fact that I’m long-winded.

Always keep in mind that the music has as much to say about the song as the lyrics do. So the music and words should be saying the same thing. If they don’t, people will notice this immediately.

If you’ve written all of the music first, then you can sit down and concentrate on the words. If you’ve finished the lyrics and they’re wrong for the music, start over. Keep the lyrics, though, you may want to use them, or part of them later on. I’ve recently written one starting with the music, completely arranged, and had to write three different sets of lyrics. And I’m still not entirely happy with what I have.

You will find more pointers along these lines in So You Want to be a Song Writer?

What are some easy ways to expand my musical horizons?

Your favorite songs don’t excite you anymore. In fact, you get bored playing the same stuff over and over. Even playing before people is more a chore than an enjoyment. Everything you write sounds the same. To quote B.B. King, “The thrill is gone.” It’s ironic that, in spite of the fact that the guitar is such a versatile instrument, so many guitarists find themselves stuck in a rut.

There are lots of easy and practically effortless things that anyone can do to stretch his or her musical mind. Some are obvious, but the obvious things are usually the last things one thinks about.

There are several lessons and topics on Guitar Noise that will help you bring that spark back to your playing, writing and performing. For some ideas on inspiration check out some of the following articles:

We at Guitar Noise want to remind people of why we run this site and, much more importantly, why we play music in the first place. In the past many readers have shared their thoughts and stories with us, and we’ve collected them on the The Joy of Music page. These inspirational stories constantly remind us what music is all about.

Where does inspiration come from?

How many times have you heard artists say that no one can explain where inspiration comes from? They probably think this makes them look like they have some special powers. The reality is that inspiration comes from carrying an emotion, a feeling in your subconscious and needing to exorcise it. For some people, venting an emotion requires breaking dishes. For others it’s crying. I’ve even once seen someone exorcise an emotion by twisting her head all the way around! Others, still, have some other way of doing it. For us, it’s through songwriting. The inspiration comes from the fact that we need to vent our emotions and, usually, don’t even know that we have emotions to vent.

There are many articles on Guitar Noise dealing with inspiration. Here are a few:

For new lessons on this topic check out our songwriting page.

How do I share songwriting credits?

When writing with other people or bringing songs into a band context, there are several ways of sharing the credit.

Usually, credits are split 50-50 between music and lyrics. If you compose the music by yourself, but write the lyrics with someone else, you should get 75% of the credit of the song (50% for the music and 25% for the lyrics). The best thing to do is to come to an understanding before you write the songs. It’s not always possible, but it can cause a lot of problems in the long run if you don’t. I’ve seen the case of a band on the verge of signing a record deal. The guitarist was solely credited for the prominent track on the album although the lyrics and part of the music had been redone by the singer. During the negotiations stage, the guitarist “lent” the song to another rising singer. This caused such a feud between the guitarist and the singer that the band broke up instead of signing a contract. It wasn’t too smart of the guitarist to do this, if you ask me. But that situation could have been avoided from the start.

You can always come to other agreements, as long as everyone is happy. If you look at most of the Beatles songs, you’ll see “written by Lennon-McCartney”. The truth is that they co-wrote only about five percent of those songs. Lennon wrote about 15% by himself and McCartney wrote all the others by himself. They had agreed, from the start, to put both there names on all of their songs regardless of who wrote them in order to simplify matters and to put the good of the band ahead of everything else. It worked fine for them, they never had any disagreements over this.

The first thing you want to do is familiarize yourself with your country’s copyright law. You don’t need to study it for hours or learn it by heart, just get the gist of it. Then you’ll want to look up other organizations that are in place to help songwriters.

Check out the articles Copyright (Not the Right to Copy), Copyrights Revisited and Copyright Protection.

For new lessons on this topic keep an eye on our copyright for songwriters page.

Why should I protect my songs?

There are only a limited amount of notes and chords. Nothing you can think of has never been done.

So, maybe this song you just wrote will be written by somebody else tomorrow. I’ve seen it happen to myself. A song I never protected came out a couple of years later by somebody else. The lyrics are different, but tell a very similar story (the melody is appropriate for this theme, so it’s not very surprising). Musically, it’s almost identical. Enough so that if I recorded it, I would be sued, even though I did write it before they did. I would also lose because I didn’t protect the song at the time and cannot prove that I wrote it first.

Of course, even if I had protected it, I could not sue them either, because there is no way they could have heard my song as I never performed it for anyone.

Some people steal songs. It’s unfortunate, but some people are dishonest. Others will steal a song without realizing it. Take the case of George Harrison. On his first solo album was a song that’s become a classic: My Sweet Lord. However, that song was plagiarized from a sixties song called He’s so fine. In court, Harrison admitted to stealing it, but without realizing he did it. I won’t go in to the details of the case as it’s still not wholly resolved and it’s very long, but you can read the details on The “My Sweet Lord”/”He’s So Fine” Plagarism Suit page. So if an ex-Beatle can do it, anyone can.

For anyone who writes songs protecting them is absolutely necessary. You should find out how to avoid stealing from others and keep others stealing from you. Check out the articles Copyright (Not the Right to Copy), Copyrights Revisited and Copyright Protection.

For new lessons on this topic keep an eye on our copyright for songwriters page.

What is the best way to get a demo heard?

I’ve read articles that say most major labels toss demos into a pile of trash with 1,000 others they are equally interested in. Is there any sure way to avoid this without having to buy a book with a list of labels (major and independent) accepting demos, or better yet is there something on the web you know of perhaps?

Unfortunately, there are no sure-fire ways of avoiding not being listened to or being “tableted” by the record company execs. One thing you could do, though, that would improve your chances is to find an agent. These people are usually better connected and have a better chance of getting your demo listened to by the right people.

Your best resource, in my opinion, would be a book store. They usually carry a yearly guide of who does what in the business. Go to a bookstore and ask a sales person exactly what you need and they should have that resource. Make sure you get the most recent edition, lots of people move or change places. People get fired and resigned. Execs don’t like receiving mail addressed to their predecessors.

If you are interested in demos, how to record them and what to do with them check out our series of lessons including Recording Part 1: Why Do It?, Recording Part 2: Building a Digital Studio, and Submitting Demos. Songwriters and musicians can also look for more help in Guitar Noise’s Songwriting and Copyrights Forum.

How can I make it?

Start dreaming, but never let go of the dream. Especially during the hard times. You hear about so many people who’ve tried to make it but failed. The truth is that not very many people have tried to make it and failed. There are some, obviously, but not many. Most people get discouraged once they see the work involved. Once their band breaks up and they realize they have to start all over again, that’s it. That’s when you start separating the men from the boys. Or the women from the girls. Go on to the next band and the next. If you knock on twenty record company doors with your demo and they all reject it, don’t get deflated. Most people do. What you need to do is write and record more songs and do it all over again.

Don’t assume that they’re fools who wouldn’t recognize a good demo if it hit them in the face. Assume that they’re fools who wouldn’t recognize a good demo if it hit them in the face, but come up with something even better anyway.

Check out the article Inflating the Ego for more tips on the required attitude for “making it.” Also, a good place to find where to start or go next is the website Music Careers.

Am I too old to make it?

To answer your question, if you are twenty-six you have plenty of opportunity to make it. Then again you will always have opportunity to make it. However, you will need to better define “make it”. Are you talking about the music or the money? If you play great music that is loved by many, but can’t support yourself solely on the proceeds is that success or failure?

Remember this quote (by Dr. Wayne Dyer) from a past newsletter: There is no scarcity of opportunity to make a living at what you love; there’s only a scarcity of resolve to make it happen.

Check out the rest of the answer Am I too old to make it?